Mini-Book Review: Sivertsen’s The Parting of the Sea

Book: Sivertsen, Barbara J. The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Looks like: Sivertsen - Parting of the Sea

Subject matter: largely the connection between tectonic and volcanic factors, like volcanic eruptions in western Arabia (the ‘harrat’) and dual eruptions of Mediterranean volcanoes (one, famously, the huge eruption of Thera/Santorini in the Aegean Sea about 1600 BC), and…

  • The plagues of Egypt described in Exodus 7-11;
  • The Red Sea crossing;
  • Events surrounding Mount Sinai, described in Exodus 19-24 and beyond;
  • Other wilderness experiences;
  • The defeat of Jericho, and other events related to the (now much-disputed) conquest of Canaan associated with Joshua;
  • And thus, to resolve the question of the dating of the Exodus events.

Pluses:

  • Solid research in the relevant fields, as it seemed to me, including studies in Exodus, OT historiography and the geology of the region of Palestine
  • Awareness of what I think is a real factor in Israel’s history as described in the OT, that is, the place of tectonic/volcanic events. These seem to be a rich source of OT metaphors (e.g. in Psalm 46, or early in Micah 1), which suggests some real experience of such events by Israel or her ancestors.
  • An instinct for integrating disparate facts into a coherent whole
  • An at times apt feel for the way cultures may represent past experiences in story form
  • The courage not to abandon, as many biblical scholars have, any quest for real historical background to the earlier narratives of the OT. It is difficult, admittedly, to clarify the historical scenes lying behind the narratives of Exodus, or Numbers, or Joshua. But it represents a kind of cowardly resignation, if that isn’t too strong, to simply declare these narratives utterly unrelated to history. It’s a petulant alternative to having to admit to not knowing as much as we’d like to know.

Minuses:

  • An inclination to utilize almost exclusively naturalistic explanations. I think to do justice to OT presentations of the ‘signs’ of God’s dramatic work on his people’s behalf, we must neither prohibit natural factors, since I don’t think that biblical writers drew a sharp line here the way we do, nor limit ourselves exclusively to natural factors, since they certainly didn’t do that either. I felt as if Sivertsen was undertaking a program of demythologization.
  • A desire to explain too much, i.e. to leave no overlap of mystery. I’m always a little suspicious when a scheme presents as removing all mystery from what must, at such a historical remove, remain somewhat mysterious. It comes out too ‘neat’ in my opinion.
  • A complex explanation, of “two volcanic eruptions and two exoduses related to the Exodus found in the Bible” (p. 148)
  • A speculative explanation, that relies too much on a hypothetical reconstruction of events that is difficult to either verify or falsify.

Outro: a great book for introduction to the issues involved in seeking historical connections, causes and explanations for the narratives of Exodus to Joshua. You can learn a lot from Sivertsen’s solid grasp of the data, but I would advise caution about accepting her conclusions.

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