Another Exaggeration Problem
by Farrell Till
We noticed in Part One that the Exodus writer began the plague stories with a tit-for-tat premise that quickly created a logistical impossibility. In the first tit-for-tat scenario, Aaron threw his rod down and it became a serpent, but Pharaoh's sorcerers did likewise with their "secret arts" and changed their rods into serpents, which were then gobbled up by the serpent that had been Aaron's rod (Ex. 7:10-12). Hence, the power of Yahweh had from the very beginning proved superior to that of the Egyptian sorcerers. The writer's strategy worked until he had Pharaoh's sorcerers duplicate Aaron's feat of changing the water throughout all the land of Egypt into blood, because, as noted in my article linked to above, the writer was at this point claiming a logistical impossibility, for if all the water in Egypt had been changed into blood, there would have been no way for Pharaoh's sorcerers to have done "likewise with their secret arts." It would have been one thing to change existing water into blood; it would have been quite another to change nonexisting water into blood.
The Exodus writer also had a penchant for superlatives that subsequently resulted in other discrepancies. We have already seen how the writer claimed that "all the livestock in Egypt" were killed by a plague of murrain but then later claimed that additional Egyptian livestock were somehow afflicted with boils, killed with hail, and finally killed in the plague against all Egyptian firstborn, human and animal alike. This discrepancy resulted from the writer's consistent use of superlatives to describe the extent of the plagues. The water was changed to blood throughout all the land of Egypt (Ex. 7:19-21); all the dust throughout all the land of Egypt was changed to lice [gnats or mosquitoes] (Ex. 8:17); all the livestock of Egypt died (Ex. 9:6); the hail struck throughout all the land of Egypt (Ex. 9:25)--all seemed to be the writer's favorite word to describe the scope of the plagues. Other superlatives, however, were used to convey that the plagues were unbounded in their scope. Although all the livestock of the Egyptians were killed by the murrain, not so much as one of the Israelite livestock died (Ex. 9:7). The hail was "the heaviest hail to fall that has ever fallen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now" (Ex. 9:18,25). Every man and beast in the field were struck down by the hail (Ex. 9:25), which also broke "all the plants in the field" and "shattered every tree in the field" (Ex. 9:25). The locusts were "very grievous" and such as "had never been before, nor ever shall be again" (Ex. 10:14), and they ate "all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left" and "nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt" (Ex. 10:15). Apparently, the Exodus writer just couldn't say that a heavy hail came or that huge swarms of locusts came. No, he had to describe the plagues in superlative terms, i. e., the worst that had ever been or ever would be, which spared nothing in their paths.
He was just as extravagant in his descriptions of Yahweh's clean-up operations. When Yahweh removed the flies "not one remained" (Ex. 8:32). When he sent a "very strong west wind" to drive the locusts into the Red Sea, "not a single locust was left in all the country of Egypt" (Ex. 10:19). Such hyperbolic descriptions are hard to believe, because it is inconceivable to imagine that there could have been a time when not a single fly was anywhere in the land of Egypt or that not a single locust was left in all of Egypt after infestations as thorough as had been claimed earlier, but the writer finally went too far on the final plague when he said that after Yahweh had struck all of the firstborn, both human and animal, "there was not a house without someone dead" (Ex. 12:30).
If this statement was true, the social structure of Egypt was indeed unique at that time, because every house in the country would have had to have had someone who was the firstborn in his family, and that would not have been very likely. If a plague against the firstborn should strike our country, for example, no one would die in my house, because both my wife and I have an older sibling; hence, there would be no firstborn in our house to die. I can personally think of several other families where this would also be true. By virtue of the firstborn having grown up and moved out on their own, husbands and wives, who were not the firstborn of their parents, would experience no deaths in their own houses, because there are no firstborn living in these houses. There are also houses where no firstborn reside because neither parent was a firstborn and their firstborn children have regrettably died. My wife has a younger sister who married a younger sibling in his family, and their firstborn child died shortly after birth, so if a plague against the firstborn had struck our country back when their only other child was living with them, no one in their house would have died. Nationwide, there are surely hundreds or even thousands of houses in which no firstborn live; hence, a plague against the firstborn in this country would leave many homes untouched. There is no reason to think that Egypt in biblical times would have been any different.
This is the point where inerrantists will play their "figurative" card. Well, of course, they will say, the writer wasn't speaking literally. He merely used hyperbole to communicate that the scope of this plague was massive. In reply to that, I have to ask if the writer was speaking figuratively when he said that "not one [fly] remained" in Egypt (Ex. 8:31) and that "not a single locust was left in all the country of Egypt" (Ex. 10:19). Was he just speaking figuratively when he said that "not so much as one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead" (Ex. 9:7)? If this is going to be the "explanation" that inerrantists offer in their defense of this problem, let them explain just how it could have been figuratively true that not one fly was in all the land Egypt? How could it have been figuratively true that not a single locust was in all the country of Egypt? How could it have been figuratively true that not so much as one of the Israelite livestock died in the plague of the murrain? After all, if one--just one--Israelite cow or sheep or horse died in this plague, then it would not have been true, even figuratively, that "not so much as one of the livestock of the Israelites died."
The Bible is a book of exaggerations. It exaggerated the population figures of the Israelites at the time of the exodus (Num. 1-2); it exaggerated the size of armies; it exaggerated casualties in battles; it exaggerated the wealth of Solomon (1 Kings 10:14-21) by claiming that, among other valuable assets, he received 666 talents of gold per year. A talent weighed 75.5 pounds, so the claim was that Solomon received 50,283 pounds or over 25 tons of gold per year. At this rate, over his 40-year reign, he would have received 1,000 tons of gold, which was certainly phenomenal considering that the total gold reserves worldwide today are only about 30,000 tons. Hence, we are supposed to believe that Solomon possessed about one-thirtieth of all the gold that has ever been mined.
Exaggeration was commonplace in the Bible as it was in many extrabiblical documents of that time. In "The Numbers of the Book," Fred Titanich discussed and analyzed several examples of biblical exaggeration, such as the number of oxen and sheep that Solomon allegedly sacrificed at the dedication of the temple upon its completion (2 Chron. 7:4-5), the amount of gold and silver used in the embellishment of the temple (1 Chron. 22:14), the number of quails that the Israelites gathered in the wilderness (Num. 11:18-20), the size of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3-4), and other overstated examples. Exaggeration is a difficult discrepancy to prove, but common sense will tell any reasonable person that 7.5 million pounds of gold and 75.5 million pounds of silver, in addition to unspecified qualities of brass and iron, could not have been used in overlaying the walls, beams, and furnishings in a temple that was only 90' x 30' x 45' in its dimensions (1 Kings 6:2). The same common sense will tell reasonable people that Solomon could not have sacrificed 22 thousand oxen and 120 thousand sheep at one time, which would have been an estimated 37 million pounds or 18,000 tons of animal flesh, in dedicating the temple, and these were only Solomon's sacrifices; they didn't include those that "all the people" offered to Yahweh (2 Chron. 7:4), and "all the people" constituted a "very great assembly from the entrance of Hamath [in the far north of Israel] to the brook of Egypt [on the southern border]" (2 Chron. 7:8). The temple had only one sacrificial altar, and even though its dimensions were 30' x 30' (1 Chron. 4:1), it couldn't possibly have accommodated this many sacrifices in a single dedication ceremony of only a seven-day duration (2 Chron. 7:8). The chronicler seemed aware of this problem, because he claimed that Solomon "consecrated" the middle court in front of the temple and offered burnt offerings there "because the bronze altar Solomon had made could not hold the burnt offering and the grain offering and the fat parts" (2 Chron. 7:7). The dimensions of this court were never stated in the Bible, but at the dedication ceremony Solomon had a bronze platform, which was 7.5' x 7.5' (2 Chron. 6:12), put before the altar so that he could kneel on it to give a dedication prayer. A porch 30' feet long (2 Chron. 3:4) was built in front of the temple, so the known dimensions of everything within the court indicate that it wasn't at all a huge place. Furthermore, the Bible says in two places (1 Kings 8:64 and 2 Chron. 7:7) that Solomon consecrated the middle court that was in front of the house of Yahweh, for an additional sacrificial area, so only a limited part of the middle court was used for this purpose. The space used for burning sacrifices in this part of the court necessarily had to have been limited, because it had been constructed with "a course [row] of cedar beams" built into it (1 Kings 6:36), which would have burned if the entire court had been used as a sacrificial altar. To say the least, then, it was unlikely that the "middle" of this court could have accommodated tons of animal flesh being incinerated in homage to a tribal god. This, like the others mentioned above, is just another example of biblical exaggeration.
In spinning the tales about the Egyptian plagues, the Exodus writer merely followed the custom of his time and exaggerated freely, but in so doing he destroyed the believability of his accounts of these alleged events. No one living at the time could possibly have known that immediately after infestations of the magnitude claimed in the plague accounts, not a single fly or locust remained in the entire country of Egypt, and if the final plague killed only those who were the firstborn in their families, it would not have been the case that all of the houses in Egypt, without exception, had someone dead in them. Even though extended families may have remained together back then more than they do now, it stretches imagination beyond reasonable credibility to think that there wasn't a house anywhere in Egypt at that time that didn't have someone dead in it.