The Microbiology of Biblical Plagues

Seder 800-170

I’ve written before about how Our Microbial Overlords love playing jokes on us. Whether it’s transubstantiation myths or making cat owners wreck their cars, they do like a laugh at our expense. But now that Passover is on us once more I’d like to suggest an alternate narrative to the Four Questions many readers will be familiar with.

Let’s park Freud’s contention that Moses was a bit of a tosser (a textbook example of the kettle calling the pot black) or that Moshe’s taste for barbarism, slavery, wars of conquest and polygamy probably wouldn’t be considered too politically correct nowadays.

We also need to ignore the scant historical evidence supporting biblical accounts of either the plagues or the Israelite escape from slavery in Egypt, or that there were ever large numbers of Israelites in Egypt at all. Let’s suspend any disbelief and accept the biblical description of 600,000 Israelite men (it doesn’t say how many women and children so far as I can see) leaving Egypt and mooching about one of the most inhospitable regions on earth and – under Moshe’s leadership – surviving against all the odds. Which are considerable.

As ever, we shall concentrate on microbiological explanations for the Ten Plagues and the contention that they may be one of the best gags Our Microbial Overlords have pulled on us. Ever.

Cast your mind back to a time where folks didn’t know where the sun went at night and – as now – more than 95% of Egypt’s population clung to the fertile banks of the Nile, whose floods periodically silted up the land and made it fertile but with none of the predictability brought by the Aswan dams. So, they were used to a marginal existence and the occasional disaster. But not on the scale of the ten calamities that, according to the Book of Exodus, were inflicted upon Egypt to persuade Pharaoh to release the ill-treated Israelites from slavery.

1: Rivers of Blood
2: Frogs
3: Lice
4: Flies
5: Murrain of Cattle
6: Boils
7: Hail
8: Locusts
9: Darkness
10: Death of the First Born

Conclusion

So, you can tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the world in seven days and they’ll believe you. But tell them paint is wet and they just have to touch it. I’ve written about the false dichotomy of science and religion before and as a scientist I just have to touch the wet paint. That’s when I’m not licking windows. And all that lead paint that tasted so sweet when I was a kid did me no harm at all.

But while ‘proper’ science is about testing stuff sometimes it’s good fun just to speculate. And it could be that the plagues did happen in the way that I surmise above or it could be in the way described in a book written a millennium later by a bunch of blokes who had no idea where the sun went at night.

Everyone needs to believe something. I believe I’ll have a beer. Or rather four glasses of wine while leaning to the left, obviously.

Chag kasher v’same’ach, everyone…

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3 thoughts on “The Microbiology of Biblical Plagues

  1. facts are great but your writing style is a distraction. stop showing how clever you are and beome mature.,,b

    • And yet I have the opposite experience–I enjoy the snark greatly. Different strokes, eh?

  2. Remember I write this stuff for my own amusement and for anyone else with a similarly twisted worldview. I have no plans to mature – but I am happy to accept that properly punctuated sentences can be incredibly distracting.

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