Israel’s exodus from Egypt was not only a pivotal point in biblical history; it is an epic story that continues to capture our imaginations. Later this week, Moses and Pharaoh will return to the big screen in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. No doubt Scott has made use of Hollywood’s special effects wizards to reenact the Exodus drama, including the famous ten plagues—but what can Scripture and science tell us about how God Himself brought the real plagues upon Pharaoh when he refused to free the Israelite slaves?
Traditional Bible interpretations have held that God used supernatural power to bring about the plagues. However, with the dramatic advances of medical research and other sciences in the twentieth century, experts began to see similarities between natural phenomena and scriptural descriptions of the plagues. Furthermore, as we’ve noted before, it can be demonstrated that other Exodus miracles, namely turning the Nile River blood red (the first plague) and the parting of the Red Sea, were natural phenomenon controlled by God.
Active and Passive Hypernatural Miracles
It is possible that the plagues may have been hypernatural miracles, God’s use of natural law and phenomena in an extraordinary way (via timing, location, magnitude, and selectivity) to bring about His will (Psalm 104:4; 148:8). Hypernaturalism explains many of God’s miracles as a combination of divine attributes (such as power and knowledge) and natural law.
Hypernatural miracles include God’s power to manipulate the forces of nature via direct action. For example, a “strong east wind” (Exodus 14:21, NASB) parted the Red Sea to allow Israel to escape Pharaoh’s army; and the fire Elijah called down from heaven, during his face-off with the prophets of Baal, may have been a type of lightning strike known as a “bolt from the blue” (1 Kings 18:38–39). We refer to these instances as active hypernatural miracles.
Yet another way God can demonstrate hypernatural control of nature is based on His foreknowledge. Since God knows when a natural event will occur, He can forewarn his followers. And when God’s followers predict a natural event accurately, it appears as a miracle. These events are passive hypernatural miracles.
Our thesis is that the ten plagues of Egypt may have been a series of hypernatural miracles. To support this, we studied peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals that suggest naturalistic explanations for the plagues and then compared these with the biblical text. Our conclusion is that all of the plagues were potentially hypernatural miracles; some were active, some were passive, occurring as a natural consequence of the active miracles. In this latter case, we suggest God told Moses when the plagues would occur based on His foreknowledge of these consequences and Moses then challenged Pharaoh with this information.
John Marr and Curtis Malloy published the most recent and definitive article in 1996.1 It approaches the plagues from an epidemiological perspective. Obviously, this article doesn’t have all the answers, but it does present a plausible scenario that we can place in the context of hypernaturalism. Since we cannot know the mind of God, plausibility is all we are seeking to achieve.
Analyzing the Ten Plagues
- The Nile River. We begin with the assumption that the first plague, which turned the Nile River into “blood” (Exodus 7:17, NASB), was actually toxic red algae that killed the fish and fouled the river.
- Frogs. The putrid environment in the Nile probably caused the frog invasion.2 The profusion of toxic red algae set up a cause-and-effect chain of events through which this happened naturally.
- Gnats. Marr and Malloy conclude that this pest was a particular strain of gnats, known as Culicoides, which “feed on abundant microorganisms in decomposing detritus, such as the remains of fish and frogs.”3
- Swarms of insects. Analyzing the biblical account in the context of science, Marr and Malloy conclude the culprit was the stable fly, which naturally occurred in large numbers with the ebbing of the river.4 The flies occurred in even greater numbers in Exodus because “abundant rotting vegetation fosters ideal harborage for its emerging larvae.”5
- Death of Egyptian livestock. Marr and Malloy believe African horse sickness and/or bluetongue—both viral diseases transmitted biologically by the Culicoides gnat—caused the animals’ death. Both diseases affect the hoofed animals mentioned in Exodus, but not humans.6
- Boils. Marr and Malloy suggest these boils were actually glanders, a bacterial disease transmitted through stable fly bites. In humans it presents as “nodular eruptions on the face, legs, arms.”7
- Hail. This plague illustrated God’s power over the forces of nature: sending the hailstorm at a precise time, place, and intensity.
- Locusts. Swarms of desert locust are not an unusual occurrence; however, they require wet soil, which attracts millions of insects to settle and lay their eggs.8 This is surely a consequence of the rain which “poured on the earth” (Exodus 9:33b, NASB) in the hailstorm.
- Darkness. This plague was so oppressive that the Egyptians could not leave their homes. The scientific consensus seems to be that the darkness was due to a khamsin, hot southerly winds from the Sahara which “cause massive drifts and dunes of ultrafine sand in the lees of houses, making entrance and egress impossible” and which “commonly last for two or three days.”9
- Death of the Egyptian firstborns. Marr and Malloy attribute these deaths to mycotoxins in the grain supply as a result of mold brought on by the hailstorm.10 Other scholars propose typhoid fever11 and anthrax.12 In any case, this plague is not as easily connected to a natural explanation as the earlier plagues. It is highly possible—perhaps likely—that this was a true supernatural miracle: that the LORD literally “pass[ed] through to smite the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:23, NASB).
Plagues 1–9 can all be explained as hypernatural miracles. Plagues 1, 7, and 9 are active miracles. Plagues 2–6 are passive consequences of previous plagues of which God had foreknowledge to arm Moses to challenge Pharaoh. Plague 8 is a combination: a passive miracle accompanied by the active miracle of winds of the intensity and direction to accomplish God’s purpose. Although plague 10 could be explained as a passive hypernatural miracle, we believe that it was truly supernatural.
- John S. Marr and Curtis D. Malloy, “An Epidemiological Analysis of the Ten Plagues of Egypt,” Caduceus 12, no. 1 (1996): 7–24.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 10, 11, 14.
- M. Duncan Hoyte, “The Plagues of Egypt: What Killed the Animals and the Firstborn?,” The Medical Journal of Australia 59 (1993): 707.
- Marr and Malloy, “An Epidemiological Analysis,” 14–15.
- Ibid., 15–16.
- Ibid., 16–17.
- Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 133.
- Greta Hort, “The Plagues of Egypt,” Zeitschrift fur die Altestestamentliche Wissenschaft 70 (1958): 48–59; Marr and Malloy, “An Epidemiological Analysis,” 17–18.
- Marr and Malloy, “An Epidemiological Analysis,” 21–22.
- Hoyte, “The Plagues of Egypt,” 708.
- Hort, “The Plagues of Egypt,” 48–59.
By Hugh Henry and Daniel Dyke
Dr. Hugh Henry, PhD
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.
Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.