Sunday, June 29, 2008

Nehama Leibowitz on the Bekhor Shor

As a followup to my post on The Two Accounts of Quail & Manna, I wanted to point out Nehama Leibowitz's discussion of the two accounts in her Studies in Bamidbar. She states "...we have very often in Scriptures similar accounts in which a person or group of persons experience on different occasions parallel happenings. They are to teach a special lesson regarding their reactions." Leibowitz's contention is that these are separate incidents and describes that the severe response by God in the second instance was because the situation was much worse since it was a second offense and occurred after they were well provided with manna. "...the Israelites deserved beyond all doubt the punishment meted out to them." Read the full commentary for her insights (The Murmurings: A Repeat Performance, pp 113-120).

Here, however, is what she had to say about the Bekhor Shor's comments on these passages:

...The narrative strikes a familiar note and would seem to echo the murmurings referred to in Exodus (Beshallach). There have indeed been commentators who have maintained that they are indeed one and the same. The passage in Ex. 16, 13: “And it come to pass at even that the quails came up and covered the camp”' is taken to be an incidental reference to the quails described in Num. 11, 31-32:

For had Moses observed that the quails had come on a previous occasion and had been sufficient for them how could he have said: “If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them?” (Num. 11, 22).
(Bekhor Shor)

Bekhor Shor (medieval French) works out this approach in detail in connection with the story of Moses and the striking of the rock in the wilderness of Zin. He similarly identifies the account of the bringing forth of water from the rock at Horeb with that relating to Massah and the waters of Meribah. Num. 20, 8 is a detailed account of the reference in Ex. 17, 6, where it is also related how Moses struck the rock and water flowed forth. But there the narrative relates how God sustained Israel with the manna, quail and water during their stay in the wilderness. Subsequently each particular event is described in detail in its proper context.

Here is proof that both refer to the same event. In Exodus it is written that “he called the name of this place Massah and Meribah”. In Ve-Zot Ha-berakhah the deed of Moses and Aaron which aroused Divine disapproval is referred to in this manner (Deut. 33, 8): “who tried Him at Massah, contended with Him at the waters of Meribah”. So we see the same event is referred to. Similarly it is stated (Num. 27, 14): “They are the waters of Meribah, at Kadesh, the wilderness of Zin”. There also it is written (Ex. 17, 1): “And they journeyed from the wilderness of Zin”.

This commentator observes that the Torah is here true to the exegetical principle of elaborating in one context what it briefly refers to in another. But while it is common to find such duplications in the Torah where the second and more detailed treatment is designed to fill in the gaps in the earlier account, his explanation here appears improbable because of the different names given to the places where the events took place as well as to the different accounts of the events themselves.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Young Earth Creationist? You're Probably A Republican!

This probably comes as no surprise to anybody, but Gallup has shown that Republicans are much more likely to be Young Earth Creationists than Democrats. (Independents have a profile very close to that of Democrats, giving some weight to the claim of Republicans that Independents are just Democrats that are embarrassed to admit it.)

Gallup has been doing this poll for over 25 years, and the results have been remarkably stable over the years. 60% of Republicans believe that humans were created in their present form by God 10,000 years ago!

Democrats, don't be so smug, 40% of you believe this also...

Full report here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And My Vote For the Stupidest Midrash Is...

HaMekoshaish / The Shabbas Desecrator

When Hashem decreed that the Generation of the Wilderness would not enter the Land, a man reasoned, "The men of this generation who know that they will never reach Eretz Yisrael may now begin to treat the mitzvos lightly. They may think that mitzvos need not be taken seriously outside the Holy Land. I will desecrate the Shabbas, in order to demonstrate the grave consequences of my sin".

He therefore violated the Shabbas laws leshaim shamayim*, so that his punishment would serve as a warning to Bnai Yisrael.

- Moshav Zekainim as quoted by The Midrash Says.

(*"Not all Midrashic views agree on this point" states The Midrash Says in their footnote. Yet the author saw fit to mention only this quite bizarre view...)

Monday, June 23, 2008

How Do You Define "Merciful"?

In last week's Torah portion, Shelach, we read about the Chet HaMeraglim, the Sin of the Spies, an incident that occurred less than a year after the Chet HaEgel, the Sin of the Golden Calf. These events are often pointed to as the two greatest tragedies in Jewish history because of what they presaged for future generations.

In the story of the Golden Calf, Moses beseeches God with His "13 attributes of mercy" (Exodus 34:6-7). In the story of the Spies, Moses invokes an abbreviated version of these attributes (Numbers 14:18). Let's briefly look at how God manifests his merciful attributes in these two instances.

In the incident of the Golden Calf, God threatens to destroy the Jewish nation but Moses convinces Him otherwise and God then "repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people" [a phrase that always raises considerable theological difficulties]. Afterward, Moses tells the Levites that God instructed them to slay the offenders and they proceed to kill 3000 of their brethren. Moses again asks God for forgiveness, and God responds that He will mete out punishment to those who have sinned. An additional unspecified number of people are then killed by God. One would think that all of this death and destruction would be sufficient atonement, but no - it is a commonly accepted belief that every tragedy that befalls the Jewish people to this day has within it some retribution for the sin of the Golden Calf (see, for example, Rashi on Exodus 32:34.)

In the incident of the Spies, God again threatens to entirely destroy the nascent Jewish nation, but instead responds to Moses' pleas by sentencing everyone over the age of 20 - except for Joshua and Caleb - to die during the sojourn in the desert (various midrashic accounts exempt the women and/or the Levites.) The 10 leaders are killed in a plague. There is a particularly horrifying midrash about people digging their own graves every Tisha B'Av and being made to sleep in them, not knowing whether they will survive until morning. Furthermore, Rabbi Akiva (Sanhedrin 107b) states that the entire generation of the wilderness has no share in the world to come!

Both stories show a people experiencing a primeval fear and then responding to this fear in a very human way. According to many commentators, the Golden Calf was nothing more than a surrogate leader created out of desperation when they feared the loss of their leader Moses. The despair of Bnai Yisrael in the Spy story resulted from panic at the thought of certain death for themselves and captivity for their wives and children.

The typical response within Orthodox circles is a glib one: "They experienced miracles! They experienced God's direct revelation! They should have trusted in God, they should have trusted Moses." Yet tradition unequivocally claims that this was a nation that had known only slavery for generations and had also been quite assimilated into Egyptian culture. To undergo a radical - and more importantly, permanent - transformation takes considerable time and effort, but God seems to demand instantaneous results from a people who had internalized an Egyptian slave mentality over hundreds of years and as a result had reached the lowest level of impurity possible.

I would argue that both stories do not describe a God who displays attributes of mercy but instead One who reacts in a manner that suggests that He doesn't understand human psychology very well and/or is unreasonable in his expectations of human behavior.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Two Accounts of Quail & Manna

Last Shabbos while discussing the story of the manna in Parsha Behaloscha, I wanted to make a point regarding how monotonous it must have been to eat "cake baked with oil" every day for 40 years, as the manna is described as tasting in Numbers 11:7. Didn't the people in the desert have every right to complain? (I'm not a minimalist and do treat many of the stories of Torah as having some basis in fact.) One of my kids said, "I thought that the mann tasted like a honey doughnut?" (They have long learned to take midrashim with a large grain of salt and so didn't even mention the near-universal belief among Orthodox Jews that it could taste like almost anything a person desired.) I told them that, yes, that is how it is described in Exodus which says that the manna tasted like "wafers made with honey". I started looking at other aspects of the story and NOW JUST WAIT A MINUTE - how come I never noticed before all of the similarities - and more importantly - the differences between the two accounts of Exodus 16 and Numbers 11??

Here's a synopsis of the Exodus 16 account:

The Israelites travel to the wilderness of Sin on the 15th day of the second month after departing Egypt. The whole congregation of the children of Israel complains against Moses and Aaron because of their hunger, saying how they remember the flesh-pots of Egypt. God tells Moses that He is going to rain down bread from heaven and on the people will have to gather a double portion. This will be a test to see if the people will keep His law. Moses and Aaron say that their complaints are against God and not them. Moses has Aaron tell the people that God has heard their complaints and the people see God's glory in the clouds. At night quails come up and cover the camp. In the morning there is a layer of dew and when it evaporates, there is the manna (a fine, scale-like thing.) Everyone is told to gather an omer. Some gather more, some less, but when they measure, it is an omer. They aren't supposed to leave any over to the morning; when they do it gets wormy and rots and Moses gets angry. On the sixth day they gather two omers each - Moses tells them tomorrow is the Sabbath - and the double portion doesn't rot. Some people go to gather it on the Sabbath and don't find any - God responds that the people aren't keeping the commandments. The people give it the name "mann". It looks like coriander seed, is white, and tastes like wafers made with honey. Moses tells Aaron to store away an omer for all generations. "The children of Israel ate manna forty years until they came to the borders of Canaan." [Obviously an indication that this section was written long after the fact]. An omer is 1/10 of an ephah.

And now the Numbers 11 account:

The people complain. God gets angry and his fire consumes the edge of the camp. The people cry, Moses prays, the fire stops. The place is called Taberah ("burning"), because God's fire burned them. The mixed multitude crave meat and the children of Israel also weep. They recall the fish and veggies from Egypt and they have nothing to eat but manna. The manna is like coriander seed, and has a pearl-like luster. The people gather it, grind it up, cook it and make cakes. It tastes like cake baked with oil. The dew falls upon the camp at night, and the manna falls on the dew. Moses hears the people weeping; God gets angry and Moses is displeased. He complains to God: "These people are too much of a burden. Where am I going to get meat? Please kill me God!" God says to gather 70 elders and He will give them some of the spirit that is on Moses. He says that the people will get flesh not only tomorrow, but for a whole month until it is coming out of their nostrils and is loathsome. This is a punishment for rejecting God. Moses says, God, how are you going to feed 600,000? God says, no problem, I'm God. Short interlude of the Elders, Eldad, and Medad prophesying. A wind brings in quails from the sea; they are flapping around all over the camp for a distance of one day's journey on each side. The people gather large amounts of quail, and are afflicted with a plague while the meat is still between their teeth. The place is called Kivroth HaTaavah ("Graves of Craving"), because there they buried the people that craved. They then journey to Chazterot.

Note that although the events of each story are similar, the themes are quite different. The Exodus account uses the story of the manna to convey important lessons regarding the Sabbath, trusting in God, etc. The Numbers account goes into great detail regarding the despair that Moses felt and how some of his burden was relieved by granting others the power of prophecy.

Here is a chart that summarizes the two accounts of "the Manna and the Quail".

Exodus 16Numbers 11
WhenIyar, 1st yearNisan, 2nd year (Numbers 9,10)
Protagonist(s)Moses and AharonMoses
Who ComplainedAll IsraelFirst mixed multitude, then Bnai Israel
The ComplaintThey wanted meatThey wanted meat
What The People RememberedMeat in Egypt
Fish & veggies in Egypt
God's Reaction to the ComplaintsHe'll give them mannaVery angry
What God Said They'd GetMeat & breadMeat (they've already been eating bread/manna)
When The Manna CameWith morning dewFell with dew at night
The Manna Looked LikeWhite coriander seedCoriander seed, pearl-like or resinous
The Manna Tasted LikeWafers made with honeyCake baked with oil
When the Quail CameAt nightWind blew them in during the morning
After Eating the QuailNothing mentionedThe people died as a result of eating it
God Gets Angry BecausePeople were gathering manna on SabbathPeople were complaining
Mose's Reaction to the Complaints"People are Complaining Against God"He despairs from the burden
SabbathCentral ThemeNothing mentioned
Prophecy of EldersNothing mentionedCentral Theme

I had never before seen this mentioned in my readings on various theories of the Torah's multiple authorship and it hit me like a lead pipe: of course these are two variants of the same story! It is so obvious; complaints about wanting meat and remembering Egypt, the quail that God then provides, the description of the manna's appearance and taste. But I wasn't so naive to think that this was my own chiddush - scholars must have noticed this before. And, indeed, a web search quickly showed me that this was the case. But the real shocker were the links that mentioned the 12th century commentator, R. Joseph ben Isaac, otherwise known as the Bekhor Shor. A French tosafist and a student of Rabbeinu Tam and the Rashbam, R. Isaac "noted that a number of wilderness narratives in Exodus and Numbers are very similar, in particular, the incidents of water from the rock, and the stories about manna and the quail. He theorized that both of these incidents actually happened once, but that parallel traditions about these events eventually developed, both of which made their way into the Torah."

A Rishon who admitted to a multiple authorship theory?? Now when an OrthoFundie challenges me I no longer have to rely only on the authority of James Kugel!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Parashat Naso - Bad Proofs of Torah #8 - The Dangerous Law of Sotah

"I would like to make reference now to another extraordinary and peculiar Biblical law whose strangeness would puzzle one to the utmost if it was conceived and enunciated by a man, instead of God." - Rabbi Eli Gottlieb.

This is Gottlieb's eighth "proof" in his book, The Inescapable Truth a Sound Approach to Genuine Religion. As with his Sabbatical Year proof discussed here, this can be classified as a "proof by way of a falsifiable miracle". It is also a proof that kiruv organizations like to use (here's an example from Aish). Much of my comments regarding the Shemittah proof apply here as well, so I will restrict my comments to those specific to the Law of Sotah (Numbers 5:11-31).

Gottlieb continues: "We really do not need any elaboration to show the clear Divine authority of this profoundly impressive and awe-inspiring test. For the result of this whole affair was wholly dependent on the supernatural and the purely miraculous. How then would a human religious leader dare to expose the whole system of this religion to the danger of being repudiated because of the failure of thousands of these tests to materialize?"

Well, I'll tell you, good Rabbi!

Firstly, where does Gottlieb come off making the claim that "thousands of these tests were performed"? Does he have any source that can demonstrate definitively that it was ever done, except for a vague statement by "Nehonia the welldigger" who claims to have seen a woman undergo the procedure twice (Sotah 18b; by the way, the claim is chronologically problematic according to the Soncino commentary). I would submit that the conditions under which it could be administered are so restrictive, that it is unlikely that it was rarely - if ever - fulfilled, much less undergone by "thousands"!

Sotah 23a ff. mentions a number of people that could not undergo the procedure including, but not limited to:
  • a betrothed woman; a childless widow waiting for yibum/chalitzah; a mamzeress married to an Israelite; a divorcee married to priest

  • a woman who had relations with her husband on the way to the trial (the two scholars accompanying them basically say to the man, "withdraw the warning and have fun in the sack")

  • a woman who refused to drink and whose husband would not let her drink

  • a woman whose husband died before the trial

  • Rabbi Meir includes in this list women who were pregnant or nursing

  • a woman who could not conceive or was too old to bear children

  • a woman whose husband was in prison
In addition, the Sotah process could not proceed if there were any witnesses to the adultery, even if the witness were a single female slave.

No procedure? No miracle!

Secondly, the woman was strongly persuaded to confess her sins and thereby avoid the bitter waters. Certainly the mere threat of dying a painful death would be enough to extract a confession by a true believer in the efficacy of the bitter waters.

A confession? No miracle!

Thirdly, the woman could simply refuse to drink and not admit to adultery! I would also suspect that even many an innocent would do this merely to avoid the procedure. The downside of confessing was that the woman would be divorced and lose her divorce settlement. Actually, this may have been an upside for a woman who was unable to initiate a desired divorce from an abusive or jealous husband!

Refusal to drink? No miracle!

Now let us assume that the bitter waters didn't work, and that a guilty woman underwent the ordeal and survived along with her lover. Does Gottlieb think that the woman would then publicly "falsify the miracle" by bragging about her affair? Remember, after a successful "non-explosive" outcome the woman remained married and could not be divorced by her husband, so there was significant incentive to keep quiet!

No publicity about a failed miracle? No falsification!

But what if a guilty woman survived and later bragged about it, or if it were otherwise known that she did commit adultery? The Gemara in Sotah 20a explains that a woman's merit could suspend her punishment. Indeed, Ben Azzai says there that one has an obligation to teach one's daughter Torah, so that she merit a suspended punishment! (By the way, this is also where R. Eliezer's states that "whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity.") Although this is a big problem for R. Shimon in Sotah 22b who posits that a suspension of punishment both discredits the water for the guilty who drink and defames the innocent who drink, it is certainly an "out" for believers in a miracle that materialize. In addition, the Ramban, in his commentary, state additional opinions that the bitter waters were ineffective if the husband or any of his children ever committed adultery!

Personal merit? Adulterous husband or children? No miracle!

Finally, we cannot discount completely that death would occur after undergoing the Sotah procedure. But does this prove a miracle? Certainly not. There are documented cases of death by fear due to a nocebo reaction, such as is found in cultures that embrace voodoo, the evil eye, and tantrik magic. Indeed, similar "trials by ordeal that require a miracle" are very common among other religions and cultures. Somehow, I don't think that Gottlieb would assert that the drinking of the bitter red water trial by ordeal in Sierre Leone was proof that it was invented by God!

I would like to make one additional comment not specific to the focus of the post. Gottlieb states "the test and oath of purgation was not to humiliate the suspected woman but rather to help her and save her marriage from its threatened destruction due to her husband's unfounded jealously...". I find such a concept patronizing and offensive. It is true that the Sotah procedure could not be carried out willy-nilly, and a "jealous husband" needed legitimate justification to force his wife to undergo such an ordeal. But Gottlieb himself states that the jealousy was unfounded! And humiliating? As described in Sotah 7a ff., the woman was exhibited in front of anyone who care to watch, her clothes were ripped so that her breasts were exposed (R. Yehudah says that this wasn't done if her breasts were attractive!), she was then bound with a rope on her upper body, exhorted to confess her sins, and if no confession was forthcoming was forced to drink bitter waters. And this is deemed by Gottlieb as not humiliating??? This would save a troubled marriage???

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Myth of the 600,000

Since we will be reading Numbers for a couple of months, I thought it appropriate to summarize the numerous objections to taking a literal approach to 600,000 adult Jewish males leaving Egypt.

Colin Humphreys' The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories is a must-read for anyone interested in rationalistic explanations of many of the miracles of the Torah. It's a fascinating read, written by well-respected Cambridge University scientist, plus you can get a used copy for really cheap through Amazon and elsewhere (my hardcover in like-new condition was only a couple of dollars).

The following are Humphreys' objections as described in Chapter 8 - "How Many People Were In The Exodus":
  1. "The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle" (Exodus 13:18). Over 600,000 Israelites armed for battle would have been an incredibly formidable army. For example, it would have been nine times as great as the whole of the Duke of Wellington's army (69,000 men) at the famous battle of Waterloo in 1815. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, 600,000 Israelites would have outnumbered the total number of soldiers in the Egyptian army. Why then should such a mighty Israelite army be "terrified" by the Egyptian army that pursued them when they left Egypt, as described in Exodus 14:10? Why should such a huge Israelite army have struggled to defeat some tribesmen called the Amalekites, as described in Exodus 17:8?

  2. The clue of the midwives. Exodus 1:15 states, "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah..." I think this phrase clearly implies that there were only two Israelite midwives, particularly since they are named. But only two midwives would be hopelessly inadequate for a population of over two million people.

  3. In various places in the Exodus account the impression is given that the number of Israelites was not large. For example, when Moses was speaking to them at Mount Sinai he said, "The Lord did not set his beckon on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7). In addition, the Bible states that initially the Israelites were too few to occupy the promised land (Exodus 23:30). Yet two million Israelites would easily have filled the promised land, and until the relatively recent Jewish immigration into Israel the total population of Israel was only about one million.

  4. Now for a point involving the size of families. The book of Numbers states, "The total number of first-born males a month or more old was 22,273" (Numbers 3:43). However, if the number of Israelite men aged twenty and over was 603,550, then very roughly the total number of Israelite men of all ages would have been about one million, because in ancient civilizations roughly half the population was under twenty. So what was the average family size? This was the total number of men divided by the total number of firstborn men, that is one million divided by 22,273, which is about fifty. So the average mother must have had fifty sons. But we've forgotten about the women. The average mother must have had about fifty daughters as well! In fact, if we interpret the numbers in the book of Numbers as being literally true, then the average mother must have had about a hundred children. This is unlikely!
Here are some rebuttals to Humphreys' list and my own verdict as to the quality of the rebuttal:
  1. A strong, well-armed army could certainly subjugate equally large numbers of people, especially when such people were not trained in warfare and were also deprived of adequate nutrition. A chariot was a fearsome offensive weapon, both because of the archer (sometimes two) with well-stocked quiver as well as the powerful horse that drove the vehicle. The chariot was the M-1 Abrams tank of its day. Nahum Sarna gives such figures as "in 1860, slaves comprised 33 percent of the population of the southern states." As for the Amalekites, they attacked the weak and old at the rear of the Israelite formation during their travels.

    Verdict: an adequate rebuttal for the claim that a massive Israelite population would not have been terrified of the Egyptian army. However, the rebuttal is pretty weak when considering the Amalekite threat. The Amalekites are described as nomads without a homeland and their numbers would have been tiny compared to 600,000 adult men. It would have been futile - nay suicidal! - for such a group to go on the offensive against so many. And it would have been beneath contempt for the Israelites to leave the sick and weak far behind to be slaughtered.

  2. Nahum Sarna was bothered by the assumption that there were only two midwives for such a large population. He suggests that perhaps Shiphrah and Puah were either midwifery overseers or the two names were that of guilds named after their original founders.

    Verdict: Sarna's suggestion is one born of necessity although I would like to reserve judgment until seeing his original source for this idea (Rand, H., Vases in Ancient Egypt and Hebrew Midwives, Israel Exploration Journal 20:209-212. Anyone have access to a copy?) Some leeway can perhaps be given to the idea of midwifery overseers, but the suggestion of guilds fits neither the reading nor the copious midrashic material that discuss - for example - the houses that God made for Miriam and Jochebed.

  3. "The least of all the peoples" can be interpreted figuratively. Rashi, for example, says that "least" in this context means that Israel belittles themselves. I know of no rebuttal to the statement that the Israelites first needed to "become fruitful" before the inhabitants of the land could be driven away.

    Verdict: Rashi explains the Deuteronomy pasuk nicely. But p'shat in the Exodus pasuk is clearly problematic for a literalist.

  4. I haven't seen any rebuttal for the discrepancy between the total number of first-born males one month or older (22,273) and the the number of Israelite men aged twenty and over (603,550). Humphreys says "This is unlikely!" but I would say "This simply makes no sense." An average of 100 children per mother is patently absurd. And did they suddenly stop giving birth in such huge numbers once they left Egypt? If not, then one would expect about 60 million children to accompany the adults in the desert!
    [Addendum 6/8/08]: I apparently neglected to research this point adequately: this problem apparently did bother a number of commentators. Kaplan's The Living Torah mentions three solutions: huge families of about 45; many first-born didn't observe the first Passover and died in Egypt; most first-born were girls. The first "solution", of course, is discussed in the post and rejected although - as commenter "z" pointed out - by neglecting first-born girls Humphreys effectively doubled the family size from 50 to 100. The second "solution" would address the first-born problem but at the same time make the total number of Israelites a much bigger problem (and also wreak havoc with the 600,000 concept!) The third "solution" would be in keeping with the Torah's silence with regards to the female population, but would similarly inflate the total number of Israelites enormously. A solution mentioned in the Hertz Chumash: "What is meant is the number of first-born males under twenty years of age at the time of the census. The law did not have retrospective force, so as to include all first-born sons throughout the nation who themselves were fathers or grandfathers at the time". A couple of problems with this solution include the Torah stating כָּל-בְּכוֹר, "all the first-born" five separate times 3:40-45 and that the whole point of the count was to redeem the first-born against the total number of the Levites. Did the older first-born thus not have to be redeemed?]
Let's add a few more objections to the list of difficulties. Some of them are raised by Nahum Sarna in "Exploring Exodus". (By way of apophasis, I won't mention such outlandishly bizarre midrashim which state that, based on "chamushim" in Ex. 13:18, only 1 out of 5 - or even 1 out of 50 or 1 out of 500 - Jews survived the plague of darkness!)
  • Population density. My previous post on A Very Crowded Campsite focussed on the encampment, but one can easily brush this one aside by saying that the interpretation of the small size of the camp is simply incorrect. R. Kaplan apparently based his diagram on Rashi and this would imply that Rashi is just plain wrong; such a suggestion may be a problem in itself to the most extreme Da'as Torah-niks, but such folks have lost all semblance of rationality anyway.

  • Population estimates in the ancient world. The U.S. Census Bureau has an historical estimate of 27 million people in 2000 BCE and 50 million in 1000 BCE. Using the latter date, 2.5 million Israelites would represent 5% of the total world population. Such estimates are, of course, difficult to calculate but the bottom line is that 600,000 doesn't jive with the best-guess estimate.

  • Goshen could not have supported such a large group of people. The land was not well-suited to large scale agricultural production. (Remember, Joseph want this area for his family because it was good pasture land.) Sarna raises this point. However, while it is true that the Nile inundation didn't reach much of Goshen, we must allow for the possibility that the Israelites were not necessarily limited to this section of Egypt.

  • Complete lack of any archaeological evidence of millions of Israelites living in Goshen, and later living in - and traveling through - the desert for 40 years (as well as dying there in massive numbers.) This has always been a problem for traditionalists who can only respond "lack of evidence is not evidence of lack". Of course, one day someone might indeed make an archaeological discovery that supports the Biblical account, but for now this lack is a strong argument against it.

  • Exodus 18:13 - And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. So Moshe acted as the sole judge for a population that was the equivalent of modern-day Chicago, until Yitro suggested that Moshe consider creating a system of appellate courts? Give me a break!

  • Jacob went down to Egypt with 70 souls and the population increased to almost 3 million in only 400 years. This argument is commonly made by skeptics, but frankly I think that it's one of the weaker ones. A number of Bible apologists have shown mathematically how such a population increase could occur without resorting to miraculous fertility (which Jewish sources do claim!)

  • My favorite: try and imagine the logistics of providing for each person's daily water needs. The average individual requires about 3 quarts of water per day for maintenance. Let's say that the Israelites needed - very conservatively - a gallon per day per person, given the more arid desert climate. This does not include water for other needs, such as washing (presumably even if one insists on a miracle of eternally clean clothes the Israelites engaged in some ritual washing. And even if the manna did not produce any waste products, they did need to defecate when they ate meat and quail, as well as urinate.) That means 2.5 million gallons/day in total. A standard (non-low flow) faucet can perhaps provide 5 gallons/minute or 7200 gallons per 24-hour day. We'd need - at a minimum - 350 of such faucets pumping out water non-stop for 40 years! Can you imagine the water lines at the miraculous Well of Miriam or later at the Moses Miracle Rock after Miriam died? Assuming that one member of a family of four gathered the water, each water-gatherer would have less than a minute to get in place, fill up their 4 gallons, and then make way for the next person in line. (Heaven help the person who spilled any of the the 32-lbs of water while toting it home...) And remember, these back-of-the-napkin calculations are just for minimal drinking water!

  • One can make similar calculations that relate to the logistics of moving 2.5 million people out of Egypt (mostly on foot), including the aged and infirm, children, livestock and supplies, with equally preposterous results.

  • Finally, note that I have restricted these points to the pre-Conquest period. Similar difficulties have led most archaeologists to reject the literality of the Biblical account of Joshua's conquest of Canaan but such a discussion is for another time.
Let me know if you come across any additional challenges to the notion of taking 600,000/2.5 million literally, or rebuttals to any such challenges presented here.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Hacking the Mesorah

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen - you too can simulate the evolution of religion! All you need is SciLab, an open-source numerical computation program, plus the simulation program EVOGOD!

EVOGOD was written by James Dow, Professor of Anthropology at Oakland University (Rochester, MI). As described in the NewScientist article Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests, "The computer model assumes that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information. The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information. Under most scenarios, "believers in the unreal" went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished."

Full journal article: Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?

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