Friday, June 17, 2016

How Likely Is It? (2)

From *The Skeptical Review*, 1993/July-August:

by Farrell Till 
When Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, the Hebrew god Yahweh performed wonders unlike anything the world had ever seen. Ten plagues were rained down on Egypt with the implication--and sometimes even direct statement--that the Israelites were spared the horrors of the plagues. When hordes of flies swarmed over Egypt, the land of Goshen, where the Israelites dwelt, was "set apart" so that "no swarms of flies [would] be there" (Ex. 8:22). Likewise, when the plague of murrain decimated the flocks of Egypt, the livestock of the Israelites was spared (9:6). When the hail came, which was more grievous than any hail that had ever struck Egypt (9:24), none fell on the Israelites in the land of Goshen (v:26). When darkness fell over the land, the Israelites "had light in their dwellings" (10:23), and when the firstborn of Egypt were struck dead, the firstborn of the Israelites were saved through the Passover ceremony.

To say the least, those Israelites witnessed some amazing miracles while Moses and Aaron worked to gain their release from bondage, but the wonders didn't cease when Pharaoh finally relented and gave permission for the people to leave Egypt. They saw Yahweh going before them in "a pillar of cloud" by day and in "a pillar of fire" by night (13:21). And these were not just occasional appearances that Yahweh made to the people, because "the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night departed not from before the people" as they marched out of Egypt (v:21).

One would certainly think that the Israelites, having personally seen all of these wonders, would have been supremely confident that the power of Yahweh was on their side and would deliver them from all harm on their journey to the promised land, but such was not the case. They were no sooner under way when their faith began to waver. After letting the Israelites go, Pharaoh experienced a change of heart and gathered an army to go after them. As the Egyptian army drew near, the people cried out in protest to Moses:
"Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, `Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness" (14:11-12).
If there is such a thing as ingratitude, these bellyaching Israelites had to be the all-time champions of it. Their God had performed unprecedented wonders to obtain their release from slavery and was journeying with them in the pillars of cloud and smoke, but then at the first sign of trouble--without even giving Yahweh a chance to do his stuff--they raised their voices in rebellion.

This reaction of the Israelites, after all the signs and wonders they had personally seen, makes the exodus story impossible to believe. If they had actually seen the plagues and been miraculously spared their horrifying effects, and if on their journey to the Red Sea they had actually seen their almighty god traveling with them in pillars of cloud and fire, a more probable response to their seeing the Egyptian army overtaking them would have been incredulous amusement. "Well, just look at those stupid Egyptians," would have been a more likely reaction. "When are they ever going to learn!"

A critical reader, rather than swallowing stories like these just because they happen to be in the Bible, will apply the same common sense methods of interpretation to them that he would use in analyzing any other book. Carl Lofmark expressed the common-sense method to biblical interpretation like this:
When you lack evidence, the only way to decide whether or not to believe something is to ask: Is it likely? If you tell me a bird flew past my window, I will probably believe you, even though I did not see it myself and I have no evidence. That is because such a thing is likely. I have seen it happen before. It is more likely that a bird flew past my window, than that you are deceiving me. But if you tell me a pig flew past my window, I will not believe you, because my past experience tells me that such things do not happen, and so I presume that what you reported is false. Thus, where there is no evidence we have to rely on our own past experience of the sort of things that really happen (What Is the Bible? pp. 41-42).
Lofmark applied this principle to several biblical stories--Noah's flood, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension, etc.--to demonstrate that much of what is written in the Bible cannot pass the test of likeliness. In the absence of corroborating evidence, he concluded, the rational reader will view such stories to be only myths and legends in the same way that similar stories in the literature of other nations of that era must be regarded as myths and legends.

If we apply this principle of likeliness to the events summarized above from the exodus story, we have to conclude that they aren't very believable. These Israelites had seen Yahweh perform many wonders just days before and (according to the story) they knew that this almighty deity was journeying with them out of Egypt, so how likely is it that, under these circumstances, they would have so soon forgotten all of those signs and wonders and been reduced to the shivering cowards who cried out in fear and anguish upon seeing the Egyptian army coming in pursuit? It just doesn't make sense to believe that they would have so reacted with tangible evidence of Yahweh's presence fresh in their memories and even right before their eyes in the cloud pillar overhead.

Even if we could somehow convince ourselves that the conduct of the Israelites at this point in the exodus was believable, as we continued to read, we would immediately encounter a long string of even more unbelievable events. As the Egyptian army approached, Moses stretched out his hand, and the waters of the Red Sea parted to allow the Israelites to cross on dry land. The water formed walls on both sides as the people marched across (14:21-22), and when their pursuers followed them into the midst of the sea, Yahweh "looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud" and caused the wheels of their chariots to fall off (vv:24-25). Moses stretched out his hand again, and the walls of water came back together and engulfed the Egyptians. "Not so much as one of them remained" (vv:27-28).

Surely, in the entire history of mankind, no one had ever witnessed a miracle as amazing as the one that those Israelites witnessed on that day. One would think that after seeing the power of Yahweh wielded so decisively on their behalf, the people would have been loyal to him till death, but, if we are to believe the Bible, it didn't happen that way. The last ripples in the sea had hardly settled when the people began to bellyache again. They sang a hymn of praise to Yahweh and turned inland to march across the Sinai, but they had traveled only three days from the Red Sea when they began to complain because there was no water to drink (15:22).

So we must again ask ourselves, "How likely is this?" Must we believe that the people who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea could so soon forget the power and majesty of their god Yahweh that they would complain about a shortage of water? Which of them could have possibly been so utterly dense of intellect that they would not have known that supplying drinking water would have been next to nothing for a god who could forge a path through the Red Sea? In fact, supplying them drinking water is exactly what Yahweh did (according to the story). At the bitter (nonpotable) waters of Marah, Yahweh showed Moses a tree, which Moses cast into the waters, and they "were made sweet" (vv:23-24). So, just like that, the mighty hand of Yahweh had again supplied the people's need.

If any of these miraculous events were real, by now the people would surely have realized that no situation that they encountered would be too difficult for their god Yahweh to take care of, but such was not the case. On the 15th day of the second month of their journey, the "whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness" (16:2):
"Oh, that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
One wonders why Yahweh didn't at this point strike the entire mob of ingrates dead, but, of course, he didn't. Yahweh said to Moses that he would "rain bread from heaven" so that the people could go out each day to gather what they would need on that day but on the sixth day gather a double portion (v:4), presumably so that they would not have to (gasp!) desecrate the sabbath, which wasn't even consecrated until three chapters later in the narrative. Moses and Aaron then called the people together, who looked "toward the wilderness" and beheld "the glory of Yahweh" in the cloud. Yahweh spoke from the cloud to tell them that he would also provide the people with meat at twilight (vv:9-12).

So how did Yahweh fulfill this promise to provide bread and meat? Well, when evening fell, quails came in and covered the camp and dew "lay all around" (v:13). When the dew lifted, the ground was covered with a frostlike substance that the people gathered to eat. This substance, of course, was the famous manna from heaven that Yahweh provided the people with throughout their wilderness journey until they reached the border of the land of Canaan. Although not directly stated, the implication is that the quails provided the people with meat. The point is that Yahweh came to the rescue of the Israelites again as he had consistently done before.

Rationality requires us to believe that if this much of the story really happened exactly as recorded, the people had surely by now learned that they could depend on their god Yahweh to deliver them from all dangers, no matter how great, and to provide them with nourishment when their food and water supplies ran out. But such was not the case. Just one chapter later, the people were complaining again. They journeyed from the Wilderness of Sin and camped in Rephidim, where there was no water to drink (17:1). Did they say, "Well, not to worry; Yahweh provided us with water before, and he will do so again"? No, just the opposite! They "complained against Moses" and said, "Why is it you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst" (v:3)? This time, the ever-patient Yahweh told Moses to take some of the elders of Israel with him and stand before the rock in Horeb. "Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb," Yahweh said, "and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink" (v:6). Moses did this, and the people had water to drink.

So surely the people knew by now that they had no need to be concerned about food and water, because their mighty god Yahweh would provide their every need by sending manna from heaven, coveys of quails, and water from rocks, but to so assume would be to think rationally, and in Bibleland the rational just didn't happen. After another outbreak or two of rebellion while the people were camped at Mount Sinai waiting for Moses to receive the law from on high, the Israelites broke camp, left the wilderness of Sinai, and traveled for three days with "the cloud of Yahweh over them by day" (Num. 10:12,33-34). Did they journey in supreme confidence that their god who had delivered them from all adversity and who at that very moment was traveling with them would continue to protect them? They did not. "(T)he people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of Yahweh" (Num. 11:1), but this time--and it was about time--we see a different attitude on Yahweh's part. His anger was "kindled," and he sent "the fire of Yahweh" among them and "consumed some in the outskirts of the camp" (v:1). The people cried out to Moses, who "prayed unto Yahweh," and the fire was abated (v:2).

Sensible people under these conditions would surely have said, "Whoa, wait a minute; we had better watch what we say. One wrong word and we might cross Yahweh again." But that is what sensible people would have done. The "mixed multitude" journeying with the Israelites (Ex. 12:38), although having just seen "the fire of Yahweh" consume the other complainers, "lusted exceedingly" (Num. 11:4). They, and the Israelites too, wept again and said, "Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes" (vv:4-5)!

At this point, Yahweh's anger was "greatly aroused" (v:10), but not so much that he didn't accommodate the ingrates again. He ordered Moses to bring seventy elders to the door of the tabernacle, where Yahweh would come down and give them a message to tell the people. The people wanted meat, so he would give them meat. In fact, he would give them meat to eat until it came out their nostrils and became loathsome to them (vv:19-20). So evidently Yahweh was just a little peeved after all--and who could blame him? Even an omnibeneficent deity can take just so much ingratitude.

A wind "went out from Yahweh" (v:31) and brought quail from the sea. Well, actually, to say that the wind brought quail from the sea is an understatement. The quail were so numerous that they were piled two cubits (one yard) high "all around the camp" about a day's journey (20 miles) "on this side" and "on the other side" of the camp (v:31). If we want to talk about likeliness, we would have a wealth of material in this little yarn, but that is another story. Suffice it to say that Yahweh gave the people the meat they wanted. They stayed up "all that day, all night, and all the next day" gathering the quails. Even the ones who "gathered least" collected ten homers (v:32). A "homer" was a unit of measurement equal to about 58 dry gallons, so those who gathered the least still had 580 dry gallons of quails. We can well imagine that the people indeed had meat coming out of their nostrils by the time they had consumed all these quails.

The significant point, however, is that the Israelites had again experienced a need and Yahweh had in an extraordinary exhibition of power provided for their need. Any rational people who had personally witnessed all of these marvelous displays of power and might would surely by this time have been convinced that Yahweh was undeniably on their side and would protect them from all harm. But the Bible tells us that this wasn't the case. Moses sent twelve men (a representative from each tribe) ahead to spy out the land of Canaan, and at the end of forty days (a familiar number) they returned with a report of fortified cities inhabited by "men of great stature" (Num. 13:32). "We were like grasshoppers in our own sight," the spies reported, "and so we were in their sight" (v:33).

Did the people say, "Hey, no problem; we've got Yahweh on our side"? No, they didn't. "So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried," we are told, "and the people wept that night" (14:1). The "whole congregation" made a familiar complaint to Moses and Aaron: "If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or only if we had died in this wilderness! Why has Yahweh brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?" They spoke about selecting a leader who would take them back to Egypt (vv:2-4).

Joshua and Caleb were the only two to speak out on Yahweh's behalf, but the reaction of the congregation was to threaten to "stone them with stones," even though the "glory of Yahweh appeared in the tabernacle of meeting before all the children of Israel" (vv:6-11).

Well, Yahweh was really ticked off this time. "How long will these people reject Me?" he said to Moses (v:11). "And how long will they not believe me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?" Certainly, that was a good question, the implications of which are sufficient to prove to any reasonable person that the exodus story isn't accurate history. Just to restate Yahweh's question, what people who had witnessed all the signs and wonders that Yahweh had performed among them and who even had the "glory" of his presence right before them at that very moment would have continued to reject him as the exodus accounts claim that the Israelites did? It simply doesn't make good sense. If for no other reason, these people had seen so many displays of his vengeance and wrath by now that they wouldn't have dared take the chance of crossing Yahweh as this "spy story" has them doing. To face people of "great stature" who lived in fortified cities would have been no risk at all compared to facing the wrath of an angry Yahweh, and they would have surely known that by now.

The continuance of the story has Yahweh engaged in dialogue with Moses. Yahweh threatened to strike the people with "the pestilence" and then make of Moses a "nation greater and mightier than they" (v:12). Moses, however, proceeded to point out some flaws in Yahweh's thinking:
And Moses said to Yahweh: "Then the Egyptians will hear it, for by Your might You brought these people up from among them, and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, Yahweh, are among these people; that You, Yahweh, are seen face to face and Your cloud stands above them, and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if You kill these people as one man, then the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying, `Because Yahweh was not able to bring this people to the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness.' And now, I pray, let the power of Yahweh be great, just as you have spoken, saying, `Yahweh is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.' Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now" (14:13-19).
The cool-headedness of Moses prevailed, and Yahweh decided to spare the people for the moment. Rather than killing them with "the pestilence," he would allow them to live but condemn them to wander 40 years in the wilderness until they were all dead, except for Joshua and Caleb and the children. These would be allowed to enter the promised land at the end of the 40 years (vv:29-35).

As for sheer silliness, this part of the exodus story has few equals in the Bible. We are asked to believe that Moses, a mere mortal, had to point out flaws in the thinking of the omniscient Yahweh. If Yahweh is indeed omniscient, then he would know everything and would have been aware of all of the pros and cons of his plan to kill the Israelite nation with the pestilence. He would not have needed Moses to tell him of the unfavorable repercussions that his image would suffer in the surrounding nations if he carried out his plan to exterminate the Israelites. As the story was written, however, a very anthropomorphic Yahweh was on the verge of making a grievous mistake until the more level-headed Moses intervened. Likely? Not very.

There is no need to continue analysis of the exodus narrative, because it is just more of the same nonsense. Adversity of some kind was encountered, the people complained and even sometimes openly rebelled, Yahweh responded with a miracle that either supplied the needs of the people or punished them for their rebellion, but each time nothing was learned from the experience. Those who sided with Korah in the rebellion against Moses, for example, were swallowed up, along with their families, when the earth opened beneath them (Num. 16:31-33). When the water ran out again, the people complained, just as if the incidents at Marah and Massah and Meribah (Ex. 15:23-25; 17:4-7) had never happened, and Yahweh miraculously provided them with water again (Num. 20:2-13). Just one chapter later, when the people "spoke against God and against Moses" in their old familiar refrain--Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?--Yahweh sent the fiery serpents to bite them and then had Moses forge the serpent of brass for them to look upon and be healed (21:4- 9). And so the story continues ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Who except the hopelessly incredulous could possibly believe all this stuff?

The literature of biblical times was written in an age of superstition, and in that respect, the stories of the Bible are very similar to the stories written in other Near Eastern societies during the same period. They all tell of national heroes who performed miraculous feats by the intervention of the gods. If we reject such tales in Babylonian, Egyptian, Moabite, Canaanite, and Assyrian literature, by what principle of logic do we determine that the same kinds of stories in the Bible are inerrant truth? If we wouldn't believe the story of the exodus if we encountered it on tablets of stone in Assyrian archives, does it make any sense to believe it just because it is found in a book that has "Holy Bible" embossed on the cover? If so, why? What is the logic behind such reasoning as this?

There is at least one story in the Bible that expresses agreement with the logical principle that says if it isn't likely, then one should not believe it, and that is the doubting-Thomas story. According to John's gospel account, Jesus appeared to the apostles on the night of his resurrection when Thomas wasn't present (20:24). When the others told Thomas that they had seen Jesus, he said, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (v:25).

Now here is a case where a man refused to believe the incredible, even though he had heard the testimony of close friends that the incredible was true. Since Thomas was an apostle, we can reasonably assume that he knew the other apostles about as well as anyone could have known them, yet Thomas did not consider that close association enough to make him believe the incredible. He demanded more than just the mere word of close friends and associates that the incredible had happened; he wanted proof that he could see and touch.

The same tale of a resurrected savior that the apostles told Thomas and that Thomas would not believe has been told to us in the gospels. Two of those gospel accounts were presumably written by apostles, the same apostles whose claim of a resurrected savior Thomas would not believe. These facts, which Bible fundamentalists must claim are indeed facts, should give pause to every rational person. If Thomas would not believe an unlikely claim that he had heard directly from the apostles--men with whom he was personally acquainted--then why should we believe the apostles' claim that Jesus was resurrected? How likely was it that a dead man came back to life? Does the likelihood that this would happen exceed the likelihood that men could be mistak- en or even intentionally deceptive? The latter is far more likely than the former, so on that basis alone, we would be as justified as Thomas was to say, "Unless I see the evidence myself, I will not believe it."

This same principle applied to other biblical stories makes it impossible for sensible people to believe them. The story of the exodus is insulting to human intelligence. Incidents involving talking animals are about as unlikely as anyone can imagine. Disembodied voices speaking from heaven, angels routinely dropping in for visits, people surviving the intense heat of fiery furnances, the sun standing still in the sky--how many times have these things happened in our own lifetime? How likely is it that they ever happened? God so concerned with a people's effort to build a tower to heaven that he came down and confounded their tongues? Come on, give me a break! It's too ridiculous to believe.

And that, in effect, applies to many biblical stories. They are unlikely--and so they are unbelievable. Incredulous fundamentalists will of course argue that with God all things are possible, but in the case of the exodus story even that argument breaks down. Even if we concede that an omniscient, omnipotent deity could rain plagues down on a nation, part the waters of a great sea, send manna from heaven, extract water from rocks, etc., etc., etc., the context in which those signs and wonders occurred must also be likely. With nothing else considered, the continual bellyaching and whining of the people who allegedly witnessed all of these things make the story unbelievable, because it just isn't likely that people would have behaved in such a way if all those wonders had actually occurred in their presence and the "glory" of the god who had performed them was perpetually visible to them in overhead pillars of cloud and fire. That being true, we have to doubt that any of it happened.

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