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.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary