The BBC’s Theory on the Biblical Plagues

By Wayne Jackson

England’s major broadcasting facility, the BBC, has just released a TV special in which an attempt was made to establish the case that the biblical plagues, visited upon Egypt during the time of Moses, and the subsequent parting of the Red Sea, were not supernatural phenomena. Rather, it is claimed, the “exodus” events were caused by a volcano that erupted on the Greek island of Santorini in the 16th century B.C.

Here’s how the story goes. After the eruption of the volcano, a huge ash cloud moved toward Egypt, plunging the land into “darkness.” Supposedly, according to an article in the UK Telegraph, this produced “lightening [sic] and hail (two of the ten plagues).” [Note: There was no “lightning” plague as such.]

The volcanic pollution allegedly contaminated the Nile River, coloring it red (with the appearance of blood). This, in turn, drove the frogs onto the land. Dying frogs attracted flies and lice, which then transmitted disease to cattle and humans alike, thus producing boils, and ultimately, fatalities. Finally, the force launched by the eruption reputedly generated a tidal wave that “parted” the Red Sea, hence inspiring the “mythical” story of the separation of that body of water.

Sound intriguing? This explanation will carry some weight, no doubt, with those unfamiliar with the actual facts, or with those who do not critically analyze the theory in the light of those facts.

About twenty years ago, Hans Goedicke, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University, advanced this same Exodus-volcano theory. The concept set forth then, and that advocated now, are but twin attempts to “demythologize” the Old Testament record of the miraculous elements that are an integral part of it. The fact is, there are several strong arguments that negate the “Santorini volcano” theory.

  1. The “Santorini” theory is not consistent with Bible chronology. According to the biblical record, the exodus from Egypt occurred 480 years before the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel (1 Kgs. 6:1). It is now generally accepted (based upon archaeological and chronological data) that the fourth year of Solomon’s reign was about 966 B.C. Working backwards, therefore, one arrives at the date of 1446/5 B.C. for the time of Israel’s departure from bondage (see Gleason Archer, “The Chronology of the Old Testament,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979, I.366).

    By way of contrast, the current theory is that the Santorini eruption occurred in the 16th century B.C. —considerably before the exodus event.
  2. Santorini is more than 500 miles from the Egyptian coast. It is hardly likely that the ash from this island would have been so thick in Egypt that for three days the Egyptians “saw not one another, neither rose any one from his place” (Ex. 10:23).

    Aside from that, the “ash” theory contradicts several biblical facts.


    1. The Scriptures explicitly state that the darkness occurred as a result of Moses stretching forth his hand toward heaven at the behest of Jehovah’s command (Ex. 10:22).
    2. “[A]ll the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Ex. 10:23). If this was a natural event, it certainly was a selective “ash deposit”!
    3. Pharaoh, who was witness to the plagues, did not interpret them as natural disasters; he knew their point of origin!
    4. The “darkness” could not have been an ash-deposit which precipitated the other plagues, because the “darkness” was the ninth plague — the-next-to-last one!
  3. The “tidal wave” notion does not fit the facts. Santorini is to the north west of Egypt. Yet the strong wind that parted the Red Sea came from the east (Ex. 14:21). The direction is wrong.
  4. Further, the waters of the Sea were “divided,” producing a “wall” on each side of Israel’s path. The waters were said to have “congealed” (Ex. 15:8; cf. Psa. 78:13). The Hebrew term signifies to thicken; the waters became “firm walls” (Brown, Driver, & Briggs, Hebrew & English Lexicon, London: Oxford University, 1907, p. 891). These circumstances are not consistent with the “tidal wave” concept. Clearly, the parting of the sea was a miracle, not a natural phenomenon.
  5. The children of Israel marched across the Sea on “dry ground” (Ex. 14:16,21,29). They went through “on foot” (Psa. 66:6), and yet were “dry shod” (see Isa. 11:15, i.e., with their sandals; Isaiah’s imagery is based upon the Hebrews’ departure from Egypt). Such a condition is not created by a tidal wave.
  6. It would have been a curious circumstance indeed that the “tidal wave” was so discriminating, destroying all of Pharaoh’s armies (Ex. 14:27-28), while not a single soul in Israel lost his life.
  7. The report of this disaster spread throughout the region and made a lasting impression upon neighboring nations for years afterward (see Josh. 2:10); moreover, it was not attributed to a far-away volcanic explosion!

Conclusion

The events associated with Israel’s exodus from Egypt are depicted in the divine record as having been orchestrated by Jehovah through his prophet, Moses (see Ex. 14:15ff). The timing was crucial. These were not ordinary volatile quirks of nature. And it reflects an extraordinary bias, and irresponsible scholarship, that asserts otherwise.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.