Childs on the Red Sea, Manna, and Natural Causes

For my write-up today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, I will talk some about his treatment of two topics: the Red Sea event in Exodus 14, and the manna.  In Childs’ discussion of these topics, he mentions the debate between naturalism (which tries to discern a natural cause behind events in the Bible) and supernaturalism (which accepts miracles in the Bible as miracles, flowing from God’s direct intervention).

Regarding the Red Sea event in the Book of Exodus, Childs on pages 220-221 defines the portrayal of this event in J and P.  (P, according to Childs, draws some from E.)  In J, the Egyptians are coming after Israel, and a cloud turns into darkness and conceals the Israelites.  A strong east wind “lays the bed of the sea bare”, and the panicking Egyptians flee towards it.  The water “flows back into its own bed”, and the Egyptians are drowned.  According to Childs, J does not present the Israelites crossing the sea, or even moving during this incident, for that matter.  P(E), by contrast, has the story that many of us know from such movies as The Ten Commandments: God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, the Egyptians pursue the Israelites, Moses (at God’s command) raises his staff over the water, the water parts into two walls, the Israelites cross, and the waters close over the Egyptians.  Many have maintained that J presents a natural cause for the Red Sea event—a wind—whereas P’s account portrays the event as miraculous and supernatural in origin.

Regarding the story of the manna in Exodus 16, what often gets discussed is the existence in North Arabian deserts (and elsewhere) of naturally-formed manna-like food.  Childs describes it on pages 282-283:

“There forms from the sap of the tamarisk tree a species of yellowish-white flake or ball, which results from the activity of a type of plant lice…The insect punctures the fruit of the tree and excretes a substance from this juice.  During the warmth of the day it melts, but it congeals when cold.  It has a sweet taste.  The pellets or cakes are gathered by the natives in the early morning and, when cooked, provide a sort of bread.  The food decays quickly and attracts ants.  The annual crop in the Sinai peninsula is exceedingly small and in some years fails completely.  The similarity in the description of the biblical manna and the natural desert substance certainly suggests some historical connection.”

Childs refers to different approaches to this information.  Some dismiss the miracle of manna by saying that there was a natural cause for it.  Some affirm that God can work through natural means.  Others are threatened by this information and seek to demonstrate that the manna indeed was a miracle—that it is different from the natural desert substance.  (One thing I’d like to note: Childs says that the annual crop of this substance is low in the Sinai peninsula, so wouldn’t it have been unusual—if not miraculous—for the Israelites to be sustained by the substance for over forty years?)

And Childs shows that this sort of debate is not modern.  Ben Sira 38:5 may be saying that the natural properties of the tree made the bitter water sweet in Exodus 15:22-27, for Ben Sira in the context of that passage is talking about medicines and God’s use of physicians.  In Ben Sira 38, Ben Sira seems to prefer the notion that God uses natural causes.  Josephus seeks to rationalize the story of the manna to make it appear genuine and credible to his readers (Antiquities 3.26ff.).  For the Red Sea event, however, Josephus rationalizes in some areas, but not in others.  Josephus presents Moses striking the sea with his staff, and he doesn’t even mention the east wind.  At the same time, Josephus asserts that “Moses chose his route by means of a clever calculation” (Childs’ words on page 230).  Josephus also mentions a time when Alexander the Great “was offered a passage through the sea”, and he “allows that it could have been ‘by the will of God or maybe by accident'” (Childs’ words on page 230).  There were also medieval discussions on whether the manna was natural or miraculous in origin.

On the Red Sea event, Childs disagrees with the historical-critical approach of simply attributing a naturalistic belief-system to J, and a supernaturalistic belief-system to P, as P came after J.  Rather, Childs refers to the biblical writer or redactor, who brought both of these traditions together to stand side-by-side, with neither superseding the other.  The story of the Red Sea event is about God upholding his divine plan against human opposition to it, and, in accomplishing this, God uses both natural causes and also Moses, who executes God’s wonderful feats.  Childs looks at the final form of the text.

On the manna, Childs affirms that what is important is that Israel knew the power of God by receiving the manna.  Childs says this in the midst of a discussion on pages 300-303 about how to view Scripture: he rejects the harmonization approach of apologists, but also the notion that Scripture merely flows from human imagination.  His emphasis is on Scripture being God’s human vehicle for a community of faith.  Yet, Childs also says that it is for the world.

I do not know if Childs believes that the story of the manna is historical.  He appears to accept source critical interpretations of Exodus 16, which hold that it represents a different tradition from Numbers 11.  (Numbers 11 presents the quail coming when the Israelites are tired of manna, whereas Exodus 16 says that God brought both quail and manna at the outset.)  The way that Childs often handles Scriptural diversity is by saying that we are seeing different witnesses.  But is there a historical event behind the witnesses?  Or are we just dealing with stories that communicate theological points about God?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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