I have always enjoyed reading Robby Berry's material, not only for its wit, but also for the generally solid logic behind much of it. The 'Fivefold Challenge' of his is no exception to this. His argument has a definite plausibility about it, and is based upon the obvious observation that "real"historical events have historical implications. Miracles (or even 'big events') impress themselves upon people, and this impression produces historical responses by those people--in some form or another. Worldwide, visible, extraordinary miracles, he argues, will be noticed by many people, and should generate "dozens of documents concerning them."
The biblical miracles he advances as being of this magnitude are:
I heartily concur with his basic logical assumption that miracles (or any dramatic events) will produce historical effects; but I think his belief that these historical effects will invariably include documentary effects (fitting his criteria) to be historiographically naive (as most of us 'modern' Western types are about ancient, and even different, cultures..the modern specialists in this field have coined the phrase "graphocentrism" for this!) and even contradicted by 'control' cases (i.e., massively impressive events of non-miraculous character).
Let's look a little closer at Robby's position here, to make sure we understand the argument correctly.
As far as I can tell, his position asserts the following propositions:
2. Any alleged biblical events which fall into this category WOULD HAVE generated such documents.
3. The five miracles he advances fall into this category.
4. If we cannot find a SINGLE PIECE of extra-biblical data (meeting the criteria above) in support of the historicity of these spectacular events, then we are justified in concluding that the event did NOT occur. (Notice that Robby has been 'generous' here: the bible believer doesn't have to produce "dozens", but only one such document or reference.)
Now, as far as I can tell (for the first three miracles: Moses, Joshua, Isaiah), ALMOST ALL SEVEN of these conditions (not just ONE) are true--and the arguments fall on ALMOST ALL counts. As we look through the evidence we will see that:
2. The control data I will examine will BY DEFINITION satisfy Robby's request for "one piece" of data, but my point in using them is to show that (1) the wholesale response to such events expected by Robby simply does not occur; and (2) that the ratio of observers-to-traces is way, way too poor--even in relatively high density of literate groups--to support his thesis. [I couldn't very well examine some event which happened, for which there is NO evidence, now could I?! There is an entire category of major, spectacular events for which we have NO literary evidence whatsoever...But I certainly would not like to assert that only earthquakes, comets, eclipses, and volcanoes that we have record of actually occurred...]
3. The challenge assumes a rather monolithic view of the bible, to say the least. Part of the reason I personally accept the reliability of these "odd" events is BECAUSE OF the criteria of the Challenge. For me, the accounts were contemporary (to the point of leaving so much detail out and making it a challenge for us exegetes!), independent (most of their experiences of this stuff were from their own actual experience--not from the "bible" which had not been written, or from some 'developing religious tradition'!), unambiguous, and reliable (e.g, the education and literary skills of Moses, the reliability of the non-miraculous data around the events, etc). I LIKE criteria like this, believe me, but I am very practical when I am dealing with source material from the ANE!
4. And the issue of 'ambiguous' is somewhat problematic in ancient history as well (although it won't affect our argument much here). Consider three cases of biblically-related 'oddities':
b. The Flood of Noah (with ark and survivors) is attested in over 100 cultures all over the world. The details are often different, but the basic elements of the story line are there. Would these constitute unambiguous evidence? (It is certainly pervasive enough to support a 'worldwide' event). Probably not for the skeptic.
c. The miracle of Hezekiah's deliverance from Sennacherib. Second Kings 19.28ff records a miraculous deliverance from Assyria:
Isaiah prophesied that Sennacherib would not take Jerusalem, including this specific element in that prophecy: ""Therefore, thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, 'He shall not come to this city, or shoot an arrow there; neither shall he come before it with a shield, nor throw up a mound against it" (Is 37.33). One cannot help but be amazed at the correspondence of the "arrow/shield" comment, and Herodotus' description that the mice rendered both bow and shields useless.
It is generally understood now that Herodotus was describing the Battle of Eltekeh. Wiseman describes the scenario [HI:WAW:52]:
[BTW, in the next passage in Herodotus (142), in which he is citing some Egyptian records before this time period, is this curious remark: "Thus the whole number of years [of early Egyptian history] is eleven thousand, three hundred and forty; in which no god had ever appeared in a human form...The sun, however, had within this period of time, on four several occasions, moved from his wonted course, twice rising where he now sets, and twice setting where he now rises." (Talk about a 'reversal of the direction of the sun'!...hmmm....)
So, before I look at each of the 5 miracles, let's explore the literacy angle.
First, let's look at this from the historiography angle--how historical documents (especially of the kind Robby wants) are produced.
Let's say Joe is a rural peasant or even an urban merchant in the ANE. And let's imagine that one day Joe sees a man magically turn a dozen monkeys into a dozen men. Since even he would presumably know that monkeys cannot become men, he would undoubtedly be amazed, shocked, and forever-changed. What historical effects could we be sure would be produced?
2. Would Joe invariably express such shock or amazement in front of others, verbally and at the very site and occasion of the miracle? Would he show fear or exclaim 'amazing!' or 'wow!' or 'I have never seen anything like that!'? If Joe is an ordinary rural peasant, he may be likely to do this. If Joe is an urban merchant, he is also probably likely to do so. But if Joe is a rival magician, the answer is much less clear. Joe may be suitably impressed, but in a power struggle (e.g., in front of 'customers') he is more likely to NOT 'admit' the miracle than he is to give ground to a competitor. And if Joe is a member of the ruling elite, he is even less likely to show ANYONE his amazement, thinking that he can later negotiate with the magician to support HIS political agenda and position himself with the crowd as a 'peer' of the magician. The simple nature of ruling authority and power would likely influence this considerably.
3. Would Joe discuss this later with his peers? Probably so, regardless of value-orientation toward the miracle-worker. Magicians might discuss how to counter-act the rival magician, or how to exploit his power for their own ends. Peasants and merchants might discuss it at the dinner table with the family, and maybe later at the gates or campfire. The story conceivably could become part of oral history or folklore.
4. But let's say Joe is the peasant and/or urban merchant and has no vested interest in 'hiding his reactions'. What is the probability that:
(2) has access to durable writing materials [which were often controlled in antiquity by ruling elites, see HI:LPAW];
(3) will decide to expend personal funds on durable (i.e., expensive) writing materials to record this (assuming a market structure allows him to even procure these);
(4) will/can actually take the time from making a living to write something down;
(5) will use Modern/Western world-genres and literary style, as opposed to perhaps iconographic data or poetic forms, intrinsically ambiguous but universally preferred in antiquity for such 'dramatic' events;
(6) then either seals this in a jar and buries it very, very deeply in suitable, protective rock or makes between 1000 and 100,000 copies to insure that ONE copy of it survives into our era.
And then what is the likelihood:
(2) that Joe's local culture assigns greater value to written, as opposed to oral, recording of events like this (contradicting all the data we have about ancient civilizations including Greece and Rome);
(3) that the ruling religious/power elite would be non-threatened enough to let Joe go through with this;
(4) that the culture also provides people who can read what Joe writes (as well as situations in which reading will occur).
If Joe is a rural peasant, he may be incredibly impressed, but we aren't gonna know about it--he would probably fail on all of the above counts.
If Joe is an urban merchant, however, the issue is slightly different. In this case, Joe probably knows how to write/draw enough for basic economic transactions (often pictographic), such as bookkeeping entries, but this would generally be inadequate for narrative descriptions of Berry-quality [for examples and discussions of such bookkeeping methods, see ABWT]. Likewise, Joe would have access to writing materials of sorts, generally clay materials and later on, wax writing tablets, neither of which is known for its survivability through time. But this can be overstated, as exemplified by the Greek papyri of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt: of the 1,500 of these that have been printed, a large number of these mention explicitly that one or more of the principals were illiterate [Youtie, cited by Harris in AL:10].
So, from a process perspective, the cases of the rural peasant and urban merchant would argue against Robby's position of 'invariable production of documents'.
Now let's consider two cases in which some of these conditions are met: the miracle-class (e.g., magicians, religious figures, and scribes in the employ of these) and the ruling-class (e.g., kings, wealthy, military leadership, literary elite, and scribes in the employ of these).
The magician/miracle class probably has access to adequate writing materials, probably has a repository that will increase the likelihood of preservation, has a scribal trade group associated with it for literary activity, and has a sub-culture that would preserve such 'portentous' events. In Babylonia, for example, priest-groups often keep detailed records of auguries, so they could train their students in how to read animal entrails.
In the case of the miracle-class, we logically have three sub-groups: rivals, members of the same "party", and neutrals. In point of fact, there essentially were no 'neutrals' in these situations--EVERYBODY took sides, even the 'detached' philosophers of Greece.
What, practically speaking, is the likelihood that a rival organization will publish the successes--however spectacular--of its competitor? Slim to none. And, if a member of the 'rival' group is converted by seeing the miracle, our likelihood goes WAY UP, but the resulting document now looks like it was written by a member of the same 'party' (cf. Paul's testimony of the appearance of Christ to him on the Damascus road).
And, even in the case of a success being published by a member of 'the party', we are still stuck with the preservation of the materials problem, the cultural support for general recording values, and the problem of dramatic genres (i.e., ambiguous) being preferred over "tech docs" for "dramatic" events. And, what's worse, since this event will likely show up in their 'religious literature', it won't count as 'independent' for Robby! They cannot be heard at all!
The final class to consider is the ruling-class: rulers, economic powers, and literary elite. They clearly have access to suitable materials and repositories. Some of them have leisure time/resources to actually 'write this up'. Unfortunately, they have the same 'political' problems as the magician-class: they are either rivals or members of the same party. And, since they often drafted the priest-groups into their service anyway, the two generally approximate each other.
Ruling elites also seem to have an 'arrogance' problem. They are known to "edit down" accounts of their rival predecessors (e.g., they 'scratch out' their accomplishments on memorials), 'edit up' accounts of their genetic predecessors (e.g., make their ancestors into deities), and omit material that is not flattering to them (e.g., boast about winning a battle when they had lost the war).
For example, Ramases II (likely pharaoh of the Exodus) was one of the kings who vigorously pursued this [OT:PTLTR:224]:
Second, we might ask about educational institutions in these cultures. All ANE cultures had scribal schools, either under the oversight of the temple or of the palace (or sometimes both, of course). But, again, this was not 'detached learning' as we might fancy ourselves to have today. These educational institutions were subject to the political pressures noted above, and almost never manifested an undercurrent of 'dissonance'.
Third, the closest we get to a 'neutral' group is the legal trade. In any developed culture, legal literature is almost invariably the first literature to be produced, since contracts, deeds, ownership records, and transaction accounts are intrinsic in any society. But attorneys and solicitors have not historically recorded dramatic events--unless they were paid by someone to do so, in which case they function as scribes recording the 'will and perspective' of the employer.
Fourth, as we look at some of the allegedly astronomical miracles below, we will consider to what extent any of the above groups 'practiced' astronomy to the detail required (to notice a 'long day' for example).
[When we get to Greece and Rome, however, we do begin to see development of a literary elite and Western-like historical writing (e.g., Thucy), but their subject matters were generally influenced by cultural values (e.g., the best type of ruler, the history of Rome).]
Fifth, the military groups had a surprisingly high degree of literacy, but it was predictably centered around military issues: logistics, captive counts, communiqués, troop movements. Elaborate information systems existed in all large-scale armies (e.g., Assyria [HI:WAW:36-53], Rome [HI:LAPW:109ff; AL:217f, 293f]).
What this amounts to is the problem of ancient literacy. For Robby's argument to work, there must be a large number of actual observers of special phenomena that also have adequate documentary writing skills. His argument loses its force if EVERYONE can see the miracle, but NO ONE can write a record of it (to Robby's criteria)! Thus, to the extent that literacy is limited, to that same extent his argument is weakened. (And, once we clear the general literacy hurdles, we have the preservation problem, of course.)
So, what are the general literary estimates for the cultures of the periods of these miracles?
Well, we can neatly divide the 5 miracles into pre-Classical and Classical times (even though "Classical" is seen as a mythical term nowadays). The first three miracles of Moses, Joshua, Isaiah will fall in the 1400-700 bc range and therefore be considered 'pre-Classical' (pre-Greek and pre-Roman, so to speak). The second two--miracles associated with the time of Jesus--would fall into "Classical" times (i.e., Greeco-Roman).
So, what is going on in the world--in terms of literacy--around the times of the 1st two miracles (1400-1200bc)?
Let's consider first the Old World cultures.
Our oldest written documents come from Mesopotamia, long before the period in question, but literacy (of the type Robby needs) is extremely low. Akkadian was the writing form from earliest history there, and access to these skills was limited. So, BTM:5,6:
Although we have found several libraries from ancient Mesopotamia, scholars still believe that "Literacy was not widespread in Mesopotamia" [HI:RTP:43]. The vast majority of literature we have recovered falls into two categories: (1) omens, collections of observations made over hundreds of years of stars, the appearance of the liver of sacrificial animals, movements of birds, lexical lists, incantations, prayers, epic literature; and (2) economic texts. Walker pointed out the predominance of the latter [HI:RPT:49]:
The "next" most literate culture at this time was Egypt, but the literacy rate is again abysmal. Davies describes this reality [HI:RTP:99]:
In southern Asia, this period coincides with the emergence of the Vedic traditions (e.g., the Rigveda, hymns), although they were not actually written down until much later [HI:AC, 120ff; OWC:70-71]. The only candidate for a reasonably literate society was Harappan culture (2400-2000bc), which had passed from history several centuries earlier. At the 1400-1200 mark, we are just beginning to see the birth of organizational structures similar to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Not much writing there--much less mass literacy.
Southeast Asia experiences the Iron Age a millenium later than the ANE [OWC:80-88], and literacy only begins to surface around the time of Christ. The major impetus to literacy actually comes around 500ad, with the influence of Buddhism.
We literally have almost no literary remains from these latter two areas--much less any indication of even pockets of significant literacy [ACAEC:15,20].
The development of writing in China is only beginning at this period. The Shang period (1600-1100 bc) is generally considered the period in which writing was developed in China, with our first inscriptional evidence on oracle bones deriving from 1300bc and later [OWC:103f; HI:AC:151-154,341]. Our first astronomically-oriented artifact is an oracle bone in 1281 BC that mentions stars by name, and a later oracle bone that seems to refer to the solar eclipse of 1281bc [NHAAC:133]. Although the earliest known sighting of a comet is from China in c.2296 BC (they were also the first to note Haley's comet in 240bc), they do not begin recording astronomical data until around 720BC [TOS:12,18]. Some of the popular notions of ancient Chinese astronomy have been discarded for decades by scholars, as this quote from North indicates [NHAAC:134]:
Let's take a brief look at New World civilizations.
New World civilizations cannot play here, simply because their writing systems are just too recent. The oldest Mesoamerican writing systems are the Zapotec (600 bc), the Maya (200-1500 ad), and the Mixtecs and Aztecs (1000-1521 ad). The Inkas never developed a symbolic language medium [NWC:101ff].
To sum up this overview of historical literacy, let me quote from Harris' important work on Roman and Greek literacy--by all accounts more literate societies than the ANE [AL:7-8, 13]:
"To the scholar who approaches Greek and Roman literacy from some other period of history or from the social sciences, it may seem obvious that nothing in the nature of mass literacy can ever have existed in the ancient world."
"There was without doubt a vast diffusion of reading and writing ability in the Greek and Romans worlds, and the preconditions and the positive causes of this development can be traced. But there was no mass literacy, and even the level which I have called craftsman's literacy was achieved only in certain limited milieux. The classical world, even at its most advanced, was so lacking the characteristics which produce extensive literacy that we must suppose that the majority of people were always illiterate."
The main problem with Robby's position should be clear by now: the probability of anyone producing the kind of documentation he is looking for (for ANY kind of event) is extremely small, even before we get to the issue of the preservation of that material (from both environmental and "political" dangers). And the probability that such documentation will appear in large quantities ("dozens") is accordingly much, much lower. The ancient world simply did not work the way the way the modern/western world does. When you put these three problems together--individual production, scale of production, and historical preservation--the odds become infinitesmally small.
There is one other factor that I should mention here. Even though people might be illiterate themselves, they DID have recourse to scribes to write things down FOR THEM. We have a couple of documents in which an obviously illiterate person hired a scribe to write something down for them. This is exceptionally rare, and obviously depended on the disposable income of the individual. The cases we do have, deal with grievances of administration and not personal matters. Historically, this does not seem to be a significant occurrence.
We must be careful of avoiding extremes here, though, as in pointed out in HI:LAPW:10: "we should beware of veering erratically between the view of a literate elite narrowly defined by the limited spread of writing skills and any unrealistic notion of a brad, popular literacy in the ancient world."
Strictly speaking, we could probably stop the argument right here, since the numbers are so scaled down that the likelihood of an observer even being ABLE to write something down has shrunk by two to four orders of magnitude (based on a comparison of modern literacy to that of the ancient world). But let's continue...
Secondly, let's try to find a piece of "control" data--an event which was earth-shaking (maybe not miraculous, but perhaps viewed as such) and which was viewed by very large populations of higher-than average literacy rates.
Here we are specifically focusing on the FOUNDATION of Robby's argument--NOT the softer 'challenge' piece. We want to see if, in fact, spectacular events DID cause the production of "dozens of documents concerning them". If we end up not having any confidence in this foundational principle, then the Challenge becomes interesting, but not in any sense compelling. (Presumably, since we KNOW of these control events, then they have at least ONE piece of documentary data and would accordingly satisfy his Challenge criteria, had they been named in the bible. But we are 'forced' to consider these kinds of cases, since we obviously cannot discuss events for which we have no record whatsoever! Our point is NOT to show that these events do not meet Challenge, but that they undermine the foundation upon which the challenge is primarily based. Remember, if the foundation principle does not hold and therefore current evidence is NOT 'inexorably expected', then the fact that I cannot produce extra-biblical evidence for some miracle is perhaps disappointing, but not in the least damaging to the biblical case. The argument from silence that Robby believes is valid--due to the invariability of the production of documentary evidence--would remain as powerless and impotent as it normally is.)
Where are we going to find such events? I would think we could put certain astronomical data and major geo-environmental catastrophes in this category. This might include eclipses, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, comets, and other such phenomena, which was often seen as divinely produced. For example, natural disasters were often seen as the displeasure of the gods. (Astronomical events, on the other hand, were often understood as movements of the deities themselves.)
Before I get to two literally 'earthshaking' events, let's illustrate the principles in Robby's "Foundation Principle" (that spectacular events invariably produce large numbers of documents) by reference to a known worldwide event--the comet of 44bc. This comet was visible for 3-6 days worldwide, and was of a bright reddish color (Donald K. Yeomans, Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth, and Folklore, Wiley Science:1991, pp. 13,367).. According to Robby,
So, what evidences of this comet are there?
What's missing from this collection of evidence?
What is missing is the magnitude and genre-type of the response. The 'large numbers' argument simply didn't work here; the historical notation of this worldwide is miniscule compared to what should be expected under Robby's argument, especially for the culture in the city of Rome at the time. This does not bode well for Robby's thesis...(pardon the omen metaphor, but the research on this stuff is coming out my ears!)
But notice that I have made the same mistake/assumption that invalidates much of Robby's argument: that because we do not have CURRENT evidence of PAST documents, that the event did not GENERATE a large amount of documents. This comet may have generated tens of thousands of records, and the fact that we have less than ten today is totally irrelevant. The problem of the preservation of ancient materials is shared by all alike. That no documentary evidence exists today has literally NO IMPLICATIONS for the existence of such documentary evidence in the past. If we DO have current evidence, then the implication is clear--there was at least ONE past document. But if we have NO current documents, we have no conclusion that has any force whatsoever. We can use sociological and economic models to examine probabilities of literate response (as I did above), but these are strictly models that we use because of lack of evidence. Granted, this is the best we can do, but it must be noted here that it takes a lot of the force out of Robby's overall argument, and of much of my argument here in the 'control data' section.
Now, let me select two highly noticeable events that occurred in the early times of Greece and Rome--one an earthquake and one a volcanic eruption. Although these are much later that the events of Moses, Joshua, and Isaiah, and involve civilizations that are generally considered substantially more 'literate' than the nations of the OT world, they will at least provide a 'greater than which' it might be unreasonable to exceed.
The first event, was an earthquate. The earthquake occurred in 464 bc, and was pivotal in the breakup on the Delian League in Greece. This league was composed of some 200 city-states, united again the Persian invasion threat of Darius. The League was not as unified as the Athenians would have hoped, and a major earthquake was instrumental in inciting the Messenians to revolt against Sparta, and in stopping the "Lakedaimonians" from intervening in assistance for the Tracians. This earthquake--adequate to throw governments into disarray to the point of being vulnerable to revolt and adequate to prevent large-scale military intervention/response--would have been experienced by between 20,000 and 100,000 people. This would have encompassed numerous city-states and a wide variety of people.
So, how many observers wrote down anything (that is preserved and meets Robby's critera) about this event? None. How do we even know about this event? From a single mention in Thucydides (c.460-400 b.c.). He was born four years after the event, and probably interviewed people in the area for the information that later showed up in his History of the Peloponnesian War. In I.100 he simply makes a general comment about the military intervention, that it was "prevented by the occurrence of an earthquake"--nothing more, nothing less.
A second event, one that is much more well-known to moderns, is the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 a.d. This volcano (still active) sits off the Bay of Naples in Italy. Prior to its eruption in 79, the surrounding area was populated by upper-class Romans. These were the wealthy, literate, and decadent. When the volcano erupted, it buried the famous towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, most of the expensive villas on the side of the volcano, and destroyed the lesser known towns of Stabiae, Oplontis, Taurania, Tora, Sora, Cossa, and Leucopetra. Estimates of fatalities vary from 16,000 to 60,000. [Pompeii alone had an amphitheater that seated 20,000 folks.] No one from Pompeii survived, but a considerable number from Herculaneum had abandoned the city long before it was buried in the 65 feet high mud-flood. All in all, some 100,000 to 250,000 people would have been able to see, hear, and experience the smoke, explosions, flooding, and general chaos of the event.
Nearby Naples, about 20 miles away, was shaken considerably, but suffered no major damage. It had a population of at least 20-40k at the time. Naples today has a population of 1.2 million people, but back then it was no doubt considerably smaller. It is still rocked by volcanic activity from Vesuvius in modern times. Naples had long been a very literary area, during both Greek and Roman history. (The tomb of Virgil is there supposedly.)
There are few areas in antiquity that would have been more likely to leave multiple records of this eruption. Indeed, under Robby's assumption, there should have been many accounts by contemporaries.
So how many do we have? One. We have some correspondence from Pliny the Younger to Tacitus some 30-40 years later, describing the events as an eyewitness (Letters, VI.16). Naples was at that time the home of Pliny the Elder (PE) who had assumed the education of his nephew Pliny the Younger (PY). PY was 18 at the time, and was working on a school assignment for PE when the volcano went off. PE went to attempt rescue of some friends and perished in the process, but PY and the wife of PE fled and survived. PY did NOT write a record of the event at the time, and only recounts the incredible event 30 years later to his friend Tacitus for his upcoming Histories. He doesn't even refer to a previous written entry of his in the letter, but gives all indications that it is from memory. Had Pliny not been prompted by the possibility of publication in Tacitus, we would probably not have this information at all. In other words, the writing down of this information had nothing to do with being impressed by the event itself! There are many subsequent references to this event in government relief and clean-up operations, of course, but these are all third-hand documents written in Rome by non-observers. We are indeed fortunate that PY had just moved there, and that unrelated factors (i.e., Tacitus' plans for publication) surfaced, or there would have been NO literary accounts of this event at all.
These two well-witnessed, impressive, and important events in the history of two generally "literate" cultures, in two generally "literate" community areas of high population content--and much later than the period of our first three miracles (1400-700bc), have left barely a trace in the literary record.
My point should be clear by now: the foundational principle set up by Robby as the basis for the Challenge is simply ahistorical/unreasonable, given ancient cultures, and in light of the realities of our paucity of preserved materials, impractical as well. Furthermore, they SEEM to be contradicted by known historical experiences.
In fact, we might even go a step further and argue that true historical study works with the tiniest of traces of historical 'audit trails'. The example of the earthquake above, for example, makes good historical sense. Even though the literary evidence is meager and even questionable (and certainly incapable of verification), the picture it paints is historically plausible. It would make for a cohesive story that there was a debilitating earthquake. The revolt had not happened thus far, and something would have been needed to trigger the hopes. Likewise, the military aid/intervention had ALREADY been promised; that it did NOT occur would call for some kind of extraordinary event, like an earthquake.
The implications of the above discussion are thus:
With this in mind, let's dive into the miracles.
Miracle One: The parting of the sea by Moses (Ex 14.21-31):
First of all, let's try to get a fix on the location of this event.
Standard discussions of this issue normally focus on an alleged dichotomy between the Red Sea and the "Sea of Reeds". The Hebrew phrase in the passage above does not indicate this, but other passages call this body of water yam suph or "sea of reeds". The LXX understood this to refer to the Red Sea, and translated it so. Recent archeological studies have made a case that the Red Sea/Gulf of Suez extended much farther north at times in Egypt's history, and that the two phrases 'sea of reeds' and 'Red Sea' are therefore describing a part of the Red Sea that would have extended north-westward to the Bitter Lakes region. The likely character of this section is described by Hoffmeier after discussing in detail the recent research [OT:IIE:209]:
The biblical description of this event has the following participants (and therefore, potential observers):
[Some readers will notice the extreme arbitrariness of any criterion that asserts that no record of a beneficial event can be trusted. It is altogether unreasonable to eliminate from consideration any account of an event that is recorded because someone was happy, excited, moved, entertained by that event. This removes, of course, the vast majority of the world's historical writing, since most people enjoy the subject matter of which they write, or at least the very act of writing. Robby's position is not quite this extreme, since he would probably except extra-biblical documents from other Asiatics that perhaps escaped in the exodus confusion. But to avoid slipping into this position, what Robby really needs to do here is to come up with some additional criteria to help weed out embellishment or propaganda, from true celebration or fond reminiscence. In the case of this event, there are considerable factors that indicate historical 'genuineness': technical Egyptian terms, useless geographical detail, unexpected theme and elements, persistence of detail over time, the restriction of poetic/dramatic expressions to the poetry version in chapter 15, negative remarks about the Israelites (14.11). Robby just needs to adopt some of the tools of the biblical critic for this refinement.]
It is difficult to tell if anyone remained behind. Pharaoh had sent a squadron of 600 of his best chariots, and these are apparently the ones who perished in the sea. But presumably, there would have been officers and messenger personnel remaining on the shore to observe the battle and relay messages back to the court. But, at the same time, this contingent would have been relatively insignificant, numerically, but historically important. This group presumably reported back to Pharaoh the outcome, so that he was impressed with Israel's God, and somehow this account traveled to the land of Canaan, for the story is known by the Canaanites (Joshua 5.1) and by the inhabitants of Jericho ( Joshua 2.9-11). Even the Philistines were aware of the victory over Egypt although they focused on the plagues instead of the sea event (1 Sam 4.6ff). Communications among the nations were fairly good at that time, so this is not surprising. These statements by inhabitants of Jericho, Canaan, and the Philistine cities, about the Exodus events, would actually be extra-Israelite information (even though recorded by the Israelites), but since they do not show up in the extremely few literary remains we have of those places, I am sure they won't pass Robby's criteria.
The messages from the surviving troops on the shore back to Pharaoh might have involved a written component [most military leaders of the day were required to attend scribal school OT:PTLTR:140ff], but writing by military leaders is very scarce in Egypt. So Kitchen [OT:PTLTR:140]:
"He drinks water (only) every three days, foul and brackish; his body is racked (by) dysentery. The enemy are come, they hem him in with (flights of) arrows--(hope of) life seems far from him! . . . He succeeds in getting back to Egypt, but he's like a worm-eaten stick, ill, seized with prostration, brought in on a donkey-back. His clothes are taken by theft, and his attendant has fled. Scribe, give up the idea that the soldier is better-off than the scribe!'
But we have to ask the fundamental question: what is the likelihood that the surviving military personnel would write up an independent account of this miracle (documenting the defeat of Pharaoh!) and that it would be preserved? And again, we run across the obvious political realities of 'very slim'. The Pharaohs were not known for their willingness to record their defeats(!), especially Ramses II. Ramses II is actually known to be quite selective in the details reported. Take for example the monument at Abu Simbel. This incredible piece of work commemorated Ramesses' heroics and victory at the battle of Qadesh. The monument is a considerably greater achievement than Ramesses' "victory" over the Hittites! The facts of the matter were that Ramesses' had stubbornly attacked the massive Hittite force, trying to recapture Qadesh and Amurru, but was grossly defeated by the Hittites. At the last minute, an act of bravery by Ramesses' turned the massive loss into a precarious stalemate, but not only did he NOT succeed in retaking Qadesh and Amurru, but the Hittite annexed Upi as well! The diplomatic overture by the Hittite leader was portrayed in the monument as a 'plea for peace'! This is "selectivity" at its best! [For the details of the battle, see OT:PTLTR:55-67; Atlas of Ancient Egypt:202].
Now, there is one possible exception here that we should at least consider. Although Pharaohs' did NOT record their 'bad sides', and although subsequent Pharaohs tended to erase all mentions of their predecessors (as did most rulers, in what is called damnatio memoriae, cf. HI:LPAW:8), we do have one case where a subsequent Pharaoh made a monument attacking the character and worth of his predecessor. The Atlas of Ancient Egypt:51 describes the reigns of Pharaoh Apries (589-570 bc) and Pharaoh Amasis II (570-526bc):
So, conceivably, the successor to Ramesses II could have been interested in doing this, and the Red Sea fiasco would be a great candidate for that.
But as it turns out, the successor to Ramesses II (1) did NOT record even the NORMAL failures of R2 ,such as the truth about the battle of Qadesh; (2) was NOT a usurper at all; (3) was definitely a supporter (and his son!) of R II, and (4) the events would have faded from memory of the general public, since they would have happened at least 35-45 years earlier. So, at least in this case, we have no reason to assume that the exception would apply here.
Accordingly, the general practice of rulers of the period, and of Pharaohs in particular, to avoid recording (and to suppress recording by those under their authority--the scribes and the military) embarrassing moments/events, certainly would explain why we don't think a record of the event was written down by the observers on the west side of the Red Sea. Indeed, Kitchen puts it succinctly [OT:PTLTR:71]:
The account of the miracle seems to indicate that the 'ditch' in the sea through which the Israelites passed would have been confined to a narrow strip of east-west turf. [Of course, we have no indication of how wide or how narrow this original connecting body of water was; it had only to be large enough to drown 600 chariots, small enough for the nation to cross within half a night, and long enough to bridge the gap between the Bitter Lake and the current Gulf of Suez.] The fact that the Israelites are said to have seen a 'wall of water' on their right and on their left seems to suggest that people perhaps even a half a mile down the coast may not have noticed anything strange. Frankly, it is a bit unclear as to how to understand the visual aspects of this event. How an "east wind" would have divided a uniform body of water by blowing all night is not obvious to me, and the event looks a little like a summary statement anyway (e.g., the order of the statements). To create a "walled" effect, the wind would have had to be a relatively narrow airstream, which would have pushed the water toward the western shore. Presumably (although we cannot be sure of this), the water at the western shore would have then flowed back toward the east, on the northern and southern sides of the airstream. If the wind were strong enough, this could have generated the visual effect (as in the movie!) of walls of water. This would have required, however, two airstreams of wind as the Israelites traversed the ditch or trough in the water, since a wind strong enough to move that much water would have made travel in the dry area virtually impossible for either Israel or the Egyptian chariots. If the wind separated into two airstreams, with an 'eye' in the middle, this would have created one possible understanding of this phenomenon.
The physical dimensions of this are likewise obscure. Our oceanographic data suggests that the water section connecting the Bitter Lake and the Red Sea was much narrower than even the tip of the Gulf. How wide the sea was at this point, how wide the ditch or pathway was during this event, and how deep this trough was are exceedingly difficult to estimate. The only clues we have on this are that the trough must have been large enough to hold 600 chariots, and deep enough to drown in. The wind had started to blow at sunset, and the Israelites must have gotten to the other side by no later than 3 am. Somewhere around this time, the Egyptian chariots and associated calvary, had entered the trough. During the morning watch (3am to sunrise), God began to undo the miracle. The dry earth in the trough began to moisten (from the beginning seepage of the water?), and at sunrise the airstreams (or whatever forces were holding the 'walls' up) were gone, and the walls of water collapsed into a dual-tidal wave of sufficient rapidity to preclude escape by the encumbered chariots.
This scenario would have required around two million people traveling with flocks (but minimal belongings), to cross through the trough within between 3 and 6 hours. How big a trough would this have required?
Let's try one scenario, with the following assumptions for this parade and see where this leads us.
Let's look at 600 chariots in a trough width of half a mile, under the following assumptions:
Under this imaginary reconstruction, the travelling time of the Israelites (3-6 hours) is way more than enough. In fact, the area of the trough can be considerably smaller than this and still accomplish all the requirements of the text. For example, we can change the following assumptions:
The net of this is that we are still only talking about a very 'localized' miracle. The surface area we are talking about here is simply not that geographically large, and I have been more than generous in allotting space for the crowds (e.g., families traveling together would have had a much higher density than I allotted).
But wouldn't the return of the water have caused major NOTICABLE shoreline effects elsewhere? Probably not. If the height of the water wall was only in the 10-15 foot range, the return of these walls would have been too quick and not violent enough to make much 'splash'. And the presumed rise in water levels associated with this would NOT have been in the 10-15 range, but would rather have been incremental over normal water depth. In other words, the displacement of a volume of water .25 mile by 1 mile by 15 feet, spread out over an area of 1.25 square miles (roughly a square 6,000 ft on each side), would raise existing water levels by only 3 feet. And, a water level increase of only one foot would only require a surface area of only 3.75 square miles. [By comparison, the Dead Sea is 230+ square miles and the Sea of Galilee is 130 square miles.]
The only major after-effects seem to have been the dead Egyptian soldiers on the shore (Ex 14.20).
So, so far, the only people likely to record anything would be the Israelites. And, remember, it is a VERY rare event in ancient history that is recorded at all by contemporaries.
But strangely enough, we actually MAY have an echo of a remembrance of this event. What we have not considered so far is the possibility of observers on the eastern shore of this event. From their visual perspective, they would have seen the east wind blowing away from them, literally parting the sea without any clue as to what was going on. They would have seen this trough in the middle of the parted sea, from the east bank, open for perhaps an hour or two before the first Israelites in the parade would have emerged. As the parade continued, the sea would have stayed open, and then they would have been observers of the return of the sea, and then the washing up onto shore of the dead bodies of the Egyptians. They had seen people before (obviously!), but the parting of the sea might have generated some attention. Without the polemical and political dimensions present in the Israelite/Egyptian relationships, they may have come close to being 'neutral' observers.
The reason I mention this, is that Diodorus Siculus (The Library of History, III.40.9ff) has this strange passage in his description of the people living in this area (written 60-30 bc):
[Technically speaking, there is one antecedent piece of literature that could be considered as a source for this story. There is this strange story about an Egyptian priest parting the waters of a lake. Currid describes the story [OT:AEOT:84]:
One final note worth pondering-the possibility of polemical response by Pharaoh and company. We have already noted that Pharaoh was not very likely to record his 'bad press'. But is it possible that his court officials might have recorded the incident differently, in such a way as to explain to the public the exodus as a good thing or positive action by Pharaoh? That maybe the priests 'spin doctored' the events into something 'good'?
Strangely enough, we MIGHT have evidence that this indeed occurred. But again, this is difficult to nail down, due to the problems associated with transmission of ancient records.
The first Egyptian to write an Egyptian history is Manetho (c.300 bc). He claimed to have used actual records of priests, as well as Egyptian folk-tales and legends, in constructing the history of Egypt. His writing is only preserved in fragments scattered throughout the writings of others, and it is very difficult to tell what is genuine, hybrid, or bogus. [This actually has been called THE most difficult problem in Classics by scholars (BAM:116)] Most of the alleged fragments of Mantheo are disputed, of course, and the ones cited in Josephus are no exception [see BAM for discussion]. Indeed, some of them seem very doubtful as to authenticity. But Josephus has a couple of passages in which he violently defends the Jews against Mantheo's history. The interesting one in this connection has to do with assertions about the 'official' view of the exodus [in Contra Apion, Book I.26]:
Now, we don't know if these fragments are genuine, nor even if Josephus has understood them correctly, or even if the references to the Jews in these passages refer to the Jews and not to the Hyksos. As such it can remain nothing more than an interesting and intriguing hypothesis. But if they are genuine and applicable, they would be some additional tangential 'evidence' of something discontinuous in the history.
[Now, we must also entertain the historical possibility that it was the Hebrews that 'spun' the story instead of the Egyptians. After all, it is at least theoretically possible that they WERE diseased and expelled, and that it was THEY who spun the tale into some glorious victory of the Jews over the gods, pharaoh, and armies of Egypt. That this is altogether unlikely comes solidly from the biological arena-we don't have the slightest reason to believe that a nation of such seriously diseased individuals would have had even a remote chance of survival in the harsh ancient world, much less produce a nation with purity laws as stringent about disease as Israel!]
Overall, then, I find no real reason to accept Robby's assumption that this event would have been recorded by anyone other than the Jews. And, indeed, there actually MAY be a scrap or two of extra-biblical historical data that remembers this event.
Miracle Two: The stopping of the sun by Joshua (Joshua 10.7-15)
First, the mixture of poetic and narrative elements. We know that poetic/dramatic restatements of historical events tends to be hyperbolic. This is easily documented, even from the bible. David's proclamation of God's deliverance in Ps 18.7-17 is jubilant:
So too the Song of Deborah describes the victory over Sisera with the same rhetorical flair saying that "They fought from heaven, the stars in their courses fought against Sisera" (Judges 5.20). We would certainly be way off base to try to take these poetic images and make them into meteorological or astronomical events!
In our passage here, we have the possibility of this hyperbolic dimension as well, since the writer explicitly makes that point that some of this is from the poetic book of Jashar ("The Upright"). It requires extreme care therefore, in determining the scope of the linguistic terms in the passage. At first blush, this would argue that the more extreme astronomical/meteorological statements are metaphorical.
Second, the mixture of summary statements and detailed event descriptions. It is obvious from the time elements in the passage that there is standard telescoping of story-line here. Verses 9-10 look like anticipatory summaries [NICOT] of the battle in 12ff. Verse 11 looks like a flashback to sometime within the battle. Verses 12-14 seem to flash back to an early scene in the battle. Verse 15 seems to be AFTER the battle. And verses 16-27 are another flashback, focusing on detail regarding the kings within the battle as well.
This allows for the possibility that some of the statements are restatements referring to the earlier description of the hailstorm in verse 11.
Third, the ambiguity in the word choices makes a conclusion difficult. Let's note first the main verb-words:
Damam, is often translated as 'be silent'. So Louw-Nida gives this entry:
Thus, the linguistic elements of the verbs would favor either (1) the eclipse theory or (2) the hailstorm theory.
4. And finally, we need to note what kind of 'military aid' the Israelites really needed at that battle. Joshua's troops had marched all night without stopping. The distance covered was around twenty miles uphill, taking some 8-10 hours. They engaged the enemy when they arrived, without resting. The last thing they needed was a long day in the hot, midday Palestinian sun! Madvig is probably close to home in EBC:
In Louw-Nida, in the semantic domain of 'attitudes and emotions', they list this meaning of 'uts:
The Psalmist poetically portrayed the sun's normal vigorous circuit in Ps 19.5-7:
Thus, the poetic imagery is very easily understood under the hailstorm scenario, and this understanding even makes the best sense of the 'about' clause and its importance for the late-day military clean-up operation (noted above).
Now, I personally do not have the slightest problem with God stopping anything in the universe at all-I consider natural 'law' to be absolutely arbitrary [For example, gravitational attraction does not 'have to' exist at all-it is not 'logically necessary' in nature.] So, for me, the issue is one of exegesis-what does the text say happened?
So, on the basis of my exegesis of the passage-that the sun was 'silent' for almost an entire day while the hailstorm wrecked havoc on the enemy-we still have a relatively local miracle. The area in which the hailstorm and darkness would have been observed would have been confined, and even other native people experiencing this would have not been shocked by the occurrence at all. Under this scenario, Robby probably would not have included this in his list as a major scale event, since the combination of locale-restriction and the natural appearance of the phenomena (i.e., hail and dark skies) would have rendered this miracle unobserved and/or unnoticed elsewhere.
And again, we have the scenario that those most likely to see the miraculous element in the event-Israel and her enemies-would be either (1) beneficiaries of the event, (2) dead, or (3) unlikely to record the failure of their god or rulers to protect them against YHWH.
But we need to cover the other bases here. What if my understanding is incorrect? What if the miracle were one of prolonged daylight, rather than of extensive darkness? How would we evaluate this scenario?
Well, the first thing to do is to discard assumptions as to the precise 'physics' of the miracle. In other words, for the 'sun to stand still in the sky' would have to be understood as phenomena first and astronomy last. In other words, this miracle could have happened in the following ways:
The first two of these face the difficulty that whereas God often causes psychological confusion/distortion for the wicked (e.g., I Sam 14.19), we do not have any indication that He has done this to His people. The third option makes good sense, but we don't have any indications that Israel would have understood this as a miracle per se [although this understanding is favored by Gordon in OT:BANE]. The fourth one has an advantage of being a standard "manner of operation" of God; He routinely uses light and optical effects (cf. the cloud in Exodus 14.19-20). The fifth one requires a 'wasteful' miracle-one which is altogether overkill for the situation. God seems generally to match the 'scale' of a miracle with the 'importance' of the event, and when He does choose to over-do it, it is in the area of less human involvement. So, for example, the deliverance by Gideon was a normal battle outcome, but God restricted the involvement of the Israelites to prevent their misunderstanding/misappropriating the results (Judges 7.1-9)! It is certainly not that any miracle is any 'harder' for God to do than any others, but rather that He normally avoids large-scale disruption of His created order. He LIKES to preserve the predictability of the natural world (cf. Jer 33.20: "Thus says the Lord, 'If you can break My covenant for the day, and My covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, 21 then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne" ).
And we must note that God is more likely to avoid disrupting the motions of the heavenly bodies, because He literally set them up to be guides to the passage of time:
He made the moon for the seasons; The sun knows the place of its setting.20 Thou dost appoint darkness and it becomes night, (Ps 104.19)
Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for light by day, And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The Lord of hosts is His name: 36 "If this fixed order departs From before Me," declares the Lord, "Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease From being a nation before Me forever." (Jer 31.35)
Accordingly, given these 'patterns of divine activity' in the world (a theological argument), we would be on firmer ground to accept number four as a likely 'implementation' of the miracle of 'long day' (assuming of course, that one understands the miracle in this second fashion, which I do not.).
Under this understanding, again, the effects are still confined to the locale. However, any bystanders would no doubt have noticed something 'odd' about the day, but this probably would not have produced any literary remains for obvious reasons:
So, under the most likely interpretation [IMO] of the passage (i.e., the hailstorm) the event would have to be removed from Robby's list. And, under the most likely understanding of the 'popular' interpretation of this event (a local optical miracle), it would also have to be removed from Robby's list.
But let's entertain the extreme possibility-that the passage teaches that God literally caused the rotation of the earth to (Type A) slow or (Type B) even stop for a period of time.
Under either scenario, there WOULD have been worldwide effects. Type A (the "Slow-down" view) involves steady motion of the sun, but at only half the speed. Type B (the "Pause-and-Resume" view) involves the sun travelling at regular speed from rising in the east to some point in the morning sky [around 10-11 am, so that it was 'over Gibeon' as Joshua would have been looking eastward], and remaining in the 10am-2pm area of the sky for an extra 8 hours or so. Then, it would presumably make the rest of its journey to the western horizon at regular rate.
What would be the visual, global effects of this event?
[Let me first make a comment about this part of the exercise. One of the most entertaining pieces of writing I have ever read was a skeptical analysis of the physics of a sudden halt in the earth's rotation. The piece gave vivid descriptions of cattle flying off the earth due to momentum, of upsets in natural/biological systems that have gravity-dependent functions, of catastrophic gale-storms due to sudden wind movements, of major geographical/topographical realignments due to suddenly shifting land and water masses . The major assumption, of course, is that God would forget about this and do the 'pause miracle' (with all good intentions!) without adjusting all the interrelated processes and systems. Only God could make such a God-size goof-up, of course! But all the other natural miracles in the Bible seem to be 'well integrated' into the setting, even some of the more bizarre ones...Accordingly, we will be looking for effects related to the appearance of night/day/sun/moon-related observations.]
Let's first consider the "Slow Down" understanding (Type A). What effects would have shown up?
Well, time would have seemed to slow down, night would have been longer (for those on the other side of the earth), and day would have been longer.
But an obvious question comes up here-how would a world that generally measured time by motion of bodies in the sky (i.e., sun, moon, stars)-have even been able to detect or measure a 'slow down'? In other words, if there are not independent ways of measuring time (such as Egyptian water-clocks) that are running in parallel with sun-based or star-based clocks, one has only the vague 'biological' senses to fall back on (e.g., hunger, fatigue, regulated habits, psychological sense, a "better" night's sleep!). So, unless we find large populations of people using independent clocks in a deliberate time measurement (and implicit 'comparison') manner, our population-size for Robby is going to dwindle to statistical insignificance for his purposes. For example, if we only find 1,000 people who are even candidates for noticing this problem, then Robby's argument will loose most of its force. [It could be bolstered however, if those 1,000 people were specifically tasked with, and performed, a recording function such as this faithfully.]
So, around 1400-1200 bc, what time-keeping methods were in use, and how widespread were they?
If we list the historical evidences we have for time-keeping devices in antiquity, here is what we roughly come up with:
That water clocks were used to compare with solar clocks is generally accepted. In fact, one of the major math challenges of the ancient world was to coordinate the multiple calendars that were based on astronomical data: solar, lunar, astral, zodiacal, sideral, tropical, anomalistic, synodic, draconic periods of time [NHAAC:24ff]. The water-clock was used to measure changes in the length of the night (i.e., the difference between day-length and night-length between the equinoxes). But this prompts two other questions:
Two. This is related to ONE above. We might conceivably have a reasonable number of people watching sky-clocks (which as I noted above, may not have been methodologically able to even detect such changes), but we have much fewer people doing comparison studies, and the comparison studies were generally done at night.
Three. The amount of recordings that have survived can be counted on two hands, and NONE of these are water-clock figures. We have star-charts, and day lengths, and moon risings in spurts of recordings, but of an exactness that leaves way too much play in the system.
Four. But the real problem comes here.
Classical authors were constantly complaining that the Greek cities were always changing their calendars, and that they never agreed. Cicero spoke of the Sicilians and Greeks that they "remove any discrepancy by shortening a month by one day or at most two days...they also sometimes lengthen a month by one day or two" (Verr. II, 2, 129). Similar statements (and satires!) can be found in Aristoxenus, Diodorus, and Plutarch [HI:CAW:31f]. Athens was no more enlightened than the rest: "In Athens, as in Sicily, months were added as needed...As late as the second century BC the intercalation was handled so haphazardly that two successive years could have extra months...days could be suppressed or inserted at will..." [HI:CAW:35].
Rome was no more precise and consistent[HI:CAW:45,47]:
"First it was necessary to insert 90 days in 46 BC in order to bring the months back to their right seasons."
"After Caesar's death, the pontifices erroneously inserted the extra day every three years, so that Augustus in 9 BC had to omit the intercalation for 16 years. Only from AD 8 on did the Julian calendar functon with regularity."
Historians of astronomy provide a clear answer for us here [NHAAC:16-17]:
Given this, then, the assumption that they would "write something down" is plainly contra-indicated by historical practice.
The other possible understanding ("the Pause/Resume" of Type B) would have the same factors involved, of course. The main difference is that the rate of change of shadow clocks MIGHT have been noticeable, but again, we would simply not have enough watchers and recorders to make a dent in the literary record likely.
So, although it would probably have been noticed (however vaguely) by many, we are still faced with the basic problems of ancient literary remains:
[It is probably important to note here that there are definitely "Christian myths" that float around about this, and Kaiser points these out in his analysis of this passage [HSOBX, in. loc.]:
Miracle Three: The reversal of the sun's course by Isaiah (for Hezekiah, somewhere around 702 BC).
Now Hezekiah said to Isaiah, "What will be the sign that the Lord will heal me, and that I shall go up to the house of the Lord the third day?" 9 And Isaiah said, "This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do the thing that He has spoken: shall the shadow go forward ten steps or go back ten steps?" 10 So Hezekiah answered, "It is easy for the shadow to decline ten steps; no, but let the shadow turn backward ten steps." 11 And Isaiah the prophet cried to the Lord, and He brought the shadow on the stairway back ten steps by which it had gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.At that time Berodach-baladan a son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that Hezekiah had been sick. (2 Kings 20.8ff)
And even in the matter of the envoys of the rulers of Babylon, who sent to him to inquire of the wonder that had happened in the land, God left him alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart. (2 Chr 32.31)
Now, in this case, we have one piece of textual evidence that the miracle WAS a localized miracle. The Chronicler, when describing the subsequent visit of the envoy from Babylon in 2 Chron 32.31f, indicates that this sign/wonder was localized to that area (and not worldwide):
But we need to ask a few more questions here:
Well, we suspect that Israel had higher literacy than Egypt at the time, since the data from the Jewish colony of Elephantine in Egypt (from somewhat later, though) gives some indication of this. So HI:LAPW:57:
"Indications from archaeological evidence that literacy in Israel was not confined to professional scribes are supported by a considerable number of scattered references to reading and writing in the books of the Old Testament. A diligent scholar has reported that 'while, for instance, in the Iliad writing is referred to only once, and in the Odyssey not even once, in the Bible we find as many as 429 references to writing or written documents'. There is a passage in Isaiah which specifically distinguishes the literate from the illiterate: 'The prophetic vision of it all has become for you like the words in a sealed book. If you hand such a book to one who can read and say, "Pray read this," he will answer, "I cannot; it is sealed." Give it to one who cannot read and say, "Pray read this"; and he will answer, "I cannot read".' [Is 29.11-12] Ezekiel is told to write on two leaves of a wooden tablet 'for all to see' [Ezek 37.15-20] and Habakkuk is given a similar instruction: 'Write down a vision, inscribe it clearly on tablets, so that it may be read at a glance.' [Hab 2.2]"
2. the Gezer Calendar (late 10th century BC)
3. Lists in Kadesh Barnea (end of 7th century bc)
4. dedications and blessings on jars (beginning of 8th century bc)
5. silver talismans/amulets (pre-exilic) with blessings that resemble Numbers 6.24-26.
6. A blessing and cursing text, written in the desert of En-gedi (late 8th century)
7. Exilic period graffiti at a burial cave in Khirbet Beit Lei.
8. A 13-line 'literary' text from Horvat 'Uza in the Negev (2nd half of 7th century bc).
9. Commercial sealings that contain owner/sender names (late 8th century)--at least 1,200 of these.
10. Commercial ostraca (pottery sherds used to inscribe messages on) in Samaria (785-749 bc)--102 of these.
11. Writing on weights used in commercial activity.
12. Bulla (seals used on papyrus rolls) in the hundreds (8th to 6th century bc) [One has the title "Baruch, son of Neriah the Scribe" on it--cf. Jer 32.12]
13. An administrative/military/census list (second half of the monarchy, 8-7th century)
2. A 14-line plea from an agricultural worker (corvee) to an official about his garment taken in pledge and not returned (contra Ex 22.25-26; Deut 24.12-15,17), dated to the time of Josiah (640-609bc).
3. A collection of 21 letters from Arad, dated around 597 bc, dealing with the sending of supplies for the military outposts.
4. The Lachish Letters, all military, dated to around 597 bc as well. [This is considered evidence for lively correspondence by the military.]
2. Two fragments of stone stelae in Jerusalem and one in Samaria.
So, it seems to me that the historical data of the time would NOT indicate that an observer "would have written it down" at all. Although aspects of literacy were high, the only place that "royal" events seemed to be recorded were in the writings of the prophets and the court annals (both of which seem to refer to the event).
From a linguistic standpoint, the phrase translated 'in the land' is the most general and vaguest semantic term. Had the author intended to denote the entire expanse of the land, he would have likely used the phrases "throughout the land" (cf. 1 Sam 13.3) or "in the whole land" (cf. 2 Sam 24.8 or 2 Kings 17.5). In our passage, the 'in the land' is likely used in a contrastive sense-'in the land of Hezekiah, as opposed to other lands'. Indeed, the entire point of a trip to Israel from Babylon would support the view that this miracle could not be 'investigated' by remaining in Babylon-another indication that it was not worldwide (or even ANE-wide: Babylon is approximately one time zone from Israel, 550 miles). In fact, the sign may even have been experienced by Hezekiah (and Isaiah) only, since it is described as being a sign 'to him' (Is 38.7,8; 2 Chron 32.24).
Question 2. The second question we must ask, is how did the Babylonians even KNOW about the 'wonder in the land'?
Is it possible that they experienced the miracle in their land of Babylonia, implying that the miracle was not confined to the land of Israel?
There are several points to make here.
(2) If they DID experience it in their land, there would have been no need to go to Jerusalem to investigate it--UNLESS they somehow knew that it was related to Hezekiah. (That they would have known--without communication--to connect an unexplained sun miracle with some obscure event in the life of a ruler in a second-rate kingdom like Judah at the time is beyond plausibility.) Since this later option would not have existed without some communication from Israel anyway, there is no real reason to avoid #3...
(3) We are told explicitly in the text that they 'heard about' the miraculous recovery (Is 39.1): At that time Merodach-baladan son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. And, when we connect this with the remark by the Chronicler: "And even in the matter of the envoys of the rulers of Babylon, who sent to him to inquire of the wonder that had happened in the land", it seems that Babylon had found out about both the healing and the sign.
(4) This option--that Babylon found out about the event--is very probable given what we know (a) about Babylon's interest in 'omens'; and (b) about international interaction and exchange.
For example, the Babylonians had compiled a list of omens that was respected by most surrounding cultures, including their rivals the Assyrians. One particular work (dating from the Late Old Babylonian period--well before our period) was called the Enuma Anu Enlil. This work or compilation is described by Oppenheim [AM:225]:
By the time we get to Hezekiah and Merodach-Baladan (Marduk-apla-iddina II), they had distilled their astronomical observations into a three-tablet piece, called mul-apin ("plough star") which concentrated on the paths of certain stars, complexities of the calendar, but omitted the omen-literature [NHAAC:33, AM:308-309; BABY:188]. Later, around the time of Nebuchadrezzar, we find astronomical diaries begin to appear [ BABY:188, 207n48].
(b) the amount of interaction within the international community was quite high, and often contradictory(!), and can be seen in three obvious categories: scribal/educational exchange, diplomatic interactions, and commercial interaction. Let's describe these three briefly...
First, there is considerable evidence that the scribal schools in the ANE exchanged information, methods, literature, and even teachers. And the evidence is that this process had been in place since AT LEAST Ebla in 2,500 bc. Heaton draws out the implications of the 10,000 clay tablets found there [STOT:25]:
This makes the likelihood high that Babylonian scribal workers would have been resident in the capital city.
Secondly, the amount of diplomatic contact at this time was considerable.
This contact would have taken a number of forms. The most obvious would be the numerous 'official 'visitors that would be representing a foreign power's interest within Judea. The many exchanges that occur between the various kings included messangers, princes in residence for education, etc. So:
"Then the Lord raised up an adversary to Solomon, Hadad the Edomite; he was of the royal line in Edom. 15 For it came about, when David was in Edom, and Joab the commander of the army had gone up to bury the slain, and had struck down every male in Edom 16 (for Joab and all Israel stayed there six months, until he had cut off every male in Edom), 17 that Hadad fled to Egypt, he and certain Edomites of his father's servants with him, while Hadad was a young boy. 18 And they arose from Midian and came to Paran; and they took men with them from Paran and came to Egypt, to Pharaoh king of Egypt, who gave him a house and assigned him food and gave him land. 19 Now Hadad found great favor before Pharaoh, so that he gave him in marriage the sister of his own wife, the sister of Tahpenes the queen. 20 And the sister of Tahpenes bore his son Genubath, whom Tahpenes weaned in Pharaoh's house; and Genubath was in Pharaoh's house among the sons of Pharaoh. 21 But when Hadad heard in Egypt that David slept with his fathers, and that Joab the commander of the army was dead, Hadad said to Pharaoh, "Send me away, that I may go to my own country." 22 Then Pharaoh said to him, "But what have you lacked with me, that behold, you are seeking to go to your own country?" And he answered, "Nothing; nevertheless you must surely let me go." (I Kings 11.14ff)
The amount of diplomatic contact between nations of the time was quite high.
The fact that Assyria had started showing interest in Judah MAY have prompted local Babylonian visitors to suggest to Merodach-Baladan an idea [Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, IVP, p.296]:
Third, the commercial interaction--even between nations at war!--was immense in the day. International trade seemed to be independent of most political maneuvering , and this channel of information was effective all over the ANE [OT:LIANE:128].
Thus, there are several high-probability channels for information about a local sign to make it to Babylon. And the very fact that the exchange occurred at all seems to support a local (or at least non-Babylonian) scope miracle.
So, IF Israel did not seem to be in the habit of recording irregular events at all, AND IF Babylon had not experienced the miracle itself, THEN I cannot see any strong reason to accept Robby's position that someone MUST HAVE written it down, if it REALLY occurred.
Actually, we know very little about the miracle. We know it was a movement of one specific shadow (not necessarily of the sun--big difference!). We know this shadow moved in the 'opposite' direction from its normal course. We know it was visible to Hezekiah and Isaiah. We know the shadow was caused by the sun. And we strongly suspect that the motion was quick (and not slow as a shadow normally moves), so as to get Hezekiah's immediate assent.
We do NOT know how long the shadow stayed in that spot. We don't know if any of the court personnel saw it. We don't know the physical length that 'ten whatevers' involved, nor how much time it represented. We don't even know if the miracle was visible outside the room they were in. And since the text only refers to the 'shadow on the steps', we have no reason to believe it applied to other shadows in the room, in the city, in the land, or anywhere else.
Of course, we don't really have any idea of what happened after the miracle, nor how far back '10 steps' (or '10 degrees' ) was. For all we know, the shadow may have gone back ten steps (until Hezy admitted it) and then come back to its normal position immediately. We simply don't know much about the details, and Hezekiah probably did most of the "proclaiming" himself to those around him (cf. His recorded psalm/prayer at the end of the passage, 38.9ff).
Most traditional commentators are influenced by the 2nd Chronicles passage into understanding this to be a local miracle, and one of the refraction of light. So KD (in discussing the 2nd Kings passage):
"As, for example, the phenomenon quoted by several commentators, which was observed at Metz in Lothringen in the year 1703 by the prior of the convent there, P. Romuald, and other persons, viz. that the shadow of a sundial went back an hour and a half." (the footnote at the bottom of page III.465)
2. The fact that the Babylonians heard about the sign (rather than experienced it) is evidence of a localized miracle.
3. The fact that the Israelite people of the time, though probably of a better-than-average literacy, did not record ANY irregular events (military, astronomical, geological) would argue against Robby's assumption that they WOULD write stuff like this down. (Assuming that the miracle lasted long enough to attract wide-spread attention)
4. And, of course, we are still at the very 'edge' of more scientific observation/recording of such events by other cultures. There just did not seem to be a lot of people 'paying attention' to this level of detail (and half the world would have been asleep, of course) to warrant some wholesale literary response.
The next two miracles in Robby's list occur, from the life of Jesus in Roman Palestine. We will examine that situation in the next part of this, especially since the literacy dynamics are quite different (i.e., smaller crowds and much higher literacy).
Let's sum up our observations on literacy and the 1st three miracles:
2. The dynamics of record-keeping by elites and power groups in the ANE do not support Robby's assumptions.
3. The two pieces of 'control data' we looked at illustrated that even literate people didn't necessarily record earthshaking events.
3. The crossing of the Red Sea miracle was a local event, not witnessed by large groups of people.
4. The crossing of the Red Sea miracle may have left traces of the story in native legends.
5. The event of Joshua 10 was likely a local, meteorological event.
6. Even if the event of Joshua 10 was a 'bright day', it might not necessitate a global, astronomical miracle
7. Even if the event of Joshua 12 WAS a global astronomical miracle, we have every reason to believe that no one would have recorded its happening.
8. The reversal of the shadow for Hezekiah was most likely a local, refraction of light miracle, not even visible 500 miles away.
9. We don't have any archeological reason to believe anyone would have recorded this event (they didn't record OTHER major 'shocks to the system')
On now to the events in the life of Jesus...