Do You Really Believe That? (III)

The Ten Plagues

The third installment of “Do You Really Believe That?” will examine another famous story of the Old Testament, the ten plagues of Egypt. As the Book of Exodus tells it, the Israelite prophet Moses was chosen by God to set his people free from their long slavery in Egypt. But when the hard-hearted Pharaoh refused to release them, God sent ten plagues upon the land, each more terrible than the last, until the Egyptians’ resistance finally crumbled.

These are the famous ten:

First plague: Water to blood.
“And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.” (7:21)

Second plague: Frogs.
“And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneadingtroughs.” (8:3)

Third plague: Lice.
“And they did so; for Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man, and in beast; all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt.” (8:17)

Fourth plague: Flies.
“And there came a grievous swarm of flies into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants’ houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies.” (8:24)

Fifth plague: Murrain (death of cattle).
“And all the cattle of Egypt died: but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one.” (9:6)

Sixth plague: Boils.
“And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt.” (9:9)

Seventh plague: Hail.
“And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field.” (9:25)

Eighth plague: Locusts.
“For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (10:15)

Ninth plague: Darkness.
“And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days.” (10:22)

Tenth plague: Death of the firstborn.
“And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” (12:30)

The story of the ten plagues has been retold numerous times, including several successful cinematic dramatizations. Some skeptics have even accepted that they happened literally as written and have sought to provide non-miraculous explanations. However, there’s a problem that the text and all its retellings never address: What happened to Egypt after the Israelites left?

The kingdom must have been in a disastrous state. Between the hail and the locusts, all the trees had been smashed and all the crops eaten. The rivers turning to blood had not only left the water undrinkable, but all the fish and other marine life dead. The cattle and livestock were likewise dead of the murrain. Whatever food had been stored must have been corrupted and made inedible by the swarms of flies and frogs. The people were suffering from lice infestations and boils, and on top of that, an entire generation of children was dead, every house in Egypt mourning.

And on top of all this, the Israelites also plundered their former masters when they left, taking much clothing, silver and gold (12:35). The Pharaoh himself was dead, along with most of his army, drowned in the closing of the sea when they gave chase (14:28). And the slave labor that the Egyptian economy had depended on for centuries was suddenly gone, with nothing to replace them.

When all was said and done, the Egyptians had no ruler, no army, no money, no food, and no labor, and every family in the nation had been shattered by tragedy. What would have happened? What could have happened? There would have been looting, violence, societal breakdown. The kingdom should have dissolved into chaos and anarchy and either become a no-man’s-land or been swallowed up by its neighbors. Egyptian civilization should have taken centuries to reconstitute itself, if it ever did. Such a collapse would be readily visible in the archaeological and historical record, and if such a thing had been found, it would have provided dramatic corroboration for the stories of the Bible.

But the record reveals nothing like this. No such discontinuity is visible in ancient Egyptian history. Worse, some Christian apologists have placed the exodus during the New Kingdom period – the historical height of Egypt’s power and glory – without postulating any kind of societal impact. It’s as if they believe the shattered, ruined kingdom simply picked itself up and rebuilt within a few years, completely forgetting that any of this had ever happened.

To anyone who knows anything about human society, this is completely implausible. After a catastrophe of this magnitude, no civilization could recover within such a short period, and especially not without leaving abundant evidence of its decline. (Compare Hurricane Katrina today – the images of overwhelming crowds, of desperation to escape, of chaos among those who were trapped in the city, and a rebuilding that is still going on with painful slowness and unevenness.) If the ten plagues had really happened, they should be an established, unquestionable historical fact. But we have evidence of no such thing, and so I ask: Do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

The Strange Tale of Rose Marks
Movie Review: The Martian
Book Review: 1491
The White Man Non-Culpability Squad
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.