The River of Blood (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

Explaining the Bible through science does a disservice to both

In March 1999, fishery officials in Hiroshima issued grave warnings about mass deaths of fish, ducks, and possibly marine animals. Grim images of the harbor clogged with dead fish were broadcast on televisions and computer monitors throughout Japan. Fully 90 percent of the oyster harvest was lost.

What was the cause of this disaster? Not some accidentally uncovered source of decades old residual atomic radiation, nor the run-off of industrial pollution.

Rather, this marine catastrophe was the product of a naturally occurring phenomenon, harmful algae bloom known as the Red Tide. Red Tides most often occur in warm salty harbors, deltas and estuaries-- they are a thick concentration of microorganisms that literally stain the sea a brownish red color.

What does the Red Tide have to do with the Torah? Biblical scholars and early marine biologists of the late nineteenth century postulated that the first plague of the Exodus story, the blood color of the Nile, might have been an outbreak of Red Tide.

This is a tempting naturalistic explanation for the Biblical account of a miraculous event. The Nile Delta is warm and salty; Red Tides most often occur in spring, the time of Passover.

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According to the Bible, after the Nile "turned to blood," the Egyptian people had to dig wells for drinking water. Evidently well water was safe--only the river was tainted--again, consistent with the characteristics of a Red Tide. There was a massive die-off of fish, just as in Hiroshima Harbor, and a consequent abundance of frogs and insect swarms.

There is no doubt that reading the Torah through the lens of scientific and academic knowledge can provide insight to an often-cryptic text. Archaeology and literary analysis have proved particularly helpful to Biblical scholars seeking to unravel the "true" meaning of the text.

However, there are pitfalls in the "scientific" investigation of the Bible, especially as lay people generally understand it. Science is concerned with the analysis of objective data. When it trains its eye on the scripture, it does so with a literalism that is part of the scientific methodology. However, those who seek to read Torah as a history book, or worse, as a science primer, may well miss the spiritual significance of the text.

Fundamentalists and other Biblical literalists often pounce on naturalistic explanations of Torah events, such as the Red Tide, as "proof" that the Bible "really happened," and thus possesses authority even beyond that of profound religious and moral instruction.

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