Good question...

...What about "The Fivefold Challenge"?

[Draft Mar/13/98, updated Mar 15/98]

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:

  1. The parting of the sea by Moses
  2. The stopping of the sun by Joshua
  3. The reversal of the sun's course by Isaiah
  4. The feeding of thousands of people by Jesus using only five loaves of bread and two fishes
  5. The post-crucifixion resurrection of the saints, and their subsequent appearance to many.
In each of these cases, Robby asks for confirming documentary evidence for the miracle that meets the following criteria: contemporary, independent, unambiguous, and reliable. He argues that any high-magnitude, high-scope miracle will invariably produce such documentary evidence.
In fact, the Christian actually uses a reverse-version of this, when he or she points to the universal tradition of a Noahic-like flood. Our argument is that, GIVEN pan-cultural and pan-geographical (e.g., Hawaii, Mesoamerica, and Sumer) traditions of a universal flood and ark, it is only reasonable to conclude to a real historical event, and a common origin of humanity.

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:

1. [The "Foundation" Principle] Spectacular events--of worldwide scale or of "impossible odds" (e.g., multiplication of loaves, massive number of resurrections)--will invariably produce large numbers of documents concerning (or referring to) those events, that would be unambiguous in description and/or reference, contemporary (written shortly after the event), and reliable (written by a reliable person or embedded in an otherwise reliable document).

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.)

This argument has a number of failure points:
  1. If literacy is not very widespread at the time, or in the geography of the miracle, it fails.
  2. If the circumstances of the miracle retard any 'normal' literacy impetus (e.g., polemical contexts, observers perish), it fails.
  3. If the culture of the observers is not supportive of 'writing things down', it fails.
  4. If the events are difficult to detect or arise in conscious reflection as extraordinary, it fails.
  5. If the five miracles somehow do NOT fall into the category of 'massively observed' events, it fails.
  6. If we have no reason to believe that the 'preservation of ancient documents' problem is somehow abated in these cases(!), it fails.
  7. If we have no reason to believe that a population base of only 'thousands' of observers would generate such documentation, it fails. [Doesn't apply to worldwide events, of course, unless the actual number of people "watching" is small].
It is important to note that if ANY ONE of these eight failure points occur, then Robby's argument fails (for that specific miracle).

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:

  1. Literacy is extremely restricted at the time, especially in the cases of Moses and Joshua.
  2. Circumstances of the miracle WOULD have retarded normal literary impetus; in the cases of Moses and Joshua especially.
  3. There is nothing in the ancient world that even remotely approximates a 'culture to document'!
  4. I have no reason to believe that any of these three events would have been obvious and detectable to large audiences of non-Jews (except perhaps the people on the far side of the shore of the Red Sea, but only at the point of parting).
  5. The biblical data does NOT support the view that these three miracles were anything other than local phenomena.
  6. We KNOW that the 'problem of preservation' is HUGE, for ALL of ancient literature, and no less so for biblical events.
  7. Our ratio of observers-to-reports for ancient events (seen in 'control data') is WAY too poor to support a belief that mere 'thousands' of observers would generate references (much less guarantee its preservation). Our control data will show ratios of 300,000,000-to-10 or less (Comet of 44bc); 60,000-to-1 ("Delian" earthquake); and 150,000-to-1 (eruption of Mt. Vesuvius).
And there are a few other factors to point out before we get into the exploration:
1. In two of the three cases in the OT, we have indications that at least 'reports' of the events were generated. In the case of the Red Sea deal, later biblical writers commented that the Canaanites already knew about it before they got there. And, in the case of Isaiah and Hezekiah, the king of Babylon heard about the sign and sent an inquiry. In these two cases we have biblical (and therefore inadmissible for Robby) evidence that SOME of the required information WAS transmitted (though not necessarily in written form). Since these references were oblique to (or at least isolated from) the actual biblical account of the event itself, these would constitute evidence of a slightly independent nature, even though embedded in the bible. [The strange tragedy for the believer is that what would have counted as independent accounts LOSE that status as soon as Israel incorporates the report in her history! If the local culture does not keep the account both independent and preserved through time, the bible loses out!]

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':

a. The long life spans of the people before the Flood of Noah. In this case, we have parallels in Sumerian and Egyptian sources. In the Sumerian source, only the kings who lived before the Great Flood had extremely long lives, but the life spans are so incredible that their witness to the more modest claims of Genesis is compromised. Likewise with the Egyptian hugely inflated lifespans of their earliest rulers. This is data that 'something' was 'odd', and points to a longevity position, but the data certainly wouldn't be considered 'unambiguous' by skeptics, I presume.

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:

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. 33 "By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come to this city,"' declares the Lord. 34 'For I will defend this city to save it for My own sake and for My servant David's sake.'"35 Then it happened that night that the angel of the Lord went out, and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men rose early in the morning, behold, all of them were dead. 36 So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home, and lived at Nineveh. 37 And it came about as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son became king in his place.
When this event is described in secular sources, the miraculous element is present but seems different, and the focus is on the Egyptian component in the battle. So, Herodotus (The History, II.141):
"As the two armies lay here opposite one another, there came in the night, a multitude of field-mice, which devoured all the quivers and bowstrings of the enemy, and ate the thongs by which they managed their shields. Next morning they commenced their fight, and great multitudes fell, as they had no arms with which to defend themselves. There stands to this day in the temple of Vulcan, a stone status of Sethos, with a mouse in this hand, and an inscription to this effect--"Look on me, and learn to reverence the gods."
Herodotus explicitly says that he got this from the "Egyptians and their priests" (141), which makes sense of the 'divine' deliverance through mice. But the Hebrew account had an overnight death (plague?), and although it is quite natural to see the connection between mice/rats and plague, one might wonder which account is more 'plausible', the Hebrew or the Egyptian...Or, do we have to choose between the two at all?

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]:

"The armies [Egypt and Assyria] clashed in a major battle at Eltekeh in which Sennacherib claimed victory, although this may disguise the scale of his own losses. According to Herodotus the Assyrians were defeated when mice (or possible rats) gnawed through their bowstrings and leather accoutrements. The Bible claims that the Assyrians lost 185(000) dead in one night. Though this is often interpreted as an instance of bubonic plague, it could equally be taken as an outbreak of a tropical form of bacillary dysentery, for infections diseases or plagues are recorded accompanying large scale army movements in the ancient Near East. Other examples of such epidemics include possible typhus among Hittite troops, schistosomiasis among the inhabitants of Jericho after its destruction, and plague among the Philistines at Ashdod following the battle nearby."
And the connection between mice, plague, and the geography of the battle is clear [NICOT, Isaiah p.669]:
"As noted above, Herodotus makes reference to a plague of mice which ate up the bowstrings, etc. of Sennacherib's army at Pelusium on the edge of the Delta in Egypt, precipitating them to flight. Modern writers, noting that area's reputation for disease and the fact that mice are symbolic of pestilence, have conjectured that Herodotus was recounting an Egyptian legend which had sprung from an original account of the sudden onslaught of some such disease as bubonic plague."
Now, when you put this altogether you have a plausible historical story, in which a divinely-directed mice/rat plague rendered the army powerless against the Egyptians, and which passed on an infectious disease that killed a large number of them in their retreat/withdrawal from the area. Is this data 'unambiguous'? Hardly. But is this 'good' historiography? Probably so. So much of historical inference falls into this pattern of trying to make the pieces and connections into a plausible explanation.

[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?

1. Would he always feel shock or amazement? I would expect so, unless (1) this was not his first time to see the magician do this; and/or (2) he was accustomed to doing this feat himself. But let's disregard these exceptions and have Joe be suitably shocked and blown-away by this spectacle. This emotional and personal response would be a definite historical effect.

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:

(1) Joe can write at all;

(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.

Just to give you an idea of the difficulty implied by that last point, consider HI:LPAW:5: "Only a tiny proportion of the total volume of texts ever written has survived: literally less than a handful of individual military pay-records, for example, from a total production of about 225 million in the first three centuries AD." [I guess maybe the Christians burned all these too, like all those other books and libraries, eh? hee, hee...]

And then what is the likelihood:

(1) that Joe's culture assigns some value to Joe's recording actions, to prompt him to express his amazement in that specific manner, as opposed to perhaps dancing or sacrificing;

(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).

Hopefully, the reader can already see the historiographical problem.

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]:

"Negatively, the Ramesside kings were content simply to destroy the names and memory of the Aten kings wherever possible (restoring the names of Amun and the gods)..."
A second example can be seen in Assyria. So, CAM:181:
"Not surprisingly, the version of history presented in the Assyrian annals was biased, but sometimes the inscriptions of Assyria's rivals and neighbors provide a corrective. The royal correspondence of the Assyrian court also gives a more objective view. About 1,300 letters between Sargon and officials from all over this empire, and agents living outside the borders of Assyria, have survived. Many of the letters are fragmentary, imprecisely dated, and, as much of the background information was omitted because it was familiar to the correspondents, are often difficult to interpret. Still, they reveal the issues with which Assyrian domestic and foreign policy was concerned, which are not evident in the official propaganda. The royal inscriptions create an impression of inevitable success, implying that there was no resistance to the will of the king, before whom, with the gods on his side, all had to submit. The correspondence, in contrast, cast doubt on the outcome of some of the policies, describing how omens and oracles were consulted before any action was taken and recording failures as well as successes."
However, there are a couple of subtleties worth considering here.
First of all, a literary elite MIGHT be interested in miracles for 'curiosity' sake. And so we must ask the questions about (1) how many literary elites WERE there; (2) how many of them attempted historical writing; and (3) how many of them wrote works 'on impulse' after seeing some miracle or dramatic event. Students of ancient history will recognize that the answers to these three questions are all the same: incredibly few (if any). And in most early cases, the literary elite were court personnel, working for the ruling class, and were subject to some of the same political pressures from their employers.

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]).

Now, a brief word about our "population" base. If we make the very reasonable assumption that the peasant and urban merchant (and general trades people, including rank-and-file military) probably will not write anything at all, the percentage of any population that could be 'candidates' for even being considered easily drops to below 2-3% of the population. Once that funneling occurs, we get into the 'means of production' and the whole issue of 'motive' of writing, socio-culturally speaking.

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:

"Most modern scholars believe that few people were literate in any given period of Mesopotamian history. Perhaps businessmen, priests, administrators, rulers, and other members of the elite could read and write, even if, like their modern counterparts, they generally used professional scribes for official matters...Access to more elaborate Akkadian literary and scholarly writings required a high level of training and skill...In addition, the literate scholar had to become versed in the techniques and approaches of Mesopotamian scholarship. These had pronounced influence on the character of Akkadian literarture, tending to weight it in favor of the learned and esoteric."
[We do have evidence for more popular types of literature, but these comprise non-documentary genres, such as long-songs, proverbs, personal letters of family issues, folk tales, etc. (BTM: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]:

"Today the discovering of a new library of literary texts generates great excitement among Assyriologists, but such material is not really typical of the production of the Mesopotamian scribes. Most of them, after all their technical training, spent their lives writing lists of deliveries of sheep or issues of barley rations and occasionally taking a letter by dictation. The more successful scribes would end up as senior administrators in the state bureaucracy, but most of their colleagues would have been happy simply with their status as educated men and the knowledge that their training guaranteed them employment."
Patterns of Mesopotamian literary life were essentially the prototype for a wide range of ANE cultures: Ebla, Ugarit, Hittite.

The "next" most literate culture at this time was Egypt, but the literacy rate is again abysmal. Davies describes this reality [HI:RTP:99]:

"Although it is clear from the quantity and range of the extant record that writing played an immensely important part in ancient Egyptian society, it is very unlikely that literacy can have been widespread among the population. The production of writing, and direct access to it, was almost certainly the preserve of an educated elite, consisting, at the highest level, of royalty and high officials of state and, below them, of people for whom the ability to read and write was a necessary part of their job...Recent estimates, admitted to be no more than informed guesses, suggest that less than 1 percent of the population would have been literate during most of the Pharaonic Period...Among the latter [the general populace], literacy, if it existed at all, is likely to have been restricted to the ability to write one's name and probably not much more. An illiterate person, requiring a document to be written or read, would simply have had recourse to a scribe."
According to other modern estimates, even by the Saite period (after the infusion of Greek culture), Egypt only had a rudimentary reading rate of 1-2% (a most generous estimate), and the estimate of people who could actually write at the level we are speaking below .25% [HI:LPAW:65].

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]:

"In ancient China, astronomy was intimately connected with government and civil administration. Perhaps the most famous illustration of this concerns an incident in the eight century BC, and is reported in the Shu Ching (Historical Classic). It concerns a commission sent by a legendary emperor Yao to six astronomers, of whom two are named -- the brothers Hsi and Ho. They were instructed to move to various places from which they were to observe the rising and setting of the Sun, to determine the solstices and make observations of importance to the drafting of a calendar. In a later chapter of the Shu Ching there is an account of an expedition led by the prince Yin to punish other astronomers for failing to foresee or prevent an eclipse. These legends, for three millennia the official account of the origin of Chinese astronomy, have for centuries helped to create the image of a venerable branch of learning, but they are now known to stem from an early mythological tradition in which Hsi-Ho is the name of either the mother or the chariot driver of the Sun. The brothers Hsi and Ho are no more."
The remaining Old World areas of Europe and Africa manifest either no or negligible literary activity at this time.
[There WERE small pockets of writing developed in many geographical areas earlier than the above, but which only existed for a century or two, and which do not maintain any continuity with the writing systems/languages referred to above.]

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]:

"At the very least we must decide where to place the Greeks and Romans with respect to mass literacy, and with respect to what may be called 'scribal literacy' and 'craftsman's literacy.' By the former term I mean the sort of literacy which predominated in ancient Near Eastern cultures and in the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds, literacy restricted to a specialized social group which used it for such purposes as maintaining palace records; and which also predominated in western Europe from late antiquity until at least the twelfth century. By craftsman's literacy I mean not the literacy of an individual craftsman but the condition in which the majority, or a near-majority, of skilled craftsmen are literate, while women and unskilled labourers and peasants are mainly not, this being the situation which prevailed in most of the educationally more advanced regions of Europe and North America from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century..."

"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."

[There are certainly pockets of higher literacy in the ancient world--Elephantine, Deir El Medina, Etruscan--but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.]

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,

"Such events would have attracted widespread attention and generated dozens of documents concerning them...Or how about the sun turning backwards? This would have been visible worldwide, and thus other cultures active at the time would have noticed the event and offered their own explanations, in keeping with their own cultural and religious beliefs."
The predictions we would get out of this would be:
  1. At least 24 ("dozens") of documents produced.
  2. The documents are 'concerning them' (presumably more than a casual mention?)
  3. These documents would have surfaced in "active cultures"
  4. These documents would bear local interpretations in keeping with their worldviews.
Okay. So, what cultures were active in the world around 44bc? Almost all of them were recording astronomical data, even those without developed writing systems at the time (e.g., some mesoamerican groups). Some cultures were very meticulous in recording comets (e.g., China) at the time, so these should not surprise us, and modern estimates of reliable records of naked-eye comets begin around 300 BC ("Comets, Historical Apparitions", in The Astronomy and Astrophysics Encyclopedia, ed. Stephen P. Maran, Cambridge:1991.)

So, what evidences of this comet are there?

  1. We have a sighting record (unexplained) in Korea.
  2. We have a sighting record (unexplained) in China.
  3. We have several oblique references to 'a comet' in Latin writers, probably referring to this one.
  4. The most detailed and lengthly description we have comes from the rather politically motivated Octavian (recorded in Pliny's N.H. 2.94):
    "On the very days of my Games [held in honor of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar], a comet was seen in the northern part of the sky for seven days. It appeared about the eleventh hour of the day and was clearly visible in all countries. The young people believed that by that star it was signified that the soul of Caesar [Julius had been assassinated the year before] was received among the immortal gods, on which account the sign of a star was attached to the head of the status of Caesar which I shortly consecrated in the Forum."
    [Subsequently, Octavian (who was the adopted son of Julius Caesar), minted a coin with a comet on one side entitled "divine Julius" and his own head on the other, entitled "Caesar Augustus". Other coins had "Divine Julius" on one side and "Caesar, son of a god" next to his own picture. He milked this for all it worth.]
That's it. Nothing more.

What's missing from this collection of evidence?

  1. We are considerably short of 'dozens' of documents.
  2. We have nothing even remotely resembling a 'document concerning X'
  3. We only have two cultures represented, out of literally hundreds of 'active' civilizations. (Korea was under Chinese domination at this time; it was known as the Han commandery of Lelang [HI:AC:342f]).
  4. The only culture that came close to giving an 'interpretation' was Rome (by the 'young people').
What seems clear--even with Octavian's probable overstatement--is that this apparition DID generate a good bit of attention, falling in line with Robby's argument. But it did NOT generate the documentary results Robby had assumed would surface en mass. Granted, a comet is not as earthshaking as a change in sun course (perhaps, and assuming one could even notice a small and temporary reversal of sun direction), but a broom comet of this color and size (between 12 and 15+ degrees) would still garnish a good bit of attention. And, in line with Robby's thesis, it did leave SOME literary audit trail (but so did less spectacular events).

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:

  2. Robby's assumption that real events cause real ripples in history is entirely accurate, but his belief that those ripples will invariably be documentary evidence of the quantity and character of his criteria is a-historical and even contradicted by actual records of events in known history.
  3. We will be 'lucky' if we have ANY literary evidence of even major events.
  4. If we have even fuzzy, incomplete, later, and unreliable evidence, then this evidence will witness to SOMETHING having happened to 'generate' that evidence.
  5. The recording of events is subject to a large number of variables, ranging from individual literacy to cultural support, from political 'tolerance' to access to materials.
  6. The preservation of materials is extremely unlikely and renders all arguments from 'no evidence' suspect from the start.
So, as we look at the five miracles Robby listed, if we find ANY kind of supporting data we will be extremely fortunate (even as small a thing as a clause in Thucydides will be a significant support).

With this in mind, let's dive into the miracles.

Miracle One: The parting of the sea by Moses (Ex 14.21-31):

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. 22 And the sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 23 Then the Egyptians took up the pursuit, and all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots and his horsemen went in after them into the midst of the sea. 24 And it came about at the morning watch, that the Lord looked down on the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud and brought the army of the Egyptians into confusion. 25 And He caused their chariot wheels to swerve, and He made them drive with difficulty; so the Egyptians said, "Let us flee from Israel, for the Lord is fighting for them against the Egyptians." 26 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots and their horsemen." 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal state at daybreak, while the Egyptians were fleeing right into it; then the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. 28 And the waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen, even Pharaoh's entire army that had gone into the sea after them; not even one of them remained. 29 But the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 And when Israel saw the great power which the Lord had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.
The first thing we have to do is to understand what actually happened here from a visual perspective. In other words, who all would have seen this miracle, and what would they have seen. Then, we will have to ask the questions above about literacy, opportunity to write, etc. And finally, we will ask about what kind of audit trails might be expected.

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]:

"Geological, oceanographic, and archaeological evidence suggest that the Gulf of Suez stretched further north than it does today and that the southern Bitter Lake extended further south to the point where the two could have actually been connected during the second millennium. This linking may have stood behind the Hebrew naming the lake yam sup as well as the Red Sea to which it was connected."
[And, before someone raises the old objection that papyrus reeds don't grow in salt water...(1) the suph word is for reeds, not specifically papyrus; and (2) there are reeds that thrive in those salt water areas TODAY (e.g., halophytes).]

The biblical description of this event has the following participants (and therefore, potential observers):

  1. The Israelites
  2. The part of the Egyptian army that went into the sea (and drowned)
  3. Some portion of the Egyptian army that remained on the western bank/shore of this body of water.
  4. (Although the biblical record doesn't mention it, there logically is the possibility of observers on the east side of the sea as well.)
So, what would be the likelihood of these four groups making a written record, according to Robby's criteria?
  1. The Israelites are of course quite likely to record this, since it was a very positive national experience for them. Their recordings, however, would likely show up in 'religious' literature (e.g., the bible) since it was understood as deliverance from the oppression of Egypt by their God. But, according to Robby's criteria, we cannot use their testimony, since they benefited from the experience(!).


    [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.]

  2. The part of the Egyptian army that drowned can be excluded from consideration, obviously.
  3. The portion of the army that remained on the shore needs to be considered (and perhaps court officials including Pharaoh).
First of all, who remained on the shore and how large would this contingent have been?

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]:

"Ramesses' full-time generals and military men (outside Nubia) have left surprisingly little mark either on the monuments or in history. After the debacle at Qadesh, not a few 'top brass' were probably summarily dismissed, and probably the king showed much less favour to the military unless they could prove their worth."
As it turns out, military men also tended to be drop-outs from scribal school. In one ancient scribal writing practice document, the instructor tries to 'sell' the scribe on the advantages of staying a scribe over going into the military:
"What's this I'm told that you say, 'the soldier is better off than the scribe'? Come now, let me tell you how it is for the soldier, plunged in torment. He is taken away, just a boy, to be shut up in the barracks. He is dealt a stinging blow to the body, a cutting blow to the eyebrows, and his head split with a wound. He is laid out and hammered like papyrus . . . Here for you is his trip to Syria, his tramping over the hills! His bread and water are across his shoulder like a donkey's load, his neck being ridged like a donkey's.'

"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!'

Again, consider the general literacy rate of Egypt. According to modern estimates, the Saite period (after the infusion of Greek culture) had a rudimentary reading rate of 1-2% (a most generous estimate), and the estimate of people who could actually write at the level we are speaking below .25% [HI:LPAW:64-65].

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):

"In 570 Apries supported a local Libyan ruler in Cyrene against Greek colonists. An all-Egyptian army was sent, which was defeated and then mutinied. Apries sent a general, Amasis, to quell the revolt, but Amasis joined it, declared himself king (570-526), and drove Apries into exile. In 567 Apries returned with a Babylonian invading force sent by Nebuchadnezzar II, but was defeated and killed. Amasis then buried him with royal honors and recorded the whole episode on a stela, in terms that disguise his seizure of power."
The burial, which might seem surprising to us, was actually necessary for the transfer of property and power to the new Pharaoh [OT:TIPE:333n498]. And the stele was used "to record the events of his predecessor's demise, an attempted Babylonian invasion, and the unrest which followed" [HI:LPAW:51f].

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]:

"That event, the biblical 'exodus', finds no echo in Ramesses' proud inscriptions; one did not celebrate the loss of a chariot-squadron and other unfortunates would have to replace the lost labour in the brickfields and workshops. The plagues and losses of the year quickly became just an unpleasant memory to be pushed out of mind, and any lesson they taught was soon lost. For imperial Egypt, the exodus was a fleeting, if unpleasant incident; for the Hebrews, it was epochal, and for the spiritual history of the world, of incommensurable effect."
Now, we need also to consider one other possibility briefly here. How geographically 'dispersed' was the miracle? In other words, how far 'down the coast' of the Red Sea would the miracle have been visible, and to what extent might other people have seen it?

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.

  1. A trough width of half a mile.
  2. An allowance of 4 feet per person per row (a spacing of some 6 feet between them)
  3. An allowance of 8 feet per person per column (a walking space of some 14 feet between them)
  4. Two million people at the above rates, with flocks and wagons within the spaces, but travelling light as per the biblical text.
  5. A travelling speed of 3 miles per hour.
This would have generated a parade of roughly 2.3 square miles (.5 mile wide by 4.6 miles long). A trough with a length of 2 miles, for example, would have required only 2.2 hours for the end of the parade to emerge from the trough.

Let's look at 600 chariots in a trough width of half a mile, under the following assumptions:

  1. An allowance of 32 feet per chariot per row (a spacing of 50 ft between them)
  2. An allowance of 64 feet per chariot per column (a spacing 80-90 ft between them)
  3. 600 chariots
This parade yields 80+ chariots across, by 7-8 chariots deep. This is a parade length of only .09 mile, or less that one-tenth of a mile.

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:

  1. Trough width from half a mile to a quarter of a mile;
  2. Israelite travelling speed from 3 miles an hour to 4 miles an hour;
  3. Trough length from 2 miles to 1 mile,
and we get the Israelites on the other side in 2.55 hours, and the Egyptian parade still only takes one-sixth of the trough length.

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):

"And among the Ichthyophagi who dwell near by has been handed down a tale which has preserved the account received from their forefathers, that once, when there was a great receding of the sea, the entire area of the gulf which has what may be roughly described as the green appearance became land, and that, after the sea had receded to the opposite parts and the solid ground in the depths of it had emerged to view, a mighty flood came back upon it again and returned the body of water to its former place" [Loeb]
In Oldfather's introduction (in the Loeb Classics), Diodorus' work in Book III is characterized thus (viii):
"The Third Book...includes a long discussion of the Red Sea and the peoples dwelling about it...Much of this material was drawn from the geographer Agatharchides of Cnidus, whose work, On the Red Sea, is preserved to us in the excerpts of Photius. This work of Agatharchides, composed in the patter part of the second century B.C., embraced five Books and is on the whole a sober and fairly trustworthy discussion of that region; much of it was certainly based upon the stories and accounts of travellers in these parts and on personal observation."
Now, this certainly does NOT constitute the kind of evidence Robby wants, but it is fascinatingly similar, and incredibly so given the odds of such evidence (as discussed above). Does this constitute evidence of Robby-quality? Not even close, but as all historical artifacts, it must have come from SOMEWHERE. It is difficult to conceive of alternate origins of a legend this striking (and yet natural) other than an actual similar event.

[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]:

"For the ancient Egyptians in fact had their own account of how a priest had separated a large body of water. The Westcar Papyrus tells of a bored King Snofru who summoned the chief lector and scribe Djadjaemonkh to give him advice on how to find some pleasure. The priest suggested that the Pharaoh travel on a lake in a boat rowed by many beautiful naked women. His heart was happy until one of the rowers dropped her fish-shaped charm into the water. She would accept no substitute, so Snofru called for Djadjaemonkh to solve the problem with his secret arts. Through his magic sayings Djadjaemonkh placed one side of the lake upon the other and found the fish-shaped charm lying on a potsherd. Having returned it to its owner, Djadjaemonkh uttered some more magic sayings that brought the water of the lake back to its original position."
However interesting this story is, it is unlikely in the extreme that this piece of literature became a historical memory of a tribal people altogether unassociated with this Pharaoh. Good literature can affect nations, but generally not to this extent.]

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]:

"And now I will turn my discourse to one of their principal writers whom I have a little before made use of as a witness to our antiquity; (228) I mean Manetho. He promised to interpret the Egyptian history out of their sacred writings, and premised this: that "Our people have come into Egypt, many ten thousands in number, and subdued its inhabitants;" and when he had farther confessed, that "We went out of that country afterward, and settled in that country which is now called Judea, and there built Jerusalem and its temple." Now thus far he followed his ancient records; (229) but after this he permits himself, in order to appear to have written what rumors and reports passed abroad about the Jews, and introduces incredible narrations, as if he would have the Egyptian multitude, that had the leprosy and other distempers, to have been mixed with us, as he says they were, and that they were condemned to fly out of Egypt together;
In the succeeding chapters, Josephus goes into great pains to argue that the Israelites were not expelled from Egypt because of leprosy and other diseases. But what a brilliant way to 'spin' the exodus for the Pharaonic administration! "God has blessed us by driving out these diseased people from our midst! Praise Pharaoh! They are gone/we are pure again."

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)

So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the people of war with him and all the valiant warriors. 8 And the Lord said to Joshua, "Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands; not one of them shall stand before you." 9 So Joshua came upon them suddenly by marching all night from Gilgal. 10 And the Lord confounded them before Israel, and He slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and pursued them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. 11 And it came about as they fled from before Israel, while they were at the descent of Beth-horon, that the Lord threw large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died from the hailstones than those whom the sons of Israel killed with the sword. 12 Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, "O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon."So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, 13 Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. 14 And there was no day like that before it or after it, when the Lord listened to the voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel. 15 Then Joshua and all Israel with him returned to the camp to Gilgal.
This is admittedly one of the stranger sounding stories in the bible. But our problem here first is to understand exactly what happened. The exegesis of this passage is VERY complex, because even 'traditional' commentators have trouble with the ambiguity in the account. The main choices (among those "conservatives" who accept miraculous elements by God) are:
  1. Extension of daylight hours (allowing the battle to continue) [Woudstra in NICOT]
  2. Subjective 'extension' of daylight hours (more an miracle of 'efficiency' than 'nature') [possible conclusion of Keil and Delitzsch]
  3. Semi-Darkness during the day due to miraculous hailstorms and cloud covering (maximizing confusion, reducing heat, and divine deliverance) [Madvig in EBC, Walt Kaiser]
  4. Providential battle play-out (the sun always being in the opponents' eyes due to the slope of the enemy's descent) [Gordon]
  5. An eclipse (as an omen, based on ANE usage of the verbs) [R.D. Wilson, Holliday]
The exegetical problems stem from four main factors:
  1. The mixture of poetic and narrative elements
  2. The mixture of summary statements and detailed event descriptions
  3. The ambiguity in the word choices describing the astronomical/meteorological events
  4. The historical setting and the general inability of anyone present to measure time or observe the sun.
Let me describe these factors in a bit more detail:

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:

The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him- the dark rain clouds of the sky. Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies, great bolts of lightning and routed them. The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.
But this was a deliverance from Saul and foreign kings--the language of storm-clouds and smoke from nostrils and being drawn from drowning waters is obviously hyperbolic.

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:

"Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, "O sun, stand still (damam) at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon."So the sun stood still (damam), and the moon stopped ('amad), 13 until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped ('amad) in the middle of the sky, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day."
The two critical words are damam and 'amad.

Damam, is often translated as 'be silent'. So Louw-Nida gives this entry:

be silent, be quiet, i.e., not make sounds (Lev 10:3; Job 31:34; Ps 4:5[EB 4]; 30:13[EB 12]; 31:18[EB 17]; Isa 23:2; Jer 48:2; La 3:28; Eze 24:17; Am 5:13@); (nif) be silenced (1Sa 2:9; Jer 49:26; 50:30@)
'Amad, which often means 'be stationary' can also mean 'be inactive'. So Louw-Nida:
be still, i.e., be in a state of inactivity (1Sa 6:14)
Indeed, the author of Joshua had already used this verb in 3.16: "And the waters that were flowing stopped flowing ('amad)..." In Hab 3.11 ("Sun and moon stood still('amad) in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear." ) the reference is generally understood as (1) an eclipse [i.e., being silent and hidden in the heavenly tent] or (2) semi-darkness due to hailstorms and thunderstorms [so EBC, in. loc.]. It could also be a reference to the preternatural darkness and/or hail in Egypt (Ex 9,10), since Hab 3 has numerous allusions to the Exodus events.

Thus, the linguistic elements of the verbs would favor either (1) the eclipse theory or (2) the hailstorm theory.

Fourth, when we add to this the obvious factors of the setting, we see that the point simply cannot be a 'stopped sun' scenario:
1. As Kaiser notes [HSOBX, in loc.]:
"Given the presence of a hailstorm, it is difficult to see how the sun could have been seen as stopped in the sky. There was light under the cloud cover, of course, but there would have been no actual view of the sun during a hailstorm so violent that it was killing the Amorites by the scores."
2. And, as KD notes:
"When we are not in circumstances to measure the length of the day by the clock, it is very easy to mistake its actual length, especially in the midst of the pressure of business or wok. The Israelites at that time had neither sun-clocks nor any other kind of clock; and during the confusion of the battle it is hardly likely that Joshua, or any one else who was engaged in the conflict, would watch the shadow of the sun and its changes, either by a tree or any other object, so as to discover that the sun had actually stood still, from the fact that for hours the shadow had neither moved nor altered in length. Under such circumstances, therefore, it was quite impossible for the Israelites to decide whether it was in reality, or only in their own imaginations, that the day was longer than others" (KD accepts that the very efficiency of 'two days battle in one' is an acceptable exegesis of the passage.)
3. The very religious background of the Canaanites is meaningful here as well. They essentially worshipped nature deities, and a battle in which the sun stayed hidden and the weather devastated them, would have been particularly disheartening (NICOT, EBC).

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:

"Joshua may have been requesting that the sun not shine with its normal brightness and heat. Cloud cover could have been a by-product of the hailstorm. Joshua desired favorable conditions so as to be able to make the most of the victory. After an all-night march, the sun's heat would have sapped the strength of the weary Israelites; and relief from that heat would have helped just as much as extended daylight."
And Kaiser sees the same dynamics at work [HSOBX, p187]:
"In a sense, then, this is not 'Joshua's long day' but rather 'Joshua's long night,' for the coolness brought by the storm relieved the men and permitted them to go on fighting and marching for a total of more than eighteen hours."
But AFTER the victory over the armies, they would have needed more light for the 'mopping up' operation, especially for ferreting the kings out of the caves (Josh 10.16ff). This would make sense of 13b, in that the sun would have been 'non-energetic' (i.e., not shining through) for 'about' a day, and then have broken through the clouds toward the end, to support that aspect of the military operation.
What this leads me to note is:
  1. The word choices SEEM to favor the hailstorm scenario
  2. The summary character of some the statements seem to be referring back to the hailstorm victory
  3. The poetic elements-in the context of victory-poems in the OT-seem to indicate that the victory was slightly more subdued (and therefore more in keeping with "standard" meteorological assistance by God) than large-scale astronomical changes.
  4. The circumstances of the cloud cover, lack of timekeeping, and religious setting favor a hailstorm scenario.
  5. The military needs of the moment seem to favor a cooler day, rather than a hotter, longer day.
Now, the only 'loose end' to this is verse 13b: "and not he (the sun) hurried ('uts) to go down about a full day", but this is not as difficult as first might appear.

In Louw-Nida, in the semantic domain of 'attitudes and emotions', they list this meaning of 'uts:

be eager, energetic, willing, engage in an activity with prudent vigor and excitement (Pr 28:20; Jer 17:16
For the sun NOT to be 'energetic' and with 'vigor' would poetically match the scenario quite well; the sun was 'quiet' and subdued as it traversed the sky behind the clouds. In other words, it never broke through the clouds in 'energetic' sunshine until 'the nation had avenged itself on its enemies'. That this is a poetic statement and not a simple prose observation can be seen from the actual presence of the word 'uts--it is not present in normal narrative descriptions of the sun going down (cf. Judg 14.18; 19.14). The text does not say 'it did not GO down for about a whole day' but that 'it did not HASTEN to go down...' (In fact, there is actually a different word most commonly used for 'hurry', the word mahar, but it is NOT used here.

The Psalmist poetically portrayed the sun's normal vigorous circuit in Ps 19.5-7:

Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat.
What this verse would mean under my understanding is something like (loose paraphrase): "and the sun was not energetic/shining as it was going through the sky on the way down, except toward the end of the day".

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:

  1. A pure hallucination. The sun and earth moved perfectly normally, but the battle combatants had the visual (coordinated!) of the sun standing still. [I don't know of anyone espousing this view.]
  2. A perspective distortion (type A). The sun and earth moved perfectly normally, but the battle combatants had the experience of the day "dragging out" or "stretching" due to the amount of activity compressed into it (e.g., getting two days work done in one). [e.g., KD]
  3. A perspective distortion (type B). The sun and earth moved perfectly normally, but the battle combatants had the experience of the sun standing still due to its location in the sky relative to the combatants. The battle was fought on a gradual slope, on which the enemies would have been looking directly into the rising sun at the inception of the battle. As the battle moved westward, the angle of the vision of the enemies would have increased at the same rate as the rising sun, with the appearance that the sun was staying 'still' in the same debilitating spot in their battle vision. This, of course, would have required the victory to have been completed by late morning, in which this 'angle' could still be reasonably small (allowing some 4-6 hours max). [e.g., Gordon in BANE]
  4. A distortion of light. In this scenario, the sun and earth moved perfectly normally, but the light from the sun was subjected to abnormal reflective/refractive forces, so that daylight (diffused) continued for a longer period of time than normal. [entertained by most long-day advocates]
  5. A slowdown in the rotation of the earth. In this scenario, the earth moved normally, but at a slower speed than normal, so that the sun appeared to (and did) move more slowly. [entertained by some long-day advocates]
It should be obvious that the first 4 of these 5 are local phenomena and that only #5 involves any significant non-local effects.

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:

Then God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years; 15 and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth"; and it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. 17 And God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. (Gen 1.14f)

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)

This intended-order would actually suggest that God would NOT make any vast changes/exceptions to these patterns, which patterns the world depended on for time-keeping.

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:

  1. The 'elite', with access to and skills for writing, would have been involved in the battle (it was a coalition of all the surrounding towns and villages-cf. Joshua 10.1-5).
  2. Any non-participants would have been extremely rural or isolated peasants.
  3. There were no major centers of learning and literacy around the area, in which more neutral observers might have seen the phenomena and recorded something (as someone might have done in Egypt or Babylon).
  4. There is the distinct possibility that this event would not have been distinctly noted for what it was (below).
And, as a matter of comparison, if we accept a date of c.1250 b.c. for this event, we have not a single literary/documentary remain from that area from within that period (plus or minus 100 years). That nothing 'worth writing down' occurred in this period/area is absurd, and this is compounded again by the problem of preservation. [We have plenty of documentary material for a couple of centuries earlier--the Amarna Tablets--so it wasn't the absence of at least 'scribal literacy'. But at the time of the Conquest, the Canaanite city-states were in quite disarray, and we literally have NO documentary works of theirs. There are isolated archeological remains from them, and we have one Egyptian document about Palestine at the time--Papyrus Anastasi I--dealing somewhat with geography of the land (ANET:475ff).]

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:

What this means is that the only time-measurement device that was independent of meteorological phenomena (i.e., sun, moon, stars) that was in use before the time of Christ was the clepsydra (water clock). And this device was only in use at Egypt at the time.

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:

  1. How many records do we have of this type of time measurement during this period?
  2. How likely would a 'double-day/long day' have prompted an independent literary account?
  3. How would an observer of this been likely to respond?
First A: How many records do we have of water-clock observations of ANY events in Egypt?
None. We only know about these clocks from three fragmentary specimens, ranging from mid-16th century to 600 bc. We have NO recorded information about them. [CBGR:236]. Some water-clocks (from later periods) survive with astronomical signs on them, suggesting they were used to 'time' the star paths at night [NHAAC:16-17].
Then B: How likely would a 'double-day/long day' have prompted an independent literary account?
This is somewhat difficult to assess. There are a number of questions under this one:
  1. How many people were actually watching the clocks?
  2. How many people were actually comparing sky-clocks and water-clocks, and under what circumstances?
  3. How many people were actually recording these comparisons?
  4. What did they do when/if the clocks disagreed?
One: As to the number of people watching the clocks, the only clue we have is that the number was confined to a tiny sub-segment of the priest-class. Astronomy was highly 'inexact' at this time and the water-clock was chiefly used to measure the length of the night (presumably for the observance of night rituals). The ancients very quickly learned that the 'fixed' segments of the night/day were different in length from day to day, and from season to season. And for those who did calendars by stars (e.g., Egypt with Sirius) this could vary year by year. But the evidence is so tiny for ANY "watchers" that we immediately find ourselves in that statistically insignificant sample-size that removes most of the force of Robby's argument. There just weren't enough candidates at that time watching the sky to generate even comparative observations.

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.

When the clocks disagreed-as a pattern-the ancient world simply changed the calendar!!! Since NONE of the sky-based years coincided (e.g., solar, lunar, star), the kings as far back as Hammarabi would 'add days' to the calendar on an ad-hoc basis. This process was called 'intercalation' and was performed on an as-needed basis until the 6th century b.c. Once scholar put it this way [BABY:188]:
"As in most ancient societies, the Mesopotamian calendar was lunar. The lunar year is marginally more than 11 days short of the solar year. Thus an extra month is required roughly every three years to keep the two calendars synchronized. Down to about 450 BC the regulation of the calendar was somewhat haphazard, as is illustrated by Hammurapi's decree: 'This year has a gap. Let the following month be called a second Elulu.' The king hastened to add that taxes must be paid by the 25th of the additional or intercalary month, not by the 25th of the following normal month!"
And another [CBGR:238]:
"To bring it in line with the solar year, it required the intercalation of an additional month every three years, sometimes every two. Until the middle of the first millennium this was always done ad hoc, when it became apparent that the lunar year was more than a month out from the solar year."
Egypt, even though it based its year on the rising of the star Sirius, instead of the moon patterns, also had to add extra months into their calendar [CBGR:231].

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]:

"Rather, at some unknown time, they abandoned the rule of schematic intercalation and, just like Athens and other Greek cities, practised intercalation according to their needs. From the Second Punic War to Caesar's reform in 45 BC, the pontifices adjusted the calendar at will."

"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."

Needless to the say, the 'flexibility' and inexactness of such a system would NOT encourage one to expect a huge amount of precision, concern, and exact prediction in such things as a one-off day (however weird it might have been).
Finally, C. Now let's think about question "c" for a minute...What might have happened if only ONE day was weird, and then everything went back to normal, especially that night? It is difficult to imagine anything really happening other that someone assuming it was a weird day. It's a little like a weird event in our own lives (at some level of analogy). If something really strange happens to me one day, I tend to wait to see if it repeats. If it never happens again, it goes into the 'unexplained phenomena' category and I cannot get much farther with it. Granted, the oddness of a long-day might be excessive enough to prompt comment-and this is Robby's point-but I cannot with any degree of confidence believe that it would have been so striking (or even noticeable enough) in the ancient world that I have been describing as to warrant such an unusual event as 'writing it down' in documentary fashion, especially by 'dozens' of peoples. [We have already seen this somewhat in the accounts of the Delian earthquake and the eruption of Vesusius.]
But we can provide some 'control data' in the case of the Egyptians. Since they would have been the only ones with the technology to even possibly detect a longer day, we can ask the question to what extent did they record OTHER types of irregular phenomena, such as eclipses. If they did not tend to record these, then our confidence that they would record a less-definite oddity such as a disagreement of water clocks and sundials will drop considerably.

Historians of astronomy provide a clear answer for us here [NHAAC:16-17]:

"For all that they were in possession of a script, they seem to have produced no regular records of planetary movements, eclipses, or other phenomena of a plainly irregular sort."
[The Babylonians, however, as we shall see below, wrote EVERYTHING down, but they had no technology at this time to adequately detect the problem.]

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:

  1. No one was keeping records of adequate precision to document this.
  2. It was only patterns of time dilation that warranted attention (a single event, of rather insipid character for everyone except the combatants, would have gotten no press).
  3. When there were major disagreements between the time-keeping systems and actual observations, the ancients adjusted the time-keeping system!
  4. We have no reason to believe that the impetus would have been there to prompt the infrequent actual production of a literary text.
Overall, then, I have to conclude that even in the more spectacular and extreme understanding of this miracle ('a twice-long period of daylight'), the practice of the ancient world argues that it simply would not have been recorded (and much less have survived to us).

[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.]:

"Alleged stories about a long day in Egyptian, Chinese and Hindu sources are difficult to validate. Similarly, the reports that some astronomers, and more recently some space scientists, have uncovered evidence for a missing day are difficult to vouch for. The claim by Edward Charles Pickering of the Harvard Observatory and Professor Totten of Yale that they had discovered a day missing from the annals of the heavens has never been substantiated, since no records exist to support it. It has been said in defense of this omission that the university officials preferred not to keep records of that sort in their archives. But that has not been demonstrated either."]
Again, it is simply the makeup and realities of the ancient world that defuse Robby's otherwise reasonable position.

Miracle Three: The reversal of the sun's course by Isaiah (for Hezekiah, somewhere around 702 BC).

In those days Hezekiah became mortally ill. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, "Thus says the Lord, 'Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.'" 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord, 3 and said, "Remember now, O Lord, I beseech Thee, how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in Thy sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, saying, 5 "Go and say to Hezekiah, 'Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David, "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. 6 "And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city."' 7 "And this shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that He has spoken: 8 "Behold, I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun on the stairway of Ahaz, to go back ten steps." So the sun's shadow went back ten steps on the stairway on which it had gone down. (Is 38.1ff)

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)

Although this passage has its exegetical difficulties as well (e.g., the "stairway" of Ahaz, ten whats?), at least we have a clearer notion of the miracle. The shadow on the "steps" inside Hezekiah's room is said to have moved position, in the direction OPPOSITE its normal direction of movement (perhaps symbolizing the 'turning back the clock' of Hezy's life). Robby has, from his description of the miracle as a 'reversal of the course of the sun' has made a rather significant assumption as to how the miracle was implemented. But as in the Joshua miracle we need to look closer.

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):

And Hezekiah prospered in all that he did. 31 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
This alone would indicate that we are talking about a localized miracle, and hence, a reflection/refraction of light miracle. Therefore, we should not really expect worldwide reports of this event, even aside from the arguments against that even being recorded (if noticed) elsewhere. [Again, from the above discussion, much of astronomical science did not get exact enough to notice these types of odd-events until the 6th century b.c., when Babylonian science came to Greece and the two were fused somewhat.]

But we need to ask a few more questions here:

Question 1. How big is 'in the land'? Could it mean 'throughout the land' and therefore possibly encompass a large enough population of people able, willing, equipped, motivated to write an independent account (separate from the account written by the Prophet Isaiah and perhaps Hezekiah)?

To think through this we first need to see if this makes any difference. In other words, are there enough literate people in Judah at this time for the 'whole land' to constitute a large enough base to make Robby's 'large numbers' argument work? What do we know about literacy in Israel at the time?

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:

"The survival of family documents from this community is not surprising; these argue for a level of literacy on a par with, or perhaps better than, that of the Egyptians among whom the Jewish settlers found themselves...More significant for us is the existence of what might be termed 'intellectual documents' among the Elephantine archives. These include the biography in Aramaic of the Persian king Darius...the wisdom-text known as the Story of Ahiqer, Egyptian romance translated into Aramaic."
But as early as the time of Hezekiah (and actually a bit earlier), we have definite indications of higher literacy capabilities in the Kingdom of Judah. Heaton, in discussing the stricter questions of formal education programs, points out some of the data [STOT:32-33]:
"However, the only incontrovertible archaeological evidence for schools in the Hebrew kingdoms is provided by the Siloam Tunnel inscription and the Lachish Letters. The Siloam Tunnel inscription, celebrating the completion of Hezekiah's amazing engineering feat in quarrying a tunnel nearly two thousand feet long, is written in regular Hebrew prose of the kind it is improbable you could learn at home. It records the triumphant moment when the two gangs, who had been working in the dark from opposite ends, finally met face to face: 'And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man towards his fellow, axe against axe.' The Lachish Letters give us further examples of classical Hebrew prose. Discovered in the ashes of a guard-room at the gate of Lachish, they were written on the eve of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem by the junior officer in charge of a military outpost. In one of the letters, he indignantly spurns the suggestion that he should seek the help of a scribe: 'And now thou hast sent a letter . . . And as for what my lord said, "Dost thou not understand?--call a scribe!", as Yahweh liveth no one hath ever undertaken to call a scribe for me . . .' This is an interesting witness both to his own ability to read and write and to the availability of professionals."

"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]"

Niditch has a somewhat more detailed and recent list of various evidences of early Israelite literacy, in her discussion of the relationship between orality and literacy [OT:OWWW:45-59]. She groups these into three categories: short texts, letters, and monuments. A brief outline of these are:

Short texts:

1. abecedaries (a string or list of Hebrew letters of the alphabet) [1200-100bc]

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)

1. 48 letters have been found from 700 bc-135 bc. Almost all of the letters come from military contexts, and one-fourth of them are from post-OT times (e.g., Bar Kochba). Some of these are described below.

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.]

Monumental Evidence:
1. The Siloam Tunnel inscription (mentioned above)

2. Two fragments of stone stelae in Jerusalem and one in Samaria.

This is an impressive list of evidence for somewhat high literacy. Although this collection of finds is quite tiny compared to what might have been produced in 300-500 years by millions and millions of people(!), its variety demonstrates enough literacy to 'count'. But, again, the literacy is specifically scribal, merchant, and military--not casual, literary, or even personal observations. In other words, the documents deal with issues of state, issues of commerce, and issues of war. There are NO references to known unusual astronomical events (e.g., eclipses, comets), unusual geological events (e.g., the earthquake in the time of Uzziah: Amos 1.1; Zech 14.5), or even catastrophic military events (e.g., the capture of Samaria by the Assyrians!).

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.

(1) If they DID experience it in their land, then this trip would in itself be a 'historical effect' of the miracle (only partially, since the real purpose of the trip was likely a political visit to enlist support against Assyria), but since it is incorporated in the bible (according to the criteria of Robby) it cannot be used as evidence. [Later tradition records that the Babylonian upstart at the time DID have at least an observatory in Babylon (Baby:115).]

(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.

(a) Babylon (unlike Egypt) recorded every event in the heavens they could find, and had done so for centuries. Their literature is filled with lists of astronomical, meteorological, geological, divination data. [But, remember, they are only NOW, at the time of Hezekiah, beginning to use a water clock, so time lengths they could not measure.]

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]:

"The bulk of astrological omen texts comes from the library of Assurbanipal. Some were written in Assur and Calah, and others were found in the south, the latter dating mainly from the later period and coming from Babylon, Borsippa, Uruk, Kish, and Nippur. A Middle Babylonian fragment found in Nippur and another found in Nuzi indicate the continuity of the tradition. The "canonical" series, consisting of at least seventy tablets, apart from excerpt texts and tablets with commentaries, is called Enuma Anu Enlil ("When Anu and Enlil . . .") after the first words of its solemn bilingual introit. The moon is treated in twenty-three tablets, then the sun, meteorological phenomena, the planets, and the fixed stars. The time and other circumstances of the disappearance of the old moon, its reappearance, its relation to the sun, and other data on eclipses, offer the "signs" which the series describes and interprets in detail. Less extensive treatment is given halos, strange cloud formations, and the movements of the planets (mainly the planet Venus) among the fixed stars. Meteorological phenomena--thunder, rain, hail, earthquakes--are believed to have ominous validity in matters of state and predict peace and war, harvest, and flood. In the archives in Nineveh have been preserved hundreds of reports of astrologers sent to the Assyrian kings in answer to queries occasioned by such phenomena."
Oates points out that these observations came from a network of observers and observatories [BABY:179]:
"Celestial omens were recorded in a series consisting of at least 70 tablets, known from its opening line as enuma Anu Enlil, 'when Anu and Enlil', in which observations relating to the moon alone occupy some 23 tablets. Celestial and meteorological phenomena - thunder, rain, hail, earthquakes - were thought of especial prophetic validity in matters relating to the king and state. In the Nineveh archives are preserved hundreds of reports sent by experts in the king's service, who functioned at a network of observatories throughout the country and whose responsibility it was to dispatch regular reports to the capital:
'The king has given me the order: Watch and tell whatever occurs ! So I am reporting to the king whatever seems to me to be propitious and well-portending and beneficial for the king, my lord, to know.'
"It would appear that some stations recorded celestial observations only, while at others the scribes, presumably those of more learned status, included in their reports ominous interpretations quoted from their vast compendia. By far the greatest number of these observation stations were in Babylonia - at Babylon, Borsippa, Dilbat, Nippur and Cutha - and the development of this specialized branch of ancient learning would seem to have been a particularly Babylonian contribution. A variety of astronomical texts show that at least two of these observatories, Babylon and Uruk, were still active in Seleucid times, while the Greek geographer Strabo mentions astronomical schools in Uruk and Borsippa and Pliny adds Sippar to the list. Extant copies of enuma Anu Enlil were actually written in Babylon, Borsippa, Dilbat, Nineveh, Assur and Kalhu.
Although the vast majority of observers/experts were in Babylonia, they obviously all weren't, as per Oates comment above. This certainly leaves room for Babylonian observers--either official or otherwise--to have been present in Jerusalem at the time of the sign.

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]:

"The bulk of these texts are administrative, dealing with agriculture, the textile industry, and trade in metals, but there is, in addition, a considerable quantity of school texts, such as bilingual vocabularies in Sumerian and Eblaite--the first of their kind known to history--and word-lists, not unlike the late onomastica, of which, significantly, some are identical with texts excavated at sites in Sumer. The discovery of a number of stories, hymns, and proverbs shows that the schooling of Ebla's scribes embraced literature as well as language, to which, on the evidence of a text written by a visiting professor from the Sumerian school at Kish, we may add mathematics. Those Old Testament scholars who imply that Israel lived in a cultural vacuum should ponder this early evidence of come-and-go between the scribal schools of the Ancient Near East."
This sharing of at least technical methods certainly extended to Israel. The substantial development of 'leisure' and liturgical literature under David (cf. the psalms written by the 'singers' of his appoinment) and of wisdom literature and natural history under Solomon included international exchanges, as evident from the description in 1 Kings 4.30:
And Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the sons of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all men, than Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was known in all the surrounding nations. 32 He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. 33 And he spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke also of animals and birds and creeping things and fish. 34 And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.
That international learning was of value to Israel can be seen from the inclusion of the gentiles Job and the Agur (Prov 30) in the OT writings. The usage of some foreign forms, but without the pagan content, is well attested in the OT. This normally would imply that Solomon imported scribal teachers from Egypt as he built up his scribal staff and educational system.

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:

"the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying- 2 thus says the Lord to me-"Make for yourself bonds and yokes and put them on your neck, 3 and send word to the king of Edom, to the king of Moab, to the king of the sons of Ammon, to the king of Tyre, and to the king of Sidon by the messengers who come to Jerusalem to Zedekiah king of Judah. 4 "And command them to go to their masters, saying, 'Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, thus you shall say to your masters," (Jer 27.1; cf. Ezek 17.15)

"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)

In addition to visiting dignitaries, there is the all-important fact of wholesale political marriages of the day. Compare Solomon's 700 wives, many of whom were from foreign countries such as Egypt, who undoubtedly would have both had entourages and been in frequent contact with their homelands, I King 11)

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]:

"Twice Merodach-Baladan established n Babylon a credible alternative to the power of the then ascendant Assyria: from the death of Shalmaneser (722) until he was ousted by Sargon in 710 and fled to Elam, and from the death of Sargon (705) until he was defeated by Sennacherib in 702. Indeed, such was his power that in 703 he had marched into central Babylon, gathered fresh allies among the Aramean tribes along the Tigris, and defeated the Assyrians at Kish. If we take 687 as a precise date for the death of Hezekiah and the fifteen years of 38:5 as an exact figure, the ambassadors came in 702. At this time Merodach-Baladan knew that Sennacherib's counter-offensive could not be long delayed and, with characteristic opportunism, he sought to prompt a diversionary rising in western Palestine."
Diplomatic messaging is the most likely way that Babylon might have heard about the sign.

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.

So, what 'kind' of miracle was it?

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):

"We are not, of course, to suppose that the sun in the sky and the shadow on the sun-dial went back at the same time...So far as the miracle is concerned, the worlds of the text do not require that we should assume that the sun receded, or the rotation of the earth was reversed...but simply affirm that there was a miraculous movement backward of the shadow upon the dial, which might be accounted for from a miraculous refraction of the rays of the sun, effected by God at the propeht's prayer, of which slight analoga are met with in the ordinary course of nature."

"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)

Let's try to sum up the discussion on this passage:
1. We don't have any real textual reason to suppose that anything more than movement of a shadow is involved (and therefore, nothing wider than Hezekiah's room need be involved).

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.

So, I have to conclude that I do not feel compelled by the argument that this miracle was worldwide and therefore should have been recorded by large numbers of people.

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:

1. The dynamics of orality, literacy, and writing production in the ANE do not support Robby's assumptions in general.

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')

So, for the period of these three miracles (1400-700 bc), I have to conclude that Robby's overall position is unwarranted and in fact, contradicted by what we know about ancient literacy and some control data. And, therefore, the Challenge that is based upon that foundation, has no force whatsover relative to the argument from silence.

On now to the events in the life of Jesus...

The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)