Passover And The Plagues On Egypt
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
The writers of the Gospels tell us that on his last night before being subjected to torture and execution, Jesus and his Apostles met to share their last meal, known to Christians as the Last Supper, to celebrate the Feast of the Passover.
Passover and the subsequent Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt is an event central to Jewish spirituality. The Children of Israel had been subjected to serf-like conditions for generations, laboring in the heat and humidity of an area of the Nile Delta known as Goshen.
Tradition has long held that Ramses II was Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus, but Thutmose III is more likely. There may have even been two reigning pharaohs at the time, Thutmose and Amenhotep II. Whoever he was, he was loath to part with a source of cheap labor, much like many who control agribusiness, industry and retail and fast food outlets today. Each time the Jewish leader Moses insisted that his people be permitted to depart for their homeland, the Pharaoh refused. Each refusal bore a severe consequence. While the subsequent “plagues” may indeed be miraculous, there are natural explanations underlying them.
The first plague saw the waters of the life-giving Nile River turn to blood. This would appear to be pure hyperbole. However, such a phenomenon was not unusual at the time and may occur yet, despite the barrier created by the Aswan Dam. The waters of the Upper Nile are often colored a reddish-brown as they emerge from their source in Ethiopian lakes. Not blood, of course, but blood colored. The only surprise is that the Pharaoh was taken in by this recurring plague.
The second pestilence involved a mass of frogs and flies that “covered the land”. Such phenomena were common during the flood season. As frogs expired in the hot Saharan sun, one can imagine an accompanying plague of flies.
The lice described in the next plague were probably dog flies that attack in swarms and leave painful bites. Over the millennia, dog flies have not gone away. Mosquitoes, never rare or endangered among riverine civilizations, may have been a big part of the insect infestations as well.
The still recalcitrant Pharaoh was next treated to an epidemic that swept Egypt’s livestock, probably some form of cattle murrain, which is said to have stricken not only the cattle but horses, donkeys and camels. This disaster was probably epizoatic, the consequence of fly bites. Both rinderpest and splenetic fever have been suggested as the culprits.
The plague of boils that followed was probably Nile itch or Nile heat, a rash that frequently morphs into ulcers, causing great pain and discomfort. One can only imagine the misery caused by such an affliction, especially in the heat of the Nile River Valley.
Moses next called down a severe hailstorm, accompanied by fierce thunder and lightening, devastating to any people whose livelihood depends upon grain crops. Any Midwestern farmer can attest to the destruction a hailstorm can cause a wheat or oats crop. Hailstorms were rare in Egypt but not unheard of.
The invasion of ravenous locusts that devoured the croplands already devastated by the hailstorm would have reduced Egypt to famine-like conditions. What we call locusts are really cicadas, and what we call grasshoppers are really locusts. The terms are somewhat interchangeable. In response to population pressure, grasshoppers swarm and set out to devour every edible thing in their path. There have been many incidents throughout history, including the attack on the Mormon settlements in Utah during the 19th century that was only staved off by the arrival of waves of hungry sea gulls.
Even though threatened by famine, all was not lost, hoppers can serve as a valuable protein source. The New Testament tells us that John the Baptist existed on a diet of locusts and wild honey. Many years ago, while backpacking in New Mexico’s Chuska Mountains, I adopted an abandoned puppy who had been surviving on a diet of hoppers.
Finally, the book of Exodus speaks of a sudden darkness that covered the land. This was doubtless a consequence of a simoon, a deathly hot, dry wind that periodically sweeps in off the desert bringing sand and dust storms, turning daylight into darkness. I have twice experienced such sandstorms in the New Mexico desert, including one that was followed by rain, leaving my vehicle coated in a layer of mud after turning the skies darker than the blackest of nights.
Passover itself is not so easily explained, when the Angel of Death passed over Egypt taking all the first born male children and livestock but sparing the houses of the Children of Israel, whose doors were painted with the blood of a lamb.
After deciding to grant the Israelites their freedom, the Pharaoh changed his mind and dispatched war chariots to force them back to their labors. So, what of the famous parting of the Red Sea, so majestically portrayed in the movie The Ten Commandments? In those days, before the construction of the Suez Canal, it was not the Red Sea but “Yam Suph,” the Reed Sea or even the Papyrus Marsh, a vast swampy area connected to the Bitter Lakes. It could be forded in several places.
Powerful northwest winds can drive the water at the north end of the Gulf of Suez so far south that it can be waded across. I have experienced such gales, called seiche winds, on Lake Erie, exposing rocks and shoals that are otherwise invisible and leaving pleasure craft tipped on their sides and stranded in mud.
During the forty years that Moses and his followers wandered about in the Sinai Desert, we are told that they feasted upon quails and manna from heaven. The long trek of the Children of Israel began in the spring, when massive migrations of birds, including quail, arrive from Africa by way of the Red Sea. The exhausted quail come to rest on the flat land of Sinai, easy pickings for desperate hunters.
Manna, tiny seed-like items that taste like honey, falls from tamarisk trees overnight and clings to rocks, shrubs and grass. The trees only produce when bitten by plant lice indigenous to the region. Manna must be gathered early in the day before being consumed by desert ants. Manna can be purchased in some import/export stores today.
What of water in such a parched land as the Sinai? While some oases are mentioned, the book of Exodus also tells us that Moses struck a rock and water rushed out. In recent times, this miracle has recurred when travelers have used a shovel to break through the thin limestone veneer that covers some desert springs.
Having spent a lengthy period among the Midianites of Sinai, Moses would have known how to locate water in such a manner. Several attempts have been made to explain the burning bush that Moses experiences. It may have been the bright red blossoms of mistletoe, a parasite that forms on bushes and trees in Sinai. When light hits it, it can appear to be on fire. A more likely explanation is provided by the common desert gas plant called Fraxinella, covered with oil glands that can burst into flames when hit by a strong light.
The realities underlying the plagues on Egypt and the subsequent Exodus neither reaffirm nor detract from the miraculous. One’s conclusions are affected by one’s presuppositions. As Walt Whitman says in his poem Miracles, “Why, I know of nothing but miracles.”