The Exodus Decoded: Exhibits I & J

As one might reasonably expect, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici spends considerable time in The Exodus Decoded describing “plausible scientific explanations” (his words) for the ten plagues described in the biblical book of Exodus. Previous installments in this series (specifically, those labeled Exhibit F4, Exhibit G, and Exhibit H) have discussed his treatments of the first nine plagues, finding all of those treatments problematic in various ways. When he reaches the tenth plague—the death of the firstborn—Jacobovici actually offers two “exhibits”: a mass grave (Exhibit I) and the mummy of Ahmose’s son, prince Sapair (Exhibit J). If you’ve read other installments in this series, it won’t surprise you to learn that neither exhibit proves what Jacobovici wants it to prove.

A model of carbon dioxide

Jacobovici claims that carbon dioxide rolling up from the Nile killed the firstborn in the tenth plague.

Jacobovici explains the death of the firstborn as basically asphyxiation by carbon dioxide inhalation.

While the Israelites were involved in the Passover ritual, the Egyptians slept. And then it happened. Every firstborn male Egyptian died. Every house was affected. No one has ever been able to offer a plausible scientific explanation for the death of the firstborn. According to our scenario, at this point in the sequence of events that began some six months earlier, the gas leak that set the chain of plagues in motion would have finally erupted. Carbon dioxide would have seeped to the surface, and being heavier than air, would have killed animals and sleeping people before it dissipated harmlessly into the atmosphere.

Once again, Jacobovici invokes the analogy of Lake Nyos in Cameroon. As other reviewers have pointed out, the Lake Nyos analogy is very weak, as there is a significant difference between the still waters of a lake and the moving waters of a river. For the moment, let’s set aside that problem—not to ignore it, for indeed it invalidates the entire analogy, but merely to see whether the other parts of the scenario work any better.

If one accepts the Lake Nyos analogy and the possibility of a carbon dioxide fog rolling across Egypt—implausibly filling all of Egypt, which is a lot bigger than Cameroon, although only a small part of Cameroon was affected by the Lake Nyos gas—the next big hurdle to overcome is the question of how this fog knew to selectively suffocate only the firstborn. Jacobovici has an answer ready for this objection, though:

Well, Egyptian firstborn males had a privileged position. They were the heirs to the throne, to property, title, and more. They slept on Egyptian beds low to the ground, while their brothers and sisters slept on rooftops, sheds, and in wagons. The Israelites, sitting up at their first Passover meal, did not feel a thing while the low-traveling gas suffocated the privileged Egyptian males sleeping in their beds.

I’ve had no success definitively verifying or falsifying Jacobovici’s claim about firstborn sons enjoying the “privilege” of sleeping on beds, to the exclusion of their siblings and parents; note that we must add “and parents” for the scenario to work, as even eighth-born sons can have firstborn sons of their own. The inherent improbability of a firstborn son sleeping in a more privileged position than his father speaks against Jacobovici’s claim, strongly though not decisively. The Egyptology Online page on life in ancient Egypt suggests that bedding differences in ancient Egypt depended more on the whole family’s wealth and class, not birth order within the family. According to Bob Brier, Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians (Greenwood, 1999), 143–144, houses for “all but the very poor” included bedrooms on the ground floor, and these bedrooms “incorporated raised alcoves for sleeping” (emphasis added). Thus far, the preponderance the evidence I’ve found speaks against Jacobovici’s claim about sleeping arrangements. Some sources do put forward the idea that Egyptians might have slept on their rooftops in warm months, in order to catch the breeze and keep cool, but if so, one can hardly imagine a father saying to his firstborn son, “Sorry, everybody else gets to sleep on the rooftop because it’s cooler up here, but since you’re the firstborn son, you must sleep inside, near the ground, on your bed. Don’t you feel ‘privileged’?” Since Jacobovici doesn’t cite his sources for this claim about firstborn sons sleeping on beds while everybody else slept on rooftops, it’s hard to check it out, but at this point I have to regard that claim as unproven at best (and I admit to cynically suspecting that Jacobovici just made it up). Certainly, the firstborn sons of peasants wouldn’t enjoy the same privileges as the firstborn sons of wealthy families, or of royalty—but this doesn’t figure into Jacobovici’s scenario.

That scenario presents other problems as well. Israelites “sitting up at their first Passover meal” wouldn’t have their heads that much higher than those of Egyptians sleeping on beds or in their sleeping alcoves. Tables in ancient Egypt sat low to the ground, no higher than the beds and benches, and diners sat on the ground—not on chairs as in modern restaurants. The food would have rested at about the level of the body of someone lying on a bed.

A cow in a bed

A cow sleeping in a bed—as unlikely in ancient Egypt as in today’s world

Jacobovici’s claim that his scenario accounts for the tenth plague “exactly as the Bible describes”—a phrase Jacobovici repeats frequently—he’s got a third problem. According to Exodus 12:29, the plague affected not only the firstborn humans of all social classes (see above for social class distinctions), but also firstborn livestock. Firstborn cattle surely didn’t enjoy different sleeping accommodations from cows and younger bulls (who themselves surely didn’t sleep “on rooftops, sheds, and in wagons”), and one can hardly conceive of any way for a carbon dioxide fog to discriminate between firstborn cattle and their younger siblings. (By the way, contrary to some popular misconceptions, cows do sleep lying down, and even if they did sleep standing up, a firstborn from a mother with more than one calf would stand taller than his younger siblings, and should thus have less susceptibility to the CO2 posited in Jacobovici’s scenario.)

Nor does Jacobovici’s Exhibit I, offered as evidence for the 10th plague, prove anything related to the plagues. Exhibit I consists of a mass grave, excavated by Manfred Bietak’s team, that contains only male skeletons. With very little comment or explanation, Jacobovici infers that these men died as victims of the tenth plague. Numerous problems attend this inference. In the first place, one cannot determine a man’s birth order from his skeleton, so the assumption that all of these men were firstborns is completely gratuitous. Second, as documented by Bryant Wood in his unfavorable review of The Exodus Decoded, the graves post-date the Hyksos expulsion, the corpses seem to come from individuals only 18–25 years old (although Egypt undoubtedly held firstborns both older and younger than this at the time), and certain archaeological indicators connect the graves to a military camp. Citing Manfred Bietak’s own report of the excavation (in a journal that, unfortunately, my library doesn’t carry), Wood shows that Bietak concluded that these were corpses of “soldiers who died in the camps from diseases over a period of time” (Bietak, “The Tuthmoside Stronghold of Perunefer,” Egyptian Archaeology 26 [2005]: 13). And why does Jacobovici keep connecting the tenth plague only with firstborn sons? The Hebrew word בְּכוֹר (bekôr) is grammatically masculine, true, but in biblical Hebrew, the masculine gender is used for mixed or indeterminate groups. There’s no reason to assume that the narrator of Exodus 11–12 thought that the tenth plague was limited to males. If anything, the narrator hints at gender inclusiveness in Exodus 11:5, “and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle” (JPS Tanakh).

Jacobovici then briefly presents Exhibit J, the mummy of Ahmose’s son, prince Sapair. Jacobovici posits that if Ahmose were the Pharaoh of the ten plagues and exodus, then his son should have died young. Prince Sapair died young, apparently at age 12. Voila! Of course, Sapair’s age proves nothing. Once again, Jacobovici’s reasoning runs in a circle. Plenty of Egyptians died young, throughout Egypt’s history, including Pharaohs like the famous Tutankhamen. No evidence suggests that Sapair died of carbon dioxide asphyxiation, or in a miraculous plague. Some Egyptologists have even argued that Sapair was one of Ahmose’s younger brothers, not his son—in which case he wouldn’t have been a firstborn at all (see Chris Bennett, “Thutmosis I and Ahmes-Sapaïr,” Göttinger Miszellen 141 [1994]: 35–37, cited here), or a son of Amenhotep I (see H. Winlock, “The Tombs of the Kings of the Seventeenth Dynasty at Thebes,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 10 [1924], cited in Edward F. Wente, “Thutmose III’s Accession and the Beginning of the New Kingdom,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 34.4 [1975]: 271 n. 44).

Jacobovici’s data just don’t add up to the picture he wants to paint. Nevertheless, James Cameron reappears and opines, “It seems that the Bible, geology, and archaeology are all telling the same story.” Not by a long shot, James. Not by a long shot—and at this point in the program, Jacobovici still hasn’t taken on the crossing of the Sea.