The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit G

7th Plague: Hail

Standing among oversized graphics of Egyptian texts and inscriptions, Jacobovici describes the seventh plague as “a very unusual hail, involving ice and fire mixed together.” Jacobovici is then joined by a rabbi, Chaim Sacknovitz (director of guidance for a Jewish high school in Toronto for many years), who says:

The seventh plague was the plague of hail, but the Bible describes this hail in a very unique manner. The hail was together with ‘esh, with fire, the idea being that the fire and ice commingled together, they coexisted together. The Bible then describes God as making a miracle within a miracle, taking opposites in nature and having them coexist together.

The Admonitions of Ipuwer

Jacobovici claims that the Admonitions of Ipuwer tells the same story as the biblical ten plagues—but it doesn’t.

As Exhibit G, Jacobovici then invokes the Admonitions of Ipuwer, an Egyptian text that, according to Jacobovici, “tells the exact same story” as the seventh plague. According to Jacobovici, “the Ipuwer Papyrus … is dated by many scholars to the Hyksos period.” That’s simply incorrect. The few scholars that have actually published serious arguments for the dating of the text place it either during the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181–2025 according to the standard chronology shown on the timeline at the Petrie Museum website; the low chronology brings this down [toward us] by as much as 30 years) or toward the end of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2025–1700 BC). The Middle Kingdom is considered to include the 11th and 12th dynasties, by Manetho’s reckoning. The Hyksos form Manetho’s 15th dynasty; just when they rose to power within the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1700–1550 BC by the standard chronology) is uncertain, and they were driven out during the reign of Ahmose, considered the first king of the 18th dynasty (1550–1525 BC on the standard chronology, though some versions of the low chronology move his reign down as much as 14 years or so). The Admonitions of Ipuwer predate the Hyksos significantly, according to the Egyptologists who have studied the material in detail. Moreover, Gardiner and others who studied and published the Admonitions early in the 20th century suggested that the upheavals Ipuwer describes predate Ipuwer himself by up to several hundred years (but see below on Miriam Lichtheim’s judgment). By the way, I am only an amateur in Egyptology, but the Middle Kingdom date seems to be on solid linguistic grounds. Another curious fact is that the Admonitions are known to us from only one surviving papyrus (Papyrus Leiden 344), which appears to date to the 19th dynasty (c. 1292–1185), long after the Hyksos period. As with so many of Jacobovici’s attempted synchronisms, the artifacts just don’t fit together.

The Admonitions of Ipuwer is a lament prayer from Ipuwer to the “Lord of All,” which could refer either to the king or to the creator god. Ipuwer describes many social upheavals. Before we get into the text itself, we should note that Miriam Lichtheim, renowned for her three-volume set of translations of ancient Egyptian texts (Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings [3 vols.; University of California Press, 1973–1980]), has argued on the basis of genre considerations and comparisons with other texts in the same genre that there is no historical basis for any of Ipuwer’s complaints.

We have seen that Neferti has a political-propagandistic aim which it expresses through the poetic elaboration of the topos “national distress.” In Khakheperre-somb we have encountered the same topos in a work that seems to be largely rhetorical. Both works were written in times of peace and prosperity. When the Admonitions is placed alongside these two words, it reveals itself as a composition of the same genre and character which differs only in being longer, more ambitious, more repetitious, and more extreme in its use of hyperbole. Its very verbosity and repetitiveness mark it as a latecomer in which the most comprehensive treatment of the theme “national distress” is attempted, in short, as a work of the late Middle Kingdom and of purely literary inspiration.

The unhistorical character of the whole genre was recognized by S. Luria in an article that did not receive the attention it deserved. Adducing strikingly similar compositions from other cultures he pointed out the fictional, mythological-messianic nature of these works and the fixed cliches [sic] through which the theme of “social chaos” was expressed. … Luria also made the telling point that the description of chaos in the Admonitions is inherently contradictory, hence historically impossible: On the one hand the land is said to suffer from total want; on the other hand the poor are described as having become rich, of wearing fine clothes, and generally of disposing of all that once belonged to their masters.

In sum, the Admonitions of Ipuwer has not only no bearing whatever on the long past First Intermediate Period, it also does not derive from any other historical situation. It is the last, fullest, most exaggerated and hence least successful, composition on the theme “order versus chaos.” (vol. 1, pp. 149–150)

Any attempt to draw historical conclusions based on alleged parallels between the conditions described in Ipuwer, then, needs to grapple with the possibility that everything described in the lament is conventional, stereotyped, and pure literary fiction. As you might have guessed, Jacobovici attempts none of this. He simply assumes that Ipuwer’s lament describes historical events. So, what happens if we follow Jacobovici’s lead and take a good, long look at the Admonitions of Ipuwer? Consider again Jacobovici’s assertion:

Incredibly, there is an Egyptian text that tells the exact same story. It’s called the Ipuwer Papyrus, and it’s dated by many scholars to the Hyksos period. The Ipuwer Papyrus specifically states that Egypt was struck by strange hail made up of ice and fire mingled together. Another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place.

This is false. Jacobovici has either been misled by some secondary source or he is making stuff up. But don’t take my word for it. Read the Admonitions of Ipuwer for yourself online, courtesy of André Dollinger (I think he provides Lichtheim’s translation, though it could be Gardiner’s). Follow the link and read through the whole text, or use your browser’s “find” feature to look for “fire,” “ice,” and “hail.” You won’t find any specific reference to “ice” or “hail” in the Admonitions of Ipuwer, much less a specific statement that “Egypt was struck by strange hail made up of ice and fire mingled together.” I, at least, can’t find anything like that anywhere in the online version mentioned above, nor in Nili Shupak’s translation in The Context of Scripture, volume 1, text 1.42, pp. 93–98. The Admonitions of Ipuwer just don’t say what Jacobovici claims they say.

Exhibit G is a red herring. It doesn’t say what Jacobovici claims it says, and in any event, it dates no later than the end of the Middle Kingdom—150 years or so before Ahomse began to reign, and about 200 years (by the standard chronology, which differs from the low chronology here by only about 15 years, if I understand the schemes correctly) before Jacobovici’s target date of 1500 BC. The Admonitions could, at a stretch, be interpreted as a kind of foreshadowing of Hyksos rule, but there’s no way to date the text to the end of Hyksos rule, where it needs to be in order for Jacobovici’s house of cards to stand.

If you want a close-up look at a similar house of cards, read “The Ten Plagues—Live from Egypt” by Rabbi Mordechai Becher. Please remember that the Admonitions runs for approximately 16 columns of about 14 lines each, but Becher selectively quotes, out of context, only about 18 lines—less than 10% of the entire text. That’s because the rest doesn’t fit. I’m actually somewhat surprised that Jacobovici didn’t invoke Ipuwer 2.10 like Becher does. Either Jacobovici hasn’t actually read the text of the Admonitions, or that part got edited out for length, or he realized that the Admonitions‘ reference to a bloody river wouldn’t help his case. Becher quotes only four words, in English, of 2.10: “the river is blood.” He seems to think this is enough to connect it to the first plague. But note what the immediate context says further:

Indeed, the river is blood, yet one drinks from it.
Men shrink from people and thirst after water.
Indeed, gates, columns, and walls are burning,
While the hall of the palace l.p.h. stands firm and endures. …
Indeed, crocodiles are glutted on their catch,
People go to them of their own will …
(Admonitions of Ipuwer, 2.10–13, Shupak’s translation in The Context of Scripture)

“The river is blood, yet one drinks from it”—although the Bible says they couldn’t drink from it. And it seems pretty clear to me why “the river is blood,” according to Ipuwer: it’s because the crocs are taking big bites out of the people desperate for water who go down to get it from the Nile. This doesn’t really resemble the first plague.

But Jacobovici descends even further into improbability. He goes on to claim that both the biblical story of the ten plagues and the Admonitions of Ipuwer (which, please recall, says nothing about “strange hail made up of ice and fire mingled together”) are describing accretionary lapilli—little round balls of tephra that form when airborne particles of volcanic ash collecting in layers around some “nucleus” object. Think of accretionary lapilli as “volcanic hail,” if you want to use Jacobovici’s term. And, of course, Jacobovici thinks that this accretionary lapilli “could only have come from the earthquake-induced Santorini volcano.” Catherine Hickson of the Geological Survey of Canada explains, on one of Jacobovici’s floating blue screens:

When the ash cloud goes up to great distances in the stratosphere, essentially what happens is that you have moisture in the atmosphere. You also have a lot of water vapor in the cloud itself. So the small fragments of ash and crystals actually form a nucleus, something very similar to a hailstone.

Jacobovici piggybacks on Hickson’s description of the formation of accretionary lapilli to claim that “the Egyptians experienced fire and ice raining from above, just as the Bible describes.” But that’s not what Hickson said, and that’s not how accretionary lapilli works. Accretionary lapilli is “very similar to a hailstone,” to use Hickson’s words, but it’s not a hailstone. A bit of accretionary lapilli is not ice; it’s volcanic ash nucleated around water particles.

But then again, the biblical story of the seventh plague doesn’t actually say “ice” either. It says “hail.” Perhaps an argument could be made that the biblical writer was—like Jacobovici—simply unable or unwilling to distinguish between icy hailstones and balls of volcanic ash. Is it plausible that burning lava and accretionary lapilli from the Santorini explosion could have fallen together on Avaris, about 870 km east by southeast of Thera? According to the tephra primer at Michigan Tech, “most particles more than a millimeter in size fall out within 30 minutes of the time they are erupted.” Also, note that accretionary lapilli is a phenomenon associated with the blast cloud that comes straight up out of the volcano itself. Of course, these clouds plume outward higher in the atmosphere. Even so, to imagine burning ash and accretionary lapilli falling together on Avaris as a result of the Santorini volcano, we have to imagine the ejecta traveling some 870 km before the ash had time to cool. If we use the rough-and-ready figure above of a 30 minute terminus for the fallout of tephra particles more than 1 mm in diameter—and a 1 mm diameter ash is hardly going to qualify as a “hailstone”—we have to imagine the ash traveling over 800 km within 30 minutes—that’s 1600 km or 993.6 miles per hour. That’s faster than the speed of sound, about mach 1.3 (the speed of sound varies slightly with altitude and temperature). I confess that I find it extremely difficult to imagine ash—some of it still burning, and some of it accreted into lapilli—traveling faster than the speed of sound!

Prevailing winds at the time of Thera's Bronze Age eruption

When Thera erupted, the prevailing winds carried the ash east by northeast, not southeast as Jacobovici’s scenario requires.

As if that weren’t unbelievable enough, Jacobovici’s scenario requires that this mixture of still-molten and cooled ejecta travel 800 km at mach 1.3 away from the prevailing winds. Wiener (cited earlier ) explains:

At the time of the Theran eruption the prevailing westerly winds were in full play, as evidenced by the heavy dispersal of tephra in an arc to the east ranging from Rhodes, 210 km to the southeast (with a depth of deposit ranging from 90 cm to 3 m); Kos, 170 km to the east (depth of 12 cm); Gölcük Lake above Sardis, 330 km to the northeast (depth of 12 cm); seabed cores south of Thera and in the Black Sea north of Samsun, 1,000 km to the northeast; sediments from Köycegiz Lake, 300 km east of Thera; further sediments from Gölhisar Lake northwest of Antalya; but only trace amounts of ash in the Nile Delta, 750 km to the southeast. (The Foster and Ritner [cited in part 6—RCH] reference to an “eastward and southward” flow is superseded by the recent data on dispersal to the northeast.) (23–24)

Airborne volcanic ash can travel a long, long way, even up to thousands of kilometers. But it can’t travel faster than the speed of sound, and it is totally dependent on wind currents. Consider this data from the Michigan Tech primer:

Wind direction and wind speed are very important in determining where and how large an area will be covered by ash. Ash erupting from Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 covered the town of Yakima, which is approximately 80 miles to the east of the volcano, with 10 mm of ash (Foxworthy and Hill, 1982). This caused the sky to become as dark as night during the middle of the day. The town of Vancouver, approximately 50 miles south of the volcano, had no ash deposited from the eruption because the wind direction was blowing away from it toward the northeast.

Now the Mt. St. Helens eruption was only a VEI 5, much less powerful than the Santorini eruption—but not so much less powerful that the ash from Santorini could buck the wind and go wherever it wanted. Some Santorini ash can apparently be identified in the Nile delta region, but not in the quantities that come from the east and northeast.

But let’s not forget the exemption of Goshen. According to the biblical story, the hail didn’t fall in Goshen—the eastern part of the delta region. How on earth did the ash and lapilli manage to skip Goshen and only hit the rest of Egypt? Where’s the “scientific” explanation for that? The Exodus Decoded does not offer any such explanation, and omits any mention of that inconvenient tradition of the exemption of Goshen.

To conclude my assessment of Jacobovici’s treatment of the seventh plague, I’ll get back into my comfort zone, the Hebrew Bible. Jacobovici insists that “to this day the rabbis teach” that the hail/fire mixture was “no metaphor.” I won’t disagree with that, and I haven’t explored the rabbinic traditions regarding the seventh plague. But Jacobovici and Sacknovitz seem stuck on interpreting the word esh (אֵשׁ) in terms of flames. It’s entirely appropriate to see esh, “fire,” in the Hebrew scriptures and think in terms of flames. But that’s not the only way that the word can function. Psalm 29 images God’s presence in terms of a violent thunderstorm (note v. 3) sweeping in off the Mediterranean Sea and crashing against the Phoenician coast. Psalm 29:7 reads, “The voice of the Lord cleaves/splits flames of fire,” but remember the context of a thunderstorm. Here, “flames of fire” (lehavot esh, לַהֲבוֹת אֵשׁ) refers to lightning. If you’re not convinced, consider Psalm 18:10–13 (18:11–14 in Hebrew):

He rode on a cherub, and flew;
he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his covering around him,
his canopy thick clouds dark with water.
Out of the brightness before him
there broke through his clouds
hailstones and coals of fire.
The LORD also thundered in the heavens,
and the Most High uttered his voice.
And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them.

Psalm 18 is very explicit, and the story of the seventh plague is describing something similar—a hailstorm with lightning—rather than a unique and unrepeated occurrence. You don’t need any oddball theories to explain that.