Faith and Magic: Magic Snakes and the Ten Plagues of Egypt

So now we get to the magic bits. What was special about Moses’ staff (apart from the fact that he loaned it to Aaron)?

Read Exodus 7:10-12. A nice fun magical story.

A miracle, or just magic? There’s actually a snake which looks stiff and straight like a rod if you hold it the right way and, not surprisingly, turns back into a snake when you let it go. The magicians knew this. Moses’ snake eating theirs might have been disturbing, but it wasn’t a miracle from their point of view. So the Pharaoh didn’t let the people go, and the ten plagues of Egypt begin.

Have you ever tried to remember the plagues in order? I used to try. It was about as hard, for me, as trying to remember the days of creation. Why do frogs come before flies? What’s the sky turning black got to do with anything? But, since reading Humphrey’s book, I can probably get them right because they make sense.

1. Red water and dead fish: The magicians could do this (Ex 7:22). The Nile became red ever year in late summer from the flow down the mountains. Ancient documents even describe it as “the river is blood” though predicting precisely when it would happen was hard. Fish weren’t meant to die then of course, but we’ve all heard of red tides. And all this is taking place at Rameses (Qantir) on the Nile Delta where a red tide could coincide with red floodwater and kill the fish.

2. Frogs: It’s interesting that the frogs appear seven days after the red water (Ex 7:25)—just the right length of time for fish to die in a red tide, causing frogs to flee the polluted waters. The Nile would be teeming with frogs in late September, early October, so that’s probably when this happens—consistent with red Nile and red tide.

3. Insects: The frogs couldn’t get enough fresh water so they died, so they didn’t eat the flies.

Read Exodus 8:16-18. It’s the first time the magicians couldn’t copy the miracle.

4. Flies: The “lice” or “gnats” might be tiny flies feeding on decaying fish and frogs—delightful image. Then bigger insects come and start biting people.

5. Dead animals: Humphreys looks at which animals died—only hoofed ones, no cats etc. (Ex 9:3)—and what viruses are spread by which insects. He concludes the animals were killed by a virus carried by the mosquitoes, while the boils in the sixth plague are caused by the stable flies.

6. Boils: These affect people and animals (but not the Israelites, probably because they live in the hills, away from the water).

Read Deuteronomy 28:27, 35. Again, a very specific description--we can even try to work out what sort of boils caused by what sort of fly.

7. Hail: The worst hailstorm in Egyptian history to date—we know about that sort of weather in the US these days.

Read Exodus 9:31-32 and notice the level of detail.

The names of the crops destroyed tells us this happens in February/March. It also makes it sound like a genuine contemporary account, or how did they get the crops consistent?

8. Locusts: It’s the right time of year for them, and the wet muddy ground would be perfect for breeding. Meanwhile Goshen, being geographically different, continues to be spared. According to Genesis, Goshen is good land for animals as opposed to crops, so it’s probably hill-country. Since the Pharaohs chose to use Israelite slaves, the Israelites must have been living close to Rameses, so that makes Goshen the hill country just behind the Nile Delta.

9. Darkness: So now the land’s all chewed up stubble, the weather’s dry, and the dust-storms begin (March/April), worse than ever because of what the locusts left behind.

Read Exodus 10:21 How do you feel darkness?

10. Death of the Firstborn: Humphreys even comes up with a natural explanation for this. The Egyptians are obviously panicking by now. They’ll have dragged whatever they could save of the grain into silos before the locusts ate it. The storm will have left it damp and locust feces may have contaminated it. The dust-storm will have sealed off the air-vents. And now they’re going to ask their gods for help. Gods in general have a liking for first-born sons, and for healthy specimens in worship, so they’ll feed up the first-born of their flocks and their families and… The contaminated top layers of grain poison them. There are in fact very fast-acting poisons that might grow in such conditions, leaving the rest of the grain safe underneath. Meanwhile the Israelites eat their own food and prepare to leave.

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