The best explanation for miracles, e.g. Splitting of the Sea

This Saturday, Jews around the world will be reading about how our ancestors walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, with water on both sides.  Accordingly, I thought you would enjoy this hypothesis given in 2010 by Carl Drews of the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

You can find many news articles about this study online (e.g. here).

While we have no way to know for sure the event occurred as Mr. Drews suggests, I happen to love this way of thinking when it comes to explaining miracle stories.  We freethinkers look for the most likely explanation, and since “An invisible being came and messed with the laws of physics” is never the most likely explanation, seems that we’re left with either:

a)      The story was completely fabricated, or

b)      A natural event happened, and the authors of the Bible did what everyone did in the first millennium BCE – they attributed the event to the hand of their god.

Which is the more likely explanation for miracle stories?  a) or b)?

No doubt that for some of the miracle stories in ancient sources such as the Bible, explanation a) may be the most likely explanation.  But, in general, all else being equal, I would think that b) should be the default, at least when it’s a story that is presented as an historical event that happened to an entire people.  In some cases, though, the story may have started as a b), but as it was related many times over many generations, some additional embellishing fabrications crept in.

The Aish HaTorah/Ohr Somayach types (those who try to “prove” the Bible is divine) are known for arguing, “There’s no way you could convince an entire nation that –

– their ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai;

– their ancestors survived in the desert for 40 years on manna;

– their ancestors all saw the sea split;

etc etc.

While their basic argument is wrong – plenty of people have been convinced that miracles happened to their ancestors – just ask students of Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach! – I think it is true that the more likely explanation is that something did happen, and the people interpreted that something as an act of God.  For instance, we wouldn’t argue the Miracle of the Sun story never happened at all.

What do you think?  Do you think miracles are usually made up 100%, or are natural phenomena misunderstood, … or Option C!
(h/t Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – one of the things I actually learned from him in that debate with Professor Richard Dawkins for which I criticized Rabbi Sacks in previous posts.)


6 thoughts on “The best explanation for miracles, e.g. Splitting of the Sea

  1. Arthur Greebler

    Hard to believe he describes the parting of the Reed Sea exactly as it appars in the movie The Ten Commandments. Of couse the arguement is that God simply used His great powers to create the splitting of the sea cause it could be done naturally. More importantly did this event every happen to ANYONE because it isn’t recorded in any other ancient document. The Flood was reported by dozens of civilizations so something must have happened? No?

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Hey Arthur, I see your point about the Flood being more likely to have been based on some sort of real event because of how widespread the belief is, whereas the Splitting of the Sea, with only one culture claiming it happened, could have easily been fabricated. I guess I agree, but, like the Miracle of the Sun story, I still think the easier explanation is that something did happen but just nothing divine. But you may be right that it didn’t happen at all; the easier explanation isn’t always the right one, of course.

      I think the consensus among Near Eastern historians, though, as well as among geologists who have looked for evidence of a worldwide flood, is that massive but local floods happened in certain parts of the world and that only those cultures developed Flood myths.

  2. Ignostic Atheist

    I go with C) The natural event happened, it was supercool and therefore attributed to a supernatural being, and was used in a fantastical story. Especially with biblical scholars agreeing that everything from the patriarchs to conquering Canaan was mythology.

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Thanks, Iggy. I think your C is similar, though perhaps not identical, to my B, although I’m not sure I’d call that “mythology,” since it was inspired by a historical event, unless you would include that within the definition of mythology.
      However, if by mythology you mean “completely made up,” my sense is Biblical scholars do not agree that everything from the Patriarchs to conquering Canaan was completely made up. Here’s an example of a leading Bible scholar who believes the Exodus was partly historical:


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