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Plagues and pestilence... Man-made or divine wrath?

Published Apr 11, 2020


Durban - A bat, possibly a snake or even a pangolin, a “wet market” in the Chinese city of Wuhan and a new and deadly virus emerges in humans that is playing havoc across the world.

Millions are infected, tens of thousands have died in a “plague” that has caused hardship, economic and social, around the globe.

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Such periods of plagues and pestilence have been known throughout history, perhaps the most famous ones being the 10 plagues visited on Egypt and described in the book of Exodus in the Bible.

Here, Moses demands the freedom of the Israelites and when the Pharaoh refuses, he unleashes a series of plagues that ravage the land, the economy and society of Ancient Egypt and brought it to its knees.

Scientists and historians believe the plagues can be explained rationally by the coinciding of two events that devastated the ancient world. The poisoning of the Nile, Egypt’s main water source, and the massive volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini in the Aegean which is dated to about 1600BC.

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The eruption on Santorini is thought to have caused the demise of the prosperous Minoan civilisation in Crete, and certainly would have been felt as far afield as Egypt.

The documentary film The Exodus Decoded analyses the 10 plagues of Egypt looking at what happened twice in small villages in the Cameroon villages in the 1980s. The plagues were in the exact same order as in the book of Exodus and unfolded over six months. And they related directly to a poisoned water source.

However, according to the Bible, the area of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, was spared.

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Historians argue that because the Israelites were slaves, Goshen, where they lived, was inland and away from the main economic drivers of Egypt. They would not have had prime real estate and fields on the Nile, or been part of its civic or social life.

As such, the community may have been spared the worst effects of the natural disasters befalling Egypt in an unwitting self quarantine.

Here are some of the explanations for the plagues.

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The Nile turning to blood

To unleash the first plague upon the Egyptians, Moses is said to have struck the river Nile with his staff, turning its waters to blood.

After the water turned to blood, “the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water”.

Some scientists postulate that the red-hued waters could have been caused by a red algae bloom, when microscopic algae reproduce in such great numbers that the waters they live in appear to be blood red.

This phenomenon is known as “red tide” in oceans, but red algae can live in freshwater ecosystems. These algae blooms contain a toxin that can accumulate in shellfish and poison the animals that feed on them. Fumes can also disperse toxins in the air, causing breathing problems.

Others believe red clay from the Ethiopian highlands and torrential rains started a mud-red flood that turned the Nile red and choked the fish, which got infected with anthrax.

Others have postulated that volcanic gasses in the lakes upstream may have released large quantities of iron oxide which would not only have turned the waters reddish, but would have had a bloody metallic taste, and left the river toxic.

But the absence of fresh water flushing out the slow-moving Nile led to the series of plagues that followed.


For the second plague, Moses allegedly conjured vast quantities of frogs that swarmed into people’s homes.

It makes sense that the frogs would scramble to get away from the poisoned water, and the death of fish that normally ate frogspawn would allow the frog population to explode. But frogs still need to live in an aquatic system so many would have died, leading to the third plague.


Lice, could mean either lice, fleas or gnats, depending on how the Hebrew word Keenim is translated. Because frogs typically eat insects, it’s not surprising that a swarm of insects would have followed.

Stephan Pflugmacher, a climatologist at Leibniz Institute for Water Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, said that body lice and fleas can transmit the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague. If so, then an infestation with lice could have set the stage for the later plagues.

Wild beasts/flies

The Hebrew word for the fourth plague, arov, is ambiguous. It roughly translates to a “mixture”, and has been interpreted to mean either wild animals, hornets or mosquitoes and flies.

A study published in the journal Caduceus by JS Marr and CD Malloy argues that the fourth plague is a swarm of flies such as the stable fly (Stomoxys calcitrans). Bites from these flies could have led to the boils that occurred later in the story.

Certainly, flies would have been attracted to the vast numbers of rotting frogs and fish, while other species, such as the African painted dog, the golden jackal or Ethiopian wolf or lion, could have been pushed out of their normal range by the poisoned Nile, searching for water, which would have put them in conflict with humans.

Diseased livestock

The fifth plague was a highly contagious disease that swiftly killed off the Egyptians’ livestock.

Scientists believe this was the rinderpest, a lethal viral disease that decimated populations of cattle across Africa and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Rinderpest was caused by a virus in the same family as canine distemper and measles.

Scientists have also argued that the sickness might have been Bluetongue or African horse sickness, both of which can be spread by insects. It could also have been caused by livestock drinking toxic water from the Nile, or feed that had gone bad from either the water or the insects.


Soon after came boils, typically caused by Staphylococcus aureus.

It could also have been an outbreak of the smallpox, which caused distinctive raised blisters. Smallpox is thought to have affected communities in Egypt at least 3000 years ago and smallpox scars were found on several mummies from the period.

Essentially, it's not surprising that conditions quickly impacted on human health. People were by this time living with contaminated water sources, dying or diseased livestock, rotting fish and frogs, limited food supplies and an over-abundance of disease-carrying insects. The transfer of diseases from livestock to humans was inevitable.

Fiery hail

The seventh plague is described as heavy hail accompanied by thunder and streaming fire. It struck down people and livestock and decimated crops.

Here the volcanic eruption about 3500 years ago on Santorini is the possible explanation.

Nadine von Blohm, from the Institute for Atmospheric Physics in Germany, believes it’s possible that the volcanic ash mixed with thunderstorms above Egypt, creating massive balls of hail. The ash would also have turned any lightning a vivid red.

The flaming hail could also have been still-hot pumice flung from the volcano, and pumice has been found in excavations of Egyptian ruins despite there not being a volcano in Egypt.


When the Pharaoh once again refuses to let the Jewish people go, Moses summons up the eighth

plague - hungry locusts swarming the surface of the land and devouring all plants that the hail did not destroy.

There are two main explanations for this sudden surge in locust numbers. The first is that the incredible amount of hail in the seventh plague would create ideal conditions for locusts to breed. Given the death of the frogs, there would also have been fewer predators. Those locusts would also have been able to do more damage, given that there were fewer healthy crops left.

The second is that they were pushed out of their usual habitats by trouble upriver on the Nile heading into Egypt, where there was still at least some small amount of food.

Locusts can swarm over long distances. A one ton horde of locusts can eat the same amount of food in one day as 2500 humans.


The plague of darkness may have been a solar eclipse or a cloud of volcanic ash, scholars say, although a solar eclipse lasting for three days seems unlikely.

It’s believed the expanding ash cloud from the volcanic eruption on Santorini blocked out the sun. Other explanations include easterly winds blowing dust from neighbouring Libya over Egypt.

Death of the first-born

In the 10th, last and most dramatic plague, Moses tells the Pharaoh that all the first-borns in the land of Egypt will die.

Historians put this down to cultural practices in Egypt at the time. Certainly no bacterium or virus can differentiate between first and second born children. But it was believed first-born children were the most important members of the family. They would inherit the most and carry on the line. So when times were harsh, first-born children were taken care of first and anything left went to their siblings.

However, the food stores of Egypt by this stage had been contaminated by mould, insect droppings, volcanic ash, algae from the Nile. This meant that as the first-born ate more, they consumed more toxins.

The Independent on Saturday

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