SEVEN BIBLE MIRACLES EXPLAINED
(Revised with corrections from Investigator 58, 1998 January.)
REASONS TO ACCEPT SEVEN MIRACLES
Time magazine reported:… prominent theologians are working furiously to disprove the miracles in the Bible. (1995 August 7 p. 56)I'll examine seven miracles and give reasons to believe they happened. The reasons are that they are physically possible or have happened on other occasions.
SWALLOWED ALIVE INTO SHEOL…the ground under them split asunder; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men that belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. (Numbers 16:25-35; 26:10; Deuteronomy 11:6-7; Psalm 106:16-18)
An article in New Scientist (1996 December 21/28 pp. 27-29) suggests a possible explanation.
In June 1692 an earthquake hit Port Royal, Jamaica, and killed 2,000 people. The town stood at the tip of a 16-kilometre sandy spit. The sand was loosely packed to a depth of 20 metres and saturated with water.
The earthquake vibrated the sand and made it soft like quicksand and the town sank. Buildings went straight down. Some victims were thrown up again by upwellings of water.
When the quake stopped the sand stopped vibrating and solidified again. Some victims who had kept their heads above the sand were then squeezed to death.
The New Scientist writer explained:Any sand can become quicksand… It's just ordinary sand with the grains kept apart, usually by upwelling water, so that it behaves like a liquid.In June 1964 part of the Japanese city of Niigata (population 340,000) sank for the same reason. An earthquake caused "liquefaction". John E Butler explains:…in alluvial deposits which are saturated in the lower and middle levels, vibrations can cause the water to rise to the surface, saturating all the alluvium. The loss of friction between silt particles lowers the supporting ability of the material, and buildings sink into the mud.Another possible explanation of "the ground under them split asunder…and the earth closed over them" is that an earthquake opened a crevasse perhaps along a fault line and then closed it again.
(Natural Disasters 1976 Heinemann Educational Australia p. 15)
While on this topic let's clear up a confusion. After stating "the earth closed over them" the Bible says "fire…consumed 250 men..." (v. 35)
Numbers 16:1-2 introduced two groups of rebels. One group, led by Korah, consisted of 250 prominent men. The second group was led by Dathan and Abiram. The two groups suffered different punishments. The Dathan/Abiram group plus Korah (Numbers 26:10) sank into the ground. Korah's 250 followers were subsequently burned up.
JORDAN STOPPED; JERICHO's WALLS TUMBLE
Amos Nur in New Scientist (1991 July 6 pp. 39-42) attributed the stopping of the Jordan River (Joshua 3) and the falling of the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6) to earthquakes.
In 1927 an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale had its epicentre under a plain 15 kilometres north of Jericho. Over thirty destructive quakes have hit the region since 117 BC. Josephus, for example, mentions the destruction of the town of Qumran (of Dead Sea scroll fame) in 31 BC with 10,000 dead.
Joshua chapter 3 records that the Jordan River stopped flowing and this enabled the Israelites to easily cross over into the Promised Land.
The 1927 quake caused a mud-slide which stopped the river. This also happened in 1906, 1834, 1546, 1534, 1267 and 1160.
Probably, therefore, a timely earthquake explains the "miracle" of the Jordan ceasing its flow for the Israelites. The Bible says the Israelites set up twelve stones to mark the location as a memorial. (Joshua 4) This could be future additional confirmation when archaeologists find them!
Nur suggests an earthquake leveled the Jericho of Joshua's time:There is little doubt that the walls of Jericho have collapsed several times in its 10 000-year history. (p. 42)However, Bible chronology puts the demise of the Jericho of Joshua's time to the mid 14th century BC. But in the 1950s the late British archaeologist Kathleen Kenson gave 1550 BC. The discrepancy was used by many critics as proof that the Biblical record is mythical.
Newer research indicates the error lies with Kenson, not with the Bible. (Time, Score One for the Bible 1990 March 5 p. 55)
THE FLOATING AXE HEAD
The prophet Elisha was building a house by the Jordan River:But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water; and he cried out, "Alas my master! It was borrowed." Then the man of God [Elisha] said, "Where did it fall?" When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. And he said, "Take it up." So he reached out his hand and took it. (2 Kings 6:5-7)The location on the Jordan was probably east of Gilgal. The river there may have been 1½ metres deep and perhaps 20 metes wide.
The word for "cut off" is qatsab and also means "to shape" or "to form" with a tool. That is, Elisha "shaped a stick". In 1 Kings 6:25 a similar word qetseb is used of two statues of angels which both had the same "form".
What may have happened is that Elisha shaped a stick so that one end was flat. Then with the flat end he lifted the axe head from the river bottom and brought it to the surface. To do this would have required both luck and skill. But it's less of a "miracle" than an iron axe head floating.
Another explanation is that the wooden handle broke. The iron axe-head plus remaining part of the wooden handle combined, were only slightly denser than water. So if left to itself the axe would sink but if stirred with a stick it would rise.
SUNDIAL SHADOW TURNS BACK
King Hezekiah of Judah was given a sign as proof that God would save Jerusalem from destruction by the Assyrians. The sign was:I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps. So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined. (Isaiah 38:6-8)Christian fundamentalists often claim God suspended the laws of physics and changed the motion and position of planet Earth.
Benjamin Scott F.R.A.S. gave a simpler explanation:The going back of the shadow on the dial has repeatedly been noticed, even in the present [19th] century. It is dependent, not on astronomical, but on meteorological causes. The shadow is not invariably dependent upon the position of the sun, but upon the brightest point of light in the sky. If when the sun nears the western horizon a dark impenetrable cloud covers the orb, the shadow will be cast by the bright silver lining of the cloud, which may be near the zenith, and the shadow will repeat nearly a quarter of the circle. In the present century an instance is recorded by the Canon of Metz Cathedral. In the case under consideration, the object was the satisfaction of Hezekiah that the promise made to him was from God. The prophet is accordingly directed to foretell, as a sign, a natural phenomenon which was about to occur.
(Quoted in Bible Study Monthly January/February 1995 which gave the author's name but not the reference)
LOAVES AND FISH
Jesus is said to have fed "five thousand men, besides women and children" with five loaves and two fish. (Matthew 14:13-21) On another occasion he fed 4,000 people with seven loaves. (Mark 8:1-9)
Most Fundamentalists see these accounts as implying a supernatural creation of matter in the form of extra food.
Other commentators see these reports as reports of Jesus' teachings on generosity and sharing being applied. Jesus, for example, taught:Give to him who begs from you... Matthew 5:42The two stories can therefore be interpreted as people sharing food they had brought with them and concealed on themselves.
Give, and it will be given to you. Luke 6:38
It is more blessed to give than to receive. Acts 20:35
Also Luke 19:8; Matthew 7:12
Perhaps the disciples distributed the first loaves to individuals who already had ample food, thereby shaming them into sharing what they had. Children given food would show their joy more obviously than adults. The sharing and the joy would make further sharing contagious, spontaneous.
The miracle then, if this scenario is reasonable, is a "miracle" of sharing, a "miracle" of generosity.
MIRACLE OF THE FISH
Some disciples fished from a boat all night and caught nothing. Jesus spoke from the beach and told them to, "cast the net from the right side of the boat..." They then netted 153 fish. (John 21:1-11)
New Scientist reported that the Sea of Galilee (=Sea of Tiberias; = Lake Kinneret) is slightly salty because some saline springs punch through the mud on the sea floor and bring up salt. (1996 December 21/28 p. 6)
The report quoted Ami Nisri of the Lake Kinneret Research Laboratory:For some reason, fish like to gather around them. It's probably that they prefer the slightly higher temperature of the water, rather than liking the more saline environment.We can speculate that Jesus knew about the fish gathering at certain spots. While he spoke to the disciples the boat may have drifted a little to just such a place!
New Scientist does not say how far the saline springs are from the shore. But the map accompanying the report indicates the distance given in the Bible could be right – "two hundred cubits" or about 90 metres. (Verse 8)
Some "miracles" of the Bible can be explained as applications of psychology – such as the feeding of the five thousand.
Some other "miracles" can be explained as examples of precise timing. Control over nature in some of the "miracles" occurs, not in the sense of suspending the laws of nature but in the sense of knowing nature so well that the right actions by humans occur at just the right time to produce, or coincide with, desired results.
If any of these events are historically proven we'll need to ask, "Who knows nature so well as to arrange the precise integration of natural events with human actions to produce the desired consequences?"
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