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.
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.
According to recent polls, fully 44 percent of Americans believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old, created by God in six 24-hour days. This year the Kansas State Board of Education made the teaching of evolution optional in its science curriculum due to pressure from Christian evangelical groups.
However, literalism does a disservice to both religion and science. The circumstances in Kansas demonstrate how religious fundamentalists intrude upon the creativity and growth of scientific knowledge and theory.
But the obverse is true as well. Certainly it is entertaining to speculate on a Nile river red with algae bloom. But in doing so, it is important that we do not undermine the metaphorical drama of the text.
In this week's Torah portion, nature itself rebels against human immorality. The world of ancient paganism (and modern science) is amoral. It isn't immoral, bad in itself; it is merely unconcerned with the questions of right and wrong. Ancient Israelite religion brought moral judgement to human activity.
Unlike the pagan gods of thunder, sea, and other natural forces, the God of Exodus cares deeply about right and wrong. This is the God of the underclass, of the downtrodden, of the oppressed. In the miraculous story of Exodus, the natural world becomes God's manifestation of morality.
Thus, the key question about this week's Torah portion isn't science's "what?", "where?", or even "how?", but rather religion's "why?" Why does the river turn to blood? Why do Jews ritually recount this story each spring throughout the world?
The answers to these questions are about personal and communal morality, about how we treat other people, particularly strangers and the poor. Such answers seem simple and straightforward, but they have eluded human society for as long as it has existed.
Science has much to offer religion in the interpretation of historical and naturalistic phenomena. But religion has more to offer science in terms of ethics and moral vision.