On Exodus (was: Re: [asa] Dowd, Miracles, and ID-TE/ASA-List Relations)

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Wed Apr 22 2009 - 19:42:23 EDT


I'm now replying to the second part of your earlier post, i.e., your comments on Exodus.

First, the Exodus. Yes, the Bible mentions a wind at the Red Sea. I don't know that any YEC or ID-Christian has ever denied that. Let's look at what it says (RSV):

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
22 And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Now, I think that you and George Murphy would try to persuade everyone that the "strong east wind" is to be understood as a natural wind, caused by natural antecedents, and not by any "intervention". Well, if you pursue that to its logical conclusion, if you utterly deny the propriety of any "intervention", then the "strong east wind" must have been set up, domino-style (involving math beyond our imagining), at the time of the Big Bang. And I grant it's logically possible than an omnipotent, omniscient God could have done that. But I suspect that this is not what either you or George Murphy have in mind. So what would you be suggesting, then? Well, if you go the ever-popular quantum route, and say that God is actually initiating a new wind, but that his guidance can't be observed because of quantum indeterminacy, so that the effect to an observer would appear to be just an unusually directed natural wind, I say, fine; but note two things: first, neither the Israelite writer nor the Israelite reader would have had the slightest idea what you were talking about, and second, if they picked up anything of your meaning at all, what they would pick up is that you were admitting that God was directly responsible for the force, timing and direction of the unusual wind -- which is of course the whole point of verse 21. And an intervention that's disguised by quantum indeterminacy is still an intervention, whether you and George would decline to use the word or not. Remember what Russell plainly admitted: that God's actions hidden under quantum indeterminacy *do* make a *real difference in the outcome*. And if they make a real difference in the outcome, then they are an intervention, no matter what euphemism you choose to substitute in the place of that word. Only if they make no difference to the outcome are they not "interventions". So if you use the quantum route, you are still agreeing that the sudden change in the wind was an intervention. Maybe not a break in the causal nexus, in the sense of violating a law of physics, but still an intervention, i.e., a *specific* or *unique* as opposed to a *general* divine activity.

But aside from all this theoretical talk, the plain sense of the text cries out "intervention". Moses stretches out his hand, and the Lord produces the wind. Though the word "immediately" isn't there, the context clearly suggests it. Now what are the chances that a purely natural wind, capable of driving back the Red Sea for a specified length of time, would start up at exactly the moment after Moses stretched out his hand? A billion billion to one? It's clear that the text has "special intervention" written all over it. You can speculate on quantum mechanisms as the vehicle of God's action if you want, and I won't deny a word of your explanation, but you can't evade the plain sense of the text: the Biblical narrator regarded this as a special action of God.

Now let's look at the wall of waters on the right and on the left. I checked the Hebrew, and the word is quite a normal one for "wall", so the visual description is plain. It's in fact the same as in the Hollywood version. I also checked out Doron Nof's web site, on your suggestion. It's very interesting. His first explanation, involving the freak wind driving the waters out from the tip of the gulf, so that the Israelites can get across, can explain both the Israelite escape and the drowning of the Egyptians when the waters come roaring back, but, as Nof admits, it can't account for the wall of waters on the right and the left. His second explanation, involving a geological anomaly sticking up close to the surface of the water, which virtually divides the sea in two, and actually does so when the wind drives most of the water south and leaves a pocket of water trapped on the north, next to the anomaly, yields water on both sides, but unfortunately, as his diagram shows, the waters wouldn't form a "wall"; it would just be as if the Israelites were walking on a sand bar between a pond and a big lake. So Nof's explanation doesn't allow the text to be taken completely literally. His attempt to justify the literal sense of the text naturalistically fails.

Now you can say that I am being too much of a stickler for literal details. But Nof's whole *point* is to rescue the literalness while combining it with naturalism. It's not my fault if he fails in the task he set himself.

Further, I think Nof's project is the height of silliness. Let's say he could pull off both literalism and naturalism perfectly. Great. Now we need another ten Doron Nofs, who are respectively experts in frogs, blood, hail, etc., to explain each of the Ten Plagues both literally and naturalistically, since they, too, are part of the Exodus story we are working on. (I'd like to see a naturalistic explanation for a plague that selectively kills only the first-born.) And then we need an expert on naturalistic accounts of wooden staves that turn into snakes and eat other snakes. And for the pillar of cloud that (by sheer naturalistic coincidence?) follows Israel everywhere. And heck, while we're at it, let's bring in a Christian geneticist to give us a naturalistic explanation for female-male parthenogenesis, and a Christian pathologist to give us a naturalistic explanation for dead men walking. This is the logical consequence of taking seriously research like Nof's, as a substitute for a careful literary and theological study of the text. The text isn't interested in offering naturalistic explanations, so why should we be?

And never mind my opinion for the moment. Isn't Nof's suggestion ultimately just an updated form of "concordism"? And aren't you against concordism? So why would you be alluding favourably to Nof?

Ted, I could live with George Murphy's statement that the Exodus account is "hyperbolic". I could also live with the statement that it is a complete fiction (albeit a fiction with a deep religious message). I could also live with the statement that it happened literally, exactly as described, and that the cause was intervention by a God who is omnipotent and can break the causal nexus at will, violating what we fondly call the laws of nature. The first two statements are completely compatible with what I know as a scholar about Biblical literature and ancient literature generally. The last statement is the one that, to the best of my knowledge, was accepted by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and just about every big-name theologian (prior to the Enlightenment) that you'd care to name. All of these interpretations make sense to me. What I can't get a handle on is what you are proposing here.

You seem to want the story of the event to be taken both literally (as your reference to Nof indicates) and non-literally, depending on the point you are emphasizing, and you seem be saying that the explanation of the event is at the same time personal and impersonal, divine and wholly naturalistic. Also, you seem to be uninterested in what the original author meant by what he wrote, or in how the original Israelite audience would likely have understood the story as written. (I say that because you offer no detailed exegesis, and you make no reference to the interpretations of the text found in traditional or modern Biblical scholarship.) And finally, you seem to be bringing to the text a whole bunch of modern categories and concerns (some from post-Enlightenment science, and some from post-Enlightenment theology), and it's not clear to me whether you are trying to override the original author's intentions, and correct his Hebraic world-view with a modern one, or whether you are saying that the best post-Enlightenment science and post-Enlightenment theology actually agree with what the Biblical author originally intended, and that it is only that dastardly Christian tradition (Augustine, Calvin, etc.) which confused matters with talk of omnipotence and providence and intervention and so on.

Now possibly I've completely misread your intentions (which is why I've used the word "seem" above), and if I have, then by all means, clarify them. But what you are saying loses me. I don't know whether you are saying that the Red Sea crossing is a legendary account, a myth, a fiction, Israelite propaganda against the Egyptians, bad history, good history with a concordist explanation, good history with an interventionist explanation, or something else. And I also don't know whether you think that Judaism stands or falls with the historical truth or falsehood of such wondrous events, as you think Christianity stands or falls (no pun intended) with the Resurrection.


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Received on Wed Apr 22 19:43:37 2009

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