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Leading scientist defends the Exodus account but puts Sinai in Saudi Arabia

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

A British scientist is making two claims about Jewish history this Passover season that could surely spark discussion over the Seder meal.

Colin J. Humphreys of Cambridge University has concluded that science backs traditional beliefs that the Israelites' exodus from Egypt was led by Moses pretty much the way the Bible and the Haggadah ritual tell it.

He also says that Mount Sinai, where Scripture says Moses received God's Law, is located in Saudi Arabia, not Egypt's Sinai Peninsula moving a key site for Judaism into the nation where Islam was founded.

Humphreys' theories come at a time when his close, literal reading of the Book of Exodus is far out of fashion among Conservative and Reform Jews, though it may be welcomed by Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians.

He details his ideas in a readable new book, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories'' (HarperSanFrancisco).

The 61-year-old academic brings a solid intellectual reputation in his own fields of physics and materials science to the table, though admittedly amateur status in archaeology and Bible scholarship.

Humphreys doesn't feel his lack of expertise is a problem: He believes it gives him an open mind. I am not preconditioned to accept standard interpretations,'' he says.

Other scholars have proposed that Sinai was in Arabia.

But Humphreys' claim is distinct because he reckons the holy mount must have been an active volcano, since it shook and emitted fire and smoke (Exodus 19:18). And he has carefully examined records ancient and modern to fix the site.

His candidate: Present-day Mount Bedr in northwestern Saudi Arabia, since there were no ancient volcanoes in what was later named the Sinai Peninsula.

Humphreys also thinks that near Mount Bedr, Moses experienced God's call at the burning bush.'' He suggests the mysterious phenomenon was caused by flammable natural gas or volcanic gas escaping from a small vent in the ground.

Such conclusions are typical of Humphreys' effort to read the Book of Exodus as literally as possible and search for scientific explanations of what's recorded there.

The approach is out of step with Reform and Conservative Bible commentaries. And Jewish archaeologists such as William Dever, from the University of Arizona, and Israel Finkelstein, at Tel Aviv University, treat the exodus story as inspiring national fiction rather than history.

Dever's new Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did they Come From?'' (Eerdmans) says that, while the Exodus story may rest on some historical foundations, however minimal,'' the Israelites didn't develop at least not primarily from a people fleeing Egypt.

One reason for Dever's doubts is that there's no hard evidence for the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness. But if Humphreys is right, archaeologists have looked in the wrong nation. Others offer circumstantial arguments, saying the odds are slim for finding 3,000-year-old remains from vagabonds.

A churchgoing Baptist, Humphreys insists he was fully prepared to find biblical mistakes and signs that the exodus story was written many centuries after the events, as scholars like Dever believe.

The Book of Exodus obviously underwent later editing, Humphreys concluded, but the evidence strongly suggests eyewitness material that might well come from Moses himself. The book is amazingly accurate and coherent,'' he asserts, and all those mind-boggling events happened as the Bible reports.

Some say Exodus was fiction because the arid wilderness couldn't have provided food and water for 603,550 men (the usual translation of Numbers 1:46), or some 2 million people counting women and children.

Humphreys responds that the Hebrew word often translated thousand'' also means clan'' or troop,'' which could reduce the fleeing Israelites to a more manageable 20,000.

Further redrawing the conventional Exodus map, Humphreys believes the Israelites rushed from Egypt on a standard ancient trade route straight across the Sinai Peninsula to the northern tip of the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba, near present-day Eilat.

That's where the climactic crossing of the Red Sea occurred, Humphreys figures.

Nearly trapped by Pharaoh's forces, the Israelites escaped along the shoreline thanks to a powerful wind tide'' or wind setdown,'' a natural phenomenon like a super-low tide that would allow people to hurry across the sea floor. Then the sea water returned through a wind setup'' and drowned the Egyptians.

Humphreys also offers other naturalistic'' scientific explanations for wondrous events, along lines pursued by past writers.

For instance, he thinks that escalating natural disasters explain each of the 10 plagues'' that forced Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves depart: The Nile turned to blood'' meant that toxic red algae killed fish; the dead fish forced frogs ashore; gnats and flies were drawn to the dead fish and frogs; the insects transmitted a virus that killed livestock. And so forth.

Some might argue that such scientific explanations undercut miracles, but Humphreys disagrees. He believes nature produced the occurrences with just the right timing, and Israel, reasonably enough, regarded this as miraculous.

Natural explanations only serve to bolster the exodus story, he says.



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