In his book The Miracles of Exodus (Continuum, 2003), physicist Sir Colin Humphreys argues that a plausible scientific basis can be found for the plagues of Egypt, as recorded in Exodus 7-11.
This is not to suggest that they can be ‘explained away’ as merely natural phenomena. Rather, accordingly to Humphreys’, the miraculous element lies in their timing and intensity, along with the fact that they were predicted.
Instone-Brewer (Science and the Bible: Insights For An Ancient Text) takes a similar line:
‘These plagues are not portrayed in the language of miracles, except with regard to their timing and their ferocity. We’ve all experienced gnats and swarms of insects, and many people experience boils, life-threatening hailstones, locust plagues, and livestock diseases. The blood-red river sounds unnatural, but this would also be the way to describe a river swamped by red algae, which, in sufficient concentrations, can kill fish and taste bitter. The Bible text makes clear that all the water in the Nile and drawn from it was affected, but water in boreholes was fine (Exod 7:24). This suggests that water that had not been in contact with the Nile before the problem started was not affected. It would also fit with the idea that this was due to algae, because algal spores would be in any pots of water that had been drawn from the Nile—and would be ready to bloom at the same time—but they would not be in ground water.’
Of course, such an interpretation assumes a rather straightforward, ‘literal’ reading of the text itself. Many scholars would, on other grounds, reject such a reading, and would therefore find Humphrey’s interpretation absurd (why try to given a scientific explanation of a fairytale?). But others who, like myself, take the historicity of the Exodus text more seriously, will be open to such insights from modern science.
The Plagues of Egypt
|Plague||Cause||Time of Year|
|1.||Nile turned to blood and fish died||Red soil particles plus red harmful algal blooms||September|
|2.||Frogs/Toads||Polluted Nile forces frogs ashore. Mass death due to starvation and dehydration.||September-October|
|3.||Gnats||The biting midge Culicoides carnithorix. Free to breed rapidly due to population collapse of frogs.||October-November|
|4.||Flies||The stable fly Stomoxys calcitrans. Free to breed rapidly due to population collapse of frogs.||November|
|5.||Death of livestock||Bluetongue virus and African horse sickness virus, both spread by the biting midge, Culicoides||November/December|
|6.||Boils||Skin infection spread by the stable fly, Stomoxys.||December-January|
|7.||Hail||Exceptionally severe hailstorm.||February-March|
|8.||Locusts||The desert locust, attracted by damp sand from hailstorm to settle and lay eggs.||February-March|
|9.||Darkness for three days||First khamsin of the year produces particularly dark and dense dust storm.||March|
|10.||Death of firstborn males||Mycotoxins on grain, possibly macrocylic tricothecenes. Due to damp grain from hail contamination by locusts' faeces and stored in a grain store then sealed by sand from the khamsin dust storm.||Late March-early April|
Humphreys argues that the sequence of plagues also makes good sense from a scientific perspective.
Humphreys does not make all these claims with equal confidence. For example, he admits that his account of the 10th plague (the death of the firstborn) is rather speculative. But, as Instone-Brewer points out:
‘The final plague is completely different, and it is this one that convinces Pharaoh that he cannot withstand God’s will. This not only resulted in massive human death, but also demonstrated God’s total control over events by affecting only the eldest son in each household. This miracle stands out from the others, and it is meant to.’
I don’t think that there is a problem in principle with applying scientific principles to biblical miracles. It should not be thought of as an exercise in reductionism, or as a failure of faith in miracles. It is, rather, to acknowledge that God loves the natural world that he has made, and delights to use means to achieve his purposes.