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Thought for the Week: Passover: What really happened?

On the Wednesday evening before Easter, Jews worldwide will sit down to re-tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  The timing is not coincidental; it’s the evening of the Last Supper.

Is this story in the Torah fact or fiction?

The Torah (the Jewish name for the five books of the Old Testament) is the eventual reduction to writing of a bardic tradition of story-telling. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that it was handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai in complete written form, but that’s a bit improbable given that it describes Moses’ subsequent death.  And, if you read it aloud, the similarity with the Greek poet Homer – another product of a bardic tradition of story-telling – is overwhelming.

As Einstein memorably observed, “religion without science is blind, but science without religion is deaf”.  So let’s try a scientific explanation.

There are three key pointers.

The first is the crossing of the Reed (not Red) Sea.  Although there are a number of possible locations for the crossing point, it was probably in Northern Sinai and exposed to the Mediterranean Sea.  And there is a clear scientific explanation for the narrated facts – a tsunami.

The second is the pillars of cloud and fire, which are first mentioned in Exodus 13, shortly after Moses leads the Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt. The narrative states that the pillar of cloud went ahead of them by day to guide their way, and the pillar of fire by night, which had the additional advantage of giving them light.  But the scientific explanation would be some form of atmospheric disturbance.

The third comes from a detailed examination of the Ten Plagues.  Setting aside the Tenth Plague – the death of the first-born – which was probably a propitiary sacrifice to the Egyptian Gods, a scientific analysis looks like this:










The waters of the Nile turning to blood and the death of its fish.

This must have a chemical cause.  It might be an algal bloom.  It might also be cinnabar, which is a deep red mercury (and therefore highly toxic) sulphide mineral.  The latter would be present in volcanic ash.






Either way, frogs in the Nile would have got out pretty fast!






If the first plague were caused by cinnabar, then there would have been many dead animals (and indeed humans) where these could have bred.









Livestock pestilence


These are suggestive of atmospheric disturbance, with acid rain landing on human skin and animal grazing areas.














The humidity caused by the hail and acid rain would have created optimal conditions for locusts to flourish.






Another product of atmospheric disturbance.


So the overwhelming common feature lies in the aftermath of a massive volcanic explosion.  And there was one!

In around 1630 BCE, there was just such an explosion on the Greek island of Thera (now known as Santorini, which looks like a mint with a hole, mitigated by an incredible number of jewellery shops).

One of its recorded consequences was the beginning of the end for the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, as Akrotiri on the northern coast was overwhelmed. That is consistent with the southern onward movement of the tsunami.

Now it has to be said that all dates from this period are uncertain, so this theory cannot be proven.  And its truth or otherwise does not detract from the symbolism of Passover as an eternal festival of freedom.


Philip Goldenberg

Member of the Jewish Faith


Date: Wednesday 22nd March 2023


Saturday 7th September 2024 International Peace Day

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