Volcanic Exodus

Throughout Exodus, nature makes an astonishing impression upon the reader. An unburnable bush leads to plagues of flies, disease, locusts, and hail. A massive wind parts the sea. But what caught my attention were the pillars of fire and of cloud that the Israelites followed from Egypt. What were these pillars that Moses and his people used as guidance out of slavery?

“And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22)

Cloud by day, fire by night.

As I thought about this force of nature that could guide people by smoky clouds in the day, and fire burning up the night sky to lead the way, another thought popped into my mind. The pillars were always before the Israelites, which could be construed as in front of the Israelites. They could be literally walking towards a pillar of cloud or of smoke, which could be stationary, not whirling through the desert like some supernatural force. The pillars could be natural! In that case, what could cause a natural, stationary column of smoke or fire? In my mind, I could only think of volcanoes.

In chapter nineteen of Exodus, the people of Israel are led to Mount Sinai:

“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled…Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.” (Exodus 19:16-19)

What has thick smoky clouds, on fire, and a loud blast that scares the hell out of everyone in its immediate vicinity? That most definitely sounds like a volcano. The mountain then trembles greatly—is this the rumbling of an active volcano? Exodus seems to be pointing out that Moses and his people were at the base of a volcano, making camp.

Doesn’t this look like a peaceful place to pitch your tent and relax from traveling for so long and so far from slavery?

In my research, I discovered a few theories as to the placement of where Mount Sinai truly lies. Some claim the mountain is in Saudi Arabia (Scientist Defends Book of Exodus) while others lay out a series of arguments against that placement based on biblical quotes (Problems with Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia). However, no scholar seems to argue over the volcanic explanation. In further research, there are many active volcanoes in the west and northwest regions of Saudi Arabia (Volcanoes of Saudi Arabia). These volcanoes are along an ancient lava field that has recently reactivated (Christian Science Monitor). Around ten million years old, these volcanoes definitely could have been active during the time of Moses and his people fleeing Egypt. In conclusion, if scholars ever came to the agreement of the true location of Mt. Sinai, then a case could most definitely be made for the plausibility of a volcanic explanation to the traditional Exodus story.

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The Blood Covenant of Abram

“He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.” (Gen 15:9-10)

Brutal Lego Sacrifice

As I sat bewildered at the fact that God demanded Abram cut every mammal in half but the birds, my mind sped to the symbolism of this action. Why cut the heifer, the female goat, and the ram in half but not the turtledove nor the pigeon? Did the action of cutting the animals in half symbolize something? And why choose these animals in particular? What did these animals represent? As I researched these questions and delved further into Genesis, answers rose to the surface.

In Jewish symbolism, the dove was a feminine symbol often associated with fertility and the spirit of God (Biblical Archaeology). I found this gem of information most interesting as the fifteenth chapter of Genesis is all about the covenant between God and Abram to populate the earth with Abram’s offspring. Considering the fact that Sarai, Abram’s wife, was entirely too old to bear children, the dove sacrifice represented God’s ability to make her fertile. To continue with the feminine aspects of this sacrificial ritual, two female animals were also slaughtered, the heifer and a goat. Perhaps these two animals embodied the feminine aspect of this ritual while literarily strengthening the message sent to early biblical readers.

In continuity with the animals, I dug deeper into Genesis, finding another verse that connected Abram’s offspring to this ritual:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Gen 22:13)

So if the ram represented Abraham’s son later in Genesis, then in my opinion, the ram in chapter fifteen foreshadows this later sacrifice to God. The ram in chapter fifteen was another symbol of Abram’s offspring, later to be born as Isaac. So I had the answers to part of my line of questioning; the animals themselves represented both the fertility of Abram’s wife and the promise of offspring. These animals were chosen to be the representatives of the promises that God was making to Abram.

I also wondered at the number three. The heifer was three years old. The goat was three years old. The ram was three years old. Three, what was so important about the number three? Did it have to do with the animals reaching adulthood? As I researched, I discovered gematria, or “numerological study…used for…gaining insight into interrelating concepts” (Hebrew Gematria). In simpler terms, gematria is the spiritual study of numbers to better understand the Torah. The number three in gematria represents completeness and stability (Judaism & Numbers). In this sacrificial ritual, the animals that were three years of age stood for Sarai’s fertility and the promise of offspring in the form of Isaac. The number of their years reinforced the promise that God was making—it made the promises quite serious.

Gematria

Finally, I came to rest at the halving of the animals. In the process of research, I discovered that blood covenants were fairly common in the time period of Abraham. I also found that the verb for “making” a covenant is KRT or to cut (Cutting Covenants and Cutting Animals). Later, the symbol of the covenant wouldn’t be halved animals, it would become circumcision. Literally, God cut a covenant with Abram. The cutting of the animals was simply the commonplace practice of signing a contract. This was culturally relevant to Abram, as he would have understood the significance of the blood promise made between himself and God.

“Let’s cut a covenant, shall we?” – Knife Wielding Rabbi

Abram’s covenant with God was a business deal as he would deal with any other person who was making promises to him, solidified by the blood ritual and the symbolism of each animal.

Original Word Count: 568

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