Exodus Revealed, the Prequel

I’m splitting this article into two parts, so you are more likely to be able to finish it before your boss comes back and sees that you aren’t working.

The National Geographic Channel ran a documentary a couple of months ago called Exodus Revealed. I’d been planning to write up my comments on this program for a while. I just needed to find the time. Meanwhile, it was sitting on my Tivo taking up valuable space. Well, you folks (and my Tivo) are in luck. Today I rewatched the show, took some notes, and will now bestow upon you my wisdom. I have several other programs burning a hole in my Tivo, so you can look forward to a few more reviews in the future.

The program was an attempt to see what evidence there is to support the Biblical story of Exodus. Did the events take place? If they did, how can they be explained? It was a pretty good documentary. They rerun it occasionally. I suggest you keep an eye out for it.

Before I address specific elements of the program, I should say that I don’t put much credence in stories. Much of what is in the Bible was just patched in from earlier myths. The material that is original with that book wasn’t written down immediately. It was retold and repeated hundreds or thousands of times, each retelling is an opportunity for errors, omissions, or embellishments to creep in. After they were written down, they went through numerous translations to end up in the form we have today. Taking these stories at face value is misguided at best.

There is some merit in finding ordinary explanations for the Biblical claims of miracles. Superstitious people can easily confuse a mundane but impressive natural event with divine activity. Once the seed of a miracle is planted, the story grows into the “gospel truth” we know and love today.

The Farting Bush

One of the first things the program tackles is the burning bush. Professor Colin J. Humphreys, Physicist at Cambridge University, speculates that the burning bush could have been an acacia that had the misfortune of growing on top of a natural gas leak. The leak eventually got ignited by lightning. Acacias become charcoal when burned, and they retain their shape. The bush could have stood in the burning gas vent for quite a while before eventually crumbling.

I’m not convinced by this, but it is more plausible than the Bible version. At least someone is thinking of rational possibilities.

The Top Ten Things God Does When He’s Pissed Off

You need a Flash plug-in to hear this!

Next, they tackled the 10 plagues. There are some interesting ideas here. Some of them make a lot of sense.

1. The water turned to blood. Maybe not as practical a miracle as turning water into wine. He could have killed everyone with cirrhosis. I guess God was saving the wine stunt for later.

Some people have speculated that this was a standard red tide. The problem with this idea is that red tide only occurs in salt water. Dr. John Marr, Medical Epidemiologist, argues instead that the water was infected with Physteria. These microorganisms can turn water red and kill fish.

2. Frogs. If the fish die, there’s nothing to eat the frogs, so you are quickly overrun.

3. Lice. All tiny, bloodsucking insects back then were called lice (today, they’re called lawyers). Professor Jeffrey A. Lockwood, Entomologist at the University of Wyoming, says these particular insects were probably the biting midge.

4. Flies. Lockwood argues that all of those dead fish and frogs were the perfect breeding ground for flies.

5. Livestock become deadstock. Lockwood says that the biting midge transmitted several diseases, which killed the livestock.

6. Boils. Several bacteria can cause this, and it’s spread by flies.

As you can see, these first six plagues are all related.

7. Hail. Just what it sounds like. Can happen to anybody.

8. Locusts. Very natural phenomenon. There would have been millions of them. They would have eaten everything in sight.

9. Darkness. Could have been a sandstorm that blocked the sun.

10. Smote the first born. I love that word. It’s archaically quaint. God is always going around smiting out of spite. The documentary presents two hypotheses for this one.

Professor Martin J. Blaser, MD, Microbiologist at New York University, says that bubonic plague fits the description of the affliction. The Bible says that the Jews were nailed with this one at half the rate that the Egyptians were. Good old God! He’ll kill you in the process of saving you. Blaser discovered an ancient Jewish tradition that could actually explain why the Israelites had a lower death rate. They would clean out their grain stores annually. This minimized the rats and fleas. The Egyptians didn’t do this, so they could have had larger rat and flea populations living amongst them, which would lead to a higher exposure to the plague. As far as killing the first born, Blaser thinks that’s just a metaphor, meaning that it killed roughly one out of every four people.

Dr. John Marr has a different opinion. He says that grain that was saturated by hailstones and stored in the dark, would develop all sorts of nasty molds that could be highly toxic, leading to death with no visible cause. During famines, it was Egyptian tradition to give the first born a double serving of food, in the idea that at least one child would survive the famine and go on to perpetuate the species. Well, if one serving of mold isn’t quite enough to kill you off, two servings definitely would be. This is an elegant explanation for both the deaths and its specificity.

Or Not!

The above explanations are mold-free food for thought. But here’s something even more significant: Egyptian records make no mention of this series of plagues. The Egyptians were anal-retentive record keepers. Something as significant as a string of ten back-to-back plagues would certainly have been recorded, yet somehow the records make no reference to them.

For my money, that’s the strongest argument presented here. In other words, this part of the Exodus story is probably just a fanciful story that never happened.

Next: What happens when the Israelites get out of Dodge and Pharaoh tries to cut them off at the pass.

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