31 May 2010

Disasters: The Plagues of Egypt

By Jean Adams

This is not meant to belittle anyone's religion, but is offered as a rational explanation of the plagues.

Have you ever wondered how true those 10 plagues of Egypt were? Here's a brief reminder.

God told Pharaoh to let the Israelites go or he would send them send them a plague. Pharaoh refused so:

Water to blood: Aaron laid his staff upon the waters of Egypt and they immediately became blood so no one could drink it.

Frogs: Still Pharaoh refused so God sent a plague of frogs.

Lice: Once again Aaron stretched out his staff, smote the dust and it became lice to annoy the Egyptians. The Egyptians in fact had an ongoing problem with lice.

Flies: Flies everywhere. Ick!

Livestock diseased: Every horse, ass, camel (in fact there were no camels in Egypt until the Persians invaded around 500BC, oxen and sheep caught some terrible disease.

Boils: Moses was then told to take ash and throw it heavenward. When it came down it would become boils on all the people and animals. Slow learner, this Pharaoh, whoever he is--Ramses we're told.

Thunder and hail: "Tomorrow about his time, I will cause it to rain." Once again Moses lifted his staff to the heavens and it started to hail fire, destroying Egypt's orchards and crops. Once again Pharaoh "hardened his heart."

Locusts: More bad news for poor old Pharaoh. Still he refused to "let the people go" so along came the locusts to eat the Egyptians out of house and home.

Darkness: Moses stretched his staff towards heaven and a thick darkness fell over the land.

Death of firstborn: And Moses said, "Thus saith the Lord, About midnight (not too sure this term was used back then) will I go out into the midst of Egypt and all the firstborn of Egypt shall die, (a retribution) from the first born of Pharaoh, to the firstborn of the maidservant, and the firstborn of beasts."

Some archaeologists have considered historical evidence of the Ten Plagues. An ancient water-trough bears hieroglyphic markings detailing a period of darkness. An Egyptian papyrus describes a series of calamities befalling Egypt, including a river turned to blood, and the land generally turned upside down. This, however, is usually thought to describe a general and long term ecological disaster lasting for decades, such as that which destroyed the Old Kingdom (long before Ramses was even a twinkle in his ancestors' eyes), the dates usually given for the Exodus, making them wrong by several hundred years.

Some science writers and Bible researchers have suggested that the plagues were passed-down accounts of ordinary natural disasters, and not supernatural miracles.

Plague 1: Water turned into blood and fish died. The redness in the Nile could have been pollution caused by volcanic activity, specifically that of Thera, now Santorini, Greece, which erupted around 1600BC. Ash from this eruption is found in the Nile region. The silt could make the Nile turn blood red.

Plague 2: Frogs. Any water blight that killed fish would also have caused frogs to leave the river and likely die.

Plagues 3 and 4: Biting insects and flies. The lack of frogs in the river would have led to massive insect populations, normally kept down by the frogs.

Plagues 5 and 6: Livestock disease and boils. There are biting flies in the region which transmit livestock diseases; a sudden increase in their number would spark epidemics.

Plague 7: Fiery hail. Volcanic activity not only brings with it ash, but also brimstone, and alters the weather system, sometimes producing hail. Hail could also have occurred as a completely independent natural weather event, with accompanying lightning as the "fire".

Plague 8: Locusts. Hail will destroy most crops, leaving several insects and other animals without a normal food supply. The remaining crops would become targeted heavily, and thus be destroyed by swarms of locusts. Swarms are not uncommon today. There was a plague of locusts in Egypt in 2004.

Plague 9: Darkness. There could be several causes for unusual darkness: a solar eclipse, a sandstorm, volcanic ash, or simply swarms of locusts large enough to block out the sun.

Plague 10: Death of the firstborn.

If the last plague indeed affected the firstborn, it could be due to food polluted during the time of darkness, either by locusts or other natural causes. When people emerged after the darkness, the firstborn would be given priority, as was usual at that time, and would be more likely to be affected by any toxin or disease carried by the food.

The documentary Exodus Decoded, by Jewish Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, theorized that the selectiveness of the tenth plague was caused by a major eruption on Santorini, 650 miles to the northwest of Egypt. It is one of the largest on record, rivaling Tambora, which resulted in 1816's Year Without a Summer. It would have set off a chain of events resulting in the plagues, eventually killing the first born.

However, all estimates of the date of this eruption are hundreds of years before the Exodus is believed to have taken place; thus the eruption can only have caused some of the plagues if one or other of the dates is wrong, or if the plagues did not actually immediately precede the Exodus.

In his book The Plagues of Egypt: Archaeology, History, and Science Look at the Bible, Siro Igino Trevisanato explores the theory that the plagues were initially caused by the Santorini eruption. He considers a two-stage eruption over a time period of a little under two years. He places the first eruption in 1602BC, when volcanic ash tainted the Nile, causing the first plague and forming a catalyst for many of the subsequent plagues. In 1600BC, the plume of a Santorini eruption caused the ninth plague, the days of darkness. He also has a theory that the Egyptians (at that time under the occupation of the Hyksos), resorted to human sacrifice in an attempt to appease their gods. This human sacrifice became known as the tenth plague.

After the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland and its resulting widespread devastation, this explanation of the Egyptian plagues is more believable.


JaneB said...

WOW Jean this is awesome stuff. You sure know your history! It would be fascinating reading in a historical novel


Redhed said...

Hey Jean, Great post! What's the chance of another historical??

morgan wyatt said...

This is very interersting. Thanks for tying it together. I did survive a swarm of locust as a child, but the crops didn't. It was like a horror movie. They flew in, blocked out the sun. We hustled all the livestock in the barn and hid. When they left, there was only stubble in the fields.


Mona Risk said...

Very interesting post. Thank you Jean.

My current WIP takes place in mythological Egypt and I am studying the history and culture of Ancient Egypt. I don't know if the volcano of Santorini would reach Egypt. Maybe. But I know that the water turned to blood is probably due to a very strong flood of the Nile River carrying a lot of mud from the heart of Africa where the Nile originates.

The yearly flood was usually welcomed and celebrated as a gift from the gods as it gave a fertile land for the rest of the year. But if it was too strong it might have turned the water red with mud and caused devastation in the areas around.

Flies and lice are endemic in Egypt due to poverty and poor hygienic conditions. Very poor people from the countryside relieve themselves in the Nile, but they also bathe, wash and drink and play in the same waters. The disease called Bilharsia due to a worm is endemic in Egypt.

TenderJohnson said...

WoW Jean there are so many weaknesses in this post. Namely how did the volcanic ash reach the jars of water put in storage that turns to blood. 72 hours of darkness cannot occur with the flight of locust...nor have we ever in recorded history had a 3 day eclipse. The firstborn that died were of various ages...old and Young men. No disease that we know of only affects the firstborn male. Not convincing enough.

Anonymous said...

as a grade 7 student i find such information useful and a good source of information ..

Anonymous said...


Please note she mentioned volcanic ash. If the eruption that covered Pompeii lasted a day and half, and the volcano that erupted in 1600BC was far more immense than what killed Pompeii's citizens, then yes, its probable that it caused 3 days of darkness because it was such an immense cloud of black ash. Another theory is a solar eclipse of some sort followed by a volcanic eruption. Not sure if its plausible, but I wondered.

It said the firstborn of every house in Egypt. So I'm thinking clans. Egyptians weren't nuclear in their family ties. I think most were patriarchal. So they would stay within the father's lines, and any daughters would go to the husband's father's family. *Supposedly* I heard somewhere that firstborns were allowed to sleep downstairs as a privilege, while the rest of the family slept in quarters upstairs. Not sure if this was true or not, but there were rumors that scientists thought they were killed by CO2 coming in off of the Nile or a nearby bog if the mold was toxic?

The water in storage, I can answer..there is a particular kind of disease/mineral that is toxic that is carried by the Nile. If there is too much rain or too little rain, it stirs up the mud, causing the water to turn red (hence the color of blood). It stands to reason that EVEN without it being stirred up, the water contained this toxic substance, so if it was concentrated and added to the jug little by little, then yeah, the water could turn red if it had mud in with it.