An environmental scientist re-examines Israels Exodus from Egypt

By RICHARD N. OSTLING AP Religion Writer Published:

ABC-TV anticipates the Jewish Passover on April 10 and 11 with a lavish new two-part miniseries, The Ten Commandments, which dramatizes Moses story from birth through Mount Sinai.

For thousands of years, Jews have commemorated the liberation from Egypt led by Moses, fulfilling the Bibles command: You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants.

ABCs version closely follows the Bibles Book of Exodus, regarding which theres perennial debate. The latest example is a chapter in The Natural History of the Bible: An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures (Columbia University Press) by Daniel Hillel, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Massachusetts.

The Bible is the earliest effort to describe a peoples history as a continuous progression of events, Hillel writes, and the Exodus is pivotal for that story.

This scientist is a middle-of-the-roader, neither accepting everything as literally true nor dismissing Exodus as a fable. Historical proof or disproof is not easy, and perhaps not possible, to resolve entirely, he says, since archaeological finds are chancy, much has been wiped away and the lack of remains doesnt confirm anything.

Outside the Bible, theres no hard proof of Israels sojourn in Egypt and escape. But Hillel figures if the accounts were entirely contrived, they could hardly have had such lasting power and there appears to be a believable core of authenticity.

He considers it unlikely that a nation would ascribe to itself so humble and humiliating a national beginning as slavery, unless it had some basis in truth. There are no surviving Egyptian accounts; perhaps the event seemed unimportant, or too embarrassing.

Hillel thinks whoever wrote the story of the Israelites in Egypt must have known the country very well, either must have lived there or must have received the information from others who had. The background is believable, the names seem authentic and the entire atmosphere and sense of place appear genuine.

For instance: Nomadic farmers indeed entered Egypts eastern Nile delta during severe droughts in their traditional grazing grounds. Egyptian records back to the 18th century B.C. tell of numerous Asiatic slaves. One inscription specifies that a group named Israel lived in Canaan around the time of the Exodus.

Credible biblical themes include: centralized authority under the pharaoh, drought contingency planning, grain storage, emergency food distribution, sharecropping, taxation, independent priesthood, visiting nomads with high birthrates and resulting resentment, slavery and grand public works projects.

Then theres brick-making. To this day, he says, Egyptians make bricks by kneading clay with straw, pressing it into molds and baking it in the sun or ovens (Exodus 5:10-19).

Turning directly to his specialty of ecology, Hillel says the biblical author obviously knew about Egypts mostly regular but occasionally anomalous water supply.

The Nile was both a source of drinking water and a waste disposal, raising constant danger of pollution and especially during times of low flow. That could produce massive fish kills, proliferation of frogs that thrive in stagnant water and scourges of insects just like the Exodus plagues.

Then, too, the freak hailstorms and eerie darkness (an eclipse of the sun? a dust storm?) were natural phenomena in Egypt that would have left a lasting impression, he thinks.

Even the parting of the Red Sea better translated the reed sea, which he assumes was a marsh might have referred to a natural occurrence. Those who escaped could hide in the deltas reeds while heavily laden troops with chariots got bogged down in the mud and mire. And the pillar of cloud could have been one of the familiar dust devils that reach considerable heights in the regions deserts.

Also of seasonal note: The Jewish Publication Society has reissued Haggadah and History by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, a handsome art book with photos and comments on Passover liturgies printed as far back as the 15th century.

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