The ten plagues of Egypt
Miracles or ‘Mother Nature’?
Were the ten plagues of Egypt, as recorded in Exodus chapters 7–11, all overt miraculous acts of God? Yes, according to Moses. No, according to the natural-cause-and-effect theory of Greta Hort, first published in 1957–58,1 and today widely cited in Bible reference books and encyclopedias.2 However, Hort’s ideas have never been subjected to independent scientific scrutiny, until that of Brad Sparks in 2003.3
Hort’s ‘chain reaction’
According to Hort, the first plague, of blood, was supposedly4 a massive amount of red algae, plus a huge quantity of red earth washed into the Nile by excessive rains on the Abyssinian plateau. These algae allegedly de-oxygenated the water, thus killing the fish, which somehow gave rise to anthrax bacteria. The frogs then sickened, left the river (the second plague) and died. Hort’s third plague was mosquitoes, which had bred in the floodwaters, and her fourth was the biting fly Stomoxys calcitrans, breeding in the decaying plants left by the retreating Nile flood. The livestock disease of her fifth plague was anthrax spread by the dead frogs. The sixth plague, of boils on animals and people, was supposedly skin anthrax transmitted by the biting flies.
According to Hort, the seventh plague, of hail and thunder, was a coincidental local weather feature, which also promoted the locusts of the eighth plague.5 The ninth plague, of darkness, was allegedly caused by a desert sandstorm known as a khamsin, which blotted out the sun by throwing into the air the blanket of fine red dust from the first plague, left on the ground when the widespread Nile floodwaters receded. And Hort’s tenth plague was not the death of the firstborn, but the destruction of the last remains of the ‘first-fruits’ of the harvest, ‘due to a corruption of the Bible text’ (Hort 1958:52–54).3
Fatal flaws in Hort’s theory
1. Her algae
The crucial element of Hort’s theory is her two red algae, Haematococcus pluvialis and Euglena sanguinea, which she claims enhanced the colour of the muddy Nile water to make it ‘blood-red’.6 However, these two algae are not normally red—in turbid, flowing water they are green, so the Egyptians could not possibly have mistaken them in the Nile for a plague of blood!
Far from being toxic or a source of anthrax, these algae are used worldwide today as human and animal food supplements.
In over 100 years of research, scientists have not found either species of algae in the 400 species of algae found in the Nile, nor even in the 1,000 species known to occur in East Africa.3 They are actually ‘rare and fragile ice water species that belong in sub-arctic cold climates’ and ‘are used as “industrial indicators” of snow and ice water temperatures’.3 Neither causes a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB)7 anywhere in the world, nor pollutes water, nor makes water undrinkable.3
Far from being toxic or a source of anthrax, these algae are used worldwide today as human and animal food supplements! H. pluvialis has strong antioxidant properties, is considered to be anticarcinogenic, and even promotes athletic performance. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved H. pluvialis for human consumption on 13 April 1995, after years of study!3 Euglena algae are used widely as a fish food!3
2. The fish
The fish could not possibly have died from the presence of Hort’s two benign algae. Nor could they have died from anoxia (lack of oxygen), caused by any algae, because anoxia can only occur after an algal bloom, which cannot occur in muddy water. The fish died because they could not live in the blood.
3. Her red mud
Nile mud is brown, not red. If Hort’s blanket of mud was so thick that it formed the ninth plague of darkness when blown into the air as dust, it would also have caused complete underwater darkness when it was concentrated in the waters of the Nile, thereby killing her algae outright. This is because algae are plants, so they need sunlight for photosynthesis. However, suspended mud prevents this. Likewise, suspended mud causes flocculation, i.e. mud particles stick to any algae, which then sink. For these reasons ‘the silt-laden Nile at its flood time high is completely clear of all algae of every species’.3 As Sparks says: ‘Because Hort’s theory requires both the algae and the silt that kills the algae, her theory is logically and scientifically self-destructing [emphasis in the original].’3
If the water had been merely red-coloured, the Egyptians needed only to have let it stand in a vessel until the mud settled, or they could have strained it. Exodus 7:19–20 says that the Nile turned to blood when Aaron struck the water with his staff. There was no time delay, no gradual accumulation of red matter, and blood appeared in streams, ponds, pools, and vessels of wood and stone (Exodus 7:19), not just in the Nile.
4. Her anthrax
Anthrax occurs in soil, not in the Nile. It does not infect aquatic animals, e.g. fish (whether dead or alive) or frogs. In fact, some of the frogs returned to, and remained in, the Nile when God lifted the plague (Exodus 8:11). Anthrax infects mammals, e.g. land animals which graze on grass contaminated by anthrax spores in the soil.8
5. Her biting flies
Biting flies do not spread anthrax to animals or humans, nor do they feed on dead animals. In the medical-veterinary history of anthrax there are ‘no known cases of anthrax-infected fly bites of humans, cattle or sheep anywhere in the world’.3
6. The Nile in flood
Hort depends on floodwaters to breed her mosquitoes and biting flies, as well as to provide the widespread coating of red mud/dust on the land that she claims was blown aloft to cause the plague of darkness. However, Exodus makes no mention of floodwaters during the plagues. On the contrary, Moses meets Pharaoh on the banks of the Nile (Exodus 7:15), and the Egyptians dig along the Nile to search for drinking water (Exodus 7:24). These are not descriptions of a flooded river.
7. Her desert storm of red dust
Hort depends on flooding for her plagues of frogs, flies and locusts, with more water added from the hailstorm. She does not explain how the khamsin dried out this massive saturation of the alleged red mud coating so that it could have turned into dust and been blown aloft in just a few hours. The Egyptians would have been used to desert storms. Pharaoh would hardly have been influenced by one, even if it lasted three days.
8. Hort’s ‘first fruits’ instead of ‘firstborn’
It is manifestly disingenuous of Hort to claim a mistranslation of one Hebrew word in the Bible account to substantiate her naturalistic theory, and then for her to disregard the two-and-a-half chapters of the same source document (Exodus 11:1–13:16) that describe in great detail the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians and the saving of the firstborn of the Israelites.
Did God use natural processes?
God acts regularly through His creation by means of natural law; miracles are the way He acts on special occasions. In Exodus the miraculous is seen in:
- God’s foretelling of all the events to Moses so that he could announce them to Pharaoh.9
- The beginning of all the events (and the cessation of some) at the exact times stipulated by Moses as the agent of Yahweh,10 and because of the actions or prayers of Moses and Aaron.
- The localizing of the events so that Goshen (where the Israelites lived) was excluded.11
- The events themselves.
God is not precluded from using natural phenomena or secondary agents to accomplish His special purposes. In fact, Exodus 10:13 says that God brought the locusts of the eighth plague by ‘an east wind that blew across the land all that day and all that night’. And then Exodus 10:19 says that, to end this plague, God ‘changed the wind to a strong west wind, which caught up the locusts and carried them into the Red Sea’. However, this is the only plague which Moses detailed in this way.
All naturalistic explanations of the plagues lose sight of God’s role as judge.
Hort (and others) who attempt to belittle the plagues as being no more than a ‘logical and connected sequence’ of natural phenomena12 must explain why ‘Mother Nature’ has never repeated anything remotely like this sequence of events. All naturalistic explanations of the plagues lose sight of God’s role as Judge. Hort might also ponder why, for the last 3,500 years, the Jews, in their annual Passover feast, have celebrated the deliverance of their firstborn as the trigger for their exit from Egypt.
Concerning the miraculous, a god who cannot work miracles is not a god worth following; nor is one who is incapable of communicating accurately what he did! Bible-believing Christians worship the one true God, who is not only the miracle-working Creator, but is also Lawgiver and Judge. The best news of all is that He is also Saviour of all those who put their faith and trust in Him.
Archaeological evidence from Egypt for the plagues
[Update: we now caution against using the Leiden papyrus as evidence, for reasons explained by Patrick Clarke below. He is known to us as very knowledgeable on Egyptology and a staunch biblical creationist. We thought it sound at the time, and have left this box in this web version of the Creation magazine article for posterity.]
The Leiden Museum in Holland houses a papyrus written by an ancient Egyptian named Ipuwer.1 It ‘appears to be an eye-witness account of the effects of the Exodus plagues from the perspective of an average Egyptian’.2 Excerpts are: ‘Plague stalks through the land and blood is everywhere … the river is blood. Does a man drink from it? As a human he rejects it. He thirsts for water …. Nay, but gates, columns and walls are consumed with fire …. Nay but men are few. He that lays his brother in the ground is everywhere …. Nay but the son of the high-born man is no longer to be recognized …. The stranger people from outside are come into Egypt …. Nay, but corn has perished everywhere. People are stripped of clothing, perfume and oil. Everyone says “there is no more”. The storehouse is bare …. It has come to this. The king has been taken away by poor men.’3
Yahweh 10 Egyptian deities 0
According to Exodus, God sent the ten plagues on Egypt for the following reasons:
- To deliver the Israelites (Exodus 3:8; 19–20; 6:1, 5).
- To answer Pharaoh’s question: ‘Who is the Lord1 that I should obey His voice and let Israel go?’ (Exodus 5:2; 7:5; 8:22; 9:14).
- So that the Israelites would know the power of Yahweh (Exodus 6:7; 10:2).
- To show that the earth belongs to Yahweh, not to the Egyptian gods (Exodus 9:16, 29; 11:7; cf. Psalm 24:1).
- To execute judgment on ‘all the gods of Egypt’ (Exodus 12:12, cf. Numbers 33:4).
Following, we list ways in which the plagues could have spoken against the various gods of Egypt.
The 1st plague was directed against the Nile itself, which the Egyptians worshipped as their source of life. This plague confronted the numerous river deities, including Khnum (guardian of the Nile), Hapi (spirit of the Nile and god of fertility) and Osiris (god of the underworld, whose blood the Nile was considered to be). By turning the Nile into blood and killing the fish (supposedly protected by Hathor and Neith), Moses was not only shaming all these Egyptian objects of worship, but also showing that sustenance comes only from the hand of Yahweh.
The 2nd plague, of an immense number of frogs, attacked the Egyptian goddess Heqet, symbol of good crops (derived from the Nile waters) and childbirth, usually depicted as a woman with a frog’s head; as well as Isis, another fertility goddess. Frogs were sacred to the Egyptians. However, these goddesses were powerless to prevent these symbols of life from becoming rotting piles of death.
Hathor was originally worshipped in the form of a cow. Later she is portrayed as a woman with a cow’s head, and finally with a broad-faced, serene human head. She is also represented with the head-dress of a pair of horns with the moon-disk between them. She was presented in many different guises and associated with many local ‘gods’ in ancient Egypt.
Interestingly, the Egyptian magicians mimicked the plagues of blood and frogs with their enchantments (Exodus 7:22; 8:7). These could have been simulations, but more likely were demonic miracles, as miracles are evidence of supernatural power, not just of God’s power.2,3 God allowed the magicians to add to these two plagues, but not to reverse them!
The 3rd plague, of lice (or gnats or mosquitoes) from the dust of the earth, confronted all the gods of the earth (e.g. Akhor). This and the 4th plague, of flies, confronted another favourite, Khepri, the scarab (dung beetle) god. A plague of flies shows failure of the dung beetle god to do its job of burying the dung, which stops flies from breeding in the dung. This god was also associated with rolling the sun across the sky, like dung beetles rolling balls of dung.
The 5th plague, on the livestock (which provided food, milk, clothing and transportation), was a direct attack on Apis, the sacred bull god, and Mnevis, a bull-god symbol of fertility, as well as Hathor, the cow-like mother goddess, and Isis, the queen of the gods, who wore a cow’s horns on her head. They were all shown to be imposters.
The 6th plague, of boils, showed the impotence of any of the gods of magic and healing, such as Hike and Thoth (Imhotep), to protect even the magicians from the boils, and thus from the power of Yahweh.
The 7th plague, of hail, and the 8th one, of locusts (brought by the wind), that destroyed the crops, attacked the various sky deities (e.g. Shu, Tefnut and Nut, deities of air, moisture and sky), who supposedly controlled the weather. The loss of crops showed the impotence of the gods of vegetation, agriculture and harvest (e.g. Geb and Seth).
The 9th plague, of darkness, was an attack on the supreme deity of Egypt, the sun-god Ra or Amon-Ra (also spelt Re), who was believed to bring light and heat to the earth. Other sky gods also impotent were Horus, Seker, Khepri, Mut and Nut.
Finally, the 10th plague, of death of the firstborn, was an attack on the divinity of Pharaoh, whom the Egyptians believed was an incarnation of the sun-god and of Osiris, the giver of life. It was the Pharaoh’s task to retain the favour of the gods and to uphold the laws of Ma‘at, goddess of order. However, he was powerless to prevent the death of his own son, the next-in-line ‘divine ruler’, or that of anyone else’s son in the land of Egypt.4 Thus, Yahweh alone had absolute control of life and death.
References and notes
- ‘YHWH’ or Jehovah, the sacred name of the one true God (Exodus 3:14).
- Cf. Revelation 13:14; 16:14; 19:20.
- The magicians could not copy the 3rd plague and said ‘it is the finger of God [Elohim]’. They were not honouring Yahweh here, but acknowledging that there existed a greater spiritual power than their own. They had had prior experience of this when Aaron’s staff became a ‘serpent’ (Hebrew: tanniym) and swallowed their staffs (Exodus 7:8–13).
- The firstborn Israelite children were protected by the lambs’ blood which God told them to sprinkle on the doorposts and lintels of their houses. This prefigured the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, and his N.T. title of ‘the Lamb of God’ e.g. John 1:29.
References and notes
- Hort, G., The Plagues of Egypt, 2 parts, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 69:84–103, 1957; 70:48–59, 1958. Hort was ‘a scholar of medieval English literature and religion’ (ref. 3). Return to text.
- E.g. The New Bible Commentary Revised, Inter-Varsity Press, London, Exodus 7:14–11:10, p. 126, 1970; and The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part 3, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, Plagues of Egypt, pp. 1234–1237, 1980. Also The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Plagues of Egypt, Vol. 3, pp. 878–880, 1986. Return to text.
- Sparks, B., Red algae theories of the ten plagues: contradicted by science, 2 parts, Bible and Spade 16(3):66–77, 2003 and 17(1):17–27, 2004, on which this article is based. Return to text.
- Hort wrote that we can only ‘suppose that the waters of the Blue Nile … had brought [the two species of “red” algae] into the Nile from Lake Tana (Hort 1957:94, emphasis added)’. Quoted from ref. 3. Return to text.
- Hort changed the east wind that brought the locusts into a south wind, because they are supposed to come from the Sudan or south-western Arabia. She also changed the west wind that blew the locusts into the Red Sea into a north, or sea, wind (ref. 3). Return to text.
- Others, unacknowledged by Hort, have suggested red algae, red silt and anthrax. ‘Hort’s unique contribution has been to name two particular species of algae that are non-existent in Egypt and the Nile’ (ref. 3). Return to text.
- They are not listed in more than 170 species of algae known to cause HABs, listed by UNESCO and other sources (ref. 3). Return to text.
- Wild carnivores may (rarely) contract anthrax by eating infected carcasses; humans may contract it from eating infected meat, or, if they have cuts or abrasions in their skin, from handling infected hides or wool. Return to text.
- Moses announced or initiated plagues 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 before Pharaoh, but not, it seems, 3 and 9. Return to text.
- ‘YHWH’ or Jehovah, the sacred name of the one true God (Exodus 3:14). Return to text.
- Exodus says that plagues 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10 did not occur in Goshen, and no. 6 (boils) occurred ‘on all the Egyptians’. Goshen is not mentioned in respect of 1, 2, 3 and 8. Return to text.
- Marr and Malloy (1996) postulated that a different set of organisms caused the plagues, that the 9th plague was blindness not darkness, and that the 10th plague was caused by a poisonous mould (from the droppings of the locusts) growing on the top portions of the grain supplies, with the firstborn receiving extra helpings. These and other naturalistic theories are counted in ref. 3. Return to text.