The sixth plague: Was the plague of boils a real disease?

Science and Health

Researchers believe they may have discovered scientific evidence of the famed biblical ten plagues in ancient Egypt.

Over the years, scientists have tried to give scientific explanations for the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians in the Book of Exodus. The Torah is not the only historical source dealing with these events; they are referenced in the Ipuwer Papyrus, an Egyptian document dating back to the 20th century BCE.

The papyrus describes a chain of catastrophic events in Egypt, including famine, drought, escape of slaves and general death and destruction across the land. 

However, scientists focused particularly on a phenomenon unique to the Torah’s account of events: Boils. The sixth of the ten plagues was an uncomfortable skin condition described as “an inflammation breaking out in boils on human and beast throughout the land of Egypt.”

Some researchers claim that the boils are actually eczema, an inflammatory disease affecting the outer layer of the skin. It is often caused by an allergic reaction and can appear as itchy redness on the skin. If not taken care of properly, it can turn into painful blisters similar to those described as “boils” in the Bible. Cattle can contract a similar disease, called sporidesmin, which is a fungal infection causing rashes to appear on the face. 

What other explanations could there be for biblical boils?

Another possible “boils” disease that affects humans and animals is melioidosis, a bacterial infection causing blisters and ulcers at infection sites. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is another option. It is also a bacterial infection and it causes granulomas (lumps) to form on the skin. 

Smallpox was once one of humanity’s most devastating diseases for the first time that the disease has plagued human societies since ancient times (Illustrative). (credit: Microbiology Society)

Smallpox is another contender; the deadly disease causes lesions to appear on the skin and is highly contagious. 

The penultimate possibility is anthrax, a disease that is associated today with biological warfare but is also found naturally in soil. Those who contract anthrax develop blisters and ulcers on the skin, and it can infect people and animals. 

The final theory posited involved the cooperation of two earlier plagues: Blood and frogs. The change in the composition of the Nile water as well as the proliferation of dead frogs could have brought insects into the mix, carrying an array of boil-causing diseases. Poor hygiene after avoiding bathing in the Nile would have exacerbated the risk of infections.