The Ten Makkot served to demonstrate Hashem’s existence and continued control of the world, as is stressed many times in Parshiot Va’Eira and Bo (see, for example, Shemot 9:14 and 16). We know that they occurred because our ancestors witnessed these events as a nation (see Devarim 4:34) and have recounted these events every year from parent to child. Some skeptics, though, have questioned whether the ten Makkot were a supernatural occurrence. During the past sixty years some have studied meteorological patterns in Egypt and neighboring areas and have offered theories as to how the Ten Makkot could have occurred naturally. We argue that even if one were to accept these theories as correct (although they appear quite far-fetched), they do not undermine the Torah assertion that the Ten Makkot were a supernatural occurrence.
A Sample Theory
The following approach appears on the Wikipedia page “Plagues of Egypt” (accessed January 19, 2012):
Plague 1—water turned into blood, fish died: The redness in the Nile could have actually been pollution caused by volcanic activity, specifically that of Santorini, which erupted around 1600 B.C. and whose ash is found in the Nile region. The silt could make the Nile turn blood red, and would also render it undrinkable. Heavy rains in the red-soiled area of Lake Victoria could have caused reddened water to wash downstream.
Alternatively, a red toxic algal bloom (red tide) could have produced large quantities of toxins that would kill fish. (Also, an environmental change, such as a drought, might have turned the water red, following the death of fish.
Plague 2—frogs. Any blight on the water that killed fish also would have caused frogs to leave the river and probably die.
Plagues 3 and 4—biting insects and flies. The lack of frogs in the river would have let insect populations, normally kept in check by the frogs, increase massively. The rotting corpses of fish and frogs would have attracted significantly more insects to the areas near the Nile.
Plagues 5 and 6—livestock disease and boils. There are biting flies in the region which transmit livestock diseases; a sudden increase in their number could spark epidemics.
Plague 7—fiery hail. Volcanic activity not only brings with it ash, but brimstone, and also alters the weather system, occasionally producing hail. Hail could also have occurred as a completely independent natural weather event, with accompanying lightning as the “fire”.
Plague 8—locusts. The weight of hail will destroy most crops, leaving several insects and other animals without a normal food source. The remaining crops therefore would become targeted heavily, and thus be destroyed by swarms of locusts which would otherwise be distributed rather thinly. Or the locusts could have increased because of a lack of predators. Also, locusts breed when the ground is wet, and if there had been a massive amount of hail, the ground would have been soaked. Even without these explanations, swarms of locusts are not uncommon today.
Plague 9—darkness. There could be several causes for unusual darkness: a solar eclipse, a sandstorm, volcanic ash, or simply swarms of locusts large enough to block out the sun.
Plague 10—death of the firstborn: If the last plague indeed selectively tended to affect the firstborn, it could be due to food polluted during the time of darkness, either by locusts or by the black mold Cladosporium. When people emerged after the darkness, the firstborn would be given priority, as was usual, and would consequently be more likely to be affected by any toxin or disease carried by the food. Meanwhile, the Israelites ate food prepared and eaten very quickly which would have made it less likely to be infected.
Rambam – The Sinai Revelation is the Cornerstone of our Belief
In response, we must note that the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 8:1-3) already notes that there is room for skeptics to doubt the supernatural nature of the Ten Makkot. He writes:
The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed . . . What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s . . . He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following: . . .” All Israel were witnesses to [the appointment of] Moses, our teacher, at the [revelation] at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them . . . How is it known that the [revelation] at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moses’ prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? [Exodus 19:9] states: “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, [so that] they will believe in you forever.” It appears that before this happened, they did not believe in him with a faith that would last forever, but rather with a faith that allowed for suspicions and doubts.
It is possible that Hashem brought about the Ten Makkot in a manner that leaves room for a skeptic to question their supernatural nature. This is similar to the Rambam’s teaching – only the Sinai revelation was presented in a manner that left no room for doubt. Thus, the modern skeptical approach is not novel. The Rambam already acknowledges that there is room for a skeptic to doubt the Ten Makkot constituting a supernatural event. There is, nonetheless, much opportunity to refute the skeptic as we shall continue.
Ramban (Shemot 14:21) writes that Hashem made a fierce east wind blow the entire night to give the Egyptians the opportunity to think the Yam Suf was split by natural causes (i.e., the fierce eastern wind) and not by Hashem. The Ramban clarifies, though, that the Egyptians nonetheless had ample opportunity to recognize Hashem’s involvement such as the fact that the Yam Suf was split into sections (Tehillim 136:13). Unfortunately for the Egyptians, they did not exercise their common sense and recognize Hashem’s presence.
Similarly, Hashem may have, on the one hand, left some room for the skeptic to doubt the Ten Makkot’s status as a divinely directed event; but on the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that is was a supernatural event as we shall now discuss. One need only exercise common sense to recognize that the hand of Hashem orchestrated these incredible episodes. We shall present three potent counter-arguments to the challenge to the supernatural nature of the Ten Makkot. We argue that mainstream Torah thought can accept the possibility that Hashem brought about the Ten Makkot in the basic manner outlined above.
Responses to the Challenge – Natural Events Repeat Themselves
A strong proof that Hashem brought about the Ten Makkot is the fact that natural events repeat themselves. The claim that the Ten Makkot occurred without Hashem’s involvement, is easily refuted by noting that no series of events even remotely similar to the Ten Plagues has occurred since the Jewish Exodus from Mitzrayim approximately 3,300 years ago. If the Ten Plagues were natural events that were not coordinated by Hashem, they should have reoccurred at some point in the past three thousand years.
Furthermore, the timing of the events clearly makes obvious Hashem’s involvement. Moshe Rabbeinu announces the Makot in advance and sometimes announces their termination. The most striking example is the conclusion of Makkat Tzefardei’ah (frogs, according to most commentaries). Moshe Rabbeinu approaches Par’oh and asks him when he would like to end this plague (Shemot 8:5-6). Par’oh surprisingly responds, “tomorrow,” to which Moshe Rabbeinu happily responds that he will honor this request in order to prove “that there is none like Hashem.”
Ibn Ezra (ad. loc.) explains that Par’oh did not ask for the immediate end of the frog Makkah because he suspected that these plagues were brought about by natural means regarding which Moshe Rabbeinu had greater knowledge than he and his learned advisors. Par’oh thought that Moshe expected him to request the immediate cessation and made the offer because he knew the plague was ending. Par’oh thought to thwart this strategy by surprising Moshe by not asking for the plague to end immediately. Moshe Rabbeinu, in turn, was pleased to have the opportunity to prove that the Makkot were brought abut by Hashem’s design and not the automatic working of nature. Thus, it could be that Hashem brought about the Makkot in a natural manner, but the timing makes it abundantly clear that Hashem is controlling the situation.
Interestingly, this may explain how Par’oh hardened his heart during the first five Makkot (see Rashi to Shemot 7:3). He may have convinced himself that the Ten Makkot were a natural event, despite the clear evidence to the contrary. This is not unlike contemporary skeptics who, due to personal agendas and/or psychological barriers, ignore the Hashem’s existence and/or the divine authorship of the Torah. Indeed, the skeptics’ arguments require a far greater “leap of faith” than does the Orthodox Jewish view.
Miracles within the Ten Makkot
Finally, there were significant indications within the Makkot that were of a divine nature. The most conspicuous example is the fire that was within the hail (Shemot 9:24) that was witnessed by an entire nation whose members have passed this fact down to their descendents, generation after generation, in an unbroken chain that lasts even until today. Rashi (ad. loc.) refers to this phenomenon “as a miracle within a miracle”. Note the aforementioned secular theory for the plague of fiery hail does not account for this phenomenon. Hashem may have introduced the fire in the hail specifically to dispel any doubt as to the divine character of the Ten Plagues.
Regarding the plague of locusts the Torah (Shemot 10:14) notes that this was not an ordinary locust plague that has afflicted Egypt on occasion (even in the contemporary era). Rather, it was a swarm that encompassed the entire country. Moreover, the Torah makes a stunning prediction that there such an intense plague of locusts will never plague Egypt. Were the Torah merely the product of human genius and not a divine document, would such a prediction be made? An intelligent individual knows not to make a prediction that can be proven incorrect. This is especially so in regard to Egypt which is plagued by swarms of locusts on a somewhat regular basis. A human author of great talent (no one denies the enormous talent of the Biblical author) would never expose himself to such a risk of falsification. Thus, we have yet another demonstration of the divine authorship of the Torah.
By no means should we feel obliged to adopt the natural theories about the Ten Makkot as correct (as we noted, they appear far-fetched). Those who postulated these approaches have by no means proved their arguments with irrefutable evidence. It remains merely a possibility that the theories are correct. We have demonstrated that even if the natural theories were to be true, they are not incompatible with Torah belief. In some ways it may even enhance our understanding of Torah. We have followed the Rambam’s model of dealing with a challenge to Torah belief – the manner in which Rambam responds to Aristotle’s argument that the world is eternal. Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim, section two) notes that Aristotle has not conclusively proven his argument but that were his theory proven true it could be rendered compatible with Torah belief (Moreh Nevuchim 2:25).
 Author’s note: Although mainstream traditional commentaries assume Arov to refer to wild beasts attacking, the Midrash Rabbah 11:3 cites an opinion that Arov refers to swarms of mosquitoes and hornets.