Frogs, boils, and a blood river, oh my! The 10 plagues of Egypt is central to the Old Testament, telling the story of how the Israelites were led out of slavery by Moses. Today the event is commemorated by Passover and it remains central to both Judaism and Christianity.
But were the Egyptian plagues real? In fact, scientists believe there are natural explanations for each of the 10 plagues - it all comes down to ecological balance. The evidence for the Exodus plagues draws on climate science, volcanology, and epidemiology, and it all started with a devastating change in the ancient climate.
Just as science has provided evidence for Moses parting the Red Sea and proof of the Great Flood of Noah's Ark, there is now scientific evidence of the 10 plagues. Natural causes can explain each of the plagues, from the boils to the death of firstborn sons, providing scientific proof of the 10 plagues. As for what caused the ecological disasters that devastated Egypt, that's a question of faith.
The 10 plagues of Egypt started with a bloody river.
Aaron, acting as the prophet for Moses, tried to convince the Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. When turning his staff into a snake didn't impress the Egyptian ruler, Aaron followed Pharaoh to the river and said: "The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness. But until now you have not listened." (Exodus 7:16) Aaron thrust his staff into the river and the water instantly turned to blood.
The first Biblical plague may hold the key to a scientific explanation for the series of events that led to the exodus of Hebrews from Egypt. Archaeologists believe the plagues occurred in the city of Pi-Rameses on the Nile River around 1250 BCE. The former capital of Egypt was abandoned around that time, and the plagues may be linked to the fall of the once-great capital city.
In fact, Egypt was undergoing a dramatic drought during the rule of Rameses the Second, the likely Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus. The formerly warm, wet climate of the Nile delta transitioned to an extended dry period with hotter temperatures.
The climate shift may have caused the Nile to dry up, particularly on thinner branches of the river's delta. The once fast-flowing river may have become a stagnant, muddy pool, and the rich silt could have given the river a blood red appearance. This sudden change in temperature may have also caused a "red tide," an algae bloom that can turn the water red. Yet another theory argues that red clay from the Ethiopian highlands flooded the Nile and made it appear like blood.
The changes to the Nile River, the lifeline of ancient Egypt, may have even caused many of the other plagues.
The second plague called up by Moses covered Egypt in frogs. Pharaoh refused to listen when Moses warned: "The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs." (Exodus 8:3)
The natural explanation for the frogs may be linked to the blood-red Nile. If an algae bloom turned the water red, it may have triggered a chain reaction that affected the frogs living in the river. The toxic algae could speed up development from tadpoles into adult frogs, and it may have driven the frogs out of the river.
The third plague swarmed Egypt with gnats, covering the people and animals. As the Old Testament explains: "all the dust throughout the land of Egypt became gnats." (Exodus 8:17)
However, there is a natural explanation for the gnats as well. As the frogs, driven from the Nile, began to die, their decaying bodies attracted gnats and flies (AKA the fourth plague). According to the Book of Exodus, the frogs inundated the city, so their bodies almost certainly would have attracted an infestation of insects.