Friday, September 24, 2010

Exodus 14: The Red Sea Parted, But Who Cares?

Early in the week a group of scientists in Boulder released a report arguing that Moses's parting of the Red Sea--described in Exodus 14--could have actually happened. The Christian Science Monitor explains:

"A team at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., has identified what it argues is a plausible physical explanation for a parting of the waters. At the right spot – a sharp bend where a shallow river meets a coastal lagoon – and with the right contours of a waterway's bottom, wind moving across the bend could in effect push water both upstream and downstream, exposing the bottom. When the sustained winds finally die down, water returns from both directions to cover the muddy land bridge. The phenomenon is known as wind setdown."

Wind setdown, eh? I can respond to this fascinating advance in Biblical atmospherics in only one way: utter disinterest. Who cares?

The problem with this and other forms of religious pseudoscience--no matter how valid the research that backs them--is that they entirely miss the point of that Tanakh. The Exodus isn't one man's weather log; it's an account of one people's encounter with the transcendent divine. With God! It doesn't primarily engage the rational, the natural, or the analytical--it wrestles with the supernatural.

So when science steps in to join the fray, lab techs can only sound ridiculous as they turn a lasting symbol of slavery and divine liberation into a weather anomaly. God's miraculous freeing of the people Israel is reduced to an after-effect of el nino. And you all remember what el nino means in English, right? The nino.

So why do scientists do it? Or said differently, whom does this new theory--wind setdown--serve?

Certainly not the devout. Christians and Jews who take Exodus as "true" believe that God--not a unique wind pattern--parted the Red Sea. To suggest that such a parting could have happened naturally is to rob chapter 14 of its spiritual pith.

Perhaps atheists and skeptics get off on wind setdown; now, they can argue that God didn't "really" part a sea for Moses 3000 years ago. However, as I've mentioned before, if one scientific explanation of one Biblical miracle is your best argument against faith, you've never thought seriously about the complexities of belief.

But this theory is extremely unhelpful to me, and readers like me, many of whom are progressive believers. Setting theology aside for a moment, it's worth saying that we do wrong to treat ancient texts--not only the Bible--primarily as pieces of historical or scientific literature.

Most of the time, we know to avoid such folly: no one has looked into whether Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia actually caused the winds to pick up and send his fleet to Troy. And no one will ever try to prove that Xerxes actually commanded his troops to lash the Hellespont. These are old stories about insights more timeless than "wind setdown."

But the Bible makes people a little crazy--even upstanding scientists. Perhaps because literalists have ruled the day for so long, too many of us attend to the Bible's truths--little "t"--while losing track of its Truths--big "T."

So let me repeat one of the basic theses of this blog: the Bible uses figurative language to describe the experience of the numinous. To take that language as "real" and then to prove or disprove its historical or scientific veracity is to fight literalists on their own shaky ground. To do so is to reduce world-breaking scripture to an Excel spreadsheet of air velocities and water levels.

If intelligent discussion about religion and religious texts is ever to advance, we need to begin treating scripture as polysemantic literature capable of creating many meanings, the most important of which are never "scientific."

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