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Passover Miracles Meet Scientific Explanations

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Passover Miracles Meet Scientific Explanations

Science

Passover Miracles Meet Scientific Explanations

Passover Miracles Meet Scientific Explanations

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The burning bush? One scholar says it was Moses' drug-induced hallucination. The 10 plagues? You can blame ancient dinoflagellates for everything from the blood red Nile to the death of firstborn sons. Writer Michael Lukas talks with host Rebecca Roberts about possible scientific explanations for some of the natural phenomena at the heart of the Passover story.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

(Soundbite of movie, "The Ten Commandments")

Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor): (As Moses) The Lord of hosts will do battle for us. Behold his mighty hand.

ROBERTS: Charlton Heston as Moses splits the Red Sea once again on primetime TV tonight. And the story of Exodus has been retold by many less remarkable voices at Passover Seder tables around the world this week.

It's a pretty dramatic tale, plagues of frogs, a burning bush.

Writer Michael Lukas has his doubts. He's written for slate.com about trying to find some scientific explanation for the miracles of Exodus, including the parting of the Red Sea.

Mr. MICHAEL LUKAS (Writer, Slate.com): There's a few archaeologists and scientists who think that it was cause by an explosion in the Greek island of Santorini, and then there's also this oceanographer from Florida state, Doron Nof, who says that it might have been caused by something called wind set-down effect, which is essentially a really strong wind that causes the sea to split in it. He says it would maybe expose a underwater ridge that then the Israelites could walk along.

ROBERTS: Let's talk about the burning bush. According to the Old Testament, Moses talks to a burning bush. It's basically God giving Moses his marching orders to take on pharaoh and twist pharaoh's royal arm until he lets Moses' people go. What's the verdict on the burning bush?

Mr. LUKAS: Most people take on this description of the burning bush, which is that the bush burned, and it was not consumed. You have a Norwegian physicist, Dag Kristian Dysthe. He has an article about a similar thing happening in Mali, and a number of people have pointed to that sort of spontaneous combustion as being what might have happened.

ROBERTS: So if that explains the flames, what explains the voice?

Mr. LUKAS: Well, there's one person who I found who took on explaining the voice, and that is a Hebrew University psychologist named Benny Shanon. Essentially for him, the whole Exodus story is just the Israelites tripping on an ayahuasca, like, you know, hallucinogen, and the burning bush is just, you know, Moses tripping on this hallucinogenic drug and hearing the voices of God.

ROBERTS: So we're exposing Moses as a junkie here. We're blowing the lid on the Israelites' drug habit.

Mr. LUKAS: That's pretty much it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Well, I don't know if we can top that dramatic moment, but there is always a dramatic moment at the seder table. It's been Passover this week - where the leader dips his hand into wine and, you know, flicks wine across the table, says all the names of the 10 plagues in Hebrew. And you actually managed to find someone who has a sort of unified scientific explanation for all the plagues.

Mr. LUKAS: It's an epidemiologist named John Marr. He thinks that the plagues were caused by dinoflagellates. It's essentially this big algae bloom that turned the Nile red and ended up killing all the fish, which ended up killing all the frogs, and then that just set off this whole chain of events that ended in the death of the firstborn son, which he thinks is caused by what he calls a mycotoxin, which I think is some sort of fungus in the grain, and because the firstborn sons had, you know, preference when they were eating food, they were the first ones who were exposed to the grain.

ROBERTS: In some ways, the scientific explanations are as incredible as the stories themselves. And so much of a part of the stories are about faith. So, do we really need to hold them up to scientific rigor?

Mr. LUKAS: When I set out to write the article, I wasn't trying to, you know, prove or disprove the biblical account, but the response was really stunning to me in the Slate sort of reader discussion forums.

It was just this avalanche of people, really staunch secularists on the one side and really true believers on the other side, who saw the article as a sort of refutation of religion in general.

But in some ways, I see the scientific explanations as a sort of continuation of what Passover is all about, which is, to me, it's a holiday of contestation and questioning and rewriting. And then you have this quote from Haggadah, which I think is really great, and I brought along with me.

It says, even if all of us were wise, all men - and I would add, or women - of understanding, there is still a mitzvah upon us to tell about the Exodus from Egypt, and whoever elaborates on it is praiseworthy. And I just saw my article as sort of continuing this tradition of elaborating on the story.

ROBERTS: Michael Lukas' article on the science of Passover appeared this week on slate.com. When he's not deconstructing Bible stories, he's finishing up a novel about the end of the Ottoman Empire. He joined me from member station WHA in Madison, Wisconsin.

Thanks so much.

Mr. LUKAS: It's my pleasure.

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