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An ecological Exodus

Alice Carwardine  |  02 November 2020

Were the Biblical plagues of Egypt a result of a natural catastrophe? Whether or not that’s the case, it’s a timely reminder of our fragile place in the world and our duty to care for creation.

Bloody water, frogs, gnats, flies, dead animals, boils, fire, locusts, darkness and the death of children: The 10 famous plagues of Egypt that ultimately lead to the mass exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

There are some biblical scholars and scientists who believe that these plagues did in fact happen, but maybe not in the short time frame that the Bible portrays.

In the 1500s BCE, the famous Minoan volcanic eruption rocked the region around the Mediterranean Sea. As a result of the eruption, changes in the atmosphere and environment may have caused changes to the atmosphere and water which would have a ripple effect, potentially causing a series of natural disasters including the plagues known in the Exodus story.

This is the theory put forward by geologist Barbara J. Sivertsen. She believes that the eruption caused a change in the ocean chemical composition, which turned the water red and led to fish dying. This also led to the frogs heading for land in their masses. The gnats and flies were attracted to other rotting animals who drank the compromised water. And people got boils from that too.

The soot and ash would have moved through the air currents and made the day dark. And the diseases would have spread to food. With food compromised, and there being less of it to go around, the first-born boys would have eaten first to help them grow and work. But the diseased food may have killed them.

In Exodus, the Israelites are led out of Egypt by Moses as a result of the poor conditions for the Israelites at the time. But could this have been exacerbated by the changes occurring in the environment? Could it be, that a story from that time about a group of people, who were suffering the environmental effects from a volcanic eruption inspired parts of the story of Exodus?

Whether or not we accept this theory, it’s a timely reminder of the fragile place we hold in our world today. There are many peoples in our world today who being displaced as a result of climate change and natural disasters.

In our own backyard, the President of Kiribati, a tiny island nation off the coast of Australia, has had to purchase land in neighbouring countries to enable his citizens to move there with dignity when the islands disappear due to rising sea levels. They will have their own Exodus from their home. 

The conflict in Syria, some years ago now, is thought to have began as a result of drought and famine. This resulted in the mass migration of Syrians, which put pressure on surrounding nations and contributed to conflict. Syrians had a very short Exodus from their home lands to neighbouring countries.

Even here in Australia, we have had many this year have to relocate due to bush fires. They are always severe around this time of year, and we are very lucky to have houses, space and family to help our own neighbours get back on their feet.

This Christmas, as we contemplate the pilgrim journey of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, we also pray for our pilgrims and refugees of climate catastrophes around the world. As we do so, it is helpful to remember what God taught the Israelites: The land is not ours, it is God’s and it belongs to future generations. We are merely the custodians and stewards of the space for a short time. 


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