What caused the plagues in
egypt? Was it the hand of God, a natural phenomena, or a mix of both?
In the 13th century BCE, two men found themselves standing before one of the greatest rulers of their time. As they stood in his courtroom, they boldly demanded that their people be freed from years of captivity. You see, the man leading the charge held a special position in this court. Despite being a descendant of Abraham, he was raised in this very palace as a prince. But how could anyone turn a blind eye when faced with the torture and murder of your kin. It was time to take action. God had raised him up and gave him favor for such a time as this.
Moses and Aaron beseeched Pharaoh to release their people in the name of the Lord but the Egyptians were a people of many gods. To demand the release of slave labor and throw their entire civilization into shock was not in Pharaoh’s interest. He had no commitment to the God of the Israelites and saw no need to do as Moses and Aaron commanded. Even after Pharaoh demanded proof the their God was indeed real and Aaron cast his rod to the ground and it became a snake, Pharaoh did not care enough to set their people free. After all, Pharaoh’s court magicians were able to perform the same works, albeit their snakes did end up as a snack to Aaron’s.
Pharaoh’s heart was hardened to them. In order to free their people, it was going to take more than a parlor trick or a smooth tongue. It was going to take something much, much worse. It was going to take blood.
Most of us have heard the Exodus story. We know about the plagues and the deliverance of the Hebrews from the hands of the Egyptians. Many of us who have any church background have seen some movie or read some graphic novel depiction of the events that took place. We know about the plagues and the parting of the sea. This is all old news. But we are not here to give a simple rehashing of the same old story, are we?
No, we are here to understand the significance of each plague, what could have caused such a catastrophe from the natural world’s perspective, and ultimately, what this looks like outside of our cute cartoon portrayals. So let’s work through each of these plagues, one by one and take a closer look at what secrets they hold, paying special attention to the last and most devastating because there is a bit more there than we are taught in Sunday school.
That following morning after their first encounter with the Egyptian magicians, God instructed both Moses and Aaron to go to the banks of the Nile River in the early morning hours. There, they would find Pharaoh gathering his morning water. It amazes me that the ruler of all Egypt was out gathering his own water, but maybe he enjoyed a cool morning stroll.
Moses and Aaron met him there and took the staff that turned into the snake and struck the water of the Nile with it declaring, “ Thus says the Lord, By this you will know that I am God; When I strike the water with this staff the Nile and all the waters in Egypt shall turn to blood”. And at his command, the water began to turn red.
For seven days every drop of water in Egypt turned blood red. No stream or tributary we left clean. Even the barrels of water in the palace were tainted red at the hand of the Lord. But this was not enough to impress Pharaoh. HIs magicians were able to duplicate the same miracle so Pharaoh did not take God seriously. The Egyptians dug water along the banks of the river to filter the water of its impurities and by this, they were able to wait out the duration of the first plague.
There is a lot to say about the entire exodus from Egypt from a historical standpoint, much of which we will sum up at the end of this episode, but for the sake of congruity, lets take a moment at the end of each of these plagues to talk about what the scientific community has hypothesized caused these plagues, at least from a biological perspective. After all, you can’t have Biblical history BEYOND the Bible if you don’t at least attempt to justify the Biblical account of history through the eyes of science and other historical records, can you?
Archeological evidence suggests two possible causes for the plagues that would’ve at least in part, fit the Biblical narrative. One of these I find to be extremely interesting and will give more emphasis to throughout our time together, but for the sake of being thorough, or at least as thorough as one can be in just 20 minutes, I will go ahead and share the other perspective to give you a foothold for your own research if you choose to do so.
John S. Marr, an epidemiologist wrote an article in 1996 that hypothesized Red Algae could have been the culprit. When waters slow, this algae can infiltrate the river banks dying the waterways a nice bloody shade of red. The increase of the Algae would’ve thrown off the entire ecosystem: killing the fish, causing frogs to go crazy, causing bugs to swarm, etc. But in order for this theory to be possible one major thing would have had to happen, and that is something was drought.
Augusto Mangini, a paleoclimatologist conducted an in depth study in 2010 on stalagmites in surrounding caves. His research indicated that there was indeed an excessively dry period around the time of Ramses II. This could have caused the Nile to slow and create the perfect atmosphere for Red Algae to grow uncontrollably. But to me, this theory, while very possible, falls short in comparison with the other prevailing theory and That’s the one we will be referencing from here on out:
Microbiologist Siro Trevisanato, author of “The Plagues of Egypt”, hypothesized that the plagues were a byproduct of a well timed eruption from a volcano on the island of Santorini, in the southern edge of Greece. Around 1600 BCE Egyptian medical records indicate there was indeed an eruption in a surrounding area. But how does a volcano tribute to the nile river turning to blood? Much less any other examples of the plagues. Well, this is where things start to kind of make sense.
Volcanic eruptions release minerals from the earths core. Some of these minerals find their way into the ash emitted from the blast. One of these minerals commonly found is Cinnabar. Cinnabar is a toxic, highly acidic, red-colored mineral that when added to water, has a tendency to turn it – you guessed it, red. But the color of the water wasn’t the problem. The real problem would have came from the rising of the PH value in the streams. Couple that with the general toxicity of Cinnabar when taken internally and the result is a bunch of dead aquatic life, just like Exodus said. But what if the aquatic life had, I don’t know, legs? Well, I could only assume they would spring out of the water! Which looks a lot like our next plague on the list.
Yes, the next plague to infest Egypt was a legion of frogs. Just like before, Aaron swept his rod over the waters at the Lord’s command and out from the water poured uncountable armies of frogs. the Bible says that the frogs found their way down the streets and into the people’s homes. They infested their food supplies and took refuge in their ovens. The frogs were everywhere. They swarmed like ants when you kick their mound. And there was no getting rid of them, their numbers were too great.
Despite the magicians replicating the event, Pharaoh, this time, was willing to give the God of the Hebrews a chance. He offered to let them go if God would retract the amphibious invaders. The next day, the frogs were dead. But with all that death brought forth a terrible odor as the Egyptians gathered up the carcasses of frogs and piled them up to be discarded and they began to rot and of course, Pharaoh retracted his offer.
What happens to a carcass that begins to rot? It begins to attract creatures that are designed to take up residence in rotting flesh. Normally these creatures are natures garbage disposal system but with a legion of frog bodies in every corner of the city, that starts to cause a new problem once those eggs laid in those hosts start to hatch. Which leads to our next plagues, gnats and flies.
When Aaron reached out his rod this time, he swiped it across the surface of the earth and stirred up dust. This dust was a symbol to Pharaoh of the next plague: a deluge of small insects that would cover the land like the dust stirred up from Aaron’s rod. And despite Pharaoh’s magician’s best effort, this is where their abilities met their match. Even though there seemed to be hard proof of God’s desire for His people to be free staring him in the face, Pharaoh did not relent.
And then came the flies. Once again, where there is death, there to are the flies. And flies there were. They covered every inch of the city just as the frogs and gnats before them. And, well, I’m sure you already assumed, but yes, Pharaoh still did not have a change of heart. So onward with the plagues!
Because of their purpose in the disposing of death and filth, flies are disgusting creatures. And not only are they disgusting, they can also be deadly. Which is why the next plague comes as no surprise. Because the next plague was directed at all the Egyptian livestock.
Flies and gnats, or “lice” in some translations, are known to carry two distinct diseases in that region: Egyptian Horse Sickness, and Blue Tongue which gets its name from the resulting lack of oxygen the disease causes. Both of these disease effect livestock in particular and since this plague was directed at livestock, well, I’m sure you see how this fits together.
Livestock is a commodity and to lose one of your main goods is not just an attack on food supply or a working tool, it is a direct attack on the wealth of the economy. Losing all of your livestock could bankrupt a country. But at least they still had their health? Right. Well, not for long.
I want to take a second and look at where we have been and make sure we are on the same page before we get to where we are going. First, I am not saying God did not cause these events. I am merely showing the possibility of how God used His system of creation to bring about such a chain of events. Second, I want to make sure we are up to speed on just how He might have done that.
So we have an eruption from a volcano in Greece which sends ash down the waterways turning the Nile blood red and killing the fish. The acidity of the waters cause the frogs to evacuate their homes and take shelter in the corners of every home they can find. Soon, the frogs without their wet habitation dried up and died. From the dead bodies of the frogs came gnats and flies with in turn brought disease across the land infecting the livestock. Got it? Good.
The next plague inflicted on Egypt was a direct attack to each and every person who lived there. This plague brought boils upon people’s flesh. There are a couple predominating ideas about this could have happened and they boil down to this – pardon the pun: The first theory is that when the livestock died, the air became polluted with bacteria which multiplied out of control on the flesh of the Egyptians. The second, and more direct view is that the same winds that brought forth the Cinnabar blew through the cities and with that, caused boils to form. The higher acidity would cause the skin to dry and crack. Maybe it was even a bit of both. But no matter the cause, this plague went from being a nuisance to a literal pain in the flesh. And yet the Pharaoh continued his relentlessness towards them.
Soon after the boils, another plague began to rain down upon them, literally. Do you remember learning in science class how moisture is mixed with atmospheric dust and forms rain drops? And if so, do you also remember what happens when atmospheric conditions and turbulence trap those drops in a freezing cloud? They form hail. But this was no ordinary hail because if our theory rings true, this was volcanic hail.
Volcanic hail is formed when an eruption sends microscopic ash particles into the atmosphere which aggregates with the moisture to form hail unlike any other hail seen on earth. Every beast and person not under shelter was literally beat to death by the falling of icy chunks of ash from the heavens. Buildings were destroyed, what bit of livestock that was left were beat to death along with their handlers, and their crops were snapped at the shafts. Well, all except for one that hadn’t broke the ground just yet. God provided a chance to the Pharaoh. A chance to save some small piece of their civilization. But despite his supposed repentance pharaoh retracted his promise yet again once the hail stopped and ushered in the next plague.
No more cows, no more barley, no more shelter or water. Even their health had been compromised. But at least they had their wheat. The harvest of the grains would be a turning point for sure. What could take that away from them? The answer: Locusts.
Moses stretched out his hand and the Bible states an east wind brought in swarms of locusts that ate up every green things: from the crops that the hail did not destroy, to the wheat and even the trees. There was no plant left in sight. The rain and the hail would have created a perfect environment for locusts to thrive in the land long enough to devour every crop Egypt had. And just when they departed, darkness covered the land.
The darkness covered the land for 3 full days, most likely a symptom of the ash filling the skies and blotting out all the sunlight. And while darkness may not seem like such a terrible thing in the grand scheme of all that had happened, I believe it was a powerful omen of what was about to come.
I dare not imagine what it would be like to awaken to the screams of every single household across an entire city as they awoke to find their firstborn child dead. The destroyer had come and reaped his harvest. Like some kind of murderous Kris Kringle sneaking and creeping about the streets and sneaking down through the chimney, but no one wanted what he brought with him.
Yet it is said that not a single Hebrew was touched in this deadly, not so silent night. Somehow the Destroyer the Bible mentions “passed over” their residences. But this was no coincidence, this was intentional and they left a symbol on the doorposts to secure their safety as who some call the Angel of Death crept down every dark and lonely alley. This was the final plague, the death of the first born child. And it got the message across: Jehovah, God of the Hebrews was a God of power and a force not to be reckoned with. When He makes a decree, it is to be followed. When He says let His people go, you had best listen because there will be consequences. There will be blood.
This is an interesting part of the story to me. I believe God works within the confines of His creation and understanding the volcanic eruption theory just makes so much sense when paired with the progression of the other 9 plagues but this one stands out from the rest. There is a theory that children are more susceptible to disease and like a bad case of the flu, some kind of sickness swept the area that only affected the children’s weaker immune systems. But surely someone in Egypt had more than a single child. And if there was some form of viral or bacterial infection attacking children then how could it miss the second, third, or fourth born children who would be younger and have even weaker immune systems than their older siblings. This is something outside the scope of reality. This is the work of something beyond what the natural world holds.
Now, I’d like to clarify. I stand by my previous statement. I do, whole heartedly believe in the idea that God works within the systems of creation. But there is one thing to consider here; that physical creation is only one side of the coin. There are fathoms of energy all around us. Christians, Pagan practitioners, Hindus, and Buddhists alike have all tapped into some aspect of the Devine energy. Sure, we are focussed on Christianity and what I believe to be the ocean of spiritual energy, but that is not to say others cannot have tapped a stream or river. How else could the Egyptian magicians replicated the works of the one, true God in the pharaoh’s courts? So it is very possible that this work, being that it dealt directly with life: the very core of our being and our embodiment of spiritual energy, could neglect the physical all together. It could be the Scarlett thread that ties the natural disasters together and proves this was in fact the work of God, just as the scarlet blood was painted across the door to show who God’s people were to the destroyer that passed over every home. But there is one other thing that is worth considering when looking at this story.
In the rites of ancient Apotropaic magic, the same magic many Egyptians practiced, there was a feast. This feast lasted for 7 days during which all leavening would be purged from their homes and sold. There was also an ancient spell that would be cast to ensure safety from evil spirits for their children in the days to come. They would take a first born, spotless lamb, about a year old, slaughter and drain it of blood, dip a rag in it with hyssop, and smear it over the door and on the doorposts so the dark spirits would pass over their home. Maybe their really is nothing new under the sun.
The Passover festival is the largest and arguably most important festival in the Jewish culture. Yet there is no historical evidence other than a few chapters in the book of Exodus that show it ever happened. The ancient Egyptians kept better records than most any society and while they do write about a volcanic eruption and many of the plagues that we covered before, There are no records of any death of the first born children or even the Israeli captivity for that matter. I’m sure many of us want to paint Egypt as some villain covering it all up but the capturing of an entire nation isn’t exactly something easily swept under the rug.
Many historians believe it was actually the Canaanites that took the Israelites captive, not Egypt. Oh, and that whole bit about the blood over the doorposts and the destroyer, yea that is often believed to be a later addition to the texts influenced off of the much older tradition we just outlined. But if all of it was just a story passed down and not a real account, what does that do to our faith?
Well, in my opinion, nothing. As I said before, there are many ways to tap into the Devine energy of creation. Sure, pagans might very well have practiced the Passover ritual but that doesn’t mean God didn’t command the Hebrews to do the same. Just because someone else got something right doesn’t mean you got it wrong. If there is any truth to this ritual then it would have been sown into the fabric of spiritual creation and it is quite possible more than one group of people could have tapped into its potential.
Christ Himself knew intimately the power in which we are talking about. It is a foundation of the Christian faith and a ceremony still practiced in churches every week. Sure, we no longer have to sacrifice a spotless lamb or paint our doors with blood, but we do eat of the spotless lamb and drink His blood ad Memoriam. Communion serves as a reminder to us that by the shed blood of Christ death has passed over us. Our slavery to sin is no more. There is power in the blood.
Cryptic Sorrow – Atlantean Twilight by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100276 Artist: http://incompetech.com
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