“What were you thinking?”
How many times have you heard this from you mom or dad when you were growing up?
When I was in graduate school, I spent a lot of time studying cognition and how we think about thinking thoughts. Why do we think as we do? The answer lies in how we process claims into beliefs which forms the basis of our thoughts.
Truth claims inform our knowledge base, knowledge shapes our beliefs, and beliefs influence what we think. What we think about God have real consequences for our lives. Thus Claims, Knowledge + Belief = Thoughts.
In this post, I would like to share 5 points about how CKB shapes interpretations about the biblical account of Moses journey from Egypt to Jordan.
1. Christians are familiar with the story of Moses and the Exodus of Egyptian slaves to the Promised Land of Canaan. As modern science progressed and the biblical accounts of what happened came under scrutiny, the named geographical locations in the Bible became linked to the historicity of the accounts. Many believers assumed that for the Bible to be trustworthy, the accounts must be ‘real,’ as in geographically and historically verifiable. This led to attempts by the faithful to declare the specific and “scientific” confirmations of the biblical texts.
2. Claims regarding the identification of geographical sites pertinent to Moses and Jesus shaped the Church’s extrabiblical beliefs, starting with the theologian Origen Adamantius of Alexandria (c. 185–253) and Empress Helena (c. 246–330) among others. Across the Christian world, claims were adopted as knowledge to form the bases of beliefs. For example, in Ethiopia, the national Church believes that the original tablets of Moses’ Ten Commandments reside in Axum, and their nation’s founder was the lovechild of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba from modern Yemen. The Armenian Church believes that a part of the True Cross and Noah’s Ark are kept in the treasury at the Echmiadzin Mother Cathedral. In Egypt, part of the Virgin Mary’s girdle and the Cross of Christ are believed to be housed at the 7th century Hanging Church, or Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. The list goes on. Today, Christians ought to ask if any of these claims are verifiably true. If so, are they any more or less true than claims made in the Bible? Truth matters and always has. But until the rise of modern science and technology, few truth claims could be fact-checked.
3. Back to Moses. The Old Testament describes a Hebrew baby who was adopted and grew up in the house of Pharaoh’s daughter in Egypt. As a Prince of Egypt, he was taught the arts and sciences of the day, groomed for leadership and surrounded by other Egyptian princes. In my expedition to Egypt, I interviewed several archaeologists, including Tarek Rady, who excavated at Saqqara in recent years. He believes that Moses’ contemporary could not have been Rameses II the Great (c. 1303–1213 BC) because this pharaoh died at 96, not as a warrior engulfed by the waters of a parted sea or an inland lake. On the other hand, the eminent American Egyptologist Bob Brier believes that the historical Moses lived around 1250 BC and was the foster brother of Rameses II, son of Seti I. The biblical account does not say that Pharaoh died during the crossing of the sea. Here we have two interpretations regarding the identity of Moses’ pharaonic opponent. However, the path of Moses’ Trail, that legendary journey from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan, became more important because it promises geographical identification — places we can visit to re-enact historical events in our minds.
4. Moses left Egypt twice — first, to the Land of Midian, where he married the daughter of Jethro the Priest. That location is not in dispute; Midian is in modern Saudi Arabia. His second journey out of Egypt became a 40-year exodus before his life ended in modern Jordan. It is on this journey that we find two very different claims. The traditional path suggests that Moses crossed the Sea of Reeds (misinterpreted as the Red Sea) and wandered around the Sinai Peninsula (now part of Egypt) before heading to Jordan. Most maps in any modern Bible adopt this interpretation. However, a second interpretation claims that Moses went back to Midian and landed on the shore of Saudi Arabia before heading to Jordan. So I visited four key sites of significance to the story of Moses are mentioned: Al Bad (Midian), Wadi Tayyib al Islam (Moses’ Landing Spot), Magna (Springs of Moses), and Jabal Maqlah (Mount Sinai and the Golden Calf Site). This second claim is supported by many sites in Saudi Arabia named after Moses, with an alternate Mount Sinai near Midian itself. How can this be? Which interpretation is correct, since both are based on the same biblical texts? I traced both routes on several expeditions from 2009 to 2022 — both views have compelling, but different, grounds to support their interpretations. What this conundrum tells us is more important than the geography of Moses’ history. The Bible rarely provides verifiable scientific data to pinpoint geographical coordinates and historical timelines. Rather, the writers were concerned about the theological teachings that underlie all biblical accounts. This means that, while Bible readers may wish to know exactly what, where and when events happened, we ought to be humble about any absolute scientific claims. The Bible is concerned about theology, not science. When interpretations are inserted into the Bible, as biblical maps are, it is often presumed that they are of equal authority as the biblical texts, since they are bound together into a single volume. This puts an untenable burden on ancient prescientific writers to write for our scientific age. However, this does not mean that science cannot fruitfully engage with theological texts.
5. Science cannot prove or disprove any theological claim. However, scientific technologies can detect and expose false interpretations of theological claims when they use science to support an unverifiable view. For example, science is not competent to assess whether Jesus is divine. So when anyone claims to possess evidence for such a theological doctrine, they both subvert the limits of scientific investigation and the spiritual insights of theology. The power of scientific disciplines such as geography, geology, history and archaeology is in invalidating phenomenologically verifiable or falsifiable interpretations. The battleground for spiritual beliefs rests not in the sacred texts but in the interpretations of such texts. Why do interpretations of the Moses Trail vary so greatly between the Christian and Muslim interpretation of the Hebrew Bible?
Conclusion: Interpretations are dynamic and shaped by new knowledge (science). My expedition to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in search of the Moses Trail reminded me that:
a) Claims must be scrutinized for veracity.
b) Knowledge as authority should be checked for its truth.
c) Beliefs about God must be open to revision when the basis for such beliefs are untenable.
It is okay to ask of any claim: “How do you know?”