The Science of Miracles

This one comes to us from Tim Burbery. Passover is upon us, providing a superb […]

Guest Contributor / 4.23.19

This one comes to us from Tim Burbery.

Sara Varon

Passover is upon us, providing a superb opportunity for reflecting on the original event as well as the miracle of the Exodus. A number of scientific theories have attempted to explain how the plagues and the Red Sea crossing could be accounted for by natural causes, and these are worth considering. The most full-blown of the scientific explanations was set forth by epidemiologist John Marr (one-time Director of Public Health in New York City) and fellow researcher Curtis Molloy.

For plague #1, they contend that red algae poisoned the waters of the Nile and removed oxygen from it. The lack of oxygen not only killed the fish, it also caused frogs to leap out of the water, ravenous for food, and to infest every nook and cranny in the land, though as amphibians they couldn’t survive for long out of water. When they died, the insects, lacking any predators, thrived. One type, culicoides, colloquially known as no-see-ums, which lays its eggs in dust and feeds on carcasses, could have multiplied, leading to #3, the seeming birth of gnats from dust. The fourth plague (omnipresent flies) came about similarly, as these pests flourished by feeding on the dead bodies of the fish and frogs. The fifth, the widespread death of Egyptian cattle, could also have arisen when a bacteria harmful to cattle, such as Bluetongue, was borne by insects such as the no-see-ums. (The Hebrews were spared these horrors, plausibly, because the land of Goshen was too far away for such small insects to fly to.) Plague #6 (boils) might have arisen as well from flies carrying contagious bacteria. The hailstorm (#7), could have come about naturally; so too the eighth plague (locusts), which would have led to the utter collapse of the entire food source. The ninth, the darkness, might have been caused by a sandstorm, combined with hot winds.

Such a cascade is perhaps just barely plausible, a bit more so, maybe, when we consider the exquisite interconnections of natural ecosystems. However, the decisive tenth plague, which resulted in the death of all Egyptian firstborn, both human and animal, has been harder for researchers to explain. Marr and Molloy offer a culprit that might seem almost comically underwhelming when contrasted with the terrifying angel of death: moldy grain. The theory holds that the famished Egyptian populace, having endured three days of darkness, would send their first-born children to the granaries, posthaste, at first light; when the stores were opened, lethal mycotoxins that thrive in grain could have felled them. Such a scenario is not wholly unprecedented in modern times — eight children were suddenly killed in 1994, in Cleveland, when exposed to lethal mycotoxins in wheat — yet it feels like a stretch. So, of course, do a number of the other steps proposed by Marr and Molloy, including that crucial initial one, the appearance of the red algae, though again, in fairness, seemingly bloody rain and snow resulting from algae has been documented.

British Library

A related, and possibly somewhat more believable explanation for the plagues, set forth in a 2002 BBC documentary, focuses on the catastrophic eruption of the Thera volcano in the Greek island of Santorini, an event that could have occurred around the same time as the plagues and the Exodus. This Bronze Age cataclysm, which took place in or around 1700 B.C., was perhaps the largest volcanic eruption ever, and could have wrought the devastation of the mighty empire of Crete and the rise of Greece, among other things. While Santorini is about 500 miles northwest of Egypt, the prevailing northwest winds could have borne an ash cloud across the Mediterranean to Egypt. In fact, volcanic shards from Santorini have been found in Egypt, which has no volcanoes. The tremendous explosion (1000 times stronger than a nuclear bomb) may well have sparked the red algae event, since such blooms appear to be linked with weird weather, and/or the plagues of hailstorm and deep darkness.

As for the Red Sea transit, the Thera blast also could have caused a massive tsunami, so the scientists say, one that hit the Egyptian troops at precisely the right moment, when the Hebrews had already passed through. Talk about timing!

What to do with these theories? Other biblical events have received similar treatments, including the view that Mount Sinai was an active volcano in Saudi Arabia, and that Saul’s conversion was effected by a lightning strike. Such claims may seem either fun or scandalous, or both, and they invite considerable speculation. Some feel quite unlikely, as I’ve said, though none are without any foundation. For instance, regarding the domino theory of the plagues, the Tambora and Krakatoa eruptions, which happened in 1815 and 1883, respectively, occasioned bizarre, inter-connected natural events, such as — surprise — epidemics, “rains” of stone and hails, insect swarms, crop destructions, and the shrouding of the sun.

Still, should we grant these ideas any credence? Do they pay the Bible a compliment by taking it somewhat seriously, albeit naturalistically? Or do they deny important spiritual reality? Might they encourage a deistic view of God, in which he has, however ingeniously, crafted a clockwork universe and then stepped away from it?

William Blake, Pestilence: Death of the First Born, MFA

Part of the answer may have to do with the use of the word “cause.” I’ve used it uncritically throughout, but in fact it’s a rather imprecise term. For even if apparently naturalistic causes could be adduced for all the plagues and the Exodus, the sheer timing of these events would keep them in the realm of the miraculous. As one writer admits, “the coincidence that the Israelites happened to be at precisely the right spot at precisely the right time appears to be of such astronomical proportions that it would require divine intervention to bring it off, and thus in effect another miracle is being substituted for the one for which a scientific explanation is being sought.”

Even if a seemingly water-tight scenario of the plagues could be provided, it would still possess a considerable leak; that is, it would fail to explain the weirdness, indeed, the paradoxically un-naturalness of nature. What and whence is this system in which we live? Who or what created it, and who sustains it? For secularists and believers alike, nature is a mystery right under our noses that, in our tech-addled age, we seldom contemplate. In his essay “Miracles,” C. S. Lewis notes that “Nature herself is not natural. If a miracle means that which must simply be accepted, the unanswerable actuality which gives no account of itself but simply is, then the universe is one great miracle.”

Maybe, then, there’s room for some cautious openness to these theories about the plagues and Exodus, for appreciation and dismay at their ingenuity and incompleteness. In light of these modern explanations, even the natural events — especially the natural ones, maybe — remain a colossal mystery, a parable that invites fuller, richer explanation than it itself can give.


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