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Clues from Chernobyl

In the past century, no technology has held such potential for both wonder and terror as nuclear power. Whether it is used for ill or good, the underlying physical mechanism presents an inherent danger to those constructing, handling, and ultimately living with the device and its constituent parts (and waste). As a symbol of the atom’s destructive power if things go wrong, no event resonates more than the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

In the Sunday, April 7 New York Times Book Review, Robert R. Crease reviews two books on this nuclear subject: Midnight In Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham, and Manual For Survival by Kate Brown. According to Crease’s review, Higginbotham recounts in his book the mistakes made that caused the nuclear reactor explosion, “the world’s greatest nuclear disaster,” in what is now Ukraine. Brown’s book is “an exposé of the attempts to minimize the impact of Chernobyl.” In her work she “sought measurements of radioactivity in such things as wool [and] livestock.”

Remarkably, a much older account of radioactivity is available to us, one that shows the same concern for the consequences of improper care and handling and the same types of contamination documented by Brown – except these events occurred many thousands of years ago and are recorded in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is the earliest known document to detail the existence of radioactivity, its symptoms, its dangers, the precautions needed to protect against these dangers, and the advantages concurrent with its existence. An example of this lethality (and its source) can be found in Leviticus:

‘The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before the Lord and they died. And the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to Aaron that he doesn’t come at all times to the holy place [the Tabernacle] before the covering which is on the Ark [so] that he doesn’t die, because in the cloud I will appear on the covering.’” – Leviticus 16:1-2

While this passage may seem cryptic, a detailed study of the etymology and cognates behind its words and many others in the Bible, as revealed in my book Talking With God, leads one to some startling conclusions. The cloud contained a substance called in Hebrew kabowd, originally meaning “heavy” or “thick” (and later evolving to mean “glory,” as is the reading in most modern translations). That substance in the cloud was fatally radioactive. Its effects and symptoms were the same as those encountered today by victims of radiation, or with anything radiation encounters such as materials (cloth, wood, animals etc.), as recorded by Brown at the Chernobyl site. The effect caused by the cloud is now translated “plague of leprosy,” but the original Hebrew words indicate a sudden strike and stinging or burning – in other words radiation burn.

The Bible spends a great deal of time describing the symptoms caused by the kabowd in the cloud (Leviticus 13:1-46). It also explains how those threatened by its deadly spread were to protect themselves. They were to use various ingredients: incense, alcohol, wine, water, salt, fat, oil, blood, periodic rest, protective clothing, and certain sacrifices, including meal and meat offerings. Exodus Chapter 29 explains just how this was to be done.

While the cloud was murderously dangerous, it had a purpose. The Bible says it was an integral part of a communications system including the Ark of the Testimony (or Covenant) through which the Lord communicated with the Hebrews. Whenever communication ensued between the Lord and humans the cloud with its kabowd would settle on the Ark of the Testimony in the Tabernacle and a voice could then be heard emanating from it.

Showing this dual nature of radioactivity, in the same issue of the Times in the Opinion Section, an article by Joshua S. Goldstein, Staffan A. Qvist, and Steven Pinker explains its purpose in the title, “Nuclear Power Can Save The World.” Nuclear is said to be “the fastest way to slash greenhouse gas emissions” and they are in favor of building more reactors. Clearly, the technology itself has dangerous side effects, but great benefits also, just as it did in the days of the ancient Hebrews.

It is interesting that, while each of these writings covers different aspects of nuclear energy, there is no mention of, for better or worse, protections. While, of course there are systems for protecting against radiation in today’s nuclear world, there doesn’t seem to be the emphasis that the people of the Bible brought to bear on it all those thousands of years ago.

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