Ancient stories

Among the many instructions, commandments and laws that are presented in the first five books of the bible, is the commandment that was quoted to Jesus as the most important: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The text goes on to instruct believers to “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on you hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:7-8). The next paragraphs of the text are reminders that these commandments are to be observed without disobedience because they have come as a result of the grace of God who brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

The story of the slavery of our people and of their miraculous escape from slavery is one of the key stories of Hebrew theology. The telling of that story is ritualized in the observance of the Seder, the sacred meal of Passover. The commandments to tell that story are deeply imbedded in the teachings of our people. The Gospels report that Jesus shared the passover with his disciples with all of its rituals and stories. The Christian sacrament of Holy Communion contains the story of Jesus celebrating the passover with his followers.

In the story of the Passover, as reported in Exodus, part of the process of the people obtaining their liberation is a series of ten plagues that are visited upon the Egyptians: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of firstborn children.

The ancient stories of the plagues is one of many Biblical stories that have stirred the imaginations of researchers and scholars who are examining the oldest traditions and stories of humanity in search of what actually happened. David Montgomery, professor at the University of Washington and author of “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood,” has tried to bring the tools of modern science to the examination of the stories that ancient people told.

Several contemporary scientists are beginning to look once again at something that religious people have long held - the stories of our ancestors tell the truth. Our most ancient forebears were keen observers who brought their best skills as rational thinkers to their time and place as they tried to explain what they had witnessed. Over the centuries, their stories were repeated with remarkable accuracy and careful study of those stories can reveal deep truths about the world in which we live.

Scientists who examine ancient stories in search of explanations of phenomena they observe in geology, archeology and other sciences have been dubbed geomythologists by their colleagues. The study has inspired several books and theses in recent times. Scholars are fascinated with the question of whether or not and how Bible stories connect with archeological and geological discoveries. Many Biblical stories, including the report of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt, show up in other ancient texts, including some ancient Egyptian medical texts.

One theory of modern scientists is that an ancient volcanic eruption is reported the ancient stories, but that the people did not fully understand what was happening. Volcanic ash, carried by the winds to Egypt contained toxic acids including the mineral cinnabar, which turned the river into a blood-like red color. The ash also raised the acidity of the water causing frogs to abandon the river and seek clean water. The ash also caused the death of animals and humans. Insects swarmed to the decaying bodies, leaving behind larvae and then adult insect. Acid rain fell on the people and caused burns and boils. Plants were contaminated and poisoned the animals that ate them. Increased humidity caused dramatic storms, including hail, leaving behind optimal conditions for locusts to thrive. The volcanic eruptions caused days of darkness as ash clouded the skies.

That doesn’t explain the death of the firstborn - the tenth plague. Some scientists believe that in the midst of all of the destruction of the other plagues, firstborn children were sacrificed out of desperation. Ancient people often sacrificed that which they loved hoping that sacrifice would please the gods and their punishment would be ended.

I’ve also read a theory that blames a red algae bloom for the color of the water, killing fish and forcing the frogs out of the water. Without frogs to eat the insects, the insects proliferated out of control. Like the theory of the volcano, each of the plagues is explained with a connection to a possible event.

I’m no expert in ancient Egyptian medical texts. I’m not a geologist or an archeologist. I only know that there was a reason that our people told the stories and taught each successive generation the importance of teaching it to the next. I don’t think I need a complete scientific explanation of the events. Without meaning to demean the genuine work of scientists, it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not scientists find a historical basis for the scriptures. The truth in the text is not dependent upon geological or archeological evidence of the events of 3,500 years ago. The truth is that our people discovered the presence and deeds of God in the events of their lives. We have inherited the faith and confidence of people who are convinced that God is on the side of human freedom and that we are called to continue that legacy of freedom for all people in all generations. Our stories teach us that God is a liberator of humans.

From time to time, I pay attention when people approach our stories from another perspective. I am genuinely interested in learning more about the reasons our people have been so careful to preserve those stories, but my faith is not dependent upon some scientific discovery or another theory that might explain those stories. My respect for the ancients who told those stories and preserved them for our time is not dependent upon scientific corroboration.

I intend to take seriously the commandment to teach these stories to our children and grandchildren and to examine them for the truth they carry.