For decades, most investigators looking for a scientific explanation for the successive plagues inflicted upon Egypt in Exodus focused upon the first plague, the river of blood. As we discussed previously, the red color of the Nile and massive fish deaths have been attributed variously to sediment, anthrax, and an outbreak of a Pfiesteria piscicida, a free-swimming, single celled organism blamed more recently for massive fish kills in North Carolina the 1980s and 1990s.
But in 1971, Dutch geologist Rein W. van Bemmelen proposed a radically different paradigm. What if the actual chronological order of the plagues was different from the depiction in Exodus, and the ninth event, the plague of darkness in Exodus 10:21-24, occurred first? If so, van Bemmelen argued, the succession of dreadful events could have been triggered by a volcanic eruption.
As Siro Igino Trevisanato recounts in his 2005 book, The Plagues of Egypt: Archaeology, History and Science Look at the Bible:
“Van Bemmelen placed the plague of darkness (ninth in the order in Exodus) at the beginning of the eruption, arguing it was a sign of a volcanic plume stemming from an eruption. He then argued that the storm of hail (the seventh plague) came next, and was caused by the fine volcanic ash in the air. Thereafter, the frogs (the second plague) could have fled the waters, which were being transformed into acid baths because of the ash fallout. Finally, as the ash acidified and discolored the waters, the Nile turned red and carried dead fish. The remaining plagues (the third through the sixth — i.e., crawling vermin, flies, dead animals and boils — as well as the eighth, i.e., locusts,) were understood as naturally occurring events in a time of poor hygiene. For some reason, they became incorporated into the Biblical story, just as did the tenth plague (the death of the firstborn), which van Bemmelen attributed to a moral tale that made perfect sense in a text that was foremost religious.”
Linking the plagues to a specific volcanic eruption is a little tricky, since we have only a vague notion that the plagues would have occurred somewhere between 2200 and 1200 BC. But there is one particularly intriguing candidate — a volcano on the Greek island of Santorini in the eastern Mediterranean. According to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, in circa 1610 BCE (plus or minus 14 years), Santorini was the scene of a massive eruption that may have registered 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. It may have been roughly the equivalent of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, a catastrophe that killed thousands of people, triggered enormous tsunamis, and spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that it altered sunsets as far away as London and caused a drastic cooling of the global climate for an entire year. Significantly, the Santorini eruption also plunged an area 300 or so miles around it into darkness, and caused equally distant massive fish kills by acidifying the waters.
Mike Rampino, a New York University biology professor who also holds a Ph.D. in geology, has run a computer simulation of the ancient Santorini eruption. This article on the BBC News website describes the results:
“The ash cloud passing overhead would have completely cut out the sun and plunged the Delta into darkness. This would have been accompanied by the kind of unusual weather seen after volcanic eruptions — lightening and perhaps hail. This would explain two of the 10 plagues — darkness and hail.
“The ash cloud would have caused temperatures to drop by up to 2ºC, which would have reduced rainfall in the Delta and could have led to a drought. With river levels dropping, the water would have begun to stagnate. Combined with the poisonous minerals that were raining down from the ash cloud, the Nile would have become a deadly cocktail and conditions would have been ripe for an outbreak of further plagues.”
As the BBC article notes, the Santorini eruption also offers a possible explanation for other miraculous events in Exodus. Exodus 13:21, for example, says that:
“By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.”
Rampino has theorized that what the Israelites may actually have seen was the Santorini eruption’s gigantic plume, which would have towered 40 miles into the air at sea level. During the day, it would have appeared to be a column of smoke, but at night, static electricity in the plume would have generated lightning.
A tsunami triggered by Santorini may also offer an explanation for the most spectacular event in Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14:21-29. BTW, according to the film trivia site IMDB.com, Cecil B. DeMille’s special-effects technicians created the illusion of the parting sea in his 1956 film The Ten Commandments by dumping 300,000 gallons of water, mixed with gelatin, into a catch basin, and then running the film in reverse.