One of the more controversial things I do in class is help my students understand that “acts of God” and supernatural events in the Bible (and other holy books) might have natural explanations, explanations that were unavailable and unimaginable to people in ancient times. To teach this concept I use two examples: demon possessions, and the event of the Nile River turning into blood, as described in the Exodus story. I will first address the issue of demon possessions.
Given the total lack of medical and scientific knowledge during Biblical times, it is easy to understand why and how people back then may have confused epileptic seizures for demon possessions. Literally speaking, it was the best explanation they could come up with.
Many of my students believe in demon possessions, but most do not. But they all agree that a paramedic kit is more important to have around than an exorcist kit. And they all agree they would first call 911 and seek medical assistance before calling a priest to perform and exorcism.
By suggesting to my students that demon possessions (as described in the Bible) could have been seizures I have put myself at odds with some conservative Christian parents and pastors. Consequently, I have been accused of calling into question the “truthfulness” of the Bible in my classroom, an accusation that fueled threats of lawsuits against me and the school district back in 1996. Over the years I have made it very clear to my critics and students that I am not calling into question the “legitimacy” of Bible, but rather the ability of people two thousand years ago – who had absolutely no modern-day understanding of the material world – to scientifically understand and explain natural phenomena.
Another example that I bring to the attention of my students is the story of God turning the Nile River into blood, the first plague on Egypt sent by God to force Pharaoh into emancipating the Hebrew slaves. Most of my students are aware of the story, but most are not aware that rivers, lakes, and streams often turn brilliant red. Red algae or suspended sediments can turn water red, it is a natural phenomenon. Is this what really happened in Egypt during biblical times? This is a question I expect my students to seriously consider.
The below photos are some recent examples of water during blood-red. The first one is a lake in Australia, the next is the Yangtze River in China, and the bottom one is a small stream in Texas.
I tell my students it is easy to understand how people in the ancient world may have seen water, as pictured in the above photos, as “blood” and an “act of God.” However, for people who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, this kind of challenging-a-student-to-think approach is an attack on the Bible and God. I disagree. To ignore the possibility, to “shelter” students from discussions about how some natural events were completely misunderstood by the people in biblical times who wrote about them, is to deny students an opportunity to gain new insights into the Bible and the people who wrote it. Your thoughts? I would love to hear them.