Did The Biblical Plagues of Egypt Really Happen?

The last few years have been trying times. As one disaster followed another, all the world could do was wait for whatever came next. And when India woke up to the news of the largest locust attack in over two decades, many of us felt like our reality was becoming a Biblical plague.

In the Bible, God unleashed ten plagues on Egypt because the Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites from slavery. The plagues were:

  1. Water turning into blood (the waters of the river Nile turned red)
  2. Frogs
  3. Lice
  4. Flies
  5. Pestilence among livestock
  6. Boils
  7. Storms of hail and fire
  8. Locusts
  9. Darkness for three days
  10. Death of every firstborn child

In the year 2020 we experienced three of the ten plagues — disease (coronavirus), storms (cyclone Amphan) and most recently, swarms of locusts. If all this can happen in the first five months of the year, it makes one wonder — could the Biblical plagues have really happened?

The Seventh Plague, by John Martin

Researchers and historians have not found conclusive proof that these plagues actually took place, but they have formulated multiple theories that could fulfil the description of the ten Biblical plagues (more or less). Each of these theories begins with a single environmental occurrence that sets off an enormous domino effect of other natural disasters, which almost exactly fit the sequence of events as depicted in the Bible.

The most popular theory begins with a volcanic eruption.

Although there are no volcanoes in Egypt, a powerful eruption from the volcano on the Greek island of Santorini could have a serious impact on Egypt. According to the volcanic theory, the ash from this eruption would be carried by the wind to Egypt — this ash would have contained particles of cinnabar, which is capable of giving water a blood-like red colour (hence the river turning red). The water would have become more acidic, possibly killing the fish and other organisms in it, and would have caused frogs to evacuate in large numbers, in search for clean water and food.

The Plague of Frogs

Insects would have laid eggs in the animals that died from the toxic water, and those eggs would have matured, resulting in a swarm of adult insects (lice, flies, etc.). These insects would be able to spread diseases among other animals and humans (pestilence among livestock, boils in humans)

The Fifth Plague

The volcanic ash in the atmosphere would have affected precipitation, creating acid rain that caused further damage to humans, and poisoned the soil. The conditions that followed this acid rain, especially the humidity, would be optimal for locusts to thrive.

The high quantity of volcanic ash in the air might be able to block out the sun, thus causing ‘darkness for three days’.

Experts neither claim that this actually happened, nor that this sequence of events would happen again in a similar environment. They merely hypothesised on what the environmental conditions would have to be for all of the Biblical plagues to occur (which, although unlikely, is still theoretically possible).

However, the last plague is not accounted for — the death of the firstborn children. Historians put forth multiple theories to explain this, from ritual sacrifices attempted to please pagan gods, to a fungus that affected the grain used to make bread, which had a more disastrous effect on firstborn children as they traditionally ate first (if there wasn’t enough food for the whole family, the firstborn might be the only one to eat, as they were valued the most in the family).

The closest proof of the volcanic eruption theory lies in ancient Egyptian records, which speak of a great storm, corresponding to the eruption of the volcano Thera (now called Santorini) that happened around 1600 BC.

Regardless of whether the ten plagues of Egypt are historically accurate or not, they serve as a powerful reminder of the effect of climate change — even one isolated event can cause a chain reaction that wreaks mass destruction and havoc.

Works Cited

Ehrenkranz, Joel N. et. al. “Origin of the Old Testament Plagues: Explications and Implications” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. July, 2008. Web. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2442724/ > as seen on June 5th, 2020.

Live Science Staff. “The Science of the 10 Plagues” Live Science. April 11th, 2017. Web. <https://www.livescience.com/58638-science-of-the-10-plagues.html> as seen on June 5th, 2020.

Smithsonian Channel. “These Trees Uncover What Plunged Egypt’s Climate Into Chaos” Smithsonian Channel. < https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/videos/these-trees-uncover-what-plunged-egypts-climate-into-chaos/56144 > as seen on June 5th, 2020.

Smithsonian Channel. “The Real Culprit of an Ancient Egyptian Plague Was… Bread?” Smithsonian Channel. < https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/videos/the-real-culprit-of-an-ancient-egyptian-plague-was-bread/56146 > as seen on June 5th, 2020.

Waxman, Olivia B. “Did the 10 Plagues of Egypt Really Happen? Here Are 3 Theories” Time. March 2nd, 2020. Web. <https://time.com/5561441/passover-10-plagues-real-history/ > as seen on June 5th, 2020.

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