Leaving the Fold

Leaving the Fold

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Old Testament Peculiarities Part 2: The 10 Plagues of Egypt

The plagues of Egypt

Very few Christian’s question the authenticity of the ten plagues, here I provide some brief points as to why they probably did not occur in the manner presented in the story and a few other issues with it. First off however, very few people read the story and feel sorry for the Egyptians, at least among Christian circles, despite the fact they end up in a very sorry state by the end of it all because God kept hardening the pharaoh’s heart. From the start the audience is led to believe the Egyptians are evil and by the end that they deserved their suffering regardless of how extreme it might have been. I might be more inclined to let the issues slide had God not taken his dislike of Egypt’s ruler out on the entire country.
God hardens the pharaoh’s heart on multiple occasions, removing his free will. The fact that their leader may have not been quite himself appears to have been missed by those in the Egyptian court. The Egyptians would have at least thought that, because of the plagues, that something was wrong and wondered why their leader was seemingly incapable of doing something about it. For one, the pharaoh was seen as a god but was unable to stop the plagues, it seems likely that the Egyptians would have blamed him for what was going on and rebelled especially when their land and the very life source of their kingdom (the Nile) had been decimated by the plagues. You would expect also that there would have been at least one attempt on the pharaoh’s life when it became obvious things were not going well under his leadership. No attempt on the pharaoh’s life is mentioned (except by God at the parting of the Red Sea). Even if the pharaoh had the loyalty of the army and his people or even just the army, they were not likely to remain loyal for long when suffering from spoiled food, disease, lack of water and the loss of the livestock. Given the pharaohs heart was hardened, and God was interfering with his ability to rule properly by doing so, the slaughter of the firstborn seems unnecessary. They were not necessarily children as many who are not familiar with the passage might think but still it was not necessary, especially killing the firstborn animals.

There are further four strange things that occur in the plagues:

1. All the Egyptians livestock died, multiple times, they were killed in at least two of the plagues, the 5th, then the hail from heaven and once more when the firstborn animals were killed. Unless God was feeling particularly sadistic that day because he was so annoyed and brought them back to life so they could be killed again later this makes no sense.

2. How were the Egyptian court magicians, whoever they were, able to perform the same things as Moses? These included turning staff into snakes. No suggestion that they were shocked at having those powers is given, and it was likely not God who gave them that ability. Not only this, why would they want to replicate some of the plagues that God had made? In addition, they tried to turn the Nile to blood when it was already turned to blood. This does not make sense unless they were able to turn it back to just water instead which means they somehow possessed powers similar to God that would suggest that there was more than one deity at work here. This does not agree with what bible scholars have to say on the subject.

3. The Egyptians chase after the Israelites on chariots, despite the death of their livestock which presumably included their horses. Even if they did not get killed during the plagues that killed the livestock, their fouled water supply would have killed them. The fish would have died, along with every other living thing in it that could not relocate, leading to an outbreak of disease that would have infected anything drinking the water, horses included which means Egypt would have been in no position to rally a large enough number of chariots to run after the Israelites. One theory states that at least a couple of Egyptian gods were demons in disguise and God was having a fight with them while creative and interesting, it explains the bit about pharaoh’s magicians but not a lot else. Either way it seems entirely unfeasible, given that Egypt no longer had a king, no longer had livestock or crops, their water had been fouled (everything in it died from the water being turned to blood), and they no longer had an army, or at least a large portion had been destroyed, that they would have remained a viable power. The fact that their military might was at the bottom of the Red Sea is a particularly serious problem, not only was Egypt crippled, starving, and no doubt demoralized at this point, not to mention suffering from a few unpleasant bugs due to the Nile being bloodied and everything in it dying, Egypt also had no way of defending itself and the warlike Philistines were just next door. All these events occurred within the lifetime of one pharaoh in the story, had the plagues occurred over multiple generations then maybe they would be feasible, but this is not what the story says. Even if Egypt could have looked to their neighbors for help, their neighbors would likely have taken Egypt over and not allowed it to recover as an independent nation. Egypt would have, without a doubt collapsed. That is, unless God returned to Egypt and, by restoring the kingdom to its previous state, offered them an olive branch in exchange for all their troubles and letting the Hebrews go. This is entirely speculative and given the narrative that follows it is unlikely that such a miracle would have occurred.

4. When God casts darkness over Egypt for 3 days, the pharaoh is told that he will not see Moses again, but before the end of the narrative he does see Moses again.

There is an Egyptian poem, the Ipuwer Papyrus that has been pointed out to contain some similarities to Exodus but there is a couple of problems, first is the fact that Egypt could not have survived a disaster of the magnitude described in Exodus if it occurred throughout the kingdom and the second is the poem describes an invasion not an exodus, it is possible that it describes a famine or some other disaster that resulted as a direct consequence of this invasion. The closest the text comes to looking remotely like Exodus is describing the Nile as having the colour of blood. The poem refers to an invasion so this is easily explained in that if for some reason the invading army was driven across the Nile or tried to cross it and the Egyptians met them there then the resulting battle would have made the Nile look bloody if it was large enough. The burning of crops or buildings by an invading army could have sent large plumes of smoke into the air turning the sky and sun a shade of red and brown across the affected region that would have looked very apocalyptic. There is no mention of Moses, his brother or the Israelites either in the Egyptian text.

It is possible some of these events occurred, though not over the time period portrayed in Exodus or anywhere near the same extremes. It is also possible they only occurred at a single location in Egypt but this is not how it described in the book of Exodus.

The loss of fresh water presents the most serious problem with this story, according to the text all the Egyptian’s water had turned to blood and if this lasted more even a short space of time dehydration would have resulted both in animals and people. The fish and other aquatic organisms adapted to the normal environment of the Nile would have died, and anything dependent on them would have been forced to leave the river, including aquatic birds and the Nile’s less popular reptiles. This would have led to a disease outbreak when people tried to drink the fouled water, which would have been a lot more than just the highly inconvenient pest problem that occurs in the plagues that directly follow the turning of the Nile to blood according to the narrative. Disease outbreaks do not discriminate by race or religion so neither Israelite nor Egyptian would have been safe from the diseases that would have befallen the Nile from all the rotting fish in it. Yes the bible does describe a plague of lice, frogs, locusts and boils but if your water supply was fouled by everything in it dying, these would be the very least of your problems if you drank the water and the Israelites would have had just as much of an unpleasant time of things as the Egyptians. I don’t think it is necessary to describe exactly what un-pleasantries they would have endured, but it would have quickly made things much worse.

More than likely these are simply stories and allegories written to convey God’s devotion to the Israelite’s, a reoccurring theme throughout the Old Testament.