Solving a mystery with a mystery?

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I’ve had a look at the paper Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta. As far as I can tell it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I’m not sub­mit­ting this to ResearchBlogging, because half of it I can­not reas­on­ably cri­tique, but the other half is poor. So poor I’ve left this overnight before post­ing, because I thought I was being unfair, but I might be too kind.

To start with the bet­ter part, Drews and Han pro­pose that wind set­down could leave a clear route across a body of water that, if it had happened in 1250BC, would have allowed Israelites to escape from Egypt. It would require sev­eral hours of a steady wind at around 28m/s, but accord­ing to the mod­els it could clear leave clear mud­flats. My ini­tial response is scep­tical because if a lot of things then many more things could hap­pen. The inclu­sion of the report by Major-General Tulloch is there­fore very import­ant, because it means that Drew and Han can show that this effect can hap­pen. That’s import­ant because then, regard­less of whether or not the dis­cus­sion is rel­ev­ant to the Exodus, Drew and Han have found some­thing that may be useful.

The idea that the Exodus was assisted by wind set­down is not new. Doron Nof pub­lished a few papers on this in the 1990s. It’s not com­mon, but there seem to be enough reports to sug­gest that it can hap­pen on shal­low bod­ies of water around the Nile Delta.

I’m see no reason to dis­agree with the phys­ics. Sadly I also see no point in dis­agree­ing with the phys­ics, because no mat­ter how good the phys­ics and mod­el­ing is, the his­tory is bad.

As far as the his­tory goes, the authors state: “The present study treats the Exodus 14 nar­rat­ive as an inter­est­ing and ancient story of uncer­tain ori­gin.” I’m not sure it does. They men­tion Moses crossed the Red Sea in Exodus 14, and that’s as far as the his­tor­ical dis­cus­sion goes. That’s not a prob­lem if the aim of the paper is to exam­ine wind set­down effects in the 19th cen­tury on Lake Manzala, but it’s eccent­ric to ignore the his­tory if you’re attempt­ing to solve a his­tor­ical prob­lem and Exodus is a huge problem.

The biggest prob­lem is whether or not the Exodus happened. There is no archae­olo­gical evid­ence for the Exodus and the evid­ence points to Israel and Judah form­ing from Canaanite king­doms. I don’t see that as a ter­minal prob­lem for the Drew and Han paper — if they’re inter­ested in wind set­down gen­er­ic­ally — but it surely mer­its a men­tion? So if the Exodus didn’t hap­pen, then why is it interesting?

It’s inter­est­ing because even if it didn’t hap­pen around 1300BC, it’s a story that the Israelites told about their ori­gins in the sixth and fifth cen­tur­ies BC. Whether or not those beliefs about what happened seven hun­dred years earlier are accur­ate is another mat­ter. This isn’t an error unique to Drew and Han. There are ancient his­tor­i­ans who treat Thucydides as a source of bank­able facts about Greece in the eighth and sev­enth cen­tur­ies BC, des­pite these stor­ies being later ration­al­isa­tions about why things were the way things were. There’s a great paper by Moses Finley on the Trojan War about how much ‘his­tory’ is roman­ti­cised events. There are all sorts of ques­tions that arise from this. Why did the Israelites por­tray them­selves as out­siders? What does it tell us about rela­tion­ships between the Jews and the self-identified nat­ive peoples? What does it say about rela­tions with Egypt at the time of writing?

Without pay­ing any atten­tion to the his­tor­ical con­text the ensu­ing dis­cus­sion becomes worth­less. Drew and Han move cross­ing of the Exodus to Lake Tanis. What his­tor­ical reason is there for this? As far as I can tell none. The reason they seem to move the cross­ing to Lake Tanis is that if they do so, their effect works. From a his­tor­ical per­spect­ive the argu­ment is “If we assume the cross­ing occurred in 1250BC at Lake Tanis, then we can con­clude the most likely place for the cross­ing was Lake Tanis in 1250BC.” In real­ity they could be right, but if they are why is this not reflec­ted in the his­tory? What was the situ­ation 700 years later? If small wind set­down events were com­mon, could these be an inspir­a­tion for a big event? Whatever this paper explains, it does not explain how the Israelites got the story of their cross­ing of the Red Sea. As far as examin­ing a sup­posed his­tor­ical event goes, the paper is wholly inadequate.

Despite that should the paper have been accep­ted for pub­lic­a­tion? I’m not sure. If the journal were the Public Library of History then def­in­itely not. If how­ever the met­eor­o­lo­gical mod­el­ing is sound, and it con­trib­utes to the under­stand­ing of mod­ern wind set­down, then the world is a bet­ter place for hav­ing the paper pub­lished. If it’s only value is the dis­cus­sion of a his­tor­ical event with no con­sid­er­a­tion of the his­tor­ical con­text then it’s an oddity. It simply replaces a phys­ical mys­tery with another his­tor­ical mys­tery. If you’re inter­ested in the Exodus as a his­tor­ical event then that’s no answer at all, in which case why write the paper?

When I want to read about ser­i­ous bib­lical schol­ar­ship my first stop is Abnormal Interests by Duane Smith. He has a post on the sub­ject .

3 thoughts on “Solving a mystery with a mystery?

  1. I’d sug­gest that this paper is try­ing to do for the Old Testament what ‘Intelligent Design’ does for Creationism, ie give it a few fact­oids, or at least enough to get some atten­tion in the tabloids, and give fun­da­ment­al­ist preach­ers a chance to say that ‘Science has proved …’

    The model looks accept­able, but the assump­tion on wind speed has a whiff of con­veni­ence. 28m/s is not merely a strong wind, it is a full-on, 100 km per hour, almost Force 11 gale, and likely to be an excep­tion­ally rare event in those parts. Unfortunately, Tulloch doesn’t cast any quant­it­at­ive light on the wind speeds involved in the event he wit­nessed. No mod­el­ing appears to have been done for any­thing less than 28m/s. If I was look­ing at the phe­nom­ena, I’d want to get an idea of the min­imum wind­speed that would expose the reef.

    In any event, the paper doesn’t rep­lic­ate the events described in the OT, because Exodus expli­citly refers to a ‘wall of water’ (14:22)- the very thing that would NOT be formed by wind blow­ing in the man­ner pos­tu­lated. Even his date (1250BC) is odd, as most bib­lical schol­ars place the Exodus at about 1446BC.

    Basically, the Pentateuch form the found­a­tion nar­rat­ive for the grow­ing Judahite state based around Jerusalem, that was seek­ing to expand into the vacuum left by the decline of the Assyrian Empire, around 6th-7th cen­tur­ies BC. In par­tic­u­lar, Judea was want­ing to sub­stan­ti­ate its claim to the rather attract­ive, fer­tile lands of Israel and Samaria to the north. Hence the story that they had been united in a past ‘Golden Age’; that they had been a power­ful people, power­ful enough to have defeated the Egyptians, and that fol­low­ing the Exodus, they had occu­pied the Judea/Israel area by inva­sion, because inva­sion was the recog­nised method for stak­ing legit­im­ate ter­rit­orial claim. The descrip­tion of the region cor­res­ponds with what would have been observed around 700BC or so– not­ably, towns are described as being occu­pied which were occu­pied around that time, even though archae­olo­gists have determ­ined that they were not occu­pied at the time the Exodus was sup­posed to have occurred.

    Most likely explan­a­tion is that the phe­nom­ena of wind mov­ing water around a shal­low lake would have been read­ily observ­able on mud flats or salt lakes , and had some artistic license applied.

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