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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Ten Plagues of Egypt

The Ten Plagues of Egypt were miraculous events in the Book of Exodus which eventually led to the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. While many miracles are recorded in the Old and New Testaments, few accounts initially seem as improbable and fantastic as the ten plagues. The source of even greater criticism was the fact that the events were apparently not recorded in history.

In this post, I am not arguing for miracles, or acts of God, in general. I do believe, for example, that Jesus performed miracles, but I do not believe science can currently account for these. I do believe that it is within God's power to manipulate natural processes, and some miracles demonstrate this.

Recent discoveries in science, while being far from proving the account true, at least move the Exodus into the realm of possibility. I do believe that the Lord directed Moses to unleash the ten plagues upon Egypt. However, the point of this post is not to discuss the historical accuracy of the Exodus account, but how it could have happened if it did. The point is not whether it did happen, but how it could have happened.

1. Plague of Blood.

“The river is blood…Blood is everywhere…Men shrink from tasting…That is our water… Everything is in ruination” - Admonitions of Ipuwer, an ancient Egyptian papyrus manuscript.

The first plague involved the water in the Nile River turning to blood. Of all the plagues described in Exodus, this is one of the most obviously supernatural. There is nothing too outrageous about a higher than normal population of flies, but water turning to blood is pretty difficult to account for.

One possible explanation offered by scientists is a “red tide”. Red Tide occurs when nutrient-rich water causes the populations of algae and other microorganisms to grow to the point that it discolors the water. It is important to note that these algae blooms may not always be red, and some have no discoloration at all, but a red color in the water is common.

Professor Augusto Magini, a paleoclimatologist at Heidelberg University's institute for environmental physics, said: "Pharaoh Rameses II reigned during a very favourable climatic period. There was plenty of rain and his country flourished. However, this wet period only lasted a few decades. After Rameses' reign, the climate curve goes sharply downwards. There is a dry period which would certainly have had serious consequences."

The rising temperatures could have caused the river's water level to drop, turning the fast flowing river that was Egypt's lifeline into a slow moving and muddy watercourse. These conditions would have been perfect for the arrival of the first plague. Dr Stephan Pflugmacher, a biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Water Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, believes this description could have been the result of a toxic fresh water algae. He said the bacterium, known as Burgundy Blood algae or Oscillatoria rubescens, is known to have existed 3,000 years ago and still causes similar effects today. He said: "It multiplies massively in slow-moving warm waters with high levels of nutrition. And as it dies, it stains the water red."

In addition to the red color, the death of so many microorganisms followed by their decomposition by aquatic bacteria would lead to the generation of malodorous air pollution and the presence of certain organisms could also be extremely dangerous to asthmatics and people with other breathing difficulties.
2. Plague of Frogs.

An algae bloom would have made the water toxic. The Egyptians would not have been able to drink the water and all of the fish certainly would have died. One creature which would have been able to escape is the frog. A mass death of fish would have freed the frogs' spawn from its most important predator, so that unusually large numbers of frogs would have developed into maturity. Not only would mature frogs have been able to leave the river, but many of the tadpoles as well. Frogs development from tadpoles into fully formed adults is governed by hormones that can speed up their development in times of stress. The arrival of the toxic algae would have triggered such a transformation and forced the frogs to leave the water where they lived.

But even in such circumstances, scholars have questioned whether the frog population could have exploded to the extent described in the bible. Professor Richard Wassersug, of the University of Halifax in Nova Scotia, one of the world's leading experts on amphibians, has developed his own ideas about the biblical plague of frogs.

"Tsefardea", the word used in the bible to describe the second plague, is a catch-all description for all kinds of frogs and toads. The same word could be used to describe all creatures of this type or it could be used in reference to a specific single species. Wasserug believed that the behavior of the "tsefardea" as described in the bible best fitted that of toads -- and toads of the genus Bufo, in particular.

Toads of this genus are common throughout the world; and unlike the generally less prolific frog species, they produce huge numbers of eggs -- hundreds of thousands from a single individual. This means that populations of Bufo toads can soar from being relatively rare to numbering many millions. Bufo toads are also drawn towards sources of light and warmth in search of the insects that they rely on for food. The biblical description of how the tsefardea "came upon the land of Egypt", into the houses and bedchambers, the ovens and kneedingtroughs, fits the behavior of the Bufo toad perfectly.

Eventually, Pharaoh pleaded with Moshe to eliminate the plague of frogs. “HaShem carried out the word of Moshe and the frogs died - from the houses, from the courtyards, and from the fields. They piled them up into heaps and heaps and the land stank” (Shemos 8:9-10).

Thus, the pollution of the atmosphere initiated through the rotting fish in the Nile River from the first plague now continued throughout the land as the frogs slowly decomposed in the hot Egyptian climate.

3. Plague of Lice.

When the Nile River changed to blood or to a blood-like liquid, the Egyptians stopped from bathing and laundering their garments, thereby initiating a hygienic scenario to promote lice infestation of their scalp and body. The Torah's term, כנים, written in the plural, refers to at least 14 varieties of species of jumping, black lice that originated from the Egyptian soil. Whereas the white body lice produced visible eggs (“nits”), the jumping, black species produced microscopic eggs and were believed to have arisen by spontaneous generation. This may be why the Torah claims that “all the dust of the land became lice throughout the land of Egypt” (Shemos 8:13).

Other factors that could support the rapid growth of small insect populations are the rotting frogs and fish, and the micro-organisms that would have covered them. Eight species of midges (Culicoides) have been cataloged in Egypt. Midge larvae, moreover, feed on micro-organisms in decaying organic material (such as dead fish or frogs), and their emergence in huge numbers might indeed be seen as a plague arising from the dust of the land.

Culicoides canithorax, the biting midge, is the most likely culprit for the third plague. Until recently, though, midges had been considered merely to be irritants (as suggested by the name of one species, Culicoides vexans), rather than the carriers of infectious diseases. Increasingly, however, they have been associated with both human and animal viral diseases.

4. Plague of Flies.

A plague of flies is easily explained by two factors. Two major groups of animals that fed on the insects, fish and frogs, were now eliminated. This alone could account for brief, exponential growth of certain insect populations. However, the dead fish were rotting in the rivers and the dead frogs were piled up on the land. Animals that were once predators now became breeding grounds for flies (maggots) and other insects.

Stable flies are considered the most likely candidate for the fourth plague because they fit the biblical description, the region and as they suck blood from people and animals, they leave open wounds behind, linking them to the next plagues. The victims would then be vulnerable to secondary infections in addition to those carried by the fly.

5. Plague of Pestilence.

There are several candidate diseases proposed for the fifth biblical plague. An important detail is that the disease seemed to affect only certain types of animals, as too is the fact that it appears from the biblical account only to have afflicted certain hoofed mammals. In particular, domestic pets, wild carnivores, birds, amphibians, reptiles -- and goats and pigs, common in Egypt at the time -- all appear to have been spared. This helps to narrow down the list of possible afflictions.

Dr Roger Breeze, director of the US Department of Agriculture Animal Research Centre at Plum Island, off the Connecticut coast makes two suggestions. Plum Island, which used to be run by the US military, is a center for research into some of the most dangerous viral diseases on earth.

Breeze, a top animal virologist, first pointed to African Horse Sickness. This is a viral disease that affects horses, mules and asses, multiplying in the cells that line blood vessels, allowing blood fluids to get into the lungs and causing the animals literally to drown in their own fluids within a matter of hours. African Horse Sickness does not affect ruminants, but Breeze refers to a second, closely-related virus called Bluetongue, which affects cattle, sheep and goats in a similar way.

He also offers an explanation why two such viruses might have been spread so quickly at the same time in ancient Egypt. Both viruses are spread by the Culicoides midge, which is the most likely candidate for the third plague -- of lice. This also offered a possible explanation why animals belonging to the Israelites could have been spared the fifth plague. Culicoides are very weak fliers, and herds and flocks outside their normal distribution range (such as in the Land of Goshen, where the Israelites resided, in northern Egypt) would have been spared their depredations.

6. Plague of Boils.

Unlike the fifth plague, the sixth -- of boils and blains -- affected both animals and human beings. Previous scientific explanations have included anthrax and a combined staphylococcal/streptococcal bacterial infection. Both of these diseases can be transmitted by flies, direct contact and contaminated food or drink, and both result in the sort of severe skin infections described in the bible.

However, there is also a disease spread by the stable fly which may be a better fit: Pseudomonas mallei, the bacterium responsible for glanders, a highly contagious infection which can be spread in the air, by direct contact or through fly bites. Used as a biological warfare agent in the first world war and first described by Aristotle in 330 BC, it is known as the "forgotten disease". But in fact it is still found today throughout the Middle East and Africa, affecting both animals and human beings. It spreads via the lymphatic system, causing the lymph nodes to swell and suppurate -- hence the name, glanders -- and fits the description of a plague of boils and blains extremely well.
7. Plague of Hail.

Even the most violent hailstorm -- albeit one leaving the Israelites unaffected in the land of Goshen -- might not have merited the description of a "plague" had it not followed the six previous, devastating plagues that had hit ancient Egypt in quick succession. But for the disease-stricken Egyptians, with their ruined crops and their dead and ailing livestock, the effect would have been disastrous. The diameter of the hail stones may range from one or two millimeters to 13 or more centimeters Even the smallest stones can cause great damage to crops and vegetation; showers of the larger ones can kill or seriously injure animals or human beings caught out in the open.

Hail can occur almost anywhere in the world, although storms of such ferocity tend to be associated with hotter regions. One such violent hailstorm took place in Israel and Jordan in October 1997. Some 60 people were injured, buildings and vehicles were damaged, and the hail lay more than a meter deep on the ground. In ancient Egypt, a storm of this kind would have caused severe damage to the mudbrick buildings of the Egyptian peasantry, as well as injuring or killing people and livestock who were unable to take shelter. Most devastating of all, it would also have resulted in immense damage to the growing crops at a time when, because of the previous plagues, this agrarian society was even more dependent upon the success of its harvest than usual.

One theory says that a nearby volcanic eruption may have caused the hail storm. One of the biggest volcanic eruptions in human history occurred when Thera, a volcano that was part of the Mediterranean islands of Santorini, just north of Crete, exploded around 3,500 year ago, spewing billions of tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

Nadine von Blohm, from the Institute for Atmospheric Physics in Germany, has been conducting experiments on how hailstorms form and believes that the volcanic ash could have clashed with thunderstorms above Egypt to produce dramatic hail storms.

Dr Siro Trevisanato, a Canadian biologist who has written a book about the plagues, said the locusts could also be explained by the volcanic fall out from the ash. He said, "The ash fall out caused weather anomalies, which translates into higher precipitations, higher humidity. And that's exactly what fosters the presence of the locusts."

The volcanic ash could also have blocked out the sunlight causing the stories of a plague of darkness. Scientists have found pumice, stone made from cooled volcanic lava, during excavations of Egyptian ruins despite there not being any volcanoes in Egypt. Analysis of the rock shows that it came from the Santorini volcano, providing physical evidence that the ash fallout from the eruption at Santorini reached Egyptian shores.

8. Plague of Locusts.

The most probable culprit for the biblical plague of locusts is Schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust. One of at least nine members of the family Acrididae known to cause serious damage to crops and other vegetation when it swarms, it is found in a belt across northern Africa and the Middle East through to the Punjab. It was clearly well known in ancient Egypt since it appears on various friezes predating the time of the plagues. These swarms fly by day in warm weather, descending in vast hordes to consume all living vegetation in the areas they afflict.

For the ancient Egyptians, a plague of locusts -- coming so soon after the plague of hail, which would have caused great damage to crops and fruit trees already -- would have resulted in a desperate urgency to save whatever they could of their diminished harvest. Partially-damaged crops would have been hastily carried to sheltered granaries and underground storage facilities.

These crops would have been dampened and damaged by hail, with no time to dry or sort them before storing. They would also have been contaminated by locust faeces, rich in bacterial and fungal organisms, all of which would have significant implications for the tenth and final plague.

9. Plague of Darkness.

A nearby volcanic eruption would certainly explain several days of darkness. The Old Testament describes it as “a darkness which may be felt” (Exodus 10:21), meaning it had some tangible presence, such as dust or ash in the air. One theory says that the darkness came from the swarm of locusts. While locust swarms have certainly been known to blot out the sun, all of the locusts were destroyed in the previous verses, so this is clearly not the case.

Another idea states that annual dust storms could have caused total darkness for several days. The darkness was probably produced by a khamsin, a hot southerly wind sweeping in from the Sahara. This wind can produce fierce sandstorms during the khamsin-season (from March to May). Typically lasting for two or three days, such as one that struck Cairo in the spring of 1997, these storms have been known to bury entire buildings and large monuments in fine sand, blotting out the sun in a dark, dusty haze. The massive sand drifts that can accumulate in such storms would have blocked building entrances, preventing the inhabitants from entering or leaving until the storm subsided, as described in the biblical account.

10. Death of the Firstborn.

Mycotoxins are chemical compounds produced by fungi growing on organic substances, like corn and other crops. The fungi is not harmful, but the mycotoxins they produce as by-products are extremely toxic. The fungi that produces them grow in dark, humid, damp, decaying areas. Even today, they grow in basements and cellars in the United States. It has long been known to cause disease in animals, but wasn't associated with human conditions until the last few years when it has been linked to a number of other mysterious human afflictions, such as Pulmonary haemosclerosis (a rare lung disease that is believed to be caused by a toxic black mold or fungus found in water-saturated wood and paper materials) in places where the same sort of conditions occur.

In ancient Egypt, there would not have been fungal growths in damp, poorly-ventilated basements, but there would have been molds growing on hastily-gathered, damp grain in unventilated, sand-covered stores. The conditions most favorable for the growth of some of the major mycotoxin-producing fungi were all present in those stores. Recent research in the southern US, for example, has found that one of the most important mycotoxin-producing fungi grows best in a temperature range of 80-110 degrees Fahrenheit, a relative humidity of 62-99 per cent and a kernel moisture content of 13-20 per cent -- all of which are likely to have been found in the ancient Egyptians' grain stores.

The US scientist, R Schoental, had been the first to suggest that mycotoxins in contaminated foodstuffs might explain the sudden deaths of ancient Egyptians and their animals in her essay, Mycotoxins and the Bible, in 1984. She also proposed a possible reason for its preferential impact on the firstborn -- that the most dominant animals and human beings would have had first access to the stored food supplies, and so they would have been most affected by the fatal toxins.

More than 100 toxigenic fungi have been identified since the first mycotoxin was discovered in 1961 (after 100,000 turkeys died in Britain when they were fed moldy peanut meal), and several dozen mycotoxins have been found to be responsible for illness in animals and human beings. Only a small number, however, are linked to molds that grow on the sort of crops that would have been in the ancient Egyptians' stores. The most toxic among these include the mycotoxins, macrocylic tricothecenes, produced by Stachybotrys atra.

Stachybotrys atra grows on cellulose -- it might have been grain and cereal crops in ancient Egypt. The macrocylic tricothecenes it produces have been linked to animal deaths in many countries worldwide and to the deaths of thousands of people as well as animals in the USSR during the second world war. The toxins could be carried on airborne fungal spores as well as being ingested directly. Ruminant cattle are particularly attracted to damp straw, on which the fungus grows especially well. Very small quantities of these toxins are known to cause illness and death; larger amounts can very quickly lead to massive internal bleeding in the lungs or gastrointestinal tract, causing sudden death. The need of the ancient Egyptians to use improperly-stored, moldy grain to avert the threat of starvation might well have precipitated widespread illness and death from mycotoxin poisoning.

The first people to have had access to the contaminated stores of grain and foodstuffs would be have been older, more responsible or more powerful individuals in Egyptian society. They would also have been the first to eat bread produced from the moldy wheat; indeed, there is a strong ancient tradition, mentioned in the bible, whereby the firstborn should not just be fed first but receive double rations of what food is available. Similarly, the first animals to feed would be the most dominant ones -- typically the eldest. Mycotoxin poisoning could have occurred by breathing in the unventilated air from the grain stores or by eating the food prepared with the contaminated grain. Deeper stores of grain and foodstuffs may not have been so affected by the surface-growing mold, sparing humans and animals who fed off it later. The grain stores themselves, moreover, would have been ventilated by this stage, removing the threat of exposure to airborne toxins.

The Israelites could have escaped the worst effects of mycotoxin poisoning, firstly, because the Land of Goshen, where they lived, escaped some of the earlier plagues that exacerbated the food shortages and famine in the rest of Egypt. And secondly, it may be that the tradition of the Passover meal, in common with other dietary injunctions found in the bible, bears some relation to ancient understanding of food hygiene and safety. The key elements of that meal -- new-born lamb, herbs and unleavened bread -- are all safe from mycotoxin contamination.


It is entirely possible that the ten plagues of Egypt, if they did occur, all have entirely naturalistic explanations. If the Exodus account did actually happen, then this would help us understand why Pharaoh remained unconvinced.

I expect some Christians would rail against the idea of trying to understand miracles, but if there is a God, shouldn't He make sense? Shouldn't He be a God of order? At the very least, shouldn't He be reasonable?

I also expect some atheists would try to say that these possible explanations make God unnecessary. I agree entirely. God is not necessary to explain these events. I don't believe that this means that He is not a part of the explanation, but I totally agree that you have no obligation to believe in a Christian God because of the information above. Even Jesus taught that miracles are a crappy reason to believe (A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign... - Matt. 16:4).

But again, the point of this post is not to argue the existence of the Christian God or that He was behind the ten plagues. The point here is only to show that the actual events themselves, happening in the order described, are at least plausible.
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