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For me, the most heart-rending scene in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments is the scene in which the Pharaoh, portrayed by Yul Brynner, pleads with a statue of Sokar, the falcon-headed Egyptian god of the underworld, to resurrect his firstborn son. The Pharaoh’s child, of course, has died in the last of the 10 plagues inflicted upon Egypt by the God of Moses, intended to force the Pharaoh to release the Israelites from bondage.

“I who have denied the gods of Egypt bow before you now. Show that you have power above the God of Moses. Restore the life He has taken from my son. Guide back his soul across the Lake of Death into the place of living men, and I will raise a temple to you mightier than the pyramids. Hear me, dread Lord of Darkness!”

That moving soliloquy occurred only in the imagination of a screenwriter; Exodus 12:29-32, which recounts the final plague, only notes tersely that the Pharaoh stayed up the night of the plague and in the morning allowed Moses and his people to leave Egypt. The expression of grief that the Pharaoh actually uttered that night has long been forgotten. That’s presuming, that is, that the Israelites actually were enslaved by the Egyptians in antiquity, and that the horrific punishments suffered by the latter actually happened as described by Exodus’ unknown author or authors. The archaeological and historical evidence is scanty — we’re not even certain when the plagues occurred, though various scholarly guesses have put the date at somewhere, vaguely, between 2200 and 1200 BCE.

In recent years, however, scientists increasingly have looked at the plagues from a different angle. Instead of looking for conclusive evidence that they occurred, they’ve chosen to ask: Could they have occurred? Are there possible scientific explanations for the ghastly catastrophes supposedly suffered by the Egyptians, and if so, would they fit together coherently in plausible metanarrative?

Video: “The Real Cause of the Biblical Plagues?”

One theory proposed by scientists, for example, is the possibility that the plagues actually were triggered by a massive volcanic eruption on Santorini, a Greek island 500 miles away from the Nile delta, whose plume would have resembled the plague of darkness described in Exodus. Others have theorized that the plague of blood was the ancient’s interpretation of an outbreak of a highly toxic bacterium, Oscillatoria rubescens, that would have given the Nile a reddish tint. A British biologist has proposed the plagues of frogs and locusts actually were examples of overpopulation caused by sudden environmental changes, and the fiery hail may actually have been ball lightning. And the most horrible plague of all, the tenth, which in Exodus killed all the firstborn children of Israel, may actually have been caused by Stachybotris atra, a black mold that may have contaminated Egyptian granaries and exposed the population to a lethal toxin.

In the next few posts, we’ll look at some of the evidence and theories about the 10 plagues.

Don’t miss Biblical Plagues: The First Curses and The Final Torments, this Monday starting at 9P et/pt!