In honor of this week’s Torah reading, let’s discuss whether there is scientific evidence that the plagues actually took place.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
Both last and this week’s Torah portions describe the Ten Plagues that God brought upon Egypt.
So let’s discuss whether there is scientific evidence that the plagues actually took place. Of course, this discussion is more for fun than for fact, as we know that the 10 plagues certainly happened because the Torah tells us so. When science and Torah correspond and complement each other, that’s great. But even when they don’t, we accept the Torah as a Divine document.
The first plague that God sent on Egypt was the plague of blood. Is there a scientific explanation for all the bodies of water in Egyypt turning into blood? Then answer is yes. It is explained that a certain red algae could turn bodies of water red. This is known as a “red tide.” This algae is also capable of killing the fish who live in such waters, which supports the Torah’s statement that all the fish in the Nile died during this plague.
In fact, something similar happened in North Carolina in 1996, so there is even modern-day evidence for the “plague of blood.”
Another theory for the plague of blood is one that is relevant to several other of the Ten Plagues as well. In about 1550 BCE, there were severe rainstorms and weather patterns that were wreaking havoc in Egypt. According to some accounts, it was during these years that the story of the Exodus took place. The unusual weather is said to have been the result of the Thera volcanic eruption on the Greek island of Santorini around that time. Some suggest that volcanic ash tainted the Nile red. There are other theories for this plague as well.
The second plague was that of frogs. The Torah tells us that frogs were swarming everywhere, making the Egyptians crazy. “Frog showers” have been reported many times throughout history. A report published on July 12, 1873 in Scientific American described “a shower of frogs which darkened the air and covered the ground for a long distance,” following a rainstorm. So too, in May 2010, thousands of frogs emerged from a lake in northern Greece, which disrupted traffic for days.
It is also explained that when the fish died as part of the plague of blood, it allowed frogs to breed at a great pace because fish eat most of their eggs. With no fish around to eat any frog eggs, the frog population boomed. Of course, the frogs did not want to be anywhere near the bloody stinking Nile, so they headed inland, and hence, you’ve got a plague on your hands!
Similar to the second plague of frogs being a result of the first plague of blood, the third plague, lice, could have been a result of the second plague. The Torah tells us that when the plague of frogs came to an end, the frogs all died where they were, and the land stank. Such carcasses would have certainly attracted lice (or other types of fleas/flies/insects that might have been the “kinnim” of the Bible). Keep in mind as well that frogs typically eat insects, and with the frogs being dead, the flying insect population would have boomed.
And jumping ahead to the sixth plague, boils, it might just be that the insects were carrying germs and diseases that caused boils to form on the Egyptians as well as causing the death of their animals (plague #5).
The fourth plague is known as “Arov” in the Torah. However, it is not exactly clear what that plague was. The predominant view was that it was a swarm of wild animals wreaking havoc in the cities. Others suggest that it was a plague of poisonous flies. Sorry…I couldn’t find a scientific explanation for this one!
The fifth plague was the death of the Egyptian cattle. As mentioned earlier, the animals could have been poisoned by the fleas/flies/lice of the third plague. Additionally, dying cattle is not something new. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries there was a disease mysteriously killing cattle known as “rinderpest.” Millions of cattle died. There is evidence of rinderpest having been in Egypt during the era of the Exodus. So there you go! Rinderpest was declared eradicated in 2010.
The sixth plague was the plague of boils. As mentioned earlier, this could have been a result of the fleas/flies/lice of the third plague who were biting up the population. Alternatively, it could have been a form of smallpox that broke out among the Egyptians. Smallpox was known to have been in Egypt during those years, and indeed smallpox (or similar) scars have been found on Egyptian mummies.
The seventh plague was severe hailstorms accompanied by thunder and fire. Some claim that the volcanic eruption on Santorini mentioned earlier could have been responsible for such crazy weather.
I have not found a satisfactory scientific explanation for the eighth plague, the plague of locusts. It has been suggested that the volcanic eruption somehow caused locusts to go mad, but I remain unconvinced.
A number of theories exist to explain the plague of darkness. Some say the plague was caused by volcanic ash from… (you guessed it). Others say that it might have been a solar eclipse. But there is a problem with this theory because “the Hebrews had light in all their dwellings.” An eclipse would have affected everyone, not just the Egyptians. So it seems to me that there is no explanation for this one other than Divine intervention.
The 10th and final plague was the death of the firstborn. This one is also hard to explain scientifically, because how would “science” or “mother nature” know exactly which Egyptians were firstborn? Some suggest that this plague was actually caused by contaminated grain. And so why would only the firstborns fall victim? It is suggested that the firstborns would be the ones to pick the new grain each season, and by extension, the first to eat them. Possible but farfetched, in my opinion.
So there you have it. Some of the plagues seem to have a scientific explanation while others do not. But that doesn’t matter. Whether there is a scientific explanation or not, whether we understand it or not, whether it makes sense to us or not, makes little difference. The Torah is true, and if the Torah says it happened, that means it happened regardless of proof or support from anywhere else.
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below:
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