Biblical Epidemics Of Bubonic Plague -- By: Edward M. Merrins

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 061:242 (Apr 1904)
Article: Biblical Epidemics Of Bubonic Plague
Author: Edward M. Merrins


Biblical Epidemics Of Bubonic Plague

Edward M. Merrins

The recent outbreak of bubonic plague in different parts of the world, after a long period of quiescence, and its brief, unwelcome visitation to our own land, create an interest in this disease which it would not possess if it were extinct, and all we knew of it had to be gathered from records stretching away into the remote past. For plague is certainly one of the most ancient of all diseases: to quote a Shakespearean phrase, it is “blasted with antiquity.” The earliest notice of it in secular literature is contained in the writings of Rufus of Ephesus (circ. 100 a.d.), who refers to records concerning an epidemic in the third century before Christ, which ravaged Egypt, Syria, and Libya,—an epidemic which was undoubtedly plague, for the contemporary physicians described it “as accompanied by an acute fever, by terrible pain, by a trouble of the whole body by delirium, and by the appearance of large buboes, hard and without suppuration, not only in the usual positions, but also behind the knee and at the elbow.” A careful study, however, of the events recorded in the early chapters of the book of Samuel,1 has led several writers 2 to the opinion that here is the most ancient of all records of an epidemic of bubonic plague (circ. B.C. 1100).

The biblical story, supplemented by Josephus,3 is as follows:

In one of the battles which occurred during the long and incessant struggle for religious and political supremacy between the Philistines and the Jews, the latter were defeated with great slaughter. The contest was renewed after a short time, and to insure success the Jews carried their sacred ark with them into battle. The Philistines fought desperately, inflicting such a severe defeat upon their enemies that thirty thousand were left dead on the battle-field. The ark was captured, and taken by the Philistines to the city of Ashdod, where it was placed in the temple of their own god Dagon. Ashdod was a city of great commercial importance about three miles from the sea-coast, on the high road of traffic between Egypt and Syria. Almost immediately after the ark’s arrival, there was an outbreak of disease in the city and surrounding parts. The biblical writer regards it as an exhibition of Divine wrath upon the Philistines for their sacrilegious detention of the ark. “The hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with tumors [or plague boils], … and there was a great and deadly destruct...

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