Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

The Miracles of the Exodus – Colin Humphreys

with 10 comments

0060582731I’ve been teaching through the book of Exodus at our Wednesday night Bible study at Kenwood. I picked up this book recently, mostly out of curiosity, to get a scientists take on the miraculous stories in the biblical account.

Summary: The subtitle of the book is, “A Scientists Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories,” and the substance is exactly that. The books author, Colin Humphreys, is a Cambridge University physicists. Although he specializes in “materials science” his hobby is archeology. With that as his motivation he set out to explain God’s amazing victory in bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt using the scientific method. Humphreys not only examines the plagues, the natural phenomenon of the Red Sea crossing, and the location of Mt. Sinai, but also the date of the exodus, the crossing of the Jordan river (Josh. 3), and the location of the lost city of Etham (Ex. 13:20). Using modern science Humphreys concludes that all the events in the book of Exodus are explainable according to natural forces particular to the ancient Near East setting.

What I liked: First, I liked that Humphreys intent is to show that the biblical account is true. Nowhere in the book does Humphreys write that the exodus was false or the result of ancient myth, and for this he is to be commended. Second, Humphreys explanation of the locations of the Red Sea (in the Gulf of Aqaba) and Mt. Sinai (in Midian and not in the Sinai peninsula) is very convincing. I first heard this explanation in an exegesis course on Exodus I took during my M.Div., and after examining other resources I think that of Humphreys is more compelling and fits better with the biblical data. Lastly, the book is very easy to read and accessible for anyone at any level.

What I didn’t like: Where I mainly disagree with Humphreys is in his qualifying presupposition to explaining all the miracles of the Exodus; that is, that natural forces explain everything rather than supernatural ones. In Humphreys’ view, science is able to explain everything, and thus the miracles are only supernatural from Israel’s own perspective. Therefore, what happens in Exodus are miracles of timing. To give one example, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night – the presence of God leading the Israelites out of Egypt – is explainable as a volcano that erupted at the just the right time. This volcano just happens to be Mt. Sinai, which can be seen from 300 miles away in Egypt. The Israelites follow this cloud each day and night and are thus led by it, according to Humphreys. I think this view demotes the aspect of God’s intervening on the Israelites behalf (which God intended to do from the beginning), and also leaves for a high probability of chance. The same can be said about Humphreys’ take on the plagues, which I think can be disputed on the basis of his own analysis – timing.

Final Analysis: Humphreys has written a good book that was enjoyable to read. It is simple but not overly simplistic. I appreciated his desire to show the truthfulness of the Bible, especially with respect to the factual evidence of Scripture that is so easily disregarded. However, Humphreys demotes the aspect of God’s supernatural intervening on Israel’s behalf, and shows more faith in science than in the biblical record. Therefore, while I would highly recommend the sections on the Red Sea crossing and the location of Mt. Sinai (and other equally commendable chapters), I cannot recommend the sections on the plagues or the pillar of cloud and fire.

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Written by Josh Philpot

June 15, 2009 at 3:11 am

10 Responses

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  1. The bible is not “true”. It is a fabrication based on hopes and fears. Totally understandable, totally mythical.
    The chapters that you can’t bring yourself to recommend are the only ones that mean anything except in an emotional way.
    Is God willing to prevent evil,but unable to?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able but not willing?
    Then, rather than benign, he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then when comes evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?
    Good luck. We all need it in this life.

    whitey tacastone

    June 15, 2009 at 3:09 pm

  2. Whitey,

    The Bible is true. It is veritable based on facts and eyewitness accounts, not to mention its own truth claims of full inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Totally believable, totally substantial.

    If you’ve read the book you might understand the difficulty in following Humphreys’ explanation of the plagues. He gives considerable weight to chance and spontaneous “timing,” which is probably understandable from a naturalistic evolutionary standpoint.

    Is God willing to prevent evil? Absolutely, when people repent and turn their hearts to him (cf. Jonah). Is he unable to? No! “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Prov. 16:4). Then he is omnipotent, not a malevolent, passive God who does not interact or care about his creation.

    Is he able? Yes, able to call a people to himself and turn hearts from sin to salvation; able to execute justice on the wicked. Is he willing? Yes, willing to save or destroy to bring glory to himself through Jesus Christ. Did he accomplish this in the Exodus? Yes, by justly punishing Pharaoh and the Egyptian people for slavery and child murder (Ex. 1). In bringing the Israelites out of Egypt he set in motion a redemptive paradigm – salvation through judgment for the glory of God. Why call him God? Because he is, and has clearly proven himself to be God (see Isaiah 46-48 for God’s own reasons why he is God).

    Josh Philpot

    June 16, 2009 at 12:31 pm

  3. Whitey,

    I’d also encourage you to read Job 1-3 and 38:1-42:6 to see more of God’s self-testimony. Copy this link into your browser and read with an open mind and heart: http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=Job+1. You and I both need every bit of truth that is found here. We don’t need luck…we need God!

    Please keep this dialogue open…it would be great to keep talking…

    Edward Heinze

    June 16, 2009 at 11:43 pm

  4. Good word, Edward! Thanks for your comments.

    Josh Philpot

    June 17, 2009 at 1:40 am

  5. I am the author of the book! Thank you Josh for your very fair comments. However, let me explain further. I believe there are two types of miracle. First, where God acts in, with and through the nature he created. How do we know God is at work in such events? It is through the amazing timing. Second, where God breaks his own rules, or where he provides additional forces. The supreme example of this is the Resurrection, which science cannot explain by natural mechanisms (and I believe in the Resurrection).

    I believe the first type of miracle is God’s normal way of working, and we should be careful not to play it down. For example, in the explanation of the crossing of the Jordan that I give in my book, I have the earthquake-induced mudslide that stopped the Jordan flowing (there is evidence for this in more recent similar events at the Jordan)as occurring at the exact time the Israelite priests reached the water’s edge. How was this miracle of timing achieved? I suggest a key factor was God prompting Joshua to go a little faster, or a little slower, so that the Israelites arrived at exactly the right time. Hence Joshua was involved in this miracle of timing. He was a key agent in this miracle. However God could only use him if they were in close contact. Are there not important lessons for us today in this? We can be the agents in miracles of timing today, but we need to be in close touch with God for him to be able to use us. I hope this helps. Colin

    Colin Humphreys

    February 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm

  6. Dr. Humphreys,

    It is so kind of you to drop in! Thank you for your clarifications. I’m also very encouraged that you believe in the resurrection. I’m sure that is not very common opinion in the circles you’re normally a part of.

    I agree with you that God’s timing as well as his supernatural intervention are both different “types” of miracles. And although I didn’t put it in the original blog post, I also liked your explanation of the crossing of the Jordan. The main disagreement I had was with Sinai and with the plagues. You mention in the book that the plagues are all really the result of one natural cause—the polluting of the Nile, which starts a chain reaction of the various plagues. To argue that the plagues were miracles of timing, I believe, is to read in to the text. It seems clear that with each successive plague God’s action is causal. He causes natural phenomena to occur on behalf of his people. In a sense, he is de-creating the land that he originally created (Gen. 1-2).

    Nevertheless, I really enjoyed your book and hope that you continue to write in this area. I’ve recommended it to many others who love the Bible and like to work through difficult problems. If you’re ever in Louisville, KY I would love to meet you!

    Blessings,
    Josh

    Josh Philpot

    February 4, 2010 at 2:04 pm

  7. Dear Dr. Humphreys,
    I want to thank you for writing your astonishingly interesting and thoroughly researched book on Exodus which I bought recently. I’m a Messianic Jew with a great love of the Tanakh and hope to introduce our fellowship, Beit Hagefen – the House of the Vine – in the West Midlands, to your work.
    Shalom,
    Mike Scott

    Mike Scott

    August 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm

  8. Dear Colin,

    I have just finished reading your book. I think it is absolutely brilliant. It demonstrates that the Bible is absolutely accurate, true and trustworthy in this area.

    The more I understand it, the more the whole Bible seems to me to be true and not altered in substance at all since it was written. It is so integrated, so inter-connected, and consistent.

    At the time of Christ the Israelis clearly knew their Scriptures very well. So did Jesus. I have been astonished to discover how many Scriptures he fulfilled in himself, which he spoke about in Luke 24 after his resurrection. At his arrest (John 18:4) it actually says, “Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him…” Yet he calmly walked forwards to be arrested, flogged, spat upon and crucified. This was all predicted in Psalm 22 and Isaiah and numerous scriptures point towards him. He looked so ordinary, yet he suffered so greatly, and then rose again after three days, just as he said he would, and even this is hinted at in Hosea 6:2.

    The real question that has divided man for two thousand years is not about the Exodus, it is the question: Who do you believe Jesus Christ really is? He did not go around saying “I am the Son of God” in plain words, he went around proving it. God fed 5,000 men with manna, Jesus fed 5,000 men with bread. Etc.

    Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” This one-liner, carved on the heart of flesh of the believer, replaces the Ten Commandments, carved on hard stone. They never saved anyone. Jesus demonstrated in his famous Sermon on the Mount that we have all broken them and deserve to die.

    The life-and-death question is whether or not we believe that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” If someone rejects your son – and kills him – how do you react?

    We have to believe on the evidence of the Bible that Jesus was just who he claimed to be, and that we deserve to die for our “sins” (thanks, Moses!). But Jesus died in our place on that horrible cross, because he loves us (thank you Jesus!). Your brilliant book helps us to do so.

    Tony Reynolds

    May 26, 2012 at 8:48 pm

  9. What a book! Amazing research and the best detective story ever. A chance tuning to Margaret Throsby on ABC radio was yet another miracle of everyday life for which I’m grateful. Thank you. The Mystery of the Last Supper and this have been hours and hours of reading pleasure during our summer and I’m most thankful for something of substance into which to sink my brain and spirit. The paperback seems hard to get currently but one hopes this situation is soon remedied!

    Patricia

    January 23, 2013 at 11:23 pm

  10. Dear Mr. Philpot: With regard to your objection to Dr. Humphreys’ work, I think you’re all wet. I discussed this very matter very recently with the very learned wife of an Orthodox Jewish Chassidic rabbi, and she informed me, of course Dr. Humphreys is correct. Because, God is a Minimalist. Even when God performs miracles, He does so by offending against the laws of nature to the minimal degree possible. He does so because if God were to make His existence overt — say, as overt as President Obama appearing on television — then this would deprive Mankind of its Free Will, since God’s obvious existence would force everybody to follow Him, rather than exercise their genuine Free Will to do so. In his book, Humphreys took great pains to say that the miracles of Exodus WERE REAL — but in the nature of precise timing rather than in the events themselves.

    James A. Nollet

    March 7, 2013 at 11:24 pm


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