Scientific Explanations for the Miracles of Passover.

Writing for Slate, Michael Lukas has an interesting article on the scientific explanations for the miracles of Passover. The following is an excerpt from the article:

Accepting the biblical account as a “possible ‘qualitative’ description of an event,” Florida State oceanographer Doron Nof set out to investigate whether the parting of the Red Sea is “plausible from a physical point of view.” Using a common phenomenon called wind set-down effect, he found that “a northwesterly wind of 20 m/s blowing for 10-14 h is sufficient to cause a sea level drop of about 2.5m.” Such a drop in sea level, Nof speculates, might have exposed an underwater ridge, which the Israelites crossed as if it were dry land. Although the event is plausible, Nof estimated that the likelihood of such a storm occurring in that particular place and time of year is less than once every 2,400 years.

While scientists agree that wind set-down effect could have caused the Red Sea to part as described in the Bible, most biblical scholars and archeologists insist that the Israelites’ crossing did not take place at the Red Sea at all. The original Hebrew (yam suph), they contend, should be translated as Sea of Reeds, not Red Sea. So where’s the Sea of Reeds? It depends whom you ask. In the somewhat specious History Channel documentary Exodus Decoded, Simcha Jacobovici (aka the Naked Archaeologist) places the Israelites’ crossing in the Bitter Lakes, a reedy marshland north of the Gulf of Suez that was subsumed during the construction of the Suez Canal. For his part, Walking the Bible author Bruce Feiler concludes that the Sea of Reeds is Lake Timsah, located halfway between Port Said and Suez. But The Miracles of Exodus author Humphreys argues that while the translation of “the Red Sea” may be incorrect, the Sea of Reeds nevertheless refers to the Red Sea, concluding that “there can be little doubt that the Red Sea crossing was made possible by wind setdown at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba.”

Before he parted whatever sea it was he parted, the Bible describes Moses and his brother Aaron delivering 10 plagues on the people of Egypt. The Nile turns to blood, all the fish die, frogs are brought forth abundantly, and so on. Drawing on theology, Egyptology, and biology, epidemiologist John Marr developed a “domino theory” to explain each of the 10 plagues in order. Marr believes the plagues were a series of natural disasters and diseases triggered by a bloom of water-borne organisms called dinoflagellates. The dinoflagellates turned the Nile red and killed the frog-eating fish, which in turn caused a population explosion among frogs. The tainted water eventually killed the frogs, causing lice and flies to run rampant, which lead to a number of animal diseases (including African horse sickness) and an outbreak of boils (fancy glanders). This reign of disaster and disease continued through hail, locusts (Schistocerca gregaria, to be precise), and sandstorms until the death of the firstborn sons, which Marr thinks was caused by grain infected with mycotoxins. Others, building on Marr’s domino theory, argue that the plagues were triggered by the eruption of the Greek island of Santorini, causing a string of disasters such as those that occurred at Lake Nyos, Cameroon, in 1986.

Read the article in its entirety by visiting Slate.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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10 Responses to Scientific Explanations for the Miracles of Passover.

  1. >I actually have seen the Exodus film described here and found it to be quite interesting. They pretty much link everything to the eruption at Santorini.Have you seen it, Dr. Mariottini?

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  2. >Joshua,I have also seen the program. The problem with Santorini is that the eruption occurred 100 years before the exodus, if you take the exodus to have occurred in the 15th century.Since most scholars accept a 13th date for the exodus, Santorini is out as a proper explanation for the exodus.Claude Mariottini

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  3. Johnny C says:

    >Dr MariottiniThank you for posting this article, shich I find highly valuable in exodus studies. While I found Jacobovici's broad brush explorations of interest, especially where he pointed to an affinity with the Javanim or peoples who became the greeks of classical antiquity, as mentioned by Josephus, if I am correct on this, his scholarship seemed a bit less warranted in some of its other assertions. My immediate value for technical relevance is much higher for Marrs, and his climatoepidemiological approach, which I find to be valid in every particular as far as it goes, and it goes far. I would recommend all of your readers to see the work. Just as climate can come to a tipping point and render vast areas inhospitable in a very short time [our american dust bowls, for example] certainly Marrs is correct in his assertions, and the logic of the domino theory, as far as it goes. The seismic concerns, such as the Lake in Cameroon, are also valid and I recommend it. In my own studies though, I look to a larger cause to set off and compound the epidemiological sequence he speaks of, and at the same time cause the seismicity and other reported effects in sequence. I think you are basically right about Santorini.In my analysis, even if Santorini erupted at the very time of the exodus, and with experts disagreeing, it may possibly have done so for all that, it is still entirely insufficient in itself to cause the sequence of plagues and subsequent climate change observed in the historical record and in scripture. The plague of the firstborn, for example, in hebrew tradition, mentions that houses were struck or spared by the mashciyt or slaughterer, a fearsom red star or comet that was plaguing the earth at the time. To strike a house and shatter it bespeaks seismic activity, as does the crossing of the sea, with concommittant meteorological disturbances coordinated on a global basis by astrodynamics. Can a body in the sky cause earthquakes? Plagues? The egyptians also report earthquakes -Hatshepsut had to rebuild temples that had collapsed or sunk into the sand. Civil engineers can explain liquefaction of sand, during which buildings can litterally sink into the ground, as the pharaoh describes. It is reasonable to think on these terms as well as we look to the exodus. I welcome and value the approach that brings science to the bible, as we are commanded to bring our reason to bear on an ongoing basis – not to imagine we have finished the work, but not to leave unmentioned our rational contributions to it. I very much welcome and recommend the article above, and the epidemiological domino theory.To my mind, understanding the phenomena litterally, in the full context including astrodynamics, underscores the reality and significance of that Contact and Direct recorded communication with The God of Israel. When God spoke to us at Sinai, he did indeed speak, and to us all. Happy Passover, and Happy Easter then, to us all.Johnny C Godowski

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  4. >Dear Johnny,Thank you for your comment. People who have tried to explain the plagues of Egypt use different forms of the "domino theory." The most popular explanation is that the Nile was infected by some kind of bacteria that then produced a series of disasters. I have discussed the comet theory in one of my posts and I am not very convinced of its validity.Again, thank you for joining in this dialogue.Claude Mariottini

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  5. Johnny C says:

    >Dr MariottiniHonored to be a part of this dialogue – thank you. As far as causes – a keen sense of the ongoing scholarship and an anticipation of the latest emerging consensus are valuable assets – a refinement of one's own beliefs and disbeliefs establishes positions and identities from which we can more articulately further engage. As for me – so far as it might be plausible "All of the Above" still remains an option – I find the seismic and epidemiological fascinating – I had written years earlier about a sequence or cascade, a 'domino' effect, if you like, so I validate the concept. People disagree about comets – even religion itself – though scripture adresses both – so these differences are respected with us. I have a question or comment about the staff of Moses being a snake/tanin. Somewhere in all my readings I came across the notion that there was a certain species of snake in and or near Egypt that could be trained to inhabit a small enclosure affixed to the bottom of a ceremonial wooden staff or emblem. I have even seen an illustration. On command the snake would come out of its tiny enclosure at the base and wind around the staff – a living display of royal power. Further, the owner could grasp the snake by the neck and tail and stretch it out straight, whereupon with his thumb or some deft hand movement he would toggle or chiropractically adjust a vertebra at the base of the spine, locking the snake into a catatonic position. Then, He could take the snake up again and readjust it, returning it to its previous mobile state. "The secrets of the Serpent are Divulged" lamented the texts of the intermediate period… If Moses found and trained, or was given a much larger serpent it could be what is referred to in scripture and egyptian lamentDo you have any thoughts or knowlege along these lines? Have you seen any such reference? Thank you as always for this fascinating blogJohnny C Godowski

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  6. Johnny C says:

    >Dr MariottiniHonored to be a part of this dialogue – thank you. As far as causes – a keen sense of the ongoing scholarship and an anticipation of the latest emerging consensus are valuable assets – a refinement of one's own beliefs and disbeliefs establishes positions and identities from which we can more articulately further engage. As for me – so far as it might be plausible "All of the Above" still remains an option – I find the seismic and epidemiological fascinating – I had written years earlier about a sequence or cascade, a 'domino' effect, if you like, so I validate the concept. People disagree about comets – even religion itself – though scripture adresses both – so these differences are respected with us. I have a question or comment about the staff of Moses being a snake/tanin. Somewhere in all my readings I came across the notion that there was a certain species of snake in and or near Egypt that could be trained to inhabit a small enclosure affixed to the bottom of a ceremonial wooden staff or emblem. I have even seen an illustration. On command the snake would come out of its tiny enclosure at the base and wind around the staff – a living display of royal power. Further, the owner could grasp the snake by the neck and tail and stretch it out straight, whereupon with his thumb or some deft hand movement he would toggle or chiropractically adjust a vertebra at the base of the spine, locking the snake into a catatonic position. Then, He could take the snake up again and readjust it, returning it to its previous mobile state. "The secrets of the Serpent are Divulged" lamented the texts of the intermediate period… If Moses found and trained, or was given a much larger serpent it could be what is referred to in scripture and egyptian lamentDo you have any thoughts or knowlege along these lines? Have you seen any such reference? Thank you as always for this fascinating blogJohnny C Godowski

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  7. Johnny C says:

    >My apologies: the previous comment was posted twice entirely due to error on my part – please disregard the first of the two – or the second – they are identical.Again my apologies.Johnny C Godowski

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  8. >Johnny,I have never seen the reference for the text you cite above.You can read my post on Moses and the snake here.I believe that what you said about the snakes is a good possibility. I have read somewhere that people using snakes in the way you describe them.Claude Mariottini

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  9. Johnny C says:

    >Dr. MariottiniThank you – I am glad you too have seen such a reference. Perhaps people really did use snakes in that way. Alas, I tried to click "here" to see your reference, but the page was not working. I will try again.Johnny C Godowski

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  10. >Johnny,I am sorry the link did not work. You can read my post on Moses and the snake here.Claude Mariottini

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