(Ex. 7:14) Is there a feasible naturalistic explanation for the 10 plagues?

CLAIM: Some interpreters (starting with Greta Hort[1]) believe that these plagues actually result from a domino effect of natural causes. Consider each plague from this naturalistic perspective:

  1. Blood in the Nile? Under this view, the first plague (blood) is really the red clay (or red plankton?) swept down into the Nile from the Ethiopian highlands. Abnormally high water levels caused the erosion of clay upstream, making the water red, undrinkable, and uninhabitable by fish.
  2. Frogs? Because the Nile is uninhabitable, the fish all die and make the water putrid with anthrax. The frogs leap out of the Nile River to escape. Because the fish possess anthrax, this causes the frogs to leave the Nile for cooler areas, taking refuge in people’s houses. However, since the frogs were already infected with anthrax, they died in the houses of the Egyptians.
  3. Gnats? As a consequence of the dead frogs, gnats began to feed on the dead frogs. Mosquitoes and lice would have improved breeding conditions because of the putrid, stagnant water.
  4. Flies? The presence of gnats gave rise to flies, which attacked the animals.
  5. Livestock? The abundance of flies attacked the animals (perhaps spreading disease). Because the livestock ate the grass filled with the bodies of dead frogs, they die of anthrax.
  6. Boils? The flies fed on the dead frogs and carried the anthrax spore to the humans, resulting in sores and boils.
  7. Hail? Hailstorms do rarely occur in Egypt (rarely in Upper Egypt and occasionally in Lower Egypt). The reason this only destroyed the flax and barley was because of the season of year.
  8. Locusts? These are common to Egypt. The locusts of the eighth plague would have been brought about by heavy precipitation, which created good conditions for breeding.
  9. Darkness? Under this view, the darkness resulted from a Libyan dust storm. This windstorm resulted in a palpable darkness (Ex. 10:21).
  10. Death of the firstborn? Hort argues that this actually refers to the destruction of the “first fruits” of the harvest. Advocates of this view argue that the biblical text was altered over time to indicate that a person was killed.

RESPONSE: God can use natural causes in order to accomplish his will if he desires to do so. For instance, the Bible teaches that God is in control of the weather (Deut. 11:14-17; 1 Kings 8:35-36; Job 5:10; 37:6; Jer. 14:22; Deut. 28:12, 24; Ps. 135:7; Jer. 10:13) and natural law (Jer. 33:25). Indeed, regarding the locusts, it seems that God utilized a strong wind to bring and take away the locusts (Ex. 10:13, 19). However, this naturalistic explanation fails to explain the Ten Plagues for a number of reasons:

First, the text seems to describe supernatural events. Moses changed the Nile into blood “in the sight of Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:20). This language doesn’t communicate a long process of algae building in the Nile River. Rather, it describes an expedited event. The same is true when Moses throws the ash into the sky “before Pharaoh,” resulting in boils (Ex. 9:10). This sounds like an immediate event—not flies bringing anthrax from dead frogs.

The plagues were so stunning that even Pharaoh’s own men believed it was the “finger of God” (Ex. 8:19). They viewed this as supernatural “rather than as something that normally happens in Egypt, even if on a lesser scale.”[2] That is, if these signs were a natural occurrence, then why would God’s enemies attribute these things to Yahweh, rather than to natural forces?

Second, there are scientific problems with this view. For one, the silt that comes down from Ethiopia is “brown, not red, and it cannot poison the water.” Geisler and Holden continue, “No one has ever taken photos of the Nile made red from natural occurrences. Every Egyptian tourist guidebook and brochure in the world would be plastered with photos of the ‘Red Nile’ to induce tourists to come see the ‘Biblical Plagues’ for themselves if this were an annual ‘natural’ occurrence!”[3]

In addition, this entire theory hinges on anthrax arising from the fish, frogs, and flies from the Nile. However, “anthrax cannot infect fish or frogs, only land animals such as sheep, and rarely cattle.”[4] In nature, anthrax comes from warm-blooded animals. Cold-blooded amphibians like frogs cannot carry this disease—nor can flies. Therefore, the backbone of the naturalistic theory isn’t natural at all. If this part is fallacious, then the entire theory falls apart.

Third, natural forces cannot explain the timing or the differentiation of the plagues. After all, when Moses prayed, the plagues were immediately rescinded. Thus, at the very least, God is responsible for ending the plagues supernaturally, if not beginning them this way. Moreover, God differentiates between the Egyptians and the Israelites, and of course, natural forces do not do this (Ex. 9:4).

Specifically, how could only the firstborn die in a naturalistic scenario? As Geisler and Holden write, “Natural forces do not discriminate based on the order of one’s birth.”[5] Moreover, why would the death of the firstborn coincide with blood being over the doorpost of the house?

Conclusion. For exegetical, rational, and scientific reasons, we reject the view that naturalistic causes are the explanation for the Ten Plagues. Such a view seems incredibly unlikely.

[1] Greta Hort, “The Plagues of Egypt,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 69 (1957): 84-103.

[2] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 193.

[3] Joseph Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2013), 225.

[4] Joseph Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2013), 225.

[5] Joseph Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2013), 225.