Manna from heaven? A plague of toads? A Red Sea parted in twain? Miracle, schmiracle. Let science explain.
Weird things were afoot back in Egypt land 3,000 years ago: once old Moses got it into his head to lead the people of Israel out of captivity and into the Promised Land, bushes began to burn, rocks to speak, rivers to dry up, and such like. You can read all about it in the book of Exodus, which Cambridge University physicist and biblical hobbyist Humphreys has apparently been doing lo these many years with a literalist’s eye—that of a skeptical scientist, however, not a fundamentalist. If the Bible says that the river Nile ran blood red once God got irritated with an intransigent pharaoh, Humphreys is inclined to take that as, beg pardon, gospel: but, he explains, the river did so because it had filled with dinoflagellates, toxic fish-killing protozoa. The dead fish forced frogs to flee the river, yielding the second of the plagues of Exodus; all those dead critters produced gnats, flies, and dead cattle; the flies brought with them infectious diseases that yielded boils; an exceptionally severe hailstorm brought locusts, which deposited feces on wet stores of grain and killed off the firstborn of Egypt, and just about everyone else, too. Et voilà: the plagues suddenly make sense as a connected natural sequence, just as Mount Sinai turns out to have been a Saudi Arabian volcano, the parting of the Red Sea the result of a particularly sharp offshore breeze. Explaining such phenomena, Humphreys takes a schoolmasterish tone (“Concerning the ability of ancient peoples to go on long walks and marches, I would like to make a short digression to comment on the health and fitness of ancient populations because there seems to be a quite widespread belief that three thousand years ago people were riddled with disease and were unfit and unhealthy”) that readers will find either pleasantly meandering or maddeningly roundabout—but just about always to the point.
Biblical history buffs will likely enjoy Humphreys’s exodian excursions—even if his conclusions do tend to steal some of God’s thunder.