Monday, April 09, 2007
A doctor's take on the plagues
Yesterday was Easter Sunday. In between conversations about the Resurrection and the sugar highs induced by chocolate bunnies and multi-colored marshmallow Peeps, I managed to make my way to the movies. I went to see, "The Reaping." I guess I hadn't had enough religion in church, so I had to turn to Hollywood for a little bit more. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. The movie placed No. 5 at the box office this weekend.
It's about a minister-turned-scientist, played by Hilary Swank, who investigates divine mysteries. She's called to a small fictional town in Louisiana that appears to be revisiting the 10 biblical plagues of the book of Exodus.
I've always found the plagues fascinating. The gory story is more than 4,000 years old. God, angry at Pharaoh and the Egyptians for keeping the Hebrews as slaves, unleashed 10 plagues: rivers of blood, frogs, lice, flies, murrain or disease affecting only the cattle, boils, hail, locusts, three days of darkness and death of the firstborn.
Over the years, archaeologists and doctors alike have tried to gain insight on the mystery. Dr. John Marr, an epidemiologist at the Medical College of Virginia, and many other scientists have come up with a "domino theory of natural causes" to explain the plagues. Some estimate that about a month passed between each one of the plagues.
First plague - bloody rivers: possibly caused by red algae sucking out all the oxygen in the water, producing noxious toxins and killing the fish. In addition to the dead fish, the algae itself turns the water color red.
Second plague - frogs: The death of the fish allowed for the unhindered breeding of tadpoles. But once the algae levels rose high enough to affect the amphibians, they were driven out of the water and forced to live on land. They could not survive out of the water for long and died.
Third plague - gnats;
Fourth plague - flies: Without any frogs or toads to eat them, the population of gnats and flies flourished amongst their dead bodies.
Fifth plague - disease;
Sixth Plague - boils: "May have been outbreaks of anthrax in cattle and humans, respectively," according to a 1999 CDC article in "Emerging Infectious Diseases."
Seventh plague - hail: "Hail isn't that uncommon, even in Egypt." says Dr. Marr.
Eighth plague - locusts: Arrived in time to eat up the crops destroyed by the hail storm.
Ninth plague - three days of darkness: Sandstorms are very common in Egypt.
Tenth plague - death of the firstborn: Deadly airborne mycotoxins grow rapidly in top layers of poorly stored grain. Starving Egyptians, out of fish and beef, dig out after a sandstorm and rush to the granaries for food. The first to enter would be blasted with mycotoxins and the first to eat, usually the eldest family members, ate the top, most contaminated portions of the grain.
To be clear, the biblical story of the plagues is not about how it happened physically or whether it happened it all. It has carried messages of overcoming oppression for generations. Even with scientific evaluation, it remains a mystery.
"The order of the plagues had to be in that order. The crescendo of terror culminated in the Pharaoh letting Moses' people go. Statistically, that in and of itself, is a miracle," concludes Dr. Marr.
What do you think about the 10 biblical plagues of Exodus? Do you think a scientific basis for the plagues bears any importance? How does this analysis affect your view of the plagues? Do you think there are modern-day plagues?
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