…Biblical biowarfare: pollution, bugs, frogs and diseases

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

In the Old Testament the role of mediator between deities, the pharaohs and Hebrews was entrusted upon Moses. Moses was born to a Hebrew mother who, out of compassion disobeyed the Egyptian Kings order to drown him at birth. When he was a few months old she placed him in a basket made of bulrushes and left him on the banks of the River Nile in the hope that he would be saved from drowning. He was rescued from the Nile by the daughter of the Egyptian King and named Moses. The name, Moses, could be derived from the Egyptian noun Moseh, to beget a child. The Bible however gives an alternative interpretation: The Princess who found the child is thought to have named him Mosheh after the Hebrew word for pulled out, mashah:

She said to herself, “I pulled him out of the water, and so I named him Moses.”
[Ex 2. 10]

According to the Bible good fortune continued to shine on Moses; he  enjoyed the privileges of a  life within the Pharaoh’s court. Although Moses was raised as an Egyptian he still sympathised with the oppressed Hebrews on account of his heritage. His devotion combined with a sense of morality led him to fatally attack a slave driver. Fearing retribution, he fled from Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula.

God appears to Moses through a burning bush. Painting by Pluchart, 1848.

During his exile he encountered a religious sign or illusion, the burning bush, and heard instructions from the Lord.

Moses saw that the bush was on fire but that it was not burning up.
“This is strange,” he thought. “Why isn’t the bush burning up? I will go closer and see.”
When the Lord saw that Moses was coming closer, he called to him from the middle of the Bush and said, “Moses! Moses!” he answered, “yes, here I am.”
God said. “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
So Moses covered his face, because he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I’ve heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings, and so I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians to bring them out of Egypt to a spacious land, one which is rich and fertile…”
[Ex. 3. 2-8]

It was a common occurrence within many ancient religions to enter into personal relationships or covenants with deities
through fire or bright lights. In Genesis[15. 12], Abraham witnesses the presence of a deity through a burning light within animal carcasses and also makes a covenant:

When the sun had set it was dark, smoking fire pot and a flaming torch suddenly appeared and pass between the pieces of the animals. Then and there the Lord made a covenant with Abraham. He said, I promise to give your descendants all this land from the border of Egypt to the River Euphrates.”

When Moses returned to Egypt, he told the Hebrews that the Lord had instructed him to lead them out of Egypt [Ex. 3, 16-18]:

The God of your fathers has appeared to me- the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; and he has said to me: I have visited you and seen all that the Egyptians are doing to you. And so I have resolved to bring you out of Egypt where you are
oppressed, to a land where milk and honey flow.

Moses first of all tries to reason with the King of Egypt to free the Hebrews.  His attempts fail and cause the Egyptian King to retaliate by increasing the workload of the slaves. Moses then tries warning the King through a display of awesome magic powers and through summoning a number of devastating plagues.The Biblical account of the exodus from Egypt is the centre of much scientific speculation especially in respect to the plagues that were summoned by the Lord through Moses in order to secure the freedom of the Hebrews [Lev. 7-10].

  • In the first plague Moses accompanied by Aaron turned the waters of all the rivers in Egypt to blood. The fish died and the water was so foul that it could not be drunk.
  • Seven days later Aaron and Moses summoned frogs to swarm the land and the Pharaohs palaces.In desperation the Pharaoh agreed to Moses request to let his people go into the desert to make animal sacrifices to the Lord. The frogs died, were piled into heaps and began to reek.
  • When the plague subsided the Pharaoh broke his promise so Moses through Aaron summoned a plague of mosquitoes. The Pharaoh still refused to relent so Moses and Aaron, at the will of God, summoned further plagues.
  • Swarms of gadflies infested the Pharaohs palace and the houses of his courtiers and into the land of Egypt but not to the land of Goshen were the Hebrews lived.
  • Then a deadly plague killed Egyptian livestock.
  • This was followed by a sixth plague in which Moses took soot from a kiln and threw it in the air, when it landed on the Egyptians it brought out boils that turned into sores. Still the Pharaoh was resolute.
  • Moses then summoned plagues of hail, locusts and darkness. Even when subjected to fear and threats the Pharaoh was determined not to lose his work force, so finally Moses and Aaron threatened to kill the Egyptians first born.

There does seem to be a structured and logical process of ecology behind the sequential appearance of each of the plagues. What is also interesting, and the foundation for further speculation, are that the plagues  made a clear distinguish between Egyptians and Hebrews:

The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies, and the ground will be covered with them. But I will spare the region of Goshen, where my people live, so that there will be no flies there.
[Ex. 8.23]

It is quite evident from the chapters of Exodus dealing with the plagues that there is a great void between the customs and social behaviour of the two populations. For instance, when Moses is pleading with the King to let his people go, he asks if they can travel into the desert to make sacrifices of animals, so that they will not offend the Egyptians:

If we use these animals and offend the Egyptians by sacrificing them where they can see us, we will be stoned  to death. We must travel three days into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, just as he commanded us.
[Ex. 8.26-27]

They also lived in different communities the majority of the 2.5 million Egyptians lived in the Nile Delta whereas the Hebrews occupied quarters in the land of Goshen. This type of segregation could have possibly led to a different epidemiology as far as communicable diseases are concerned. The signs from God summoned by Moses, rivers of blood followed by plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, boils and the animal disease, may have happened as a consequence of a natural course of events. It is not unreasonable to suppose that polluting a river could cause frogs to evacuate then subsequently die from dehydration or disease, the decaying bodies could then lead to an out break of flies which would then transfer disease causing organisms from the rotting carcases to animals and humans.

Naturally, there are a number of interesting scientific hypotheses that try to rationalize these events. Ancient Egyptian papyri (London Medical Papyrus) give details of an occasion when the water of the Nile turned red and acidic. Fish died, the waters were undrinkable and burnt the skin. The papyri also mention that pests infected the open wounds and that these pests had a larvae and adult stage, corresponding to the gnats and flies in the Biblical version of the plagues. Volcanic eruptions occurring around the same time are thought to have deposited sulphates in the Nile. The clouds of darkness and hail are perhaps associated with a violent volcanic eruption. Another theory suggests that the blood coloured Nile could be due to a bloom of toxic phytoplankton that produced a red tide forcing frogs onto the riverbank. The frogs eventually died from desiccation leaving a plentiful supply of carrion to attract insects like Rove beetles and gadflies. Outbreaks of insect would have occurred leading to plagues of disease that would infect animals and humans.

There is also the possibility, of course, that Hebrews polluted the Nile with the blood of sacrificed animals and this led to the subsequent chain of events. The final warning that Moses gives the King is that a plague would lead to the death of every firstborn in the land of Egypt. Firstborn children seemed to have some kind of symbolic significance and perhaps participated in a unique ritual or practice that made them more vulnerable to disease then the rest of the population. Alternatively some animal diseases that spread to humans can cause miscarriages, the most notable of these being Brucellosis, which attacks animal tissues with a high erythritol content, a sugar found in mammary glands and the uterus. Brucellosis could have been a secondary infection in cattle that were already in ill health following other diseases such as anthrax. If the Egyptians had contracted this disease from cattle it would have resulted in stillbirths in humans and animals.

In Eastern folklore there is a strong tradition that plagues could be summoned by magical powers. These type of accounts would undoubtedly be exaggerated through narration as the events summoned by Moses gradually increase in number through subsequent versions of the Pentateuch from seven in an early account to ten in the complete account [Ex. 7-12]. The seven events in the original account included turning the water of the Nile to blood then summoning scourges of frogs, flies, cattle plague, hail, locusts and the death of the firstborn. In the version revised by the Holy Priests in Jerusalem plagues of gnats, boils and darkness are added to the list.

…movement of Jah people

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

Leaven cannot be regarded as an entirely synonymous term for yeast as, in reality, it was a lump of dough contaminated with actively multiplying microbes from a diversity of species; that would have mainly included yeasts but other microbes would have also been present. Leaven would most certainly also have contained pathogenic contaminants spread by animals and insect vectors. Nevertheless the fermenting characteristics of leaven and yeast are most likely to be very similar and, from an uninformed perspective, the biological process behind the ability to ferment would have been shrouded in mystery. Leaven is still used to make bread in the 21st century, both commercially and domestically, but now it is normally referred to as sour-dough.

Investigating how leaven was perceived in the Bible gives a surprising insight into the socio-politics of the period. It allows the investigator to come face to face with the uncertainties and fears that the people of that period experienced. One particular pattern to be identified is the lack of control certain groups in society had over their lives and destiny, some comfort may have been derived from following certain rituals and rites. Through participating in ceremony there was a degree of control and organisation. Therefore,  some satisfaction may have been gleaned in believing that these actions could bring about change, whereas ordinarily uncertainty and fear of suffering would have been the predominate factors. During the times preceding the Old Testament,  the most populated areas were in the valley of the Nile and Fertile Crescent, which is the region between Palestine and the flood plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Heat, stagnating water and human waste would have provided exceptional breeding grounds for a host of pathogens. The most common  health conditions would probably arise from parasitical or insect borne infections, such as bilharzia, malaria and trachoma, and viral or bacterial diseases, perhaps including bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, anthrax and cholera.

The story of the Hebrews exodus from Egypt is where the symbolic importance of leaven in the Bible is first introduced. At first, it seems that the Hebrews were welcome in Egypt, enjoying a reasonable life-style. Amenenhat III is thought to have been the pharaoh that had made Joseph an advisor and allowed him to settle in the Delta. This was during, what archaeologists described as, the Middle Kingdom, which occurred from 2050 to 1786 BC. Joseph was a Semite, the favoured son of Jacob and descendent of Abraham the prophet. His popularity, believed to be a blessing from God, enabled him to become an important Egyptian governor. Joseph is noted for having dreamlike premonitions, through which he saves Egypt from famine and brings prosperity to the land. Around this period the Hyksos, renown for instigating the use of horse-drawn chariots, may have invaded vulnerable parts of Egypt. The Hyksos are thought to have built a town called Avaris in the Delta area and would have perhaps looked favourably upon the Hebrews, through empathizing with their predicament.

Joseph welcomed by Pharaoh. Watercolour by Tissot c1903

The Bible implies that as time passes the fate of the Hebrews became uncertain when a new Egyptian king, who did not remember Joseph, became ruler. This possibly occurred during the second intermediate period in Egyptian history, between 1786 and 1567 BC. A political change may have took place about this time when Ahmose I is thought to have expelled the occupying population of Hyksos from the Delta region, destroying Avaris and similar towns constructed by them. The Egyptians needed labour to carry out ambitious projects so enslaved vulnerable Hebrews and other tribal nomads.

Despite being condemned to slavery the Hebrew population flourished. The Bible states that the new king, fearing the growing population of Hebrews, tried to crush their spirit with hard labour by forcing them to build the store cities of Pithom and Rameses. In theory this could have been the rebuilding of towns on the sites of destroyed Hyksos cities. The city known in the Bible as Rameses is thought to have been Pi-Rameses an ancient town that would have covered most of Avaris but is now the site of a modern village called Qantir. As time passed, despite cruel and harsh treatment the Hebrew population still began to flourish. Fearing this growing population, the King of Egypt ordered all Hebrew male newborns to be killed and demanded that they be drowned in the River Nile. The validity of these events is supported by recent excavations that have uncovered a large number of graves found at the ancient site of Avaris. Strikingly, over 65 percent of the burials were of children below the age of two. It is thought that the Exodus took place sometime during the rule of Rameses II, around about 1290 BC. Although there is mounting evidence that points to an earlier date, perhaps in the rule of Dudimose, around 1447 BC. Discrepancies could have arisen because the Bible may be referring to Avaris as the city built by the Hebrews, but used the later name of Rameses. Nevertheless the Exodus is thought to have occurred during the New Kingdom, between 1567 and 1085 BC. Although other theories suggest that the Hyksos may have invaded after the Exodus, when the Israelite population had deserted and there was little resistance.