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The Plagues of Egypt

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

The Death of the Firstborn; by Charles Foster 1897

by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson March 28 – April 3, exodus 7-13

An Egyptian treasure-city, called Rameses or Raamses is mentioned four times in the Old Testament in relation to the Israelites and the Exodus. We read in Genesis 47:11 “And Joseph placed his father and his brethren, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded.” Then we are told in Exodus 1:11 11, “Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.” Then, after the Plagues and the Israelites were released from Egypt, Exodus 12:37 tells us, “And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth...” (see also Numbers 33:3 and 5).

The German Egyptologist Edgar Pusch has been working for some years, since 1980, in the ancient, lost city of Pi-Ramesse (House of Ramses), originally situated on an island in the Nile Delta of Egypt. Data from the site suggest that the city was founded by Ramesses II during the 13th century BC. The data also indicate that Pi-Ramesse was Ramesses II’s capital and, as such, a very important city in Late Bronze Age Egypt. The city fell into decline as a result of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile Delta silting up around 1060 BC, leaving the city without water, probably during a draught. The Twenty-first Dynasty moved the capital city to the new Tanitic branch of the Nile, establishing Djanet (Tanis) there, 62 mi north-west of Pi-Ramesses. The old city then fell into ruin and completely disappeared. Probably, many of the building blocks for Tanis were taken from the walls of Pi-Ramesse, hastening its demise. Certainly, statues, especially of Ramesses II, were broken off their pedestals in Pi-Ramesse and dragged to Tanis, where they were apparently left lying on the ground. Some of the pedestals, matching the reclining statues in Tunis, can still be seen in Pi-Ramesse.

Could “Pithom and Raamses” in Exodus 1:11 be the Pi-Ramesse of today? Pi in Hebrew, from the Egyptian, means “House of,” and Pithom means the House of Atum, a sun god. Rameses II identified himself with the sun god Ra. Atum is considered in Egyptian mythology to be the first god, the creator and finisher of the Earth. It seems quite reasonable that the Hebrews, in writing the story of Rameses and the Exodus, may have identified Pi-Ramesse, not just with the sun god, Ra, but with the creator-god Atum – “Pithom Raamses,” House of the Creator God Raamses.

The Biblical Plagues, written and directed by Gabriele Wengler, was an excellent three-part documentary series produced by Bernd Wilting in 2009 through ZDF Enterprises. I watched the series when it first aired and have re-reviewed it during the past few days on YouTube. I highly recommend the reader to watch this wonderful, evocative series. Much of what I will discuss hereafter is taken from that series.

One hypothesis for the Ten Plagues of Egypt proposes a connection to the eruption of the Santorini volcano in around 1620 to 1600 BC. That date has been established by dendrochronology and C14 dating of olive branches embedded in the pyroclastic ash from the eruption. The problem is that that date is almost exactly 400 years too early for the apparent 1200-1230 BC date of the Plagues and the Exodus. Ironically, that eruption date fits much more closely with the time of arrival of the Israelites in Egypt and with the construction of Pi-Ramesse. Could part of the Ten Plagues scenario have been incorporated into the minds of the scribes who, some six or seven hundred years later, recorded both events? Another problem with the Santorini volcano eruption hypothesis is that the eruption caused a series of devastating tsunamis throughout the Mediterranean, including Egypt. Tsunamis, which would have been probably the most catastrophic part of the eruption felt in Egypt, are not described as one of the Ten Biblical Plagues of Egypt. Therefore, I will address primarily the second proposed scenario.

That scenario, proposed in The Biblical Plagues, concerns a red tide in the Nile caused by the freshwater cyanobacteria, Burgundy blood algae (Planktothrix rubescens – actually the bacteria that emerge with algae blooms). These bacteria create toxins that pollute the drinking water. Algae blooms also suck up the oxygen from the water, causing fish to suffocate and die.

Such a red tide fits all the criteria of the First Plague (see Exodus 7:17–18).

A red tide also could have driven a large population of frogs from the river, whose numbers had been over-inflated by an unusually hot season. (Plague number two; Exodus 8:1–4) Unusually dry conditions also could have caused dust storms from off the North African desert to blow across Egypt, bringing with them a plague of lice, which can be blown and become airborn by a combination of wind and static electricity (Exodus 8:16–17; Plague number three). All the dead fish and frogs that died in the heat, after leaving the river, could have attracted an unusually large amount of flies (the fourth Plague; Exodus 8:21).

Plagues five and six (Exodus 9:1-3; 8-12) may have had the same or similar causes. Murrain, boils, and blains often result from bacterial infections, which can result from the bites of flies, ticks, and lice. Small, or fine dust (Exodus 9:9) often results from heavy wind storms. I grew up in the Raft River Valley in Southern Idaho where we experienced frequent, heavy dust storms. Fine dust would enter our house through invisible gaps around windows, doors, and baseboards.

Plague number seven was “hail, and fire mingled with the hail” (Exodus 9:18–26). That plague is often depicted as hail turning to fire when it hit the ground, but that depiction, as often occurs, is not what the scripture says. Verse 23 states explicitly that there was “thunder and hail.” Thunder and lightning storms are very commonly associated with severe hail storms. In verse 19, the people were told to bring in their cattle from the fields lest they be killed by the hail storm, which was worse than anything ever seen “in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.”

Early on the evening of September 3, 1970, the worst hailstorm in recorded history fell on Coffeyville, Kansas. One hailstone from that storm holds the world record for the largest ever recovered. It is now housed in a freezer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. It has a circumference of 17.5 inches, a diameter of 5.57 inches, and weighs 26.72 ounces. That size is considerably larger than a softball and the weight is over five times as much. It is estimated that that hailstone struck the ground at a speed of around 105 mph. There is no doubt that such a hailstone would be lethal to anything it hit. Hailstones accumulate upon a nucleus of some particulate matter, such as dust particles. Hailstorms, along with thunder storms, are preceded by a significant drop in pressure and temperature.

Plague number eight was locusts (Exodus 10:3–15). Verse 13 states that “the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.” It is well known that swarms of locust travel, around 25 miles per day, from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure, triggered by the drop in pressure – with moisture and greener grass promised in the low-pressure areas. The drop in pressure causes wind to blow from high to low pressure areas as well, sometimes causing severe dust storms. It is interesting that the prevailing winds in Egypt, coming off the Sahara Desert, would be westerly winds, not easterly winds. On the other hand, the winds off the desert by Jerusalem, which was the Hebrew homeland after the Exodus, and which could also bring swarms of locusts, would be easterly, off the Syrian (Arabian) Desert.

The Great Plains of the United States have experienced some of the most disastrous storms in the world – tornadoes, hail storms, blizzards, floods, drought, summer heat and winter cold. But the weather during the 1930s, during the Great Dust Bowl, set records, some of which still stand today, whereas others were broken in Coffeyville, Kansas, on the Great Plains, in September 1970. Then, to add to the Biblical plagues of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, on July 26, 1931, a swarm of locust spread out of the west across the Great Plains – like the wrathful hand of God – eating everything not taken by the winds and hail storms. Sound familiar? After the locust had eaten “every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field” (Exodus 10:15), they started chewing up the wooden handles of brooms, shovels, and hoes belonging to the Midwestern farmers.

Plague nine (Exodus 10:21–23) was a “darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt…and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days: They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days...” During the Great Dust Bowl, Midwestern farmers experienced relentless dust storms that lasted for days or weeks at a time. Then there was “The Black Sunday Dust Storm” of April 14, 1935. On that day, a mountain of blackness swept in from the north across the High Plains of the central states, driven by winds of up to 60 mph, and instantly turning a warm, sunny afternoon into a terrible, cold blackness that was “darker than the darkest night.” “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.” Farmers had to stretch ropes from their house to the barn so they wouldn’t get lost in their own back yards. And it wasn’t a silent darkness either, as depicted in the movies of Egypt’s Plagues, it was a terrible, howling darkness to the point where “you couldn’t even hear yourself think.”

Then came Plague number ten. We are told in Exodus 12:29-30, “And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” I learned from many years of taking science multiple choice tests that a sentence containing the word “all” is seldom the correct answer. How did the writers of the Pentateuch, all those years later, know that all the firstborn of Egypt died? And how do you know which of the cows in the field are the firstborn? This is probably a bit of historical hyperbole.

The final plague is explained in an intriguing way in the last episode of the 2009 three-part series, The Biblical Plagues: Fight From Egypt (3/3), written and directed by Gabriele Wengler. He suggests that the filamentous fungus, Fusarium, could have grown on stored wheat following a draught, insect infestations, and severe thunder, rain, and hail storms, which could have contaminated and moistened the wheat, to the point that the fungus grew on the stored wheat, especially the top layers. Some species in the genus Fusarium produce mycotoxins, such as various trichothecenes, in cereal crops. An especially toxic form of trichothecene may have accumulated in the upper, moist layers of stored wheat. By tradition, the firstborn was given the best, first, highest portion of food, especially during times of famine. Is it possible that many of the Egyptian firstborn received a portion of the upper layer of wheat most highly contaminated by the toxic trichothecene?

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

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