Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Sherlock Holmes Reacting to the Earth’s Swallowing Korach

S: Gentlemen, welcome. Today’s events warrant review. Who wants to speak first?

P: What do you mean, review? It’s clear—this Moses said if God had sent him, the Earth would swallow Korach, the others, and their possessions, and it did. What is there to talk about?

S: First, dear student, you accept Moses’ framing too easily. What other reasons might there be for his choosing that particular form of death?

P: There could be many, but why would I think about it that way?

A: For one, dear teacher, my researches show that a God is only necessary to avoid an infinite regress of causes.  Since we know there can be no actual infinities, there must be a First Cause.  Beyond that, the world we see is the world that is. Which means there has to be a natural explanation for today’s events.

SH: Excellent point, my dear Aristotle.  Moses made a big deal about this being unprecedented, but—if you’ll pardon me for saying so—methinks the lady doth protest too much.

S: You speak exceedingly strange, Holmes.  What means that?

SH: Oh, sorry, a phrase I learned from Shakespeare. [blank looks from Socrates and Aristotle; Plato’s watching the fire expressionlessly] No Shakespeare where you gents are? Right, sorry once more. I meant Moses set up the incident a little too carefully, if you ask me. Tells everyone to move away from Korach and his lot, then chooses the death that will prove he’s from God.  Almost as if he knew the quake would be coming.  It would be like knowing an eclipse was coming, then “predicting” it to impress those around you.

S: Are you saying it wasn’t God who opened the Earth and had it swallow them?

A: Holmes needn’t say it, I will. Unless we can fit this into the laws of Nature as we know them, there’s no way Moses or anyone could cause an earthquake by calling for it. Physics, or earth science, or whatever, doesn’t work that way.

SH: Well said, good friend. We eliminate the impossible; what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

S: What if you mistake the truth for the impossible? Or, what if there are multiple possibilities, but you don’t realize some of them, and settle on one truth when it’s actually another?

A: You can do only what you can do; we know Moses couldn’t cause an earthquake…

P: Sorry, Aristotle, I’m still stuck on that. How are we so sure Moses couldn’t have caused it?

A: (sputtering) Well, because the laws of Nature are fixed. The world is as it always has been and always will be. Which does not allow for a human being to decide he needs an earthquake, and then produce it with the words of his mouth.

S: Two problems, Aristotle. First, where’s this established law of Nature that no human being can decide there should be an earthquake?

A: Well, it’s never happened before. Are you going to say Moses is different than every human being who ever came before?

S: Mr. Holmes, what do you say, should we eliminate that as impossible?

SH: I believe we should; I’m with Aristotle on this, a human being causing an earthquake by calling for it is an impossibility.

P: Of course, Moses never said that’s what was happening.

S: Pardon?

P: (speaking louder) I said, Moses did not say he was going to bring an earthquake by announcing it. Whether or not that’s impossible, what he said was, if God should act in an unprecedented way, the earth opening and immediately closing, that would prove he, Moses, is God’s messenger, and was correct to make Aaron the High Priest.

S: How does that answer Aristotle and Holmes’ point about laws of Nature?

P: Well, that is the question, isn’t it? My student has been clever in straddling the fence between belief and disbelief. He accepts a God, but only a disembodied Prime Mover, with no powers to change anything.  You, Socrates, of all people, should have picked up on the logical error.

S: Which logical error?

P: That the past is the sufficient predictor of the future. That just because we’ve never seen something makes it impossible. These Jews, they claim their whole recent history—being relieved of the burden of slavery, leaving Egypt, the Sea Splitting—has been miraculous.

A: Pardon me, teacher, but you aren’t the biggest believer in the miraculous yourself.

P: In the hours since we’ve found ourselves here, I’ve been giving it some thought. What if we were overhasty in deeming this or that impossible?  I always assumed the world started with basic matter that developed. Truth be told, I was avoiding a harder question, where matter comes from.  So I just started from the first matter, without thinking about what came before. But if a God put that there…

S: That God might be able to suspend the laws of Nature?

SH: Or, and I offer this only because we’re considering all the possibilities, might have made those laws more flexible and situational than we usually realize.

S: Meaning what, the laws of Nature included the possibility of swallowing these people? Why?

SH: Ah, the why. I’ve been struggling with it myself. Moses has already shown he can bring plagues, split Seas, construct a Tabernacle that burns those who offer strange fire.  Why reach for a new trick? Why not do one of the old ones? Just to expand his repertoire?

S: Very impressive, Mr. Holmes, I see the spirit of inquiry truly rests upon you. But I wonder whether, in this case, it might be misplaced. If we accept Moses’ premises, that he acts on God’s Will, perhaps it is not our place to ask why. Perhaps when events express God’s displeasure, the only appropriate reaction is sorrow and regret.

SH: But for what?

S: Are you suggesting you are so perfect that you have no need for sorrow or regret?

SH: Mr. Socrates, I assure you, any recovering addict knows their flaws, and knows they might not yet have a full inventory of said flaws. But when I was working my way to freedom from cocaine, I found myself apologizing to people I had wronged during my… dark times. And, more than once, I would approach a friend, relative, or colleague, offer my apology, only to have it rejected—angrily, I might add– as insufficient or, more shocking, wholly off base. I would find out that I had thought I had injured that party in x way, and he or she had felt offended in y way. My apologizing for x when they were cared about y was worse than unacceptable.

S: They sound like people of overly strict temperaments. Would you think God would be that exacting, rejecting sincere penitence and requests for renewed connection, just because the people involved did not hit upon the exact right issue this God was calling to their attention?

SH: I wonder about that, too. Around the camp, I heard people suggesting the way to respond to today’s events would be to offer extra sacrifices, to show how much they want to be close to this God. Others said not sacrifices, words of prayer and study, and were organizing vigils all night.

S: This is a problem?

SH: Not necessarily. But when I was making my apology rounds, I found that the wrong kind of apology, even the wrong kind of amends-making activity, was irrelevant to repairing the breach.

S: Irrelevant? How could a sincere attempt at closeness be irrelevant?

A: I got this one, it’s a basic human truth. If you hurt me in a way you don’t bother to realize, I might see your sincerity, but your efforts won’t matter to me. If you destroyed my cart but assume I’m upset about your having spilled my garbage cans, forcing me to pick up all the garbage, your making amends by picking up my garbage for a month will be a nice gesture, but won’t do anything about the damaged cart.

It might hurt more; it’s one thing when a person is insensitive, doesn’t care enough to apologize. But if they are in the process of apologizing, but insist on limiting it to the small stuff I wouldn’t have sweated, that can be infuriating.

S: Maybe for humans.  Are you suggesting an omniscient, omnipotent God would be that picky?

A: I’m not suggesting anything about God. If these Jews’ God exists, we humans wouldn’t be able to understand anything about Him.

SH: Except He could give hints or explicit commands as to what He wanted.

S: Meaning?

SH: Well, in this case, if you bought into it, the lesson would be to accept Moses and Aaron’s leadership without any further questioning.

A: There’s the rub, bought into it. Why would I buy into something that I cannot hear, see, smell, touch, or cognize on my own?

P: You did hear Moses predict the event, with the reason for it, didn’t you? And you did see the earth open, swallow Korach, Datan, and Aviram, their families and possessions, didn’t you?

A: Irrelevant, dear teacher. We’ve already agreed Moses might have developed a better way of predicting earthquakes than any of us know.  Move on, unless you have something better.

S: What would constitute better? I am intrigued by this idea of propositions not amenable to human proof. Suppose we cannot eliminate the impossible, as Holmes said we should, or that we run too great a risk of mistaking the possible for the impossible, and eliminating it. If we keep all possibilities on the table, we have 1) God did this and our only viable reaction is whatever we can think of, prayer, sacrifice, repentance, whatever. 2) God didn’t do this, Nature does what it does, in which case, Moses’ prediction was remarkable, but doesn’t force the conclusions he told us to draw. Is that it?

P: No, there’s also that God did this, for the reasons Moses said, and we’re supposed to draw the appropriate lessons.

SH: I am in agreement with Socrates that we should consider all possibilities, but your scenario, Plato, suffers from too wide a crack in its logic. If Moses weren’t predicting a predetermined event, why would he choose an earthquake of all things? And a kind of earthquake that had never happened before, the earth opening and shutting, like a mouth?

P: I’ve been thinking about that all day, actually, and here’s what occurred to me. I looked a bit though this book Moses brought from the Mount, this Torah, and it speaks one other time, but only one, about the earth opening its mouth, in that Cain and Abel story I mentioned over dinner. I was hoping you’d take the hint and look it up yourselves, but no matter. After Cain kills his brother, in the story, God says to him the blood is calling out to Heaven, from the ground that opened its mouth to accept Abel’s blood.

A: You think that was an earthquake, too?

P: No, I think these Jews describe the earth as opening its mouth when something has to be taken off the face of the earth, removed from memory completely. Cain wanted to erase his brother, so he killed him and had the earth take in the blood, as if to wipe all traces of his existence. Moses might have been telling the people that challenging their leadership isn’t an ordinary human failing, it’s a sin that makes the sinner liable to be erased from the face of the earth, and the earth does that by opening its mouth and swallowing them up.

S: Truly, Plato, you are a credit to Greek rhetoric, and worthy of your reputation for moving the masses. But that is a dangerous line of thought, don’t you think, as if we humans can extrapolate from what happens to the reasons it happens? Especially when you say you’re divining the Mind of God? If these Jews are right that He’s so wholly Other, would that not preclude our ability to understand Him? Wouldn’t it be safer to do that which we understand—such as sacrifice and prayer—and leave it to this God to see our sincerity?

P: Have you forgotten what Holmes told us about his apology efforts? If a loved one tells us we’ve hurt them, and we refuse to engage other than in general terms, how will that be accepted?

S: So, what, we should reason backwards from everything that occurs, to see why God would have done it?

SH: Sort of like reverse engineering. Brilliant.

P: Not everything, Socrates, that which is directly attributed to God. I have no idea, from fifteen hours among these Jews, about what they think is direct and what is the ordinary workings of Nature. The ordinary workings of Nature might have some messages, like appreciating God’s handiwork, doing our best to make it function in the ways God set up, or who knows what—there might be more in their Scripture, it seems like. But where it would get more interesting is where it became clear that we had stepped outside the usual into the unusual. There, Moses might say that the unexpected is a treasure trove of messages we can figure out, if we allow ourselves to pay attention.

SH: Well, but what if people come up with the wrong answer. Like, what if they blame the tragedy on some group they don’t like for completely extraneous reasons? Would their God set up a system so rife for abuse?

P: Stick with your reverse-engineering, Holmes, that’s a wonderful way to describe it, thank you. If something occurs specifically to draw our attention—a big if, and we might not be sure about when that’s true—what is done itself sends us the message. So if God burns someone up, for us to see and learn, that implies they deserved the specific reaction of burning, as opposed to earth-swallowing, or drowning, or stoning, or all the other ways God can punish. We should demand of the explanations that they specifically address what happened and to whom; the better the correspondence, the better the answer.

S: Does that work for the positive, too? If God does well by someone, your logic would suggest we could reverse-engineer that as well.

P: That’s what these people claim, anyway.

A: (clapping his hands) Very nice, gentlemen, very entertaining and well done. But we come back to Holmes’ first thought, eliminate the impossible. The unchanging eternal universe simply does not allow for the kind of sentient Prime Mover you describe, nor does that Mover’s being the underlying ground for existence imply any of the capabilities you ascribe to him.

We all want such a God because it’s comforting to think there’s Someone out there in charge of all this, but intellectual maturity should allow us to put aside such childish searches for security. The backstory you paint for Korach’s death is simply impossible. As are its ramifications—as if we would guide our lives by seeing that which comes to us as a sign for the good or the bad, for what we should and shouldn’t be doing!

P: I didn’t say all that comes to us, only that which steps outside Nature.

A: A distinction without a difference. You need to admit that such a strange experience spurs primitive fears. To regain some sense of control, you credit it to God and give it reasons nowhere evident within it.

SH: (leaning forward eagerly) You have another theory, Aristotle?

A: (shrugs) Not a theory, the only possible construction of the facts. Earthquakes happen; Moses knew it somehow. Instead of warning the victims, he used it to bolster his leadership. There can be no other way to read it.

S: What do you propose we do about it? Right thoughts always call for right actions.

A: Obviously, we have to bring this to the people’s attention. It would be wrong to leave them under the demagoguery of this Moses, who uses his scientific insights to further his power instead of to help his fellow man.

S: If you’re right, he bears the responsibility for the deaths of those men and their families, and the destruction of all that property.  We must bring that to these people’s attention. Who is with Aristotle and I?

SH joins them, Plato stays where he is.

S: Plato, not coming? A sore loser?

P: Not sore, nor a loser. I recognize that people will prefer Aristotle’s view to mine. It is easier to blame Moses for this than accepting that he and his brother are special and different. I fear there is nothing I can do about it.

S: Have it your way.

P: (to their receding backs) I will not have it my way, believe me. Instead, I will watch you and those like you succeed, generation after generation, despite the consequences it will bring upon the people who follow you. Because who wants to accept a world where they cannot control God and are obligated to work to understand what God wants of them, instead of what they want?

(Musing as he, too, exits the stage) It might be that all’s well that ends well, but this Shakespeare to whom Holmes alluded did not reckon with the suffering on the way to that end. It is left to me to see it coming, and have my views disregarded, over and over, except by the few willing to open their minds to the truth, even when that truth seems impossible.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.