Most people are familiar with the ten plagues of Egypt described in Exodus. The plagues precede the very famous account of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh. God rolls out the plagues in ascending order – starting with the mildest and building in severity as Pharaoh continues to refuse to grant the Hebrew people their freedom. Now, scientists and archaeologists believe that the plagues are not only genuine accounts, but that scientific discoveries can actually corroborate the stories.
Let’s take a look at the scientific evidence available for the plagues depicted in Exodus.
Researchers now believe that they have evidence of the plagues outlined in Exodus, suggesting that the plagues took place in an ancient city called ‘Pi-Rameses’ on the Nile Delta. Pi-Rameses was the capital of Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Rameses the second who ruled Egypt from 1279 BC to 1213 BC.
Evidence that the plagues may have taken place in Pi-Rameses includes an ancient water trough which is inscribed with markings, depicting a period of darkness. Climatologists have also observed a dramatic shift in the climate in Pi-Rameses toward the end of the Pharaoh Rameses’ reign – undergoing a radical move from a warm, wet climate to a dry one. Archaeologists also claim that the city was abandoned around 3,000 years ago – a fact which scientists claim could be attributed to the onset of the plagues.
The Ipuwer Papyrus
The Ipuwer Papyrus is an ancient papyrus scroll containing an ancient Egyptian poem called “The Admonitions of Ipuwer”. The Ipuwer Papyrus describes a series of events which take place in Egypt – events which sound uncannily like those of the plagues outlined in Exodus. The events include a river turning to blood, the men of the land behaving as wild Ibises and the land coming under great distress.
The Ipuwer Papyrus is thought by some archaeologists as a reliable corroboration of the Biblical accounts, since the texts appear to witness the events unfolding.
A Chain Reaction
Scientists who have sought to understand the nature of the plagues have now come to the conclusion that the plagues came about from a chain reaction of natural phenomena.
According to this theory, the events which take place in Exodus 7 through 11 are natural disasters, which take place in a natural sequence. In other words – the plagues can be attributed to a series of natural events which each in turn, trigger the next. While Moses and the Biblical writers attributed the plagues of Exodus to the miraculous work of God, this idea attributes them to a cause-and-effect concept, starting with the climate shift in Pi-Rameses.
First Plague: Water into Blood
“And Moses and Aaron did so, as the Lord commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood.”
The dramatic shift in climate in Pi-Rameses meant that the climate in the region suddenly went from warm and wet to extremely dry:
“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.”
– Professor Augusto Magini, paleoclimatologist.
According to the chain reaction theory, this radical change triggered the first of the plagues we see in Exodus 7. Scientists agree that the rising temperatures of the new, drier climate caused temperatures to rise and dry up the river Nile. This in turn caused Egypt’s primary water source to transform into nothing more than a muddy waterway – conditions which paved the way for the Bible’s description of the Nile turning to blood.
Scientists attribute the red Nile to the manifestation of a toxic, fresh-water algae known as ‘Burgundy Blood”. This bacterium is known to have existed at the time of Pi-Rameses and is known for its characteristic action as it dies: it stains water red.
Second, Third and Fourth plagues – Frogs, Lice and Flies
“And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up, and covered the land of Egypt.”
“for Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man, and in beast; all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt.”
“And the Lord did so; and there came a grievous swarm of flies into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants’ houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies.”
The Burgundy Blood algae could have set in motion the second, third and fourth plagues described in Exodus – frogs, lice and flies. Frogs are known to be able to develop from tadpoles into adult frogs very quickly. They are also known to be able to speed up this development in times of distress. Scientists claim that the toxic algae present in the Nile would be more than enough to trigger this speedy development, as well as forcing the frogs from their water home and onto the land.
The subsequent third and fourth plagues are a result of the frogs also. With the deaths of these frogs, other insects would naturally have flourished in the absence of their predators.
Fifth and Sixth Plagues – Livestock and Boils
“And the next day the Lord did it: All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died.”
“So they took soot from a furnace and stood before Pharaoh. Moses tossed it into the air, and festering boils broke out on people and animals.”
Insects carry diseases – even today it is possible to contract dengue fever, malaria, lyme disease and many more diseases from an insect bite. After the deterioration of Egypt’s fresh-water source, the death of mass frog populations and the infestation of insects, it is only natural to assume that the next step in the plague ‘chain reaction’ would be disease and epidemics. The livestock first dies, before the people of Egypt break out in boils.
Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Plagues –Thunderstorm, Locusts and Darkness
“the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. Throughout Egypt hail struck everything in the fields—both people and animals; it beat down everything growing in the fields and stripped every tree.”
“By morning the wind had brought the locusts; they invaded all Egypt and settled down in every area of the country in great numbers…They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.”
“So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days.”
A major, natural disaster which took place 400 miles away is used to explain the seventh, eighth and ninth plagues of Exodus – a volcanic eruption.
Thera, a volcano that was near Crete is known to have erupted around the time of Pi-Rameses. Thera’s eruption is one of the largest known eruptions in human history, and its explosion sent forth billions of tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. While there are no volcanoes located in Egypt, archaeologists have recovered volcanic rock during Egyptian excavations. Tests confirmed that this rock originated from Thera, substantiating the claim that this eruption reached Egyptian shores.
The eruption of Thera was powerful enough to cause dramatic hail storms all the way to Egypt, atmospheric physicists confirm. This forms another sequence within the chain reaction. From the ash, the temperature would be expected to once again rise, increasing the humidity level with it. These conditions are known to foster the presence of insects, and may account for the locusts which appear in the eight plague described in Exodus. The dense amount of volcanic ash can also be blamed for the darkness which Egypt undergoes – thick ash could be responsible for blocking out the sunlight over a large area of land.
The huge global impact of Thera’s eruption has been documented in an ash layer found in the Nile Delta, as well as in the United States and Greenland. It is not hard to see how its eruption may have caused apocalyptic-style events to unfold in Pi-Rameses.
Tenth Plague – Death of the Firstborn
“At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well.”
The cause of the final plague, the death of all the firstborn is unable to be supported by scientific evidence. Some have speculated that the firstborn slept on the floor, inhaling more volcanic dust than younger children while others have suggested that a deadly fungus compromised grain supplies. However, these arguments have all been largely discredited and we may need to accept that God did not action this last plague through natural means, but rather manifested it miraculously.
Does Science Support the Plagues?
While it appears that science does corroborate the accounts of the plagues described in Exodus, explaining them with naturalistic explanations should not be done so at the risk of missing the real point of the story. Exodus serves to show the reader that human history is carried out through the hand of God. God led the Israelites out of slavery and into the land he was preparing…because he is God!
God often acts through His creation – utilising natural law to manifest his miracles. In Exodus alone we see this several times including 10:13 where we are told that God brought the locusts by ‘an east wind that blew across the land all that day and all that night’. In verse 19 we go onto learn that in order to bring the plague to an end, God ‘changed the wind to a strong west wind, which caught up the locusts and carried them into the Red Sea’.
The plagues may have been brought about through natural phenomena, but we must still recognise that it was God who brought them about for his redemptive purposes.
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