How Likely Is It?
How Likely Is It?
When Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites from Egyptian bondage,
the Hebrew god Yahweh per- formed wonders unlike anything the world had
ever seen. Ten plagues were rained down on Egypt with the implication--and
sometimes even direct statement--that the Israelites were spared the
horrors of the plagues. When hordes of flies swarmed over Egypt, the land
of Goshen, where the Israelites dwelt, was "set apart" so that "no swarms
of flies [would] be there" (Ex. 8:22). Likewise, when the plague of
murrain decimated the flocks of Egypt, the livestock of the Israelites was
spared (9:6). When the hail came, which was more grievous than any hail
that had ever struck Egypt (9:24), none fell on the Israelites in the land
of Goshen (v:26). When darkness fell over the land, the Israelites "had
light in their dwellings" (10:23), and when the firstborn of Egypt were
struck dead, the firstborn of the Israelites were saved through the
To say the least, those Israelites witnessed some amazing miracles
while Moses and Aaron worked to gain their release from bondage, but the
wonders didn't cease when Pharaoh finally relented and gave permission for
the people to leave Egypt. They saw Yahweh going before them in "a pillar
of cloud" by day and in "a pillar of fire" by night (13:21). And these
were not just occasional appearances that Yahweh made to the people,
because "the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night
departed not from before the people" as they marched out of Egypt
One would certainly think that the Israelites, having personally seen
all of these wonders, would have been supremely confident that the power
of Yahweh was on their side and would deliver them from all harm on their
journey to the promised land, but such was not the case. They were no
sooner under way when their faith began to waver. After letting the
Israelites go, Pharaoh experienced a change of heart and gathered an army
to go after them. As the Egyptian army drew near, the people cried out in
protest to Moses:
"Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt
with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, `Let us alone that we may
serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilder-
If there is such a thing as ingratitude, these bellyaching Israelites had
to be the all-time champions of it. Their God had performed unprecedented
wonders to obtain their release from slavery and was journeying with them
in the pillars of cloud and smoke, but then at the first sign of
trouble--without even giving Yahweh a chance to do his stuff--they raised
their voices in rebellion.
This reaction of the Israelites, after all the signs and wonders they
had personally seen, makes the exodus story impossible to believe. If they
had actually seen the plagues and been miraculously spared their
horrifying effects, and if on their journey to the Red Sea they had
actually seen their almighty god traveling with them in pillars of cloud
and fire, a more probable response to their seeing the Egyptian army
overtaking them would have been incredulous amusement. "Well, just look
at those stupid Egyptians," would have been a more likely reaction. "When
are they ever going to learn!"
A critical reader, rather than swallowing stories like these just
because they happen to be in the Bible, will apply the same common sense
methods of interpretation to them that he would use in analyzing any other
book. Carl Lofmark expressed the common-sense method to biblical
interpretation like this:
When you lack evidence, the only way to decide whether or not to believe something is to ask: Is it likely? If you tell
me a bird flew past my window, I will probably believe you, even though I did not see it myself and I have no evidence.
That is because such a thing is likely. I have seen it happen before. It is more likely that a bird flew past my window, than
that you are deceiving me. But if you tell me a pig flew past my window, I will not believe you, because my past experience
tells me that such things do not happen, and so I presume that what you reported is false. Thus, where there is no evi-
dence we have to rely on our own past experience of the sort of things that really happen (What Is the Bible? pp. 41-42).
Lofmark applied this principle to several biblical stories-- Noah's flood,
the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension, etc.--to demonstrate
that much of what is written in the Bible cannot pass the test of
likeliness. In the absence of corroborating evidence, he concluded, the
rational reader will view such stories to be only myths and legends in the
same way that similar stories in the literature of other nations of that
era must be regarded as myths and legends.
If we apply this principle of likeliness to the events summarized
above from the exodus story, we have to conclude that they aren't very
believable. These Israelites had seen Yahweh perform many wonders just
days before and (according to the story) they knew that this almighty
deity was journeying with them out of Egypt, so how likely is it that,
under these circumstances, they would have so soon forgotten all of those
signs and wonders and been reduced to the shivering cowards who cried out
in fear and anguish upon seeing the Egyptian army coming in pursuit? It
just doesn't make sense to believe that they would have so reacted with
tangible evidence of Yahweh's presence fresh in their memories and even
right before their eyes in the cloud pillar overhead.
Even if we could somehow convince ourselves that the conduct of the
Israelites at this point in the exodus was believable, as we continued to
read, we would immediately encounter a long string of even more unbeliev-
able events. As the Egyptian army approached, Moses stretched out his
hand, and the waters of the Red Sea parted to allow the Israelites to
cross on dry land. The water formed walls on both sides as the people
marched across (14:21-22), and when their pursuers followed them into the
midst of the sea, Yahweh "looked down upon the army of the Egyptians
through the pillar of fire and cloud" and caused the wheels of their
chariots to fall off (vv:24- 25). Moses stretched out his hand again, and
the walls of water came back together and engulfed the Egyptians. "Not so
much as one of them remained" (vv:27-28).
Surely, in the entire history of mankind, no one had ever witnessed a
miracle as amazing as the one that those Israelites witnessed on that day.
One would think that after seeing the power of Yahweh wielded so deci-
sively on their behalf, the people would have been loyal to him till
death, but, if we are to believe the Bible, it didn't happen that way.
The last ripples in the sea had hardly settled when the people began to
bellyache again. They sang a hymn of praise to Yahweh and turned inland
to march across the Sinai, but they had traveled only three days from the
Red Sea when they began to complain because there was no water to drink
So we must again ask ourselves, "How likely is this?" Must we believe
that the people who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea could so soon
forget the power and majesty of their god Yahweh that they would complain
about a shortage of water? Which of them could have possibly been so
utterly dense of intellect that they would not have known that supplying
drinking water would have been next to nothing for a god who could forge a
path through the Red Sea? In fact, supplying them drinking water is
exactly what Yahweh did (accord- ing to the story). At the bitter
(nonpotable) waters of Marah, Yahweh showed Moses a tree, which Moses cast
into the waters, and they "were made sweet" (vv:23-24). So, just like
that, the mighty hand of Yahweh had again supplied the people's need.
If any of these miraculous events were real, by now the people would
surely have realized that no situation that they encountered would be too
difficult for their god Yahweh to take care of, but such was not the case.
On the 15th day of the second month of their journey, the "whole
congregation of the children of Israel mur- mured against Moses and
against Aaron in the wilderness" (16:2):
"Oh, that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate
bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
One wonders why Yahweh didn't at this point strike the entire mob of
ingrates dead, but, of course, he didn't. Yahweh said to Moses that he
would "rain bread from heaven" so that the people could go out each day to
gather what they would need on that day but on the sixth day gather a
double portion (v:4), presumably so that they would not have to (gasp!)
desecrate the sabbath, which wasn't even consecrated until three chapters
later in the narrative. Moses and Aaron then called the people together,
who looked "toward the wilderness" and beheld "the glory of Yahweh" in the
cloud. Yahweh spoke from the cloud to tell them that he would also pro-
vide the people with meat at twilight (vv:9-12).
So how did Yahweh fulfill this promise to provide bread and meat?
Well, when evening fell, quails came in and covered the camp and dew "lay
all around" (v:13). When the dew lifted, the ground was covered with a
frostlike substance that the people gathered to eat. This substance, of
course, was the famous manna from heaven that Yahweh provided the people
with throughout their wilderness journey until they reached the border of
the land of Canaan. Although not directly stated, the implication is that
the quails provided the people with meat. The point is that Yahweh came
to the rescue of the Israelites again as he had consistently done before.
Rationality requires us to believe that if this much of the story
really happened exactly as recorded, the people had surely by now learned
that they could depend on their god Yahweh to deliver them from all
dangers, no matter how great, and to provide them with nourishment when
their food and water supplies ran out. But such was not the case. Just one
chapter later, the people were complaining again. They journeyed from the
Wilderness of Sin and camped in Rephidim, where there was no water to
drink (17:1). Did they say, "Well, not to worry; Yahweh provided us with
water before, and he will do so again"? No, just the opposite! They
"com- plained against Moses" and said, "Why is it you have brought us up
out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst"
(v:3)? This time, the ever-patient Yahweh told Moses to take some of the
elders of Israel with him and stand before the rock in Horeb. "Behold, I
will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb," Yahweh said, "and you
shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may
drink" (v:6). Moses did this, and the people had water to drink.
So surely the people knew by now that they had no need to be concerned
about food and water, because their mighty god Yahweh would provide their
every need by sending manna from heaven, coveys of quails, and water from
rocks, but to so assume would be to think rationally, and in Bible-land
the rational just didn't happen. After another outbreak or two of
rebellion while the people were camped at Mount Sinai waiting for Moses to
receive the law from on high, the Israelites broke camp, left the
wilderness of Sinai, and traveled for three days with "the cloud of Yahweh
over them by day" (Num. 10:12,33-34). Did they journey in supreme
confidence that their god who had delivered them from all adversity and
who at that very moment was traveling with them would continue to protect
them? They did not. "(T)he people were as murmurers, speaking evil in
the ears of Yahweh" (Num. 11:1), but this time--and it was about time--we
see a different attitude on Yahweh's part. His anger was "kindled," and
he sent "the fire of Yahweh" among them and "consumed some in the out-
skirts of the camp" (v:1). The people cried out to Moses, who "prayed
unto Yahweh," and the fire was abated (v:2).
Sensible people under these conditions would surely have said, "Whoa,
wait a minute; we had better watch what we say. One wrong word and we
might cross Yahweh again." But that is what sensible people would have
done. The "mixed multitude" journeying with the Israelites (Ex. 12:38),
although having just seen "the fire of Yahweh" consume the other
complainers, "lusted exceedingly" (Num. 11:4). They, and the Israelites
too, wept again and said, "Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the
fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucum- bers, the melons, the leeks,
the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is
nothing at all except this manna before our eyes" (vv:4-5)!
At this point, Yahweh's anger was "greatly aroused" (v:10), but not so
much that he didn't accommodate the ingrates again. He ordered Moses to
bring seventy elders to the door of the tabernacle, where Yahweh would
come down and give them a message to tell the people. The people wanted
meat, so he would give them meat. In fact, he would give them meat to eat
until it came out their nostrils and became loathsome to them (vv:19-20).
So evidently Yahweh was just a little peeved after all--and who could
blame him? Even an omnibe- neficent deity can take just so much
A wind "went out from Yahweh" (v:31) and brought quail from the sea.
Well, actually, to say that the wind brought quail from the sea is an
understatement. The quail were so numerous that they were piled two
cubits (one yard) high "all around the camp" about a day's journey (20
miles) "on this side" and "on the other side" of the camp (v:31). If we
want to talk about likeliness, we would have a wealth of material in this
little yarn, but that is another story. Suffice it to say that Yahweh
gave the people the meat they wanted. They stayed up "all that day, all
night, and all the next day" gathering the quails. Even the ones who
"gathered least" collected ten homers (v:32). A "homer" was a unit of
measurement equal to about 58 dry gallons, so those who gathered the least
still had 580 dry gallons of quails. We can well imagine that the people
indeed had meat coming out of their nostrils by the time they had consumed
all these quails.
The significant point, however, is that the Israelites had again
experienced a need and Yahweh had in an extraordinary exhibition of power
provided for their need. Any rational people who had personally witnessed
all of these marvelous displays of power and might would surely by this
time have been convinced that Yahweh was undeniably on their side and
would protect them from all harm. But the Bible tells us that this wasn't
the case. Moses sent twelve men (a representative from each tribe) ahead
to spy out the land of Canaan, and at the end of forty days (a familiar
number) they returned with a report of fortified cities inhabited by "men
of great sta- ture" (Num. 13:32). "We were like grasshoppers in our own
sight," the spies reported, "and so we were in their sight" (v:33).
Did the people say, "Hey, no problem; we've got Yahweh on our side"?
No, they didn't. "So all the con- gregation lifted up their voices and
cried," we are told, "and the people wept that night" (14:1). The "whole
congregation" made a familiar complaint to Moses and Aaron: "If only we
had died in the land of Egypt! Or only if we had died in this wilderness!
Why has Yahweh brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our
wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us
to return to Egypt?" They spoke about selecting a leader who would take
them back to Egypt (vv:2-4).
Joshua and Caleb were the only two to speak out on Yahweh's behalf,
but the reaction of the congregation was to threaten to "stone them with
stones," even though the "glory of Yahweh appeared in the tabernacle of
meeting before all the children of Israel" (vv:6-11).
Well, Yahweh was really ticked off this time. "How long will these
people reject Me?" he said to Moses (v:11). "And how long will they not
believe me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?" Cer-
tainly, that was a good question, the implications of which are sufficient
to prove to any reasonable person that the exodus story isn't accurate
history. Just to restate Yahweh's question, what people who had witnessed
all the signs and wonders that Yahweh had performed among them and who
even had the "glory" of his presence right before them at that very moment
would have continued to reject him as the exodus accounts claim that the
Israelites did? It simply doesn't make good sense. If for no other
reason, these people had seen so many dis- plays of his vengeance and
wrath by now that they wouldn't have dared take the chance of crossing
Yahweh as this "spy story" has them doing. To face people of "great
stature" who lived in fortified cities would have been no risk at all
compared to facing the wrath of an angry Yahweh, and they would have
surely known that by now.
The continuance of the story has Yahweh engaged in dialogue with
Moses. Yahweh threatened to strike the people with "the pestilence" and
then make of Moses a "nation greater and mightier than they" (v:12).
Moses, however, proceeded to point out some flaws in Yahweh's thinking:
And Moses said to Yahweh: "Then the Egyptians will hear it, for by Your might You brought these people up from
among them, and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, Yahweh, are among these
people; that You, Yahweh, are seen face to face and Your cloud stands above them, and You go before them in a pillar of
cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if You kill these people as one man, then the nations which have heard of
Your fame will speak, saying, `Because Yahweh was not able to bring this people to the land which He swore to give them,
therefore He killed them in the wilderness.' And now, I pray, let the power of Yahweh be great, just as you have spoken,
saying, `Yahweh is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears
the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.' Pardon the iniquity of
this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until
The cool-headedness of Moses prevailed, and Yahweh decided to spare the
people for the moment. Rather than killing them with "the pestilence," he
would allow them to live but condemn them to wander 40 years in the
wilderness until they were all dead, except for Joshua and Caleb and the
children. These would be allowed to enter the promised land at the end of
the 40 years (vv:29-35).
As for sheer silliness, this part of the exodus story has few equals
in the Bible. We are asked to believe that Moses, a mere mortal, had to
point out flaws in the thinking of the omniscient Yahweh. If Yahweh is
indeed omniscient, then he would know everything and would have been aware
of all of the pros and cons of his plan to kill the Israelite nation with
the pestilence. He would not have needed Moses to tell him of the
unfavor- able repercussions that his image would suffer in the surrounding
nations if he carried out his plan to extermi- nate the Israelites. As the
story was written, however, a very anthropomorphic Yahweh was on the verge
of making a grievous mistake until the more level-headed Moses intervened.
Likely? Not very.
There is no need to continue analysis of the exodus narrative, because
it is just more of the same nonsense. Adversity of some kind was
encountered, the people complained and even sometimes openly rebelled,
Yahweh responded with a miracle that either supplied the needs of the
people or punished them for their rebellion, but each time nothing was
learned from the experience. Those who sided with Korah in the rebellion
against Moses, for example, were swallowed up, along with their families,
when the earth opened beneath them (Num. 16:31-33). When the water ran
out again, the people complained, just as if the incidents at Marah and
Massah and Meribah (Ex. 15:23-25; 17:4-7) had never happened, and Yahweh
miraculously provided them with water again (Num. 20:2-13). Just one
chapter later, when the people "spoke against God and against Moses" in
their old familiar refrain--Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die
in the wilderness?--Yahweh sent the fiery serpents to bite them and then
had Moses forge the serpent of brass for them to look upon and be healed
(21:4- 9). And so the story continues ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Who
except the hopelessly incredulous could possibly believe all this stuff?
The literature of biblical times was written in an age of
superstition, and in that respect, the stories of the Bible are very
similar to the stories written in other Near Eastern societies during the
same period. They all tell of national heroes who performed miraculous
feats by the intervention of the gods. If we reject such tales in
Babylonian, Egyptian, Moabite, Canaanite, and Assyrian literature, by what
principle of logic do we determine that the same kinds of stories in the
Bible are inerrant truth? If we wouldn't believe the story of the exodus
if we encountered it on tablets of stone in Assyrian archives, does it
make any sense to believe it just because it is found in a book that has
"Holy Bible" embossed on the cover? If so, why? What is the logic behind
such reasoning as this?
There is at least one story in the Bible that expresses agreement with
the logical principle that says if it isn't likely, then one should not
believe it, and that is the doubting-Thomas story. According to John's
gospel account, Jesus appeared to the apostles on the night of his
resurrection when Thomas wasn't present (20:24). When the others told
Thomas that they had seen Jesus, he said, "Unless I see in His hands the
print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put
my hand into His side, I will not believe" (v:25).
Now here is a case where a man refused to believe the incredible, even
though he had heard the testimony of close friends that the incredible was
true. Since Thomas was an apostle, we can reasonably assume that he knew
the other apostles about as well as anyone could have known them, yet
Thomas did not consider that close association enough to make him believe
the incredible. He demanded more than just the mere word of close friends
and associates that the incredible had happened; he wanted proof that he
could see and touch.
The same tale of a resurrected savior that the apostles told Thomas
and that Thomas would not believe has been told to us in the gospels. Two
of those gospel accounts were presumably written by apostles, the same
apostles whose claim of a resurrected savior Thomas would not believe.
These facts, which Bible fundamental- ists must claim are indeed facts,
should give pause to every rational person. If Thomas would not believe
an unlikely claim that he had heard directly from the apostles--men with
whom he was personally acquainted--then why should we believe the
apostles' claim that Jesus was resurrected? How likely was it that a dead
man came back to life? Does the likelihood that this would happen exceed
the likelihood that men could be mistak- en or even intentionally
deceptive? The latter is far more likely than the former, so on that
basis alone, we would be as justified as Thomas was to say, "Unless I see
the evidence myself, I will not believe it."
This same principle applied to other biblical stories makes it
impossible for sensible people to believe them. The story of the exodus
is insulting to human intelligence. Incidents involving talking animals
are about as unlikely as anyone can imagine. Disembodied voices speaking
from heaven, angels routinely dropping in for visits, people surviving the
intense heat of fiery furnances, the sun standing still in the sky--how
many times have these things happened in our own lifetime? How likely is
it that they ever happened? God so concerned with a people's effort to
build a tower to heaven that he came down and confounded their tongues?
Come on, give me a break! It's too ridiculous to believe.
And that, in effect, applies to many biblical stories. They are
unlikely--and so they are unbelievable. In- credulous fundamentalists will
of course argue that with God all things are possible, but in the case of
the exodus story even that argument breaks down. Even if we concede that
an omniscient, omnipotent deity could rain plagues down on a nation, part
the waters of a great sea, send manna from heaven, extract water from
rocks, etc., etc., etc., the context in which those signs and wonders
occurred must also be likely. With nothing else considered, the continual
bellyaching and whining of the people who allegedly witnessed all of these
things make the story unbelievable, because it just isn't likely that
people would have behaved in such a way if all those wonders had actually
occurred in their presence and the "glory" of the god who had performed
them was per- petually visible to them in overhead pillars of cloud and
fire. That being true, we have to doubt that any of it happened.