The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit H

Simcha Jacobovici’s attempt in The Exodus Decoded to connect the first seven of the ten plagues to disruptions caused by the Bronze Age eruption of Thera (Santorini) and a putative earthquake storm accompanying it fail to really correspond to the biblical accounts or to the ancient texts that Jacobovici invokes in the film. Now it’s time to examine Jacobovici’s “scientific” and “synchronistic” explanations of the last three plagues.

8th Plague: Locusts

Jacobovici posits that a drop in temperatures accompanying the biblical hailstorm would drive locust swarms to ground, and then the locusts would become active again as the temperatures rose. Here’s how Jacobovici puts it, in his exact words:

Locusts migrate in swarms that can be between forty and eighty million adult locusts in each square kilometer. Cold weather produces a drop in their body temperature that makes them land en masse. The volcanic hail, and the weather disruptions caused by the Santorini eruption, would have forced great clouds of locusts, which are common in this part of the world, to suddenly land in Egypt. As the hailstorm cleared and the temperature rose, so did the locusts, exactly as the biblical account describes.

Now remember that Jacobovici’s only evidence for a major locust plague in Egypt c. 1500 BC is the biblical account itself, so his closing “exactly as the biblical account describes” is a rhetorical flourish that wraps the whole thing into another circular argument. As you evaluate Jacobovici’s argument, constantly remember that if you listen to his reconstructions uncritically, they seem to have a “ring of plausibility,” but when you look for the actual evidence or data, it’s often not there at all. Jacobovici needs a locust plague in order to fit the biblical story. He has no nonbiblical evidence of a locust plague subsequent to the Santorini eruption, just a scenario by which one might understand it—never mind the problems with dates, discussed at length in previous installments of this series. Indeed, the “drop in temperatures accompanying the biblical hailstorm” is itself pure speculation on Jacobovici’s part, attested neither in the biblical description of the plagues nor in any of Jacobovici’s alleged Egyptian parallels. If you get to make up details to fit your thesis, then of course the details will support your thesis! If you’re already inclined to accept Jacobovic’s scenario, you could perhaps claim that the biblical story reflects a distorted, mangled memory of entirely ordinary locust behavior, but it’s audacious and inaccurate to claim that this narrative about cold and warming weather is “exactly as the biblical account describes.”

9th Plague: Darkness

Undoubtedly you’ve already guessed how Jacobovici will explain the ninth plague:

When the final eruption [of Santorini] came, it created an ash cloud almost 40 kilometers from top to bottom and 200 km across. When the ash cloud reached the Nile delta, it engulfed the Egyptians in what the Bible calls “a palpable darkness.”

Then Dr. Hickson (introduced to Higgaion readers in an earlier installment of this series) reappears on a floating screen and tells viewers:

In a matter of a few minutes they’re plunged into a black world. Ash is falling around them. They can’t see. They can’t breathe very well. The sun has disappeared. You have black overhead. And they have no idea what’s going to happen next.

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

When Thera erupted in the Middle Bronze Age, the ash was dispersed mostly east by northeast, not southeast as Jacobovici’s scenario requires.

Dr. Hickson is undoubtedly giving an accurate description of what it is like to experience a volcanic eruption “up close,” close enough to experience a heavy “rain” of ash. Perhaps the people of Pompeii experienced something much like this when Vesuvius, 8 km to the north, erupted. According to the Michigan Tech volcanism primer that I’ve mentioned before, Dr. Hickson’s description might also be appropriate to the citizens of Yakima, 80 miles east—downwind—of Mount St. Helens, where the ash fallout reached 10 mm in depth, but not the experience of those in Vancouver, Washington, 50 miles south (off the prevailing winds) of Mount St. Helens, where there were no ash deposts. The way Jacobovici edits the footage and splices it together, however, makes it sound like Dr. Hickson is describing the experience of the Egyptians subsequent to the Santorini eruption—while she is speaking off-camera, an animated infographic shows the ash cloud from the initial Santorini eruption rolling over Egypt and the Sinai peninsula in a matter of seconds. But this is entirely implausible. The closest that Egypt and Santorini get to each other is about 715 km (in the film, Jacobovici rounds this down to 700). Avaris is about 870 km away from Santorini, close to a direct southeasterly line on a Mercator projection map. As discussed and documented in an earlier installment of this series, the heaviest ash deposits from Santorini were in the eastern Agean and in Anatolia, demonstrating that the prevailing winds were westerly (that is, coming out of the west and blowing toward the east) at the time of the eruption. It is just not plausible that enough ash from the Santorini eruption blew across Egypt—hundreds of kilometers to the south and off the path of the prevailing winds—to give the Egyptians the kind of experience that Dr. Hickson desribed. They’re too far away from the volcano, in the wrong direction.

Jacobovici seems at this point to anticipate such objections, as he returns to footage of Manfred Bietak’s right hand holding a piece of pumice that Jacobovici identifies as Santorini pumice. This pumice is rather large, perhaps twice as large as Bietak’s hand. Jacobovici offers the Santorini pumice from Avaris as proof that the Santorini ash cloud reached Egypt, but this is a specious argument. Pumice doesn’t hitch a ride on ash clouds, and as discussed in earlier installments of this series, the notion that Santorini pumice flew through the air some 870 km is utterly unbelievable. Bietak himself doesn’t believe what Jacobovici implies. Jacobovici seems to anticipate this objection, too, for he acknowledges the objection that the pumice might have floated there on the water. However, Jacobovici suggests that the presence of Santorini ash in the Nile delta counters this objection. Nobody disputes that ash from the Santorini eruption reached Egypt, or that the ash was airborne when it got there. But the mode of travel of tiny grains of ash is not necessarily the same as the mode of travel of blocks of pumice 15 cm long! To think that just because the ash was airborne when it reached Egypt means the pumice was airborne when it reached Egypt is like finding a coconut in England, noticing a nearby swallow, and concluding that the swallow carried the coconut there.

As to the ash itself, in an uncharacteristic moment of “full disclosure,” Jacobovic presents footage of Jean-Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian Institution describing the Santorini ash finds in the Nile delta—Jacobovici’s Exhibit H. What is uncharacteristic about this is that Stanley’s data rather undermines Jacobovici’s suggestion that ash from Santorini “plunged Egypt into the biblical [plague of] darkness.” In the footage shown in The Exodus Decoded, Stanley explains that he and his colleagues found 40 grains of Santorini ash in the Nile delta. 40 grains. Remember that ash grains are tiny, measured in millimeters or fractions of millimeters. Compare Stanley’s 40 grains of Santorini ash in the Nile delta to the Santorini tephra deposits on Rhodes, which were 90 cm to 3 m thick; deposits at Kos, 170 km east of Santorini, were up to 12 cm thick, and deposits at Gölcük Lake in Anatolia, 330 km northeast of Santorini were also up to 12 cm thick (see Wiener—bibliographic details in earlier installments—p. 23, n. 33 for citations). Everybody agrees that ash from Thera reached Egypt, but the evidence does not support Jacobovici’s contention that enough Santorini ash reached Egypt to account for the biblical “plague of darkness.” And it’s telling that when Jacobovici wants a “talking head” to tell viewers that there is a plausible link between the Santorini eruption, the biblical plague of darkness, and the darkness mentioned in Ahmose’s Tempest Stela, he turns not to volcanologists like Catherine Hickson or Jean-Daniel Stanley, but to Charles Pellegrino, who has also published books attributing the demise of Atlantis and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to the Santorini eruption.

Turning back to areas in which I have more expertise, remember that Jacobovici claims that a reference to “darkness” on the Ahmose Tempest Stela parallels the “darkness” in the biblical plague story. Here’s how the Tempest Stela describes the calamity:

[Then] the gods [made] the sky come in a storm of r[ain, with dark]ness in the western region and the sky beclouded without [stop, loud]er than [the sound of] the subjects, strong[er than …, howling(?)] on the hills more than the sound of the cavern in Elephantine. Then every house and every habitation they reached [perished and those in them died, their corpses] floating on the water like skiffs of papyrus, (even) in the doorway and the private apartments (of the palace), for a period of up to […] days, while no torch could give light over the Two Lands. (lines 6–10 front // lines 8–10 back, Allen’s translation—see earlier installments for bibliographic data)

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

When Thera erupted in the Middle Bronze Age, the ash was dispersed mostly east by northeast, not southeast as Jacobovici’s scenario requires.

Note carefully that the darkness was observed “in the western region.” Other lines in the Tempest Stela make it clear that Ahmose was in Thebes, or shuttling between Thebes and nearby Karnak, at the time. Now take another look at the map of the prevailing winds as indicated by the tephra dispersal patterns from the Santorini eruption, and please realize that you can’t see Santorini from Egypt; it’s beyond the horizon. I’ve reproduced the map here for your convenience so that you don’t have to scroll up to find it. According to the Tempest Stela, from the perspective of someone in Thebes, the western sky was darkened. Rounding down to the nearest multiple of 10, Thebes lies about 1370 km southeast of Santorini, and the prevailing distribution of ash from Santorini was to the east and east-northeast of Santorini. It simply isn’t plausible that Santorini ash could be responsible for darkening the western sky from the perspective of someone in Thebes, an implausibility that Wiener rightly uses to argue against any link between the Santorini eruption and the phenomena described on the Ahmose Tempest Stela.

Clearly, I find Jacobovici’s treatment of the 8th and 9th plagues, especially the 9th, unconvincing (to put it mildly). Like so much else in The Exodus Decoded, these treatments are characterized by selective misuse (“quote-mining”) of experts’ statements, textual misinterpretations, failure to take objections seriously, and a lack of critical thinking about actual geophysical possibilities.

However, I do want to give Jacobovici props for noticing one aspect of the biblical darkness that often escapes attention in popular treatments, especially cinematic and cartoon treatments like The Prince of Egypt. Jacobovici describes the darkness in the ninth plague as “palpable.” He’s reflecting the wording of Exodus 10:21, where the narrator quotes God as telling Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (JPS Tanakh). For you Hebraists reading this, the final phrase is וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְ, literally, “and let one touch the darkness” (for any Hebrew students struggling to parse וְיָמֵשׁ, the root is משׁשׁ, “to touch, to feel”). Jacobovici’s attempt to connect this “palpable darkness” with ash from Santorini is misguided, but I think he’s on the right track to think in terms of particulate matter. Recall the wording of God’s instructions to Aaron at the third plague, “Say to Aaron: Hold out your rod and strike the dust of the earth, and it shall turn to lice throughout the land of Egypt,” and the sixth plague, “Each of you take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it toward the sky in the sight of Pharaoh. It shall become a fine dust all over the land of Egypt, and cause an inflammation breaking out in boils on man and beast throughout the land of Egypt.” Since the first nine plagues are arranged in three sets of three, each set having a similar progression and its own particular emphasis, and since particulate matter is explicitly associated with the third and sixth plagues, it makes sense to me to expect the ninth plague to involve particulate matter as well. Most of the plagues—the first being the most notable exception—involve intensification and selective targeting of otherwise natural phenomena, my best guess is that the narrator was thinking in terms of the ninth plague being a supernatural sandstorm. Most movies and cartoons that I’ve seen just depict the darkness as God spilling a celestial bottle of India ink on the sky, and at least it can be said in Jacobovici’s favor that he doesn’t make that silly mistake (not that this excuses the other mistakes).