Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Plagues of Egypt

Debunking Christianity briefly departed from its soup-kitchen testimonials to do a substantive post on the ten plagues of Egypt.

“Archeology in the past 30 years has reduced the historical probability of the Exodus from slim to none.”

Dagood never substantiates his opening statement. What has happened in the past 30 years to deprobabilify the Exodus? What archeological discoveries justify this sweeping assertion?

“There is not a lick of proof of the destination of Exodus. Even though we should have extensive amounts of evidence of an invasion of Hebrews into Canaan, we have none.”

Why should we have extensive evidence for the Exodus or conquest of Canaan?

As Kenneth Kitchen explains in his book On The Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003),

“The setting presented in Exod 1-14 is indubitably that of Egypt’s East Delta, whence the Hebrews are shown going directly into the Sinai Peninsula first of all. Background data may well be drawn from Egypt overall, but for locating the biblical Hebrews and their movements ‘on the ground in Egypt we are restricted to the East Delta zone geographically.

This fact imposes further severe limitations upon all inquiry into the subject. The Delta is an alluvial fan of mud deposited through many millennia by the annual flooding of the Nile; it has no source of stone within it. Mud, mud and wattle, and mud-brick structures were of limited duration and use, and were repeatedly leveled and replaced, and very largely merged once more with the mud of the fields…The mud hovels of brickfield slaves and humble cultivators have long since gone back to their mud origins, never to be seen again. Even stone structures (such as temples) hardly survive, in striking contrast to sites in the cliff-enclosed valley of Upper Egypt to the south. All stone was anciently shipped in from the south and repeatedly recycled from one period to another.

Scarce wonder that practically no written records of any extent have been retrieved from Delta sites reduced to brick mounds (whose very bricks are despoiled for fertilizer), with even great temples reduced to heaps of tumbled stones. And in the mud, 99 percent of discarded papyri have perished forever; a tiny fraction (of late date) have been found carbonized (burned…A tiny fraction of reports from the East Delta occur in papyri recovered from the desert near Memphis. Otherwise, the entirety of Egypt’s administrative records at all periods in the Delta is lost; and monumental texts are also nearly nil. And, as pharaohs never monumentalize defeats on temple walls, no record of the successful exit of a large bunch of foreign slaves (with loss of a full chariot squadron) would ever have been memorialized by any king, in temples in the Delta or anywhere else,” ibid. 245-246.

“(1) Usually less than about 5 or 10 percent of any given mound is ever dug down to Late Bronze (or any other) levels; hence between 85 to 95 percent of our potential source of evidence is never seen.

(2)The principal Hebrew policy under Joshua was to kill leaders and inhabitants, not to destroy the cities, but eventually to occupy them (cf. Deut 6:10-11), destroying only the alien cult places (Deut 12:2-3).

(3)Conquests, even historically well-known examples, often do not leave behind the sorts of traces that modern scholars overconfidently expect,” ibid. 189-190.

“See B.S. J. Isserlin…quoting the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon settlement in England, and the Muslim Arab invasion of Syria-Palestine. One may also cite the innumerable campaigns of Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian armies in the Levant, of whose encampments and battlefields almost no traces are ever found,” ibid. 545, n84.

“No total conquest and occupation. The book of Joshua does not describe a total Hebrew conquest and occupation of Canaan, real or imaginary. Read straight, its narratives describe an entry (from over the Jordan), full destruction of two minor centers (Jericho, Ai; burned), then defeat of local kings and raids through south Canaan. Towns are attacked, taken, and damaged (“destroyed”), kings and subjects killed and then left behind, not held on to. The same in north Canaan; strategic Hazor is fully destroyed (burned), but no others. The rest are treated like the southern towns, and again left, not held,” ibid. 234-235.

Regarding the absence of corroboration:

“In the late 13C, Mesopotamia—in the guise of Assyria—never penetrated beyond the Euphrates into Syria proper; Hittite power at Carchemish stood against them. So no data can come on south Palestinian events (especially in the inner highlands) from that quarter. Egypt officially was overlord of Canaan, but her main interest was in the productive coastal plains, lowland hills, and Jezreel, not in the economically poorer highland, and in keeping hold on the main routes north into Phoenicia (to Tyre, Sidon, Babylos, &c) and to Damascus in Upe,” 235.

So we should not expect to have extensive evidence of the Conquest. And yet, despite the inherent paucity of potential evidence, the Biblical account for this event is not without a measure of corroborative evidence.

“So long as highlanders of any kind did not interfere there, and the Transjordanian groups did not interfere with the Timna (Sinai) mining works at the southern end of the Arabah, neither did Egypt bother with them. When they did, she struck back, and they got mentioned…So the biblical data and Egyptian references are agreed on the effective existence and activity of Seir/Edom, Moab (with Dibon!), and Israel at this time, plus Ammon (which was archaeologically extant). One cannot really ask for more in the circumstances,” ibid. 235.

Another scholar has citied eight “items in the book of Joshua [that] cannot otherwise be explained than, or can best be explained, by tracing their origin to the second-millennium BC,” R. Hess, Joshua (IVP 1996). Among these items he cites the following:

“The description of the borders of Canaan in the Pentateuch and in Joshua 1:4 matches the Egyptian understanding of Canaan in second-millennium BC sources, where the cities of Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Acco and Hazor form part of the land,” ibid. 26.

“Josh 3:10 lists the groups of people whom God will drive out before Israel. Among these are three groups that have a distinctive association with the second millennium BC: the Hivites, the Perizzites and the Girgashites…The association of the Hivites and Perizzites with Hurrians is important for dating. Hurrian peoples and names flourished in the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200BC). Their presence diminished in the following two centuries and disappeared at the beginning of the first millennium BC. Girgashites may be attested in second-millennium BC Ugaritic and Egyptian sources,” ibid. 27-28.

“The names of the defeated kings in Josh 10-11 provide clues as to the origins of these narratives,” ibid. 29.

“Josh 24:7-27 contains a report of a covenant that, in its form and content, most closely resembles the Hittite vassal treaty structure unique to the second millennium BC,” ibid. 30-31.

Incidentally, the data cited by Kitchen and Hess are largely irrespective of whether you favor an early or late date for the Exodus.

Continuing with Dagood:

“Here is a question as to how far-reaching these plagues were. When it says ‘every’ is that just exaggeration for ‘quite a bit’”?

“Exaggeration” is a misleading adjective. It is a social convention of ordinary usage that quantifiers like “every” and “all” can be used as general expressions admitting various exceptions in particular.

That’s not an “exaggeration.” Rather, it’s a linguistic convention. How sweeping the actual scope of universal quantifier is meant to be can only be determined by their contextualization.

More than a linguistic convention, it is also a literary convention. It’s a standard compositional technique in OT historical narrative to lead with a broad programmatic statement that is later modified by a more detailed exposition. The pattern is from general to specific.


“Were they localized? The problem with this proposition is that God intended this to be a demonstration of His glory. A local sickness, killing a few cows, or a bad summer storm would not be remarkable.”

This is a false dichotomy. It isn’t necessary for the plagues to either exterminate all Egyptian life and livelihood or else be very narrowly targeted to achieve their appointed end.

The events must be on a scale sufficient to prove the point, without however killing every eyewitness to the events in question, since that would be self-defeating. There’s a mean between “killing a few cows” and total devastation.

“Water to Blood The Nile, every stream, every river, every pond, even water stored in vessels turns to blood. 7:19. (All verses from Exodus.)

First of all this would mean the loss of drinking water. The Bible notes this problem. 7:24. How does one transport the water from rivers and streams inland? The effort must be made to dig new wells, then transport it. This could not be done in any short time at all…ALL of the water in Egypt turned to blood. They had no reserves. There would be a loss of life due to dehydration.”

i) This is a considerable overstatement. As Dagood to admits that the groundwater was not contaminated (7:24).

This is not like drilling for oil. In a river valley, along a riverbank, you don’t have to dig very deep to reach groundwater. Animals do this all the time during the dry season.

ii) We are also told that the Egyptian magicians were able to replicate the first plague (7:22). This assumes that all the extant water was not bloody.

So Dagood has chosen two disregard two contextual delimiters in his effort to force the account into making nonsensical claims.

“But most important would be the loss of marine life. The fish (and other sea creatures) died. 7:21. Later, this will have in impact as to a food source. Environmental water systems, such as rivers, ponds and streams, have a necessary balance. By wiping out all of the fish, this balance would be irrevocably upset. It is not as if the blood turned back to water, and fish all of a sudden re-appeared. They were gone. It would take decades, if ever, for marine life to replenish and re-habit the rivers.”

It’s obvious that Dagood is no zoologist or geography teacher. We’re not talking about “marine” species, but fresh-water species. The Nile is a river, not an ocean.

Likewise, rivers and ponds are not interchangeable. Unlike a lake or a pond, which is fed by a river or stream or rainwater, but has no necessary outlet, there is continuous turnover of water and aquatic life in a river system.

That’s the difference between standing water and running water. Pretty elementary, my dear Watson.

Whatever fish were killed downstream would be replenished by fish upstream once the plague abated. The bloody water and dead aquatic life would wash out into the gulf, to be resupplied by water and aquatic issuing from the headwaters of the Nile.

Sure, there would be damage to the ecosystem, but damage and utter destruction are two different things.

“Birds that relied upon the fish for food would migrate or die. Crocodiles that relied upon the birds and fish for food would look to alternative sources. Every creature, dependant on marine life, would find alternatives, leave, or die.”

Birds and crocodiles could survive very nicely on dead fish and carrion for a week—the duration of the plague. Indeed, they’d gorge themselves on the sheer abundance of easy pickings.

Also, crocodiles don’t need to eat very often, while birds are highly mobile and migratory.

“Frogs, flies, boils and darkness While none of these plagues would be necessarily deadly; they would bring the economy of Egypt to a halt.”

i) A temporary disruption. Damaging to the economy? Yes. The end of the world? No.

ii) Mention of the frogs introduces another contextual delimiter into the extent or impact of the first plague. Since they survived the plague of blood, the narrator never intended to suggest that this particular event destroyed all aquatic life in Egypt.

Once again, Dagood and only make his case by doing violence to the text.

“Death of Livestock The beginning of the terrible plagues. Every Egyptian cow, horse, donkey, oxen, camel and sheep are killed. This would cause devastating problems in a variety of areas.”

This disregards the explicit contextual delimiter in 9:3 (livestock grazing in the open fields), as well as the implicit delimiters in 9:9 (the sixth plague) and 9:19-21 (the seventh plague).

Since livestock are also the target of the sixth plague (of boils) and seventh plague (of hail), the fifth plague was never understood to destroy all available livestock—not even all the Egyptian livestock, much less the Jewish, which was exempt. And that’s in addition to 9:3.

The account of the ten plagues forms a literary unit. They were never meant to be read in isolation. Since the reader has access to the entire account, information supplied by a later stage can shed contextual light on an early stage. He can read ahead.

Indeed, that’s the point. The ten plagues have a cumulative impact as the effect is phased in over time—with mounting severity.

“At this point, we would see a huge influx of Egyptian goods being traded to outside countries for their animals.”

Really? What about trading with their Jewish slaves, whose herds were intact? (Exod 9:4-7,26).

Remember, the Jewish population was enormous. So their livestock would have been commensurate (12:37-38).

Since, moreover, they were slaves, the Egyptians were in a position to plunder the Jewish herds for food or breeding-purposes.

Remember, though, that according to 9:3, all Egyptian livestock were not, in fact, destroyed.

“Hail Wipes out many of the animals that were just obtained from other countries, some servants, and much of the crops. 9:25.”

It only wipes out the livestock left in the open field, but not the livestock in barns and stables, for those Egyptians who prudently heeded the warning (9:19-21).

More damage done, but not the apocalypse.

“And for the animals that are left, what do you feed them? People have no meat, and now have no grain to eat.”

This overlooks two things:

i) The agricultural impact of the seventh plague was selective (9:31-32).

ii) Egypt had granaries set aside just in case of famine and drought (Gen 41; 47).

“Locusts A killer. Every single plant is gone; nothing green is left. 10:15. (Note: this would have done within the same harvest as the hail. 10:12)

The few animals left would have nothing to eat. They would die. What would the people eat? There is no marine life. No wild animals now. No cattle, sheep, or even pigeons. But more importantly, no grain. No fruits. No vegetables.

The only food source possible would be from outside sources or roots dug up.”

Same answers as above. Dagood Ignores the royal granaries, as well as building on a series of faulty interpretations.

“Tenth Plague The firstborn of every family dies. Including the firstborn of the livestock. (Where do these animals keep coming from?”

As we said before, the livestock come from Jewish herds, which were spared, as well as Egyptian herds secured in barns and stables.

The Exodus account and historical antecedents in the Joseph cycle have the internal resources to address all these objections. Dagood willfully disregards relevant narrative information, unless he’s just too dim to see the obvious starring him in the face.

“Army wiped out Although technically not a plague, it is an important event that happened immediately on the heels of these national tragedies, that would further demonstrate how Egypt would no longer be in existence if the Plagues happened as recorded.

Pharaoh pursues the Hebrews with all of his army, all the chariots and horsemen (where DO those horses keep coming from?), and his captains. 14:9. And they are wiped out. 14:28.”

i) The horses come from the royal stables. Hence, they escaped the hail. One doesn’t have to be a rocket science to figure this out.

ii) Dagwood also misconstrues the text. As John Currid explains:

“Note, however that it is only the mobile forces, the chariots and cavalry [14:23], who take up the chase,” Exodus (Evangelical Press 2000), 1:303.

“Attached to the phrase ‘the entire army of Pharaoh’ [14:28] is a lamed preposition…the particle may be used to indicate possession, so that the phrase means ‘the chariots and horsemen which belonged to the entire army of Pharaoh.’ It is not the whole army of Pharaoh that was destroyed in the Red Sea, but only the chariots and cavalry of Egypt,” ibid. 1:306.


“Can anyone take this literally?”

Yes, I can.

“OR, is it more likely this is a story. A legend. In stories and legends, we don’t have to worry about the effects.”

As Kitchen points out, “We are dealing with realia here; river, fish, frogs, insects, cattle, humans, and not a fantasy world off (e.g.) dragons, monsters, genies, Liliths, or other plainly mythical beings, and in a real country (Egypt), not an imaginary place unknown to geography,” Ibid. 249.

Kitchen also summarizes the classic monograph of Hort, according to whom the sequence of the ten plagues follows a perfectly natural causal sequence:

1.July/August. “Extreme high flood because of extra heavy rains in Nile source regions; brings masses of Roterde [the Red Nile] plus flagellates;> red color, oxygen fluctuation, so fish die and rot, breeding round for infections.”

2.August/September. ”Insects bring Bacillus anthracis to rotting fish, infects frogs, who mass-migrate onto land and die, carrying infection into land and herbage.”

3.October/November. “Mosquitoes overbreeding, in pools of excessive Nile flood.”

4.October/November to December/January. “Flies bit legs/fee, fly=Somoxys calicitrans, infection from #2.”

Goshen spared.

5.January. “Animals let out into fields contract anthrax from pasture, hence ingest (like the frogs) and die.”

Goshen spared.

6.January. “Humans and livestock (indoors). Bitten by the Somoxys calcitrans flies, causing a (nonfatal) skin anthrax. Cf. #4.”

Goshen spared.

7.February. “Hail on flax and barley (too soon for wheat and spelt). The two latter crops not due then.”

Goshen spared.

8.February/March. “Locusts breed in east Sudan; move north up Red Sea/Northwest Arabia; these ones, blown from east to west into Egypt; Northwest wind (i) blows them into north of Upper Egypt and (ii) away to yam suf.”

9.March/April. “The initial khamsin of the season, whipping up not only sand, but masses of fine, dense, dark roterde, giving greater ‘darkness than just a sand wind,” ibid. 251 (Table 18).

My point is not that a naturalistic explanation is necessarily preferable to a supernaturalistic explanation. But when naturalistic objections are raised to the Exodus account, and there are replies which answer the critic on his own grounds, then this needs to be addressed rather than ignored.

Whether Dagood’s abject failure is due to sheer ignorance and ineptitude, or else a calculated suppression of the internal and external evidence to the contrary, I cannot say. In any event, his case against the Exodus has all the mileage of a flat tire.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good post and an excellent argument to the blog against the events of Exodus.

    Thanks for writing this. Its a bit it was written 5 years ago and nobody has made any comments. But at least I am sure God knows what you wrote here, and that counts.