Saturday, December 20, 2014

King David or Aliens: What Do You Believe In More?

For a long time it has been a standard truism of the archaeological community that King David probably never existed.  This conclusion was drawn by virtue of the fact that no hard evidence of his existence was unearthed - until recently.  In what has been hailed as a significant discovery, an inscription on a stone from Tel Dan in Israel describes the conquests of Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus and the killing of Ahaziahu - King of the "House of David."  You can read about it here.

Archaeology is great and they do the best with what they have - which is often very little.  Like other forensic sciences, archaeology attempts to piece together a story-line based on a limited series of clues.  Often these clues can be interpreted in a variety of ways which can lead to heated debate on any given find.  Other times, there are no clues available at all.  What conclusions should be drawn in such cases?  Should they be drawn at all?  Despite the fact that it's logically understood that "lack of evidence is not evidence of lack," in the case of a (supposedly) major figure like David, there was a sense that we should have found something by now.  When nothing was, it was taken as evidence that no such person actually existed.

What we see from this is, as is always the case, that whatever assumptions we bring to a given set of information will color our conclusions about it.  It's interesting to note that the Federal Government continues to spend millions of dollars on the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life (SETI) project despite its total failure to produce a scrap of evidence of alien intelligence.  Why?  Because it's simply assumed that given the vastness of space that there simply must exist other habitable regions that have produced intelligent life.  No proof, but an accepted truth nonetheless.

Contrast this with the fact that the Jewish People have writings thousands of years old that describe the life and times of David in detail.  These writings have been faithfully transmitted from teacher to student and from parent to child for a very long time.  It's part of our national consciousness and has always been known to be true.  How interesting that this counts for nothing in the eyes of the scientific and historical communities.  Will they believe us more now that they see we knew this particular piece of information about our King long before they did?  Probably not, since they already "know" that biblical accounts are largely mythological or historical fiction at best.

Perhaps in time Jewish national consciousness will be given its due and the opinions (and historical record) of the people who actually lived these events, knew its players and carefully transmitted it from generation to generation will be taken seriously.  Until then, it appears that we'll need to patiently wait for science to catch up.

For a comprehensive look at the confluence of the biblical and archaeological records see Professor Ken Kitchen's On the Reliability of the Old Testament.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Science Says the Sea Split For Moses

I'm always surprised and, admittedly, somewhat pleased to read articles such as the one I saw in today's WSJ which is entitled "How Did Moses Part the Red Sea?"  Given the general hostility of the scientific community to religious matters and the derision with which they are often met, it's almost a tad jarring to see one of them taking the time to provide an explanation (albeit one wholly rooted in materialism) to one of the events which the theological world considers to be (almost) fully miraculous.

The author, Bruce Parker, is the former chief scientist of NOAA's National Ocean Service and is a visiting professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology.  In other words, he is apparently an expert on the way that the ocean behaves.  He explains that the phenomenon of the Red Sea waters greatly receding for long enough for pedestrians to traverse it and then to collapse back to their normal state with enough force to destroy whoever is unfortunate enough to find themselves caught there, is all quite normal.  In fact, he points out that a similar event was observed by no less a figure than Napoleon whereby he and his men were "almost drowned in 1798 at the northern end of the Suez... ."

Professor Parker surmises that since Moses lived "in the nearby wilderness" he would have been familiar with the phenomenon and have seen various caravans traveling across the expanse when it was feasible.  Yes, he admits that the timing would have to have been impeccable but gives Moses credit enough to be fully capable in this regard.  Fine, but even assuming Moses's highly keen sense of observation and timing consider just how many fortuitous events and timings would have to have preceded the arrival of the Children of Israel (and of Egypt) at just that moment.

Remember that the Egyptians were beaten and had actually encouraged the Jews to leave only to have a sudden change of heart later.  Would Moses really have been able to bank on that reaction? And how did the Egyptians arrive at their defeat to begin with?  Recall the year long series of natural (and supernatural) events that befell them.  Could Moses have known how long they would take and plan the great sea trick around that?  Doesn't seem too likely.  It's true that the Torah seems to go out of its way to minimize the supernatural aspect of this event by ascribing it to a strong eastern wind that blew the whole night before, but in the final analysis, the timing is just too great a coincidence to overcome.

Finally, I always wonder at (but enjoy) when secular-minded people take the time to explain away various miraculous occurrences that our tradition records - the flood, the plagues, the Ark of the Covenant, et al.  Inasmuch as they could be inclined to just chalk them up to the standard mythology of some Bronze Age nomads, as some do, the fact that they meticulously search for natural explanations obviously means that they give them a lot more credence than a lot of other myths.  I've yet to see the scientific analysis of the speed at which Thor's hammer traveled or the horse-power of the species of peacock that pulled Hera's chariot.  As such, I take Professor Parker's exploration as a complement - even if it only tells part of the story.  In any event, he's correct in asserting that "it has to qualify as the most dramatic an consequential tide prediction in history."