Curses of Ancient Egypt

A humorous look at the first plague.

(Image from JewishSoftware. Look at the lower left panel.
Note how the Egyptians are speaking with an Italian accent!)

The Bible contains some true statements and many false ones. It is worthwhile to try to determine which parts of the book are actually true.

Last year, I reviewed a documentary on the National Geographic Channel called Exodus Revealed (Read part 1 and part 2). That documentary had some interesting speculations on what might have really happened. Just recently, they ran another documentary. This one is called Curses of Ancient Egypt: The Ten Plagues. Let’s look at this recent documentary and compare it to the earlier one. Unlike the earlier documentary, this recent one focussed solely on the ten plagues.

First, they introduce us to Professor Ken Kitchen of Liverpool University. The narrator tells us:

He believes that a combination of scientific and archaeological evidence proves that the plagues actually took place. He can even date them to the reign of Ramses II, which started less than 50 years after the death of Tutankhamen.

The Bible says that the Pharaoh forced the Israelites to build a city called Ramses, with bricks of mud and straw. But no evidence had been found that such a rich and extensive city ever really existed, until now.

Next, they introduce us to Dr. Edgar Push, an archaeologist who is excavating a huge mud-brick city that he and Kitchen believe is the city of Ramses. They say it is equal in size to ancient Rome or Babylon.

This is news to me. If it turns out to be true, it raises the question of which, if any, of the other claims of Exodus are also true.

The Ten Plagues

Now let’s look at their claims for how the ten plagues actually occurred.

1. River Turned to Blood. Kitchen quotes scholar Greta Hort, who proposed a high flood as the cause of the red river. Extra-heavy rains in Ethiopia would wash a lot of the red soil into the river, coloring the water.

That explains the color, but what about the dead fish? They trot out Professor Hugh Pennington, bacteriologist at Aberdeen University. The narrator says:

[Pennington] believes that a massive algal bloom could cause the dead fish and stinking water described in the Bible.

2. Frogs. Professor Tony Brown of Exeter University says that the conditions after the flood were ideal for frog breeding. Pennington says the mature frogs then leave the river, because it is inhospitable.

3. Lice. Kitchen says that “lice” is a mistranslation by early scholars who didn’t know much about Nile insects. He suggests that it could have been mosquitoes or some other water-breeding insects that spread disease.

4. Flies. Pennington says that when conditions are right, the flies can breed prolifically.

5. Death of Livestock. Pennington suggests anthrax, which would have flourished in the wet ground after the flood.

6. Boils. Pennington says the flies transferred the anthrax from the cattle to the humans.

7. Hail. Kitchen says they just had bad luck and got a nasty hailstorm.

8. Locusts. Supposedly the heavy rainfall that caused the flood would have created ideal conditions for a swarm of locusts.

9. Darkness. Brown suggests that the darkness was a sandstorm.

10. Death of the First Born. None of these scholars had an explanation for this. There is no Egyptian record of this plague.

They also show us yet another expert, Dr. Aidan Dodson, Egyptologist at Bristol University. Dodson says that Egyptians didn’t record the plagues in their records, because they didn’t like to record negative events. They wanted to leave a positive view of Egypt for posterity. The Egyptians also believed that what is depicted on tomb walls is magically replayed in the next world.

Kitchen agrees. He says that a pharaoh would never depict a defeat on temple walls, so this explains why the plagues are not mentioned.

Plausible, Plausible…

Those are the explanations put forth in this documentary. They all seem quite plausible, but plausibility and reality are two separate things. None of these explanations requires the actions of a magical skydaddy, so I don’t have any problems with accepting them as reasonable hypotheses.

Allegedly, all of these plagues were foretold as a warning, which the Pharaoh ignored. That part I’m sure was written after the fact. If Egyptian society had just been rocked by a series of ten disasters, they certainly would be looking for a magical explanation. That’s just human nature (sadly).

Comparison

Now let’s compare these explanations with those put forth in the earlier documentary, Exodus Revealed.

1. River Turned to Blood. The two documentaries disagree. This documentary, Curses, suggests silt for the color plus an algal bloom for the fish kill. Revealed suggests a microorganism called Physteria for both color and fish kill.

2. Frogs. Population boom is caused by ideal breeding conditions (Curses) or because there are no fish to eat them (Revealed).

3. Lice. Mosquitoes (Curses) vs. biting midges (Revealed).

4. Flies. Both documentaries more or less agree that conditions were ideal for a population explosion.

5. Death of Livestock. Anthrax (Curses) or diseases transmitted by the biting midge (Revealed).

6. Boils. Both documentaries agree on bacteria. (Curses) specifically names anthrax, while (Revealed) is a bit more vague.

7–9 Hail, Locusts, and Darkness. Both documentaries agree here.

10. Death of the First Born. Here’s where it gets interesting. (Curses) throws up its hands and admits defeat. (Revealed) proposes a couple of possibilities. (1) The Jews cleaned out their grain stores annually, thus minimizing the rats and fleas. This reduced how many of their own people died relative to the Egyptians; or (2) Nasty molds coupled with the Egyptian practice of giving the first born extra food during a famine.

Conclusion

Obviously, these two documentaries disagree a lot on possible explanations for the ten plagues. But what they agree on is that normal, natural phenomena can explain all of these events. This lends credence to this part of the Bible being a reflection of actual events, while at the same time dismantling any need for supernatural explanations.

6 Responses to “Curses of Ancient Egypt”

  1. Jason Failes Says:

    I thought that there was no evieence of an Egyptian captivity at all, much less the ten plagues of the Bible.

    In the absence of a documented phenomenon, any explanations are superfluous.

  2. Ron Britton Says:

    That’s why I mentioned the archaeological evidence for what appears to be the city of Ramses. If it is indeed Ramses, then maybe there was a captivity.

    You’re right about there being no record of the ten plagues. The bit about the Egyptians not recording bad events might be no more than apologetics. Nevertheless, it is worth examining these claims to see how plausible they are.

  3. ParrotLover77 Says:

    I don’t really get the point of all this speculation. Unless evidence is found supporting the captivity, what’s the point of speculating how the “ten plagues” happened? It just as easily could have been completely made up! The city they discovered could be any city. Afterall, to this day, there are still very serious people looking for the “true” location of Atlantis when there is no evidence it ever actually existed at all. Maybe they will find Atlantis and compelling evidence for it. But unless you find Atlantis, it means nothing to speculate on how it was destroyed and eaten by the sea.

    Makes me wonder if 4000 years from now, scholars will be debating where the actual location of Hogwartz is.

  4. Ron Britton Says:

    ParrotLover:

    I think the speculation is warranted. Many of the fables in the Bible are based on something. For example, the flood myth is either a direct retelling of the flood story in Gilgamesh, or the two share a common ancestor. There were small, localized floods that nevertheless would have been devastating to the people directly affected. Those stories would have been retold and embellished until, voila!, you have yourself “an inerrant account of history”.

    As far as speculating on the plagues without first proving the enslavement of the Israelites, I believe it is still justified. If there had already been an oral tradition of the ten plagues, it would have been very easy for the story to be co-opted by the Jews and tacked onto their legends. Stories were cut and pasted together long before the invention of the word processor.

    To me, exploring how these myths could have been started gives valuable insight into how this absurd yet dangerous book ended up the way it did.

  5. ParrotLover77 Says:

    Let me clarify.

    Speculating on what inspired the stories is what anthropologists do — nothing wrong with that and it’s important work. They are looking for what inspired a people to write a story, whether it be local myths, coopted religions, tragedies happening, etc.

    Speculating on exactly ten scientific explanations for events that might be seen as divine plagues while not questioning the story’s factual account of history is just complete speculation.

    I guess it’s a subtle difference, but it’s important. One is learning about a people and what would inspire them to make up, tell, and eventually write down those stories. The other is taking the tale’s historical events (enslavement, plagues, set my people free) at face value without questioning it and shoehorning scientific explanations for God working in mysterious ways onto it. It’s a small jump from this to Intelligent Design. This is what ID people do in the extreme. They take the book at face value, then find “science” to support the claim.

  6. Ron Britton Says:

    ParrotLover:

    I see your point now. I always view these things anthropologically. That’s why I’m interested to see if real events could have inspired the story.

    You’re right. Many of the scholars depicted in these shows are theists with an agenda to prove the Bible’s “correctness”. You can’t do good science if you start out with a conclusion and try to fit the facts.

    You can’t always know what someone’s motivations were. You can’t always know whether it was good science. That’s why there’s peer review. That’s also why I like to look at these claims and see if I can pick them apart.

    If Kitchen, for example, comes up with his 10 explanations for the plagues because he wants to prove the Bible, why can’t we look at his claims anthropologically? His goals don’t have to be our goals. Separate the claims from the claimant. That’s why “intelligent design” creationism isn’t taught in the schools. Scientists looked at the claims and rejected them. They didn’t reject the claims because they were made by creationists.

    If you read my earlier article, “Exodus Revealed, the Sequel”, you’ll see that I criticize Robert Cornuke for appearing to be exactly the type of scholar you describe. He’s so convinced that Exodus is the literal truth that he sees Egyptian chariots in every coral formation. That type of scholarship doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (Interestingly, one of his friends left a comment on that article, claiming that it’s valid science. When I challenged him to back up his claims, he was strangely silent.)

    I guess I just have too strong an interest in crackpots. I watch all of the strange and bizarre phenomenon documentaries on TV. It’s always through the lens of skepticism, but I find this part of the human brain to be immensely fascinating. I view the Bigfoot and Atlantis and Nostradamus shows as abnormal psychology. It gives us insight into the brain’s desire for self-deception. That’s why I write a blog about fundies. As dangerous as they are, they’re also fascinating research specimens. How anybody can be that jaw-droppingly stupid and still function in society blows my mind.