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The Moses Fossil

Lane Brandenburg
March 24, 2015

by Lane Brandenburg

bc_dmuse_007898I FOUND A LITTLE STONE, really a fossilized sea urchin, on the ground atop Mount Nevo in Jordan. It sent my mind spinning. The Biblical story of the Jewish People, through to the death of Moses, ends on Mount Nevo. The story of the fossil, through to my discovery of it, likewise ends on Mount Nevo. At that place and moment, these two stories intersected — but what I have come to realize is that the two stories intersected at another, much more remote point in time.

Near the end of 1994, Israel and Jordan made peace. Shortly thereafter, they opened their common border to tourism. For many Israelis and tourists in Israel, the greatest attraction in Jordan was Petra. In 1995, Judith and I were in Israel and we signed up for a tour. Along with Petra, our tour included other stops: the Roman ruins in Amman and the Jerusalem mosaic in Madaba. Another destination was Mount Nevo. Although Mount Nevo is the setting of the last paragraphs of the Torah, at the outset of the tour I believed it to be one of the secondary attractions.

The story of the Jewish People, like all creation stories, is shrouded in events we may call supernatural or miraculous. Miracles abound in the Torah. In Exodus, the Jews are led from slavery in Egypt through divine intervention. Destruction is brought upon the Egyptians, their first-born slaughtered and their army drowned in the sea. Rational people, however, tend to reject the miraculous outright and instead look for rational or metaphorical interpretations of events presented as supernatural, with the understanding that the story's "miraculous" moments serve to intensify the underlying messages: that we should celebrate and savor freedom, and view current incarnations of slavery through the lens of our past enslavement.

One of the more subtle and unsettling messages comes out of a tradition of Jewish ethical humanism. It can be found in many haggadahs. The one I use (The Passover Seder: Pathways Through the Haggadah, by Rabbi Arthur Gilbert, Ktav, 1985), expresses it as follows: “The plagues came upon the Egyptians because of their evil; yet we do not rejoice over their downfall and defeat. Judaism teaches that all human beings are children of God, even our enemies who would seek to destroy us. We cannot be glad when any person needlessly suffers. So we mourn the loss of the Egyptians and express sorrow over their destruction.”

How confusing. How should one react when it is we, not God, who are the authors of our enemies’ destruction? How relevant is this message, for example, when we exult in the destruction of Haman and his minions at Purim time? How should we apply this message in an age of terrorism, special ops, and drones? Despite these misgivings, the message retains its appeal, even if the events that inspired it are mythical, and even if actions for which we are responsible contradict it. Miracles, after all, can be comforting. They absolve us from responsibility.

The Jewish story continues from Egypt through wilderness, to the covenant at Mt. Sinai, to the arrival at the edge of the Promised Land. Moses is forbidden to enter the Land but is allowed to see it from the mountaintop — that is, from the top of Mount Nevo. He ascends the mountain, views the Promised Land and then dies, though his natural energy is unabated. His tomb is known to no one. Thus ends Deuteronomy.

AND SO IN 1994, while on a tour in Jordan, I got off the bus after a wearying ride. I ascended the mountain. I followed Moses’ footsteps, went to the western edge of a plateau and looked out to the west. I saw an expanse of desert but saw neither milk nor honey. Evidently, in 3,000 years, the view had changed. Then I looked at the ground in front of my feet and saw the fossil. I thought this was a curious and wonderful discovery, this remnant of ancient life in this place. I thought at the time that the fossil must be important, but I couldn’t have explained why. Whence came this little stone? What was its provenance? Was it there 3,000 years ago, and might Moses have seen it? Or earlier that day was it in a young boy’s pocket, and as he took out a handkerchief to wipe the desert dust from his face, did it fall to the ground? While the fossil’s recent past is a mystery, paradoxically we know with more assurance the outline of its earlier history.

The story of the organism that became our fossil begins maybe many millions of years ago in the sea. It may have been the Tethys Sea, a sea occupying the space of the current Middle East at a time before the continents drifted to their familiar positions. The creature lived and died. Its hard calcium shell survived and the flesh inside was replaced with calcium minerals. Meanwhile the radioactive engine inside the earth heated the core, molten rock in the earth’s mantle convected, the plates of the earth’s crust drifted, old sea beds laden with limestone were lifted, some to become new mountaintops, and new sea beds and new seas were created. The fossil rode these tides of change and finally through erosion or digging appeared at the surface of the earth. It may indeed have naturally appeared on Mount Nevo where I found it, a region abundant with fossils.

The story of the fossil does not begin with the birth of an ancient sea urchin. We must account for that engine inside the earth that caused its face to move and bring the fossil to the surface. The convection of the earth’s innards and the heaving of its crust are tiny echoes of great forces and disturbances that originated in a cosmic explosion that occurred nearly 14 billion years ago. Out of that explosion there condensed all the stuff of the universe and the forces that govern its evolution. In that stuff were the seeds of what would become the earth, Petra, and all life from sea urchins to humanity, including Moses, if there was a Moses, and if not, the seeds of human imagination that would create a Moses to bind a people together. No one knows what caused that early explosion, only that the universe at that initial instant was tiny, infinitesimal. It is not known whether we can speak of a “before” that initial instant. Perhaps there was no “before” because time did not exist.

Some people who study Natural Law claim that it predicts that matter and energy constantly come into and out of being, even in empty space. But empty space is not quite nothing. It has extent and maybe it has time. And maybe it has quantum fields — but how did they get in there? So, space together with Natural Law produce matter and energy, that is, something comes from nearly nothing. Some say that not even space is necessary. Indeed, something can come from nothing as a consequence of Natural Law alone.

Can one say, “First there was Natural Law”? Rationality fails me. Even if truth is in the math, there is something amazing, close to miraculous here. Or, maybe just simply miraculous. I don’t know. Clearly, I am treading close to the “God is in the gaps” argument. That is my prerogative; I am telling the story.

We can approach the initial instant in a more direct way. Start with the events on Mount Nevo but this time imagine reading about them in the Torah scroll itself. Of course the fossil isn’t mentioned, but I know now that it is somewhere between the lines. Read about the death of Moses through to the end of the scroll. Then, imagine rewinding the scroll as we do every year with great ceremony. With every turn of the spool, we are thrust backwards through a wormhole in time. In moments we are at Genesis. With the words “In the beginning,” we are at the start of all stories.

The Moses fossil, a tangible token of a possible miracle, sits on my Passover plate every year. Guests who are new to my seders invariably ask, “What is that?” Their question has become Passover’s fifth question, “ma zeh” along with “ma nishtanah.” The answer, not to be found in the haggadah, is this story. Possibly, after all is said, the fossil may not be so special. If one is looking for a tangible token of a possible miracle, just about any little stone will do once you know its story. And even if the truly miraculous remains beyond our grasp, the awesome, the amazing, and the wondrous are certainly within our experience.

By the way, Petra is awesome.

Lane Brandenburg, a Ph.D. engineering graduate of Columbia University, is retired from a career at Bell Laboratories. He now regularly audits undergraduate courses in film, literature, history, and other subjects. Hosting his family for Passover several years ago led Dr. Brandenburg to add the fossil to his seder plate and improvise its story. That, in turn, led to this essay.