The Ten Plagues of Egypt: Reading time about 3 minutes.
The Old Testament book of Exodus contains a story of the Hebrew god unleashing a series of devastating plagues on Egypt to persuade the pharaoh to free his Hebrew slaves. Although seeming to be ancient mythology, modern researchers have found evidence that those plagues may be derived from a true, historical event. Climatic conditions or a natural disaster are the key suspects in this mystery.
We must first consider how modern scholars evaluate the book of Exodus. Ancient Jewish tradition attributes the first five books of the Old Testament to Moses. If he really existed, he would have lived around 1300-1400 BC, or 3,300 to 3,400 years ago. However, many prominent scholars now believe that various scribes wrote the book of Exodus in the period 500-600 BC, during and shortly after the Jewish exile in Babylon.
Plague 1: The Nile River flows with blood
Around three thousand years ago, Egypt may have been so hot and dry that the flow of the Nile River was reduced. That could have caused an overgrowth of reddish algae in parts of the river. That phenomenon can still be seen today under similar circumstances.
The most accepted theory concerns the Aegean Island of Santorini. When the island exploded catastrophically in 1600 BC (3,600 years ago), the winds blew in the direction of Egypt. Geologists have found pumice ash from Santorini in excavations there, confirming the wind pattern at the time of the eruption. The explosion could have caused enough volcanic ash to land in the Nile River that the water took on an unusual color and became toxic.
Whether it was a climatic anomaly or the explosion of Santorini, the event would have caused a chain reaction that led to the rest of the “plagues.”
Plague 2: The plague of Frogs
Either an algae bloom or an accumulation of toxic chemicals in the river could certainly have caused frogs to leave the water and go to dry land. There, they would have baked in the desert sun.
Plagues 3 and 4: Lice and Flies
With the number of decaying frogs on land it’s natural that the riverbank would be swarming with flies and other insects that were feeding on them.
Plagues 5 and 6: Pestilence and Boils
Insects are well-known vectors in the spread of disease, so it’s very possible they could have infected humans and other animals with various illnesses.
Plagues 7, 8 and 9: Hail, Locusts, and Darkness
When Santorini exploded, the energy released was off the charts. It’s been said to be the largest eruption in the last ten thousand years. It was like a Mount St. Helens explosion, but on a far greater scale. The Santorini explosion sent ash over twenty-two miles into the atmosphere. There it could have triggered hailstorms and other unusual atmospheric events. The result of moisture raining down from the sky could have made conditions favorable for locusts and other pests. Or, the locust plague could have happened in another era. The vast clouds of ash and dust would have blocked out the sunlight for as long as one to three days, resulting in an eerie darkness in much of the eastern Meditteranean region.
Plague 10: The death of the first-born male child
A poisonous fungus could have formed in stored wheat if came in contact with water or unusually high humidity. It would not have affected only the first-born, but it may have been more prevalent in them because they ate more than the younger children. It also may have affected certain families more than others due to diverse diets. That could have giving rise to the Jewish Passover story where some children–the Jewish ones were spared, but Egyptian children died.
The proof that Santorini caused the plagues is not ironclad, but it certainly seems the most-likely explanation. Many people will continue to believe that God sent those plagues because that’s what the Bible says.
Another consideration is that the order of the plagues could have been different than the sequence in Exodus, or events could have occurred at different times–even in different centuries. There is no reason why disassociated events couldn’t be linked in one mythological story.
The more I learn about mythology, the more I’m intrigued by it. There’s usually a nucleus of real history that’s been encased in layers of speculation. The purpose of mythology was to teach a lesson or explain an observation. The originators of the story were doing their best to make sense of the world. They probably realized their myths had flaws but at least they were a place to start. As more information or new insights became available, people could certainly modify their myths.
The Israeli Rabbi Yonatan Neril found an interesting comparison between the ten-plague story and global warming. He said, “The Egyptians were very happy to have a free source of labor in the form of Israelite slaves. When God said this needs to stop, they were reluctant to change. Fossil fuels, in the past 150 years, have replaced slave labor as the key driver of human society. There’s a Pharaoh within us that wants to continue to do something that’s not right.”
Santorini’s other story
One last bit of trivia concerning Santorini. The explosion of the island may not only have inspired the stories of the plagues of Exodus, it may also have led to the legend of Atlantis. By the time Plato introduced the world to Atlantis, Santorini was already a thousand-year-old mystery. Someone had to try to explain it.