In The Exodus Decoded, Simcha Jacobovici proposes to explain “the science underlying the biblical story” (to use the phrase with which James Cameron introduces the second third of the program), specifically, the biblical story of the ten plagues. As I described in an earlier installment of this extended review, Jacobovici posits that an “earthquake storm,” set off by a quake that preceded the Bronze Age eruption of the Santorini volcano, eventuated in one (or more?) earthquakes in Egypt that caused the phenomena recorded in the story of the ten plagues. Now let’s turn to Jacobovici’s specific reconstruction of “the science” behind each of the ten plagues.
1st Plague: Water into Blood
Based on scientifically well-understood modern analogies from Cameroon, Jacobovici suggests that an earthquake beneath Egypt could have released gasses that turned the waters of the Nile “blood-red.” In The Exodus Decoded, geophysicist George Kling explains the Cameroon phenomenon as high concentrations of iron in the deep waters at the bottom of the Lake Nyos (Jacobovici’s Exhibit G) bubbling up to the surface and reacting with oxygen to form iron hydroxide. To put it crudely, the waters of Lake Nyos “rusted.” Jacobovici posits that “If the Nile turned blood-red as the result of a gas leak, then the chain of events described in the Bible could have been set into motion.”
On the biblical studies side of things (as distinct from the scientific side), the most important question to ask here is whether or not Jacobovici’s scenario really matches the biblical story. In Exodus 7, which includes the story of the first plague, Aaron (or Moses, the antecedent of the verb isn’t really clear) strikes the Nile with his staff, and the river’s water more or less immediately transforms into blood. Although the narrator only reports a transformation in the waters of the Nile itself, God tells Moses in Exodus 7:19 that the transformation would affect all the water in Egypt, even in canals, shallow ponds and pools, and—note well—”even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.” The gaseous reactions that Kling describes for Lake Nyos couldn’t possibly affect water stored in wooden barrels or stone jars. Again, the biblical narrator doesn’t explicitly report the transformation of stored water in Exodus 7:20–21, but does say that “there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt.” Since I doubt that the biblical narrator thinks God erred about the extent of the plague in 7:19, I think the narrator must want readers to include water “in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone” under the verbal umbrella that extends “throughout the whole land of Egypt.” Moreover, after the plague begins, Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the plague, according to Exodus 7:22. Never mind that the biblical story says that the water turned to blood, not that it turned blood-red.
While Jacobovici’s explanation of the discoloration of the Nile River may be geophysically and chemically possible (as unequivocally demonstrated by the Lake Nyos analogy, although one must ask—and this is well outside my area of expertise—whether these phenomena observed in lakes could be replicated in flowing rivers), his only evidence for either a “rusting” of the Nile or the earthquake that would trigger the release of the necessary gasses is the biblical story of the ten plagues. Yet the story and his scenario don’t match up. Logically, what Jacobovici must be arguing is that the biblical story is a mangled version of real events. Otherwise, the argument doesn’t work at all.
By the way, the same hypothesis was apparently offered in the BBC program Moses, and a similar but distinct hypothesis was offered in the 2004 Discovery Channel program Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? In that program (narrated by Morgan Freeman), the reddening of the Nile was attributed to reddish clay washed down from Ethiopia on the waters of the Nile. To my mind, that’s a bit more plausible than Jacobovici’s otherwise unattested earthquake, but it still has all the same problems described above (doesn’t affect stored water, doesn’t accommodate the magicians, and so on).
2nd Plague: Frogs
According to Jacobovici’s reconstruction, the fish in the Nile died (see Exodus 7:21) because they had nowhere to go, and no oxygen to breathe. The frogs were able to escape by hopping out onto land, and the mass exodus of frogs from the “rusty” Nile constituted the second plague.
Again, Jacobovici’s explanation of the second plague is virtually identical to that given in Rameses. And, again, it has a ring of reasonability around it but doesn’t really square with the biblical text. Part of the second plague story in Exodus involves Pharaoh’s magicians summoning frogs, and part of it involves Moses praying and causing them to die. When evaluating Jacobovici’s argument, or that in Rameses, or that in Moses, always keep in mind that the biblical story of the ten plagues doesn’t just involve a cascade of catastrophes. The ten plagues are presented in the Bible as a discrete sequence punctuated by warnings, announcements, and conversations. The models in The Exodus Decoded, Rameses, Moses, and so on, if really believed, require their proponents to believe that the exodus story narrates a distorted memory of actual natural catastrophes. While it is not unreasonable to think that biblical narratives preserve enhanced, confused, incomplete, or distorted memories of the past, it is circular reasoning to use the biblical text as evidence for an otherwise unattested catastrophe, and then posit that catastrophe as the reality behind a distorted biblical text.
3rd–6th Plagues: Kinnim, Flies, Murrain, and Boils
The third plague involves an infestation of kinnim, some sort of insect; it’s not actually clear just what sort of insect that was. Jacobovici follows the translation “lice”; most English translations use “gnats”; some suggest “mosquitoes.” Jacobovici speeds through these four plagues in one sentence: “The lack of clean water then leads to lice, flies, and bacterial epidemics among humans and domestic animals.” Once again, while this all seems to sound eminently reasonable—well, okay, maybe not exactly as stated. After all, a lack of clean water doesn’t directly lead to lice or flies—though inability to wash normally might attract the critters. On this score, Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? actually has a leg up on The Exodus Decoded, suggesting that the death of the mosquitoes’ and flies’ natural predators—the frogs from the second plague—allowed unprecedented multiplication of the lice/gnat/mosquito and fly populations. But neither The Exodus Decoded nor Rameses really mirrors the biblical story. According to the Bible, the lice/gnats/mosquitoes did not just appear; they came from supernaturally transformed dust particles stirred up by Aaron’s staff. The biblical story also attributes the boils to soot that Aaron took from a kiln and tossed into the air. Jacobovici invents a scientific explanation to explain the story, but in so doing rewrites the story to fit his explanation.
By the way, Jacobovici returns at this point to Lake Nyos, where gasses released from the undersea earthquake cased painful welts on people living in the area. But once again, what Jacobovici has done is find a rough analogy to a biblical phenomenon, set it up as “the science behind the story,” and then ignore the parts of the story that don’t fit the new “scientific” scenario.
One of those very important parts of the story that Jacobovici simply ignores is the fact that the narration of the 3rd–6th plagues introduces a new element: the exemption of Goshen. In the narration of the first three plagues, emphasis is placed on their coverage of “the whole land of Egypt” (see Exodus 7:19, 21; 8:2, 6, 16, 17). Yet in the second group of three plagues, Goshen—where the Israelites live, according to Exodus—is exempted. No swarms of flies (Exodus 8:22), no murrain (9:4, 7); the exemption is not mentioned for the boils, but returns with the plagues of hail (9:26) and darkness (10:23). Jacobovici has no scientific explanation—nor can I conceive of one—for how the flies and livestock disease could “naturally” exempt Goshen; in fact, he does not even mention the issue. He just ignores this inconvenient part of the biblical story.
(By the way, what happened to the hippopotami? The crocodiles? The ibises? Or what about any of the other wildlife that lives in and along the Nile? Both the biblical story and Jacobovici just ignore this fauna, concentrating only on fish, frogs, and insects. To that extent, neither the exodus story nor The Exodus Decoded gives us a realistic narrative.)