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?
The whole thing seems like a myth of the first disaster story, probably not true like much of the rest of the Bible. Possibly global warming is our plague. There are predictions of death for millions of people in the 2050 to 2100 time frame as the earth becomes too arid to support life in some areas.
Another example,in the USA we have self administered plagues of diseas like heart disease and diabetes caused by our own eating habits.
Is there a scientific basis for the plagues? Sure. They were biological without a doubt. Whether or not that influences my opinion on God causing them or not, that is that question. It doesn't change my opinion on it, no. Like the description of how it is possible that the Red Sea actually parted, it's not important that HOW it happened; it's important to those with faith that it happened WHEN and WHY. At least for me!

As for a modern-day plague, I could probably name three right off the top of my head.
I've never heard of the plagues explained in this way but it doesn't affect the way I think about the story or my religion. Though the explanation seems very plausible.
There is a excellent book called Councel on diet and food by Ellen G. White written over 100 years ago that will tell you many wonderful things about nutrition.
As a microbiologist and a follower of the Orthodox faith, I often find myself in this same dilema. Yet, even though all of the plagues may have a biological and scientific explanation, who is to say that a higher power did not catalyze these events. Is it naive to think that even God may have to operate in the same biological context for which he created? Either way, this topic can be argued by beleivers, non-beleivers and everyone in between until the end of time. What it honestly comes down to is one Prayer is a form of meditation and several documented studies have shown the effects of meditation on ones body. Even supperficially, meditation reduces heart rate, controls breathing, and lower blood cortisol levels. All of these factors can play a part in the minds power over the body. Having faith and believing in something, whether it God or anything else is the basic construct of almost every society.

Here is another one to dwell on, they say that the fall of the ancient city of Jericho was due to an outdreak of Giardia in the cities water supply.
Hi. Just a small comment about the plagues. They weren't intended to release the Hebrews, they were intended to prove that God was greater than the Egyptian gods(s). Exodus 2, 19 god made the pharoah obstinate so he would not let the people go- even before Moses even met him. I was 50 when I read the Bible adn was absolutely shocked at what it really says versus what we hear it says.
We, as humans, can sit around and try to prove that events in the bible took place using science all day. The truth is that God is to awesome for our human minds to comprehend. Alot of events in the bible have to be taken on faith because God simply defies science or anything else that we use to measure Him by. He defies logic and I for one am comforted by the fact that there is someone who is higher than me who has control of the earth and all of us in it.
For those that believe no proof is necessary. For those that do not, no proof will suffice.

Just because man can prove how something happens, does not mean God did not cause it to happen. Watching man prove how a biblical event happened always makes me laugh. They say, "Here is how it happened." I say all you've proved is that it could've happened.
Science has tried for centuries to explain miracles and things of God. They will never succeed -- because Miracles are just that, a miracle. Something that God has done that no human, nature, or thing can do on its own. God initiated the plagues, He alone has an explanation...which we will all learn when we see him again. And, the Hail -- was hail with fire -- not just the ordinary kind of hail....and the darkness was just and utter darkness for 3 days - no lights or candles, or even lanterns worked. Just give it up -- you cannot explain something that comes from God.
God made Heaven and Earth...and God can take it away! Enough said?
We are souls inhabiting a biological suit (our bodies) in order to exist in this harsh environment we know as the Earth, in much the same way an astronaut has to wear a space suit to go into outer space. Most of you reading this comment did not exist on the Earth 100 years ago, nor will you exist on this Earth 100 years from now! Life is short, don't be stupid. Give thanks to God for the opportunity to have existed. "Life" as we know it, is a blessing, not a privilege.
How can anyone look at the beauty in this world and have any question of God exsisting? I'm so THANKFUL for believing.
As a Christian myself I sometimes find it interesting that other believers react in such hostile ways to those who seek to "prove" a miracle wrong.

Why are we intimidated by what this or that scientist says? Why is it that understanding how something works detracts from the fact that it happened? Is it so hard to believe that perhaps there was a structured order to the plagues and that God used the laws of nature (which he also created) to carry out those plagues?

Why do we react so vehemently to things like evolution?

Is God only worthy of worship if everything he does defies logic or defies science?
Too bad for the hebrews (Israelies) that Moses didn't lead them to settle on land with oil reserves underneath it --after all those 40 years in the Wildnerness...
The scientific theories of this article sound like someone's musings of logic. I don't believe that logic was in play here. It was the will of god as brought fourth by Moses who himself was not allowed to enter the holy land Therefore, there was nothing to be gained by turning ordinary occurances into folklore.
You want what might be seen as a really weird answer?...I believe that we are all connected to each other and the world/universe. When severe dysfunction arises in our world, the world responds accordingly. Witness what we are currently doing with our world, including global warming and the fracturing of our world society. Yes, global warming is symptomatic of our lifestyle choices (e.g., cars and high overall consumption), but I suspect that when people are not properly aligned, then our world is not properly aligned and it reflects that. It could be that the dysfunctional behavior of the pharonic system led to the exquisite timing of the ancient Egyptian plagues.
Dear Dr. Sanjay,

On " A doctor's take on the plagues".

How do you explain that the tenth plague only strike the firstborn of the Egyptians and not the Hebrews'?

Thanks and regards,
Why are these "plagues" made in a series...have there been plagues listed like this before? Would those be a sign?
I think these so called doctors who are supposed to be some of the smartest people are the dumbest when it comes to biblical matters. There is no mystery, nothing that is hidden that needs to be found. It is clearly stated in the Bible. But scientists and doctors have to make everything so difficult to understand don't they? They only like to have their intellect flattered.
I am both a Christian and a person of science. I find it somewhat interesting to hear about possible scientific explanations for the plagues, etc. I do find it unnecessary though given the assumption that God is omnipotent. Compared to creating the universe (whether in 6 days or 15 billion years) most of the biblical miracles are small in comparison.

One other comment. Hail is not uncommon in Egypt, but burning hail has only happened once :)
I saw those explanations last year on the History Channel
The problem for me, like most of the things in the Bible, is that they are implausible, but I can't suspend logic for faith.
I think that Biblical fundamentalism is a plague of the intellect.
I don't think a scientific analysis of the plagues is necessary because Exodus never happened - there is no historical evidence of the plagues or of the exodus to corroborate the biblical story. That would be the equivalent of dedicating scientific study to finding out if the Oddessey or Beowulf actually happened.
I think that if people need to find concrete proof to demonstrate the viability of their faith, then that in itself negates the faith they cling to.
blood rivers - is symbolic for the wars that will occur over water in the next years
frogs - with the extinction of many predators and increase in heat an increase in pests will follow
gnats&flies - the displacement of water as well as hot temperatures will create mass breeding grounds for these pests
disease - all connected by the others, as well as environmental refugees scattering around the world spreading cross border diseases
boils - the world temperature in many countries could reach "boiling point" it almost did in India
hail - increased storms and uncontrolable weather patterns
locusts - with an increase in northern climate crops an increase in locusts and other crop pests will come as well
three days of darkness - could be the asteroid that might hit in 2016, could be sulfur we try to put in the atmosphere or shields we put up (real ideas) could be us killing each other with bombs and guns
Death of the first born - what kind of world do you think we are creating right now for the next generation

these 10 plagues occured before the pharaoh smartened up, unfortunatly the same thing might happen to the world
It's interesting that we humans are not comfortable with any story or historical event unless and until we are able to explain it in a way that allows us to wrap our minds around it. I have always taken the story of the Exodus, and the events leading up to it, as a literal act of God. How He carried it out is incidental. The fact that He is too great to comprehend, and that whether by miracle or by natural causes, He made the plagues happen, is all I need to know. And, no, I haven't checked my intelligence at the door. I believe belief in a sovereign God is the only intelligent and honest approach to apprehending the marvels of creation.
I'm warmed by the majority of believers vs unbelievers in the comments above. Maybe faith in God isn't as abscent in this country as the media depicts.

These type of scientific explanations are laughable. I always enjoy reading them for some good mid-day comic relief. As stated above, it's all about faith. Even those who denounce God have faith in something. Faith in themselves perhaps .. or science, as feeble as those things are to cling to.

The funny thing is ... the Bible is a rich historical book with an abundance of factual events that HAVE been proven and continue to be discovered. If there was anything in this world that gives people a wonderful foundation to base their faith on, it is the Bible, yet is amazes me what people still choose to cling to. I suspect it is just ignorance ... commenting on a book for which has never been picked up and read. I would challenge anyone to pick up a Bible and really read it and study it. Put it to the test ... it just might change your life.
I think the plagues were exactly as described -- nature caused. My deep faith in an ultimate loving energy does not alter my common sense.
Exodus is one of the greatest books of the Bible. It is a tangible picture of God's redemption for the Hebrews and then for the whole world when Jesus came and saved all those who CHOOSE to believe. I believe Joshua says it best..."choose for yourselves today whom you will serve, as for me and my house we will serve the Lord." In your life, you serve something or someone, whether it is science, you personally, Budha, or God. No religion IS a religion. You worship something...most likely yourself. Exodus was God saving His people, redeeming them, leading them thru and out of the desert. Have you ever been in a desert? I own personal wilderness and I am thankful that my Redeember lives and He leads me through and out just like He did for the Israelites. As far as the plagues go, each represented an Egyptian god...Nile - Hapi, god of the Nile; Frogs - Heqet goddess of birth was represented by a frog head, Gnats - Set, god of the desert; Flies - Re, god of the sun rep by a fly; of livestock - Hathor, fertility, rep by a cow head; Boils - Sekhmet, goddess of disease and healing; Hail - Nut, sky goddess; Locusts, Osiris, god of crops and fertility; Darkness - Re, the sun god; and - Min, god of reproduction.
"So they may know that there is a God in Israel." He was proving He was greater than the Egyptian gods.
Is He greater than your gods? God does just about everything to prove..."that there is one God of heaven and earth...that they may know that I am God." You can debate all you want if present-day man can prove this or that...the real question is, when you die, do you have your ticket home, or are you going to depend on your own intellect and a scientist to prove to you where you are going? DO you know (for sure) where you even came from? How can you possibly KNOW where you are going? Come on now? Are you really qualified to be a god? Is that scientist who has studied for 10, 20, 30 years really qualified to be your god? I don't want him or her to be mine.
I am relying on the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac, and I'm getting my ticket home from Jesus Christ. Look into it, He's got one for you too.
Just thought people should know not all the hebrews were slaves, at that time Egypt was super multicultural and there were all kinds of slaves and free people from different lands including hebrews living in Egypt.
People have different logics and reasons and if that is how someone has to state it for them to believe it, then so be it. Someone's opinion may or may not sway others I think the ones who are swayed just need something to believe in.

As for the global warming, I think that that is unevitable. The earth has it's own cycles of cold and heat. Although people's overuse and irresponsibility to the earth might speed things up a bit. name is Bella hettich (Hed-ick) I thought this idea to have this on your show was a great idea then people can see when their probily going to live till i just thought I would just tell you that i thought it was a great idea!!!!

From:Bella Hettich
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends -- info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
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