The Exodus' Passover plague was a "Spring Plague," a periodically reoccurring Egyptian phenomenon?

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

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18 November 2005
Update: 16 Dec 2005 at bottom of article

Could perhaps the "plague" which afflicted Egypt on the eve of the Exodus or "Passover" 
(Ex  12:1-50) which occurred IN THE SPRING, be recalling _a cyclical or reoccurring event_ "Spring Plague," (modern "Bubonic Plague") as witnessed in accounts of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries CE (AD)? 

Apparently in the 16th century AD some Egyptians were in the habit of fleeing Egypt during the "Spring plague" for the Sinai. When the plague was "over," they would return to Egypt. The port of Tor on the west coast of the Sinai (Gulf of Suez) was a popular destination for those seeking sanctuary from the plague. Burkhardt in April of 1816, noted the "return" of plague to Cairo in the Spring, and apparently was aware that some Egyptians fled to the Sinai to escape the plague. He chose to visit the Sinai for several months during the "plague season" and return to Egypt after it was over. He was fluent in Arabic and perhaps knew first hand that a flight to the Sinai was a way of avoiding "Spring plague" in Egypt? Napoleon Bonoparte's French physicians in filed medical reports mention plague outbreaks in Egypt (Alexandria and Cairo) as early as January and extending through Spring and into early Summer and their efforts to combat it via quarantines (1799-1801).

Of interest is the Roman historian Procopius' 6th century AD account of plague STARTING at Pelusium, Egypt and reaching IN THE SPRING Constantinople -perhaps via ships docking from Egypt in the Spring? In his day it was a seaport on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile (silted up today).

Did Israel "flee" into the Sinai to "avoid" Spring Plague, using the Sinai as a type of "quarantine haven"? Of interest here is that Yahweh is portrayed repeatedly striking down his people with "plague" during their Sinai wanderings (Ex 30:12; Lev 13: 2-17; Nu 8:19, 11:33, 14:37, 16:46-50; De 24:8, 28:61; Josh 22:17). Had Israel already been "infected" with Egyptian "Spring plague" before her departure for the Sinai, and this is being recalled in Yahweh's striking down his people in the wilderness? Plague creates buboes or skin lesions, could these have been interpreted as a type of leperosy or skin disease?

Cf. the below accounts:

Burkhardt (Johann Ludwig Burkhardt, sometimes "anglicized" as John Lewis Burkhardt by some authors, an early 19th century Swiss explorer of Arabia, including Egypt, the Sinai, Palestine and modern-day Jordan) (Note: Emphasis mine in capitals):

The Franks and most of the Christians shut themselves up; but as I neither 
wished to follow their example nor to expose myself unnecessarily in the town, 
I determined to pass my time, during the prevalence of the disease, among the 
Bedouins of Mount Sinai...

I was naturally asked for what object I had come to these mountains. As the 
passage of Greeks on their way to visit the convent of Sinai is frequent, I 
might have answered that I was a Greek; but I thought it better to adhere to 
what I had already told my guides, that I had left Cairo, in order not to 
expose myself to the plague, that I wished to pass my time among the 
Bedouins while the disease prevailed, and that I intended to visit the 
convent. Other Moslems would have considered it impious to fly from the 
infection; but I knew that all these Bedouins entertain as great a dread of 
the plague as Europeans themselves. DURING THE SPRING, WHEN THE DISEASE 
USUALLY PREVAILS IN EGYPT, no prospect of gain can induce them to expose 
themselves to infection, by a journey to the banks of the Nile; the Bedouins 
with whom I left Cairo were the last who had remained there.

Before mid-day we had again reached the convent El Erbayn [near St. 
Catherine's monastery in the Sinai], in the garden of which I passed a most 
agreeable afternoon. The verdure was so brilliant and the blossoms of the 
orange trees diffused so fine a perfume that I was transported in 
imagination from the barren cliffs of the wilderness to the luxurious groves 
of Antioch. It is surprising that the Europeans resident at Cairo do not 
prefer spending THE SEASON OF THE PLAGUE in these pleasant gardens, 
and this delightful climate, to remaining close prisoners in the infected city..."

Gould and Pyle on "Oriental Plague" (George M. Gould & Walter L. Pyle. Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, "History of Epidemics"):

"The Black Death, or, as it has been known, the Oriental plague, the bubonic 
plague, or in England, simply the plague...

The history of this plague extends almost to prehistoric times. There was a 
pest in Athens in the fifth century before Christ. There was another in the 
second century, A.D., under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and again in the 
third century, under the reign of the Gauls; following this was the terrible 
epidemic of the sixth century, which, after having ravaged the territory of 
the Gauls, extended westward. In 542 a Greek historian, Procopius, born 
about the year 500, gives a good description of this plague in a work, 
"Pestilentia Gravissima," so called in the Latin translation. Dupouy in "Le 
IN EGYPT [the Roman seaport of Pelusium, located on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile], 
and followed a double course, one branch going to Alexandria and the other to 
Palestine. It reached Constantinople IN THE SPRING OF 543, and produced 
the greatest devastation wherever it appeared. In the course of the succeeding half 
century this epidemic became pandemic and spread over all the inhabited 
earth. The epidemic lasted four months in Constantinople, from 5000 to 
10,000 people dying each day. In his "History of France," from 417 to 591, 
Gregorius speaks of a malady under the name inguinale which depopulated the 
Province of Arles."

The below 16th century AD Moslem account notes the appearance of plague at Cairo about the time of Easter, which is a Christian holiday which occurs in the Spring, and in the Hebrew Bible this period of time called "Passover," is associated with Israel's Exodus from Egypt in the Spring. Note: Recurring plague in Egypt from various accounts could occur as early as late December, ending in the early Summer.

Regarding the phrase "the night of the drop" in the below journal:

"The New Year was celebrated in ancient times at the time of the annual life-giving inundation of the Nile River. The annual inundation occurs around 7/19 [July 19th] on the Gregorian calendar. Consequently, the Kemetic calendar sets the Old Egyptian New Year at 7/19. The Copts and the Arabs of Egypt celebrated "The Night of the Drop" on 7/17 [July 17th] into the 19th Century. This first drop presaged the coming inundation. It was believed that the drop was a tear drop that Goddess Isis cried in mourning over the death of God Osiris. Her tears were believed to cause the annual flooding of the Nile.]"

( cf. 2002 Egyptian Holidays: Santeria Old Egyptian.

Ibn Iyas. Journal d'un bourgeois du Caire.

Vol. 1

"p. 60. (16th of May - 13 of June, 1504 AD) At the end of the month, 
A FEW DAYS AFTER EASTER at the moment the Pleiades appeared, 
THE PLAGUE ARRIVED IN CAIRO and lasted until the first days of the 
month of "bauna" and on the date of the falling of the drop, which was very 
unusual. We recall that the epidemic was light in comparison to that which 
is going to follow: it is still an extraordinary thing to see the plague break out 
two years in a row.

pp. 72-76 Ramadan (Feb 15th-March 6th 1505 AD) (p. 72) The plague spread in 
Egypt: it had begun around the end of last year, with more or less 
virulence, but on this month its rise was brutal. The sultan had a basin for 
the washing of the dead moved near the fountain Mumini which was very 

Shawwal (March 7th-April 4th)...The plague's ravages were terrible among the 
children of a low age, the Mamluks, the black slaves, the young women slaves 
and the foreigners: one counted up to a quarter thousand burials per day.

This month saw the death of the qadi Ibrahim Laduni, director of the arsenal 
accounts, followed in the grave a few days later by his son, Muhammad; he 
was a functionary of immense prestige.

Dhul-qa'da (April 5th-May 4th) The first, one announced the death of the 
second secretary Djanim, parent of Ashraf Qansuh Khamsmiya, a handsome young 
man, known for his bravery and chivalrous spirit, of excellent morality.

A considerable number of emirs of ten (?!) and of noble guards perished.

Dhul-hidjdja (May 5th -June 3rd)

RAGED IN A PARTICULARLY TERRIBLE MANNER; the mortality was unimaginable 
among the Mamluks, the black slaves, the young slave women, the children of low age 
and foreigners.

(Feb. 19th-March 18th 1512 AD) (p. 235) To sum up, such are the events of 
the year, which overall was happy and blessed since there was neither a 
plague epidemic nor revolts.

(Safar April 8-May 6) (p. 280) The plague made frightening progress and 
sowed terror in the country. The great hanafite qadi Abd al-Barr ibn Shihna 
took it upon himself to send his children to the region of Tor [ a Sinai port on the 
Gulf of Suez]; he had the habit during periods of epidemic, to put his children in 
the shelter of that region. All of the family returned thereafter, complete, safe, and 
sound. It was pretended that the plague never penetrated there.

...several notables sent their children into the areas of Tor to protect them 
against the plague.

(p. 282) The plague extended itself, ravaging the Mamluks, the black slaves, 
the young women slaves, children of young age and foreigners. The daily 
mortality had its highs and lows; the civil registers indicate a maximum 
mortality of 365 individuals duly inscribed; though one considers that in an 
epidemic period the persons of which death is noted represents only a 10th 
of the total. In the face of this rise (of the plague) new basins for cleaning the dead 
were arranged, as had been done during previous epidemics.

This was the third epidemic of his reign, the one in 909H [Hegira 909 = 1503 AD] 
was very light, and according to the State there was a maximum of 100 dead in 
one day. It (the plague) stopped, only to recontinue 8 months later, making a total for 
a single day, of 415 dead registered. Finally the scourge took arms against the 
country in the present year, being 919H. What is curious is that these three epidemics conserved a permanent intensity until the fall of the drop."


Apparently the Exodus account is preserving two different kinds of plagues. The first was apparently widespread thoughout all of Egypt, and was probably the _same_ form of plague which continued to afflict Egypt up through the 18th century AD as noted by Napoleon's physicians at Alexandria and Cairo. Today modern science knows this plague is transmitted by infected fleas associated with rodents (mices and rats). Egypt was known in the ancient world as the "granary" of the Roman Empire and in biblical times, Abraham and later Jacob, sought out Egypt to avoid famine. The grain of Egypt would/could attract infected mice and rodents from the desert peripheries.  Modern sanitation today has considerably reduced this form of plague in the Middle East.

The "second" form of plague appearing in the Exodus account is the death of Israelites after eating quail at Kibroth-hatta'avah, after later leaving Mount Sinai (Nu 11:34). Modern medical science has verified that "some individuals" _do die_ after eating quail in Greece, Turkey and Russia, and some doctors and nutritionists have suggested that some kind of seed consumed by these quail, while not harmful to the birds, is "poisonous" to "some" but not all humans. It is thus assumed that the death of Israelites from eating quail in the Sinai is a recollection of this physical phenomenon still attested to this very day. Please click here for my article on the "Poisonous Quail of Kibroth-hatta'avah" for more in-depth details, citing modern 20th century medical research.

A special note for Christians and devout Jews who have stumbled across this site via an internet search engine:

I am not a "believer" in the Bible being God's word. For the reasons why please click here.

My research is directed in seeking out the "historical kernels" preserved in the biblical accounts which have been embellished and transformed into "miracles" for ideological/theological agendas. 

I thus understand an Exodus from Egypt did occur; there was indeed a plague affecting Egypt in the Spring when the Exodus occurred; and Israel did indeed experience plague outbreaks in her wilderness wanderings as portayed in the Bible. 

I seek to root these events in documented physical phenomena instead of "fabulous" miracles.

For example, I do not believe all the Egyptian first born male children died Passover night. That is a medical impossibility, so I regard this as "embellishment." However, the Bible's mention of plague appearing in Egypt in the Spring _is verifiable_ from the above historical records. The near instantaneous death of thousands of Israelites at Kibroth-hatta'avah is also a medical impossibility. Only a few individuals die and only after a very prolonged deterioration of their health (via parlysis) of several days. For me, this another instance of "embellishment" or "gross exaggeration" to turn a normal physical phenomenon into an event of "miracle" proportions.

Update 16 Dec 2005:

Bubonic Plague Traced to Ancient Egypt
Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2004 

The bubonic plague, or Black Death, may have originated in ancient Egypt, according to a new study. 

"This is the first time the plague's origins in Egypt have been backed up by archaeological evidence," said Eva Panagiotakopulu, who made the discovery. Panagiotakopulu is an archaeologist and fossil-insect expert at the University of Sheffield, England. 
While most researchers consider central Asia as the birthplace of the deadly epidemic, the new study—published recently in the Journal of Biogeography—suggests an alternate starting point. 

"It's usually thought that the plague entered from the East," said B. Joseph Hinnebusch, a microbiologist at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. The new study suggests that North Africa could also be the source of the epidemic, he said. 
The bacteria-caused plague is more than a grim historical footnote today. The African island of Madagascar experienced outbreaks in the late 1990s, and some worry about the plague's potential use as an agent of bioterrorism. 

Information about past epidemics could help scientists predict where new outbreaks would occur and better understand how the disease spreads, Hinnebusch said. 

Plague in Europe 

The most famous plague outbreak swept through Europe in the 1300s. Dubbed the Black Death, the disease killed more than 25 million people—one-fourth of the continent's population. The nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosy" is traced to the plague's rose-colored lesions and deadly spread. 

Earlier outbreaks also decimated Europe. The Justinian Plague claimed as many as a hundred million lives in the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century A.D. 

The bacterium that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, lives inside the gut of its main carrier, the flea. The plague likely spread to Europe on the backs of shipboard black rats that carried plague-infested fleas. 

"It's the plague's unholy trinity," said Michael Antolin, a biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who studies bubonic plague in black-tailed prairie dogs. 
Inside the flea, bacteria multiply and block off the flea's throat-like area. The flea gets increasingly hungry. When it bites—whether rat or human—it spits some bacteria out into the bite wound.

People can contract several forms of the plague. The main form, bubonic, often starts out with fever, chills, and enlarged lymph nodes. But if the bacteria make their way into the lungs, a deadlier form, called pneumonic plague, can be spread from person to person. Pneumonic plague occurs in about 5 percent of those infected with bubonic plague. 
Several researchers have suggested that Europe's Black Death spread too fast and killed too many to be attributed to bubonic plague. But plague experts Hinnebusch and Antolin said that the pneumonic plague form could have been responsible for the quick-spreading epidemic. 

"If you inhale it, you're pretty much dead," Antolin said. 

Pharaohs' Plague 

Panagiotakopulu came upon clues to the plague's presence in ancient Egypt by accident. She had been looking at fossil insect remains to learn about daily life more than 3,000 years ago. 

"People lived close to their domestic animals and to the pests that infected their household," Panagiotakopulu said. "I just started looking at what diseases people might have, what diseases their pigs might have, and what diseases might have been passed from other animals to humans." 

The researcher used a fine sieve to strain out remains of insects and small mammals from several sites. Panagiotakopulu, who is conducting similar work on Viking ruins in Greenland, said that looking at insects is a key way to reconstruct the past. "I can learn about how people lived by looking in their homes and at what was living with and on them," she said. 

In Egypt Panagiotakopulu combed the workers'-village site in Amarna, where the builders of the tombs of Egyptian kings Tutankhamun and Akhenaton lived. There, the researcher unearthed cat and human fleas—known to be plague carriers in some cases—in and around the workers' homes. That find spurred Panagiotakopulu to believe that the bubonic plague's fleaborne bacteria could also have been lurking in the area, so she went in search of other clues. 

Previous excavations along the Nile Delta had turned up Nile rats, an endemic species, dating to the 16th and 17th century B.C. The plague's main carrier flea is thought to be native to the Nile Valley and is known to be a Nile rat parasite. 

According to Panagiotakopulu, the Nile provided an ideal spot for rats to carry the plague into urban communities. Around 3500 B.C., people began to build cities next to the Nile. During floods, the habitat of the Nile rat was disturbed, sending the rodent—and its flea and bacterial hitchhikers—into the human domain. 

Egyptian writings from a similar time period point to an epidemic disease with symptoms similar to the plague. A 1500 B.C. medical text known as the Ebers Papyrus identifies a disease that "has produced a bubo, and the pus has petrified, the disease has hit." 
It's possible that trade spread the disease to black rats, which then carried the bacteria to other sites of plague epidemics. Panagiotakopulu suspects that black rats, endemic to India, arrived in Egypt with sea trade. In Egypt the rats picked up plague-carrying fleas and were later borne on ships that sailed across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. 

Present-day Plague 

"Most people think of the plague as a historical disease," said Hinnebusch, who conducts plague research for the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "But it's still out there, and it's still an international public health issue." 

During the last ten years bubonic plague reappeared in Madagascar, which now has between 500 and 2,000 new cases each year. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization tallies as many as 3,000 plague cases each year around the world. Research interest in bubonic plague has been growing as, like anthrax, it could be used as a deadly bioterrorism agent (especially in pneumonic form). 

While antibodies can be extremely effective against early stages of the plague, scientists are trying to learn more about how it works to be able to predict outbreaks and counteract the bacterium's scrambling of the immune system. 

"There are so many unanswered questions about the plague," Hinnebusch said. 
The plague will sleep for decades, even centuries, reemerge, and then seem to vanish again. 

Panagiotakopulu said she wants to continue to track the evidence for the plague in Egypt and elsewhere to expand understanding of the still-mysterious epidemic.

From the Wikipedia on-line Encyclopedia:

The first Western literary account of a possible outbreak of plague is found in the book of Samuel V of the Hebrew Bible. In this account, the Philistines of Ashdod were struck with a plague for the crime of stealing the Ark of the Covenant from the Children of Israel. These events have been dated to approximately the second half of the eleventh century B.C. The word "hemorrhoids" is used in English translations to describe the sores that came upon the Philistines. The Hebrew, however, can be interpreted as "swelling in the secret parts". The account indicates that the Philistine city and its political territory were struck with a "ravaging of mice" and a plague, bringing death to a large segment of the population.

In the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 B.C.), Thucydides described the coming of an epidemic disease which began in Ethiopia, passed through Egypt and Libya, and then came to the Greek world. Athens was decimated by this plague, losing a possible third of its populace, including Pericles (Speilvogal, J, 1999, pp. 56). In spite of the loss in population, this did not affect the progress and outcome of the war. This epidemic has long been considered an outbreak of bubonic plague. However, from Thucydides' description, some modern scholars dispute the assignment of plague, feeling that smallpox or measles may be better candidates.

In the first century AD, Rufus of Ephesus, a Greek anatomist, refers to an outbreak of plague in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. He records that Alexandrian doctors named Dioscorides and Posidonius described symptoms including acute fever, pain, agitation, and delirium. Buboes—large, hard, and non-suppurating—developed behind the knees, around the elbows, and "in the usual places." The death toll of those infected was very high. Rufus also wrote that similar buboes were reported by a Dionysius Curtus, who may have practiced medicine in Alexandria in the third century B.C. If this is correct, the eastern Mediterranean world may have been familiar with bubonic plague at that early date. (ref. Simpson, W.J., Patrick, A.)

The Plague of Justinian is the first known pandemic on record, and marks the first firmly recorded pattern of bubonic plague in A.D. 541–542. This outbreak is thought to have originated in Ethiopia or Egypt. The huge city of Constantinople imported massive amounts of grain, mostly from Egypt, to feed its citizens. The grain ships may have been the source of contagion for the city, with massive public granaries nurturing the rat and flea population. At its peak the plague was killing 5,000 people in Constantinople every day and ultimately destroyed perhaps 40 percent of the city's inhabitants. It went on to destroy up to a quarter of the human population of the eastern Mediterranean.

In A.D. 588 a second major plague wave spread through the Mediterranean into what is now France. A maximum of 25 million dead is considered a reasonable estimate.

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