Monday, December 8, 2014

Providential Coincidences

At the public library recently I came across a book called Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (HarperCollins, 2010) by Kristin Swenson, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.  I leafed through it and thought it looked like a convenient summary of current research and knowledge about the Bible for laypeople, so I checked it out.  It turned out to be a book I could recommend to people who wanted such a summary, and I was gratified to find that it had little information I didn't already know.

There was one thing I disagreed with strenuously, though.  In her discussion of Moses and the Exodus, Swenson tries to find a factual basis for the ten plagues that Yahweh sent to nudge Pharaoh into letting his people go.
Whether or not the plagues of Exodus] really happened is a question we cannot answer for certain. There is no reference to such events in Egyptian sources, and, as noted above, historical accuracy did not seem to be the biblical authors’ primary aim. Although two psalms also list the plagues, they do so in a different order and each includes only seven (probably reflecting a liturgical function), but not exactly the same seven.

One of the most convincing theories of how these events may have transpired presumes a seasonal situation gone bad. Flagellate organisms from Lake Tana worked their way into the Nile during the annual flooding period and sucked up all the oxygen, killing the fish. Frogs migrated out of the flooded river as they normally would but were infected by bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, possibly exacerbated by the decomposing fish.

The biting insects should probably be understood as mosquitoes – not “gnats,” as in many translations. They would have reached unbearable numbers as the high floodwaters receded. As for the flies, well, just imagine all those decomposing critters. It’s possible that at this point, the livestock, which had been safely secured some distance from the floodwaters, became infected with the same anthrax as the frogs. According to Greta Hort, it was transmitted by the fly Stomaxys calcitrans, which bites people and animals alike – perhaps explaining the boils. As for the storm, such weather isn’t common in Egypt, but it isn’t unheard of, either. Swarming locusts are more common, and the occasional khamsin (Arabic for an intense sandstorm) would have made the day seem dark as night. The most likely period for these events would have been August to May, a bit longer than the narrative suggests. The biblical story isn’t explicit about duration [192].
This is euhemerism, an ancient and popular critical tactic which tries to get rid of miracle stories by postulating that the events described actually happened, but were misunderstood or gradually enhanced with marvelous additions.  (Or that gods were originally human heroes whose exploits were exaggerated in the retelling.)

Euhemerism has been used to debunk mythology and to defend it.  James Barr wrote in Fundamentalism (Westminster Press, 1977) that euhemerism was common in conservative evangelical writing in the 1950s and 1960s, but it also turned up in conservative scholarship of the same period.  And, of course, euhemeristic explanations of the Star of Bethlehem circulate every year during Christmas season.  In his review of a respectable scholarly 1955 commentary on the gospel of Mark by Vincent Taylor, for example, Morton Smith criticized
T[aylor]'s insistence that the tale "has not yet attained the rounded form of a Miracle-story proper and stands nearer the testimony of eyewitnesses" (ib.) - who fundamentally misunderstood what happened. This objection applies to T.'s treatment of all the major miracle stories. As already noted, 'vivid details' lead him to conclude that every Markan story of Jesus' miracles (except the blasting of the figtree) is told from eye-witness tradition. At the same time, he will not admit that any of the major miracles happened: Jesus did not walk on the sea, but waded through the surf by the shore (p. 327) ; his apparent cure of the Syro-Phoenician's daughter (p. 348) and his apparent stilling of the storm (p. 273) were providential coincidences ('brilliant timing,' Moule, ib.) ; and so on. So Mk.'s 'narrative is everywhere credible' (p. 318) as to everything but what Mk. meant to narrate. Clearly, this position is the product, not of criticism, but of the conflict of two apologetic techniques - to defend Mk. directly by accepting his stories, and to defend him indirectly by getting rid of his miracles.*
The trouble with this strategy, as Smith indicated, is that it tends to rely on "providential coincidences" and "brilliant timing."  Moses just happened to dip his staff into the Nile at a time of year when it was going to run red anyway (and the credulous Egyptians, who'd observed such changes before, were taken completely by surprise), and the rest of the "plagues" were just a natural sequence of events that followed in their turn.  This sequence of plagues can't be used to verify or date the Exodus, then, since it would probably have occurred numerous times in Egyptian history.

This explanation also falters because, as Swenson admits,
If these nine plagues really did happen in a manner that can be explained as natural events, the tenth cannot.  Try as we might (and there are some imaginative theories out there), the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn, defies natural explanation.  In the story, God instructs the Hebrew people to slaughter a lamb and spread its blood on their doorways before roasting and eating it.  That would mark which households to spare as the LORD passed through Egypt, killing firstborn children and even firstborn animals… [192].
Her authority for this "convincing theory," the Danish scholar Greta Horst, seems to have been bolder.  I haven't read Hort's articles** completely yet, but I noticed that she did attempt to speculate on a "natural" explanation for the killing of Egypt's firstborn.  That should be interesting, because it would also have to explain why smearing blood on the doorframes of the Israelites' houses would protect them.  (The story also includes one of those charming revelations of Yahweh's moral character, for he "gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Furthermore, the man Moses himself was greatly esteemed in the land of Egypt, both in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people" [Exodus 11:3], but he "said to Moses, 'Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that My wonders will be multiplied in the land of Egypt.' Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; yet the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the sons of Israel go out of his land [Exodus 11:9-10]."  In other words, it wasn't Pharaoh's fault that he didn't free the Israelites -- Yahweh made him do it, in order to let him show off his power some more.)

Of course the plagues look like "natural events." If Yahweh or any other god (including Nature) sends epidemics, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, etc., then it's possible to describe those events in naturalistic terms.  The question for believers, however, is whether those events were literal acts of their gods, and if so, what message the acts were meant to convey.  Science can't answer that question; but believers disagree among themselves about the answers.

What I find odd is that although euhemeristic explanations have also been offered for some New Testament stories, as I've indicated, Kristin Swenson only resorts to the tactic in writing about the Exodus.  She must know that it's a dubious approach, largely discredited in scholarship about religion.  The nineteenth-century theologian David Strauss mounted a strong attack on it in his Life of Jesus [1835-36, translated into English by George Eliot*** in 1846], which provoked a shitstorm of condemnation from the orthodox.  (Another act of God, no doubt.)  Yet euhemerism moves.

* Morton Smith, "Comments on Taylor's commentary on Mark."  Harvard Theological Review 48: 21-64, page 36.
** Greta Hort, “The Plagues of Egypt,” in two articles published by Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 69(1-4) (1957): 84-103; and 70(1-2) (1958): 48-59.
*** Yes, that George Eliot.