Between Migdol and the Sea: book review

The subtitle of this book by frequent PT commenter Carl Drews is “Crossing the Red Sea with faith and science.” Mr. Drews achieved a modicum of fame a few years ago for his master’s thesis, in which he speculated that Moses and his followers had crossed the Sea of Reeds during a wind setdown, that is, an event where the wind blows so hard on a body of water that the water level on the windward side drops, sometimes to 0. It is in some sense the opposite of a storm surge.

Judging by the book, it was a splendid master’s thesis indeed! Mr. Drews carefully evaluated possible locations, chose one, and modeled it, showing that the wind setdown could plausibly have occurred for a plausible wind velocity. See here for Mr. Drews’s own brief description of his work. Sorry, Cecil B. DeMille, no walls of water!

I thought the book went downhill from here. Mr. Drews, though he denies it, is virtually a biblical literalist. To be sure, he is far more sophisticated than, say, Ken Ham or even Hugh Ross. He knows that the parts of the Bible that so bemuse Mr. Ham are poetry and not to be taken seriously. But he states flatly that he believes in the miracles that Jesus of Nazareth purportedly performed and thinks that they were a suspension of natural law. And he believes firmly that the Exodus happened as described in the Bible, so he looks for evidence how it happened, rather than whether it happened. A wind setdown is certainly plausible but has little more hard evidence to support it than the idea that the plagues were caused by the eruption of the Thera volcano.

Now I am sympathetic with the position that many of the stories in the Bible are based on fact, and I liked Mr. Drews’s discussion of minimalism – the concept that, if it is not in the archaeological record, then it did not happen. I have often used a similar argument to one of Mr. Drews: If the stories are not true, then why are the heroes often flawed? Even Moses, the greatest man who ever lived (up till that time, anyway) is a stutterer. No one wrote novels in those days; the characters are flawed because the stories are true. OK, more or less true.

But Mr. Drews, to my mind, goes a step too far: He writes, “As a lifelong Christian, I believed that the [Exodus] story had happened – somehow. But I didn’t know how.” It is hard not to infer that he presumes the Exodus story to be true and then seeks to support that contention (I almost said hypothesis, but that is the point; for Mr. Drews the truth of the Bible is not a hypothesis, even when he thinks he is wearing his “scientific hat”). Not that there is no evidence: there is certainly evidence, but nothing outside the Bible to suggest the departure of thousands of Hebrews and the complete annihilation of an Egyptian army.

The book spends far too much time with back-of-the-envelope calculations to establish that the Exodus took place during the reign of Rameses II. For example, Mr. Drews notes that a generation in the Bible is 40 years. That is too long for the conclusion he wants to draw, so he defines a generation as the age of a man when he has his first child. His estimate of 25 years seems far too old, unless the ancient Hebrews had perfected some long lost method of birth control. His estimate of the number of people who left with Moses, approximately 36,000, is based solely on scripture and seems far too high to me, but it is nowhere near the (absurd) biblical number of 600,000 men.

I found the chapter, “Faith and science in harmony,” to be completely unconvincing. The question really is whether a specific religious belief is in harmony with science; most readers will agree, for example, that young-earth creationism is not in harmony with science. The question, then, is not whether faith and science are in harmony, but rather whether specific religious beliefs conflict with scientific reality. The belief that Jesus (or God) suspended natural law, even occasionally, is not, I think, in harmony with science.

Additionally, I do not think that Mr. Drews understands the God-of-the-gaps fallacy: It is that, if science cannot explain something, then God did it. Contrary to Mr. Drews, the converse is not part of the fallacy; we do not deny the existence of God just because we think we understand something. I infer from Mr. Drews’s discussion of scientific ethics in the same chapter that he thinks that morality (not to mention civility) comes from God. If so, then I suggest that he read up on the Euthyphro dilemma, which as far as I know is still not solved. There is, in any case, no evidence that believers are more motivated, more honest, or less inclined to “cut corners in research,” and the suggestion is frankly offensive.

The book is self-published and shows what is good about self-publishing and also what is bad about self-publishing. The paper and quality are good. The book is well and clearly written, though the going is tough at times, as when Mr. Drews describes the wind setdown or his conclusions as to the route through the desert and the actual location of Mount Sinai. I thought there was considerably too much anecdote and personal history, but that may be a matter of taste.

In other respects, the book is very amateurish, not least the first two chapters, which are the script of a short play depicting the hours before and during the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. The book, unfortunately, looks like it came straight out of LibreOffice, untouched by human hands. Most seriously, the author did not worry about locating figures properly on a page, and often, when a figure did not fit, it is preceded by a large white space on the preceding page. In other places the caption of a figure bleeds over onto the next page and looks exactly like text, without even a double space to separate the caption from the text. The index should have subentries when the number of pages in a given entry is too large, more than perhaps 5 or 6. The important archaeologists Kathleen Kenyon and William Dever are not found in the index at all, though they are cited in the chapter discussing the chronology of the Exodus. Some of the figures must have originally been in color, but now they are black and white; the caption, however, refers to color, and color is critical to understanding the figure. Least important, I suppose, compositors generally use italics, not boldface for emphasis.

Much of this book is carefully thought out. It should have been the kind of book I wanted to read, a book that tries to dope out what truly happened during the Exodus, with no preconceptions. The wind setdown hypothesis was well worth pursuing, but thereafter the book became tedious and even perhaps a bit tendentious; more than once the author shows that something is plausible and then smugly proclaims science and religion to be in harmony. Perhaps, but he needs to be much more convincing.

Acknowledgment. Carl Drews generously agreed to review this manuscript and made several helpful suggestions.