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The plague of hail and thunder - Artist unknown (1775)

One of the most debated stories in the Bible is the Exodus story of Moses and the ten plagues bestowed upon Egypt for their refusal to release the Israelites from slavery. It has been proposed that the ten plagues were nothing more than natural phenomena. It would certainly be within God’s realm to bring the plagues via the natural environment that he created, but attributing the biblical plagues to natural events seems to be an attempt to invalidate the Bible’s message. I find it puzzling that biblical scholars would support this. There are clearly errors in their logic.

The ten plagues

Plague 1: The Nile river is turned to blood

“With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.”

Aaron (Moses) changes the water of the Nile into blood - Jan Symonsz (1610)

In the first of the ten plagues, the water of the Nile river is “turned to blood” making it undrinkable. The water stank, and the fish died. There is often a two-prong solution used to explain the event as a natural occurrence. First, clay runoff is proposed as the source of the red-coloring in the water. However, this does not explain the stench nor why the fish died. Thus, a second explanation is added that says that algae grew in the water causing it to stink and killing off marine life. Without this two-prong attempt to explain the event as a natural phenomena, it could only have been a supernatural manifestation prompted by God.

Plague 2: The plague of frogs

“Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will come up on you and your people and all your officials.”

The second plague, frogs - Artist unknown

The second plague caused frogs to move from the waters onto the land where they invaded the palace, people’s homes, and food supplies. Opponents propose the frogs moved inland because of algae in the water (see the two-prong explanation for the first plague). Challengers stretch the theory further by proposing that the algae poisoned the frogs before they left the water causing them to die after a brief delay. However, the theory does not explain why the frogs took refuge in homes and buildings nor why there was such an unusually large quantity of invaders.

Also, note how Pharaoh reacts to the plague of frogs. He summons Moses and begs to have the frogs removed. This shows that the event was seen by the Egyptians as uncharacteristic and something to fear.

Plague 3: The plague of gnats (or lice, mosquitos)

“When Aaron stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came on people and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became gnats. But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not.”

Moses plague of gnats on Egyptians - Artist Unknown

The third plague turns dust into gnats (variously translated as mosquitoes, fleas, or lice). This is the first plague that Pharaoh was not given a warning for. This may be why, on only the third of ten plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians could not duplicate Moses’ feat using their “secret arts” (they did not have time to prepare). It is clear that the magicians are already convinced Moses has God by his side.

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Opponents propose the plague of gnats was insects feasting on the decaying frog flesh. However, insects have never been known to prosper with an abundance of dead meat. Or possibly without frogs, the insect population grew out of control. But the Bible does not mention an overpopulation of all insects but rather, only one specific type of bug (gnats).

Plague 4: The plague of flies

“If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you and your officials, on your people and into your houses. The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies; even the ground will be covered with them. But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land.”

Moses and the plague of flies on Pharaoh and the Egyptians - Artist Unknown

The fourth plague brings swarms of flies that ruin the land and only affect the Egyptians. It has been proposed that the flies were dogflies. However, doglies do not arrive until Spring, not the Fall when the plague takes place. Others propose the fly Stomoxys Calcitrans which lays eggs in rotting debris and bites both humans and animals. However, the verses say nothing about the flies biting the people – only that they ruined the land. Finally, no natural-event theory can explain how the flies only impacted the Egyptians and spared the Israelites who were located in the same area.

Plague 5: The plague of livestock

“All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died. Pharaoh investigated and found that not even one of the animals of the Israelites had died.”

The plague of livestock - Artist unknown

The fifth plague impacts livestock “in the fields”. This included horses, donkeys, camels, sheep, goats, and possibly cows too. It is proposed that their death resulted from disease that propagated in the dead and decaying frogs. Various diseases have been proposed including Bubonic Plague and Anthrax. However, there were two plagues in between – the plague of gnats and the plague of frogs. The verses are clear that some time must have expired between the events. This much time between the plague of frogs and the plague of livestock hints that the decay of frogs would have long ended before disease struck the herds of livestock. Again, there is no natural explanation for how the Israelite’s animals were singled out and spared leaving only the Egyptians to suffer nor is there a simple explanation for how only the animals left outside died while those that were sheltered survived.

Plague 6: The plague of boils

“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. The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils that were on them and on all the Egyptians.”

Moses and the plague of boils - Artist Unknown

The sixth plague is the first plague to physically harm humans. Moses tosses soot from a furnace into the air and festering boils (variously translated as blisters or hot pustules) break out on the people and animals. The boils were so painful, Pharaoh’s magicians could not even stand to make an appearance before him.

Natural explanations for the phenomena vary as widely as the disease’s description – anthrax, smallpox, Nile blisters, and tumors have all been proposed as potential natural explanations. The spread of the disease has been proposed to propagate via the plague of flies or gnats. However, it would have taken multiple generations of flies to cover the time period between the plague of flies and the plague of boils. The verses tell us that after Pharaoh complained, Moses prayed and the flies were removed from the land immediately.

We are only half-way through the series of plagues and already the grasp for a natural explanation becomes more desperate and hopeless.

Plague 7: The plague of hail

“When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, 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. The only place it did not hail was the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were.”

Plague of hail and fire - Torah plate - Unknown artist

The seventh plague is a devastating plague of thunder, lightning, and destructive hail – the worst storm Egypt had ever seen. God not only tells Pharaoh what will happen but predicts the exact time it will occur. As God explains, the plagues are not just about pressuring Pharaoh to release the Israelites from captivity, but to show the entire world the immense power God possesses over everything. Attributing the remaining plagues to natural causes become much more difficult when we recognize that God intended them to be spectacular.

Egypt receives almost no rainfall and hail is a rare event. To explain the seventh plague as natural phenomena, detractors propose a volcano erupted and altered the normal weather patterns in Egypt causing storms and hail. It is clear that critics are stretching for an explanation.

Plague 8: The plague of locusts

“Moses stretched out his staff over Egypt, and the Lord made an east wind blow across the land all that day and all that night. By morning the wind had brought the locusts; they invaded all Egypt and settled down in every area of the country in great numbers. Never before had there been such a plague of locusts, nor will there ever be again. 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”

The eighth plague - plague of locust - Artist unknown

The plague of locusts would have been particularly destructive. Locusts arose from near the Red Sea. They can travel very long distances. They could obliterate crops in the Middle East, making them a feared pest in Egypt, one that they considered a sign of outraged gods and a divine curse.

Opponents suggest the plague of locusts was an extreme case of a normal natural occurrence. They propose that Egypt’s predominate southern wind turned east and helped spread large numbers of locusts that prospered because of an unusually wet season. For this theory to work, several extraordinary weather patterns have to deviate from their norm and the quantity of locusts would have to be far greater than normal.

Plague 9: The plague of darkness

“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. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.”

Moses plague of darkness - Artist unknown

The plague of darkness plunged Egypt into total darkness for three days. It was so dark, “no one could see anyone else or move about”. Yet the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.

A natural event such as an eclipse or a dust storm does not explain the level of darkness described in Exodus nor the duration of the darkness. No natural phenomena theory can explain how the Egyptians were plunged into darkness while the Israelites had light where they lived. The plague of darkness is one of the most difficult of the ten plagues to explain away.

Plague 10: The plague on the firstborn

“About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal. Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”

Death of the Pharaoh's Firstborn Son - Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1872)

The final plague killed the firstborn of men and livestock as well. It did not matter if the eldest child was young or old, they perished for Egypt’s disobedience. Clearly a plague that targets only the oldest living child at a specific date and time cannot be explained away by a natural event and any attempt to do so is comically deficient.

Ten plagues by chance?

Detractors have attempted to explain away the ten plagues as a series of natural occurrences. However, to date, this series of natural occurrences has never occurred again. In fact, no more than one or two has occurred in sequence. To explain the ten plagues as a natural occurrence assumes an extremely unlikely sequence of events took place – so unlikely, that statistically it is impossible for the events to ever occur again. And this profound impossibility considers only the order the events took place in. It does not factor in specific age groups that were targeted, specific people and select areas, nor the exact prediction of timing.

But does it matter anyway?

It shouldn’t matter if the ten plagues were miracles, natural occurrences, or myth. You can choose to believe that the ten plagues were myth. You can believe that the plagues were natural phenomena brought to fruition by the hand of God. Or you can believe the ten plagues were true miracles initiated by an all-powerful god. In the end, all that matters is God delivered the Israelites from bondage and used them to build the foundation of our modern-day religion.

The Biblical Ten Plagues Data

PlagueWarning before?Hardening of heartWhat happenedIsraelites spared?Magicians duplicated?Staff usedPlague number

Blood

Yes

By God

Waters turned to blood

No

Yes

Aaron

1

Frogs

Yes

By Pharaoh

Frogs cover the land

No

Yes

Aaron

2

Gnats

No

By God

Dust turned into gnats

No

No

Aaron

3

Flies

Yes

By Pharaoh

Flies swarm Egyptians

Yes

No

Unknown

4

Livestock

Yes

By God

Livestock killed

Yes

No

Unknown

5

Boils

No

By God

People covered with boils

Probably

No

Unknown

6

Hail

Yes

By Pharaoh

Hail ruins crops

Yes

No

Moses

7

Locusts

Yes

By God

Locusts devour fields

Probably Not

No

Moses

8

Darkness

No

By God

Darkness covers the land

Yes

No

Moses

9

Firstborn

Yes

Pharaoh concedes

Every firstborn slain

Yes

No

Unknown

10


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