Monday, October 5, 2015

Exodus: A Great Salvation -- The Source of the Plagues

In the sermon of the next post, we will take a look at the first nine plagues that God unleashes on Egypt in order to drive Pharaoh to release His people. One thing that often comes up with the subject of the plagues of Ex. 7-12 is whether the plagues were divine intervention from God or just natural disasters that the Egyptians misinterpreted. Modern minds that want to deny any supernatural intervention in our universe have come up with all sorts of attempts to explain them naturally, but all of those attempts fail. I did not have time to go over that in the sermon that will be in the next post, so here we will look at why such attempts cannot explain the biblical data adequately.

First, we should note that in some of the miraculous events in Scripture God does use natural causes in supernatural ways. In some cases, God does appear to be using the laws of nature, but He uses them in a way that would be highly improbable or next to impossible without His divine intervention. Take, for example, the crossing of the Red Sea in Ex. 14. There the text tells us specifically how God divided the sea: "the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided." (v. 21) Do you see God's use of natural forces there? God used wind that blew all night long to divide the water and dry the ground. Now, technically that is possible given the right environmental factors, but the timing, magnitude, and duration of the wind makes it not logical to believe it happened merely by chance. To say it happened by chance, we would have to say that "Moses stretched out his hand over the sea" (v. 21) at just the right moment (and he knew to do that how?), we would have to say that the wind blew all night long at just the right magnitude and in just the right direction without varying at all (no lulls in the wind at all), and we would have to say that after all the Hebrews had made it through again "Moses stretched out his hand over the sea" (v. 27) at just the right moment when the wind stopped (again, he knew to do that how?) and the water came crashing down on the Egyptians. Such a sequence of perfectly timed events is really not possible with God's invention, even though He did use the forces of nature. Well, the same reasoning can apply to the plagues: even if there is a natural component to some or all of them, the timing, magnitude, and duration of events shows that the divine hand of God must be behind them.

Let's look at one of the most sophisticated attempts to explain the plagues naturally. Greta Hort published the best attempt to give natural explanations to all the plagues in "The Plagues of Egypt" in 1958 (in the German journal Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, pp. 48-59), and it is often still referenced by those who try to attribute the plagues to natural events. Her theory can be summarized as follows:
  1. Massive flooding in the Abyssinian plateau upstream from Egypt washed red clay into the Nile, and that clay, combined with two particular types of algae, made the Nile appear "blood red." And, in the fish that died from the pollution of the Nile, anthrax bread, which comes into play in the successive plagues.
  2. Frogs left the uninhabitable Nile, invading Egypt, but the frogs were infected with anthrax and so they soon died as well.
  3. As floodwaters receded, the pools and dead frogs became a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes (more likely than gnats) and flies, both of which were infected by anthrax as well.
  4. The mosquitoes bit humans and animals, and animals consume the flies, so both became infected with anthrax as well--it killed the animals that ingested them and infected the skin of the humans that were bitten.
  5. In the seventh plague, the hail was just an extreme weather condition that destroyed crops.
  6. In the eighth plague, the locusts bred as a result of the extremely wet ground from the hail and rain.
  7. Finally, the darkness was a sandstorm (which, Hort claims, is why Bible says in 10:21 that it could be "felt").
I hope that while simply reading through those, you can already see how they are thoroughly unconvincing unless you are really looking for a reason to deny supernatural involvement by God. Here is an article that shows the many scientific inaccuracies in this theory (like the types of algae, what animals anthrax can infect, etc.). But, as mentioned above, such an attempt to create a purely natural chain of events (that breaks down after plague six, by the way) cannot at all account for the timing, magnitude, and duration of the plagues, so we do not even need to dig deep into the details to show that this does not work (though the article linked above is still worth a read):
  1. The Nile turned to blood "in the sight of Pharaoh" (7:20), i.e. not gradually from an upstream flow, and it was not just the Nile but "all the water in Egypt" (7:20) and "even in the vessels of wood and in the vessels of stone" (7:19). Did Moses go upstream, see the red water flowing, run quickly (at 80 years old) down to Pharaoh, grab his attention, and then claim it was a plague from God? How did it get in all the surface water everywhere in Egypt?
  2. The frogs came at least a week later (7:25), which is a long time to tolerate an uninhabitable river. Furthermore, the frogs did not come out gradually, but the Nile "swarmed with frogs" (8:3) and those frogs were so numerous "covered the land of Egypt" (8:6) so that they were everywhere, even in kneading bowls and ovens (8:3). So, that many millions of frogs were just sitting on the bottom of the (uninhabitable) Nile ready to march out at Moses' command?
  3. The "biting insects" (mosquitoes probably more likely than gnats) of the third plague did not emerge gradually from cesspools but out of the dust of the ground when Aaron smacked it with his staff. And, it was not just a few insects but swarms that covered man and beast (8:17). Here also, even the magicians realized it was the "finger of God" (8:19). So, Moses saw the eggs were about to hatch and quickly commanded Aaron to smack the ground near some to claim a miracle?
  4. The flies of the fourth plague were not breeding concurrently with the mosquitoes in the cesspools but a distinct plague that came out of the air. It was also not just a few flies but swarms to the point where "the houses of the Egyptians were filled with swarms of flies" (8:21). And, finally here, Goshen was protected from the flies. How exactly could that many flies in that timing come from cesspools? Furthermore, why would such flies avoid Goshen?
  5. Here, it is claimed that anthrax killed the livestock. Perhaps that could be true, but it was all the livestock (9:6) and one would wonder if really every single one would have been infected. Furthermore, again, the Hebrews' livestock were fine (9:4). How could a disease like anthrax be so selective?
  6. The boils did not arise slowly and gradually as the result of mosquitoes transferring anthrax but immediately after Moses tossed the soot in the air. (9:8-9). And, again, only the "all the Egyptians" were infected (9:11). How could it have been so abrupt? How could it have been so selective as to avoid the Hebrews?
  7. Here, the causality link in Hort's theory breaks down. She just has to say that for some reason the first six things happened and then a storm "such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now" (9:18) just happened to arise. And, it came when Moses "stretched out his hand toward heaven" (9:22). Did Moses just happen to time it perfectly? Did he just somehow know the storm of the millennium was coming?
  8. The locusts did not breed and arise gradually from more cesspools created by the storms, but when Moses stretched out his hand (10:13) they came in one an "east wind" (10:13) and they "covered the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened" (10:15). When God was done, He sent a strong "west wind" that "drove them into the Red Sea" (10:19). Again, here her theory fails to account for the timing, magnitude, and duration.
  9. While a sandstorm that lasts for three days has happened, such a theory cannot account for "pitch darkness" (10:22) again when Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven (10:22). Did he just happen to see the sandstorm coming and run quickly to Pharaoh, throw his hand in the air, and claim it was a plague? How did it plunge the land into "pitch darkness"? And, again, why was Goshen not affected by this darkness/storm (10:23)?
  10. And, the tenth plague is not really the subject this week, but Hort says the tenth plague was not the death of the firstborn but the destruction of the last remains of the "first-fruits" of the harvest. And "due to a corruption of the Bible text" the word "firstborn" was misinterpreted. Yet, that completely ignores the context of Ex. 11:1-13:6, which describes in great detail the death of the firstborn. So, was the whole text "corrupted" but somehow created a cogent story line? And, how does Hort know what the original said since she claims we do not have it?
I hope now you can see how this attempt and others that claim natural causes for all the plagues are woefully inadequate. One does not even need to dig into the scientific detail but merely read the text to see that is the case.

So, could God have used natural forces in a supernatural way to bring about these plagues? Sure, He could have at least at some points, but the point is that the timing, magnitude, and duration of the plagues make purely natural explanations require more faith on our part than simply taking Scripture at its word. No, the plagues were real, judgment events that came from the hand of God. And, in the sermon of the next post, we will talk about what that means for us.

By His Grace,

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