It's raining frogs, hallelujah
April 2, 2019 10:52 AM   Subscribe

In the text of Exodus, the Plague of Frogs creeps up from the Nile. But many people imagine that scene as a rain of frogs instead, and a lot of Sunday school coloring books and cartoons and other bits of pop culture ephemera draw it that way. What's the history there? Who depicted it that way first? What other artists, writers, movies, etc. helped spread that depiction?

(So okay, yes, it sometimes rains frogs IRL, and a lot of people have told tall tales about raining frogs in non-Biblical contexts. But what I'm interested in is the practice of combining that with Exodus. Who first combined the two? How did the practice of combining them spread?)
posted by nebulawindphone to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is not a specific answer to your question, but--Aaron holds his arm over the water and the frogs come up from it, so I'm guessing the connection is in the water. Frogs jump, water comes down, I could see how that might go together.

In poking around I also noticed there is a funny debate in the Talmud about this (Sanhedrin 67b). The rabbis argue amongst themselves per usual about how many frogs there really were--as Exodus 8:2 actually says "the frog," a definite singular noun. They debate, then Rabbi Eleazar tells Rabbi Akiba that he doesn't know what he's talking about and to mind his own business (stick to commentaries on Leviticus).

"Rabbi Eleazar said: It was one frog, which bred prolifically and filled the land. This is a matter disputed by Tannaim. Rabbi Akiba said: There was one frog which filled the whole of Egypt [by breeding]. But Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said to him, ‘Akiba, What hast thou to do with Haggadah? Cease thy words and devote thyself to ‘Leprosies’ and ‘Tents.’ One frog croaked for the others, and they came’."

Whereas Rashi says that "one frog" means "a swarm of frogs," in a figurative sense or like a collective noun.

I'm guessing your connection is probably in Christian tradition but perhaps there's a link here somewhere; even the Jewish commentators were confused;)
posted by epanalepsis at 11:32 AM on April 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: (It seems like the Christian and Jewish subsets of my social circle both have the "Oh yeah I totally picture it as raining frogs, gee I have no idea why" meme, so I'd be curious for info from either tradition.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:46 AM on April 2, 2019

This is VERY anecdotal, but the glee with which a family friend would list the plagues on Passover...


TSIFARDEEEEEAAAHH get the idea, blood, frogs, locusts, it all seemed to be falling from the sky. How else would it come? The language is like, struck, smote, things like that in the Haggadah (the book containing the readings & rituals of the Passover seder). It's not super explicit in versions I've seen.
posted by wellred at 12:03 PM on April 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

In the "plague by breeding" scenario, wouldn't there need to be at least.... 2 frogs?

Or even that far back, did "life find a way," Jurassic Park style?
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 12:27 PM on April 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Is this a Christian thing? Because I have never, not once, seen it depicted that way in a Haggadah, or described that way in a Jewish storytelling.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:29 PM on April 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering if people are confusing the frogs and the locusts. When I did a Google image search, I saw some pictures of frogs that were maybe hopping from a high place, but nothing that really looked like raining, except for a few images that appeared to be locusts.

My memory of the frogs from my Catholic upbringing and Child Story Bible was the frogs being in people's drinking water, which I found pretty disgusting, but not raining from the sky.
posted by FencingGal at 12:47 PM on April 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

wouldn't there need to be at least.... 2 frogs?

I'm so glad you asked!
Because virgin birth is not just a Biblical tale, it happens all the time in nature! At least for some species, including frogs. See Wikipedia's page on parthenogenesis and parthenogenesis in amphibians. "Parthenogenesis" is literally Greek for "virgin birth", and yes, one female frog could in principle produce a swarming plague of them. This is also how one female aphid creates a swarm that covers a plant.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:47 PM on April 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

Mod note: A few comments deleted. Folks, I agree it's an interesting topic, but let's please stick to "what's the actual history of this idea", rather than related thoughts.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 1:18 PM on April 2, 2019

The Wikipedia page “rain of animals” lists events going back to the 19th century, though it only lists rains of toads or frogs from the 21st century. I would be curious whether there's correlation between publicity of events like those and this misinterpretation of the scriptural story.
posted by XMLicious at 1:27 PM on April 2, 2019

Best answer: The plague of frogs started to pose a problem for biblical commentators in the later seventeenth century, when the Aristotelian theory of spontaneous generation began to be challenged. As the naturalist John Ray argued in 1671:
Whether there be any spontaneous or anomalous generation of animals, as has been the constant opinion of naturalists heretofore, I think there is good reason to question. It seems to me at present most probable, that there is no such thing.
Which raised the question: where had the plague of frogs come from? To answer this question, biblical commentators went back to classical sources: in particular, to the third-century Greek text known as the Deipnosophistae, which happened to mention a rain of frogs:
Heracleides Lembus, for example, says in the twenty-first book of his Histories: 'In Paeonia and Dardania it rained frogs, and so great was their number that they filled the houses and streets. Well, during the first days the people killed them and shut up their houses and made the best of it. But soon they could do nothing to stop it; their vessels were filled with frogs, which were found boiled or baked with their food. Besides, they could not use the water, nor could they set foot on the ground amidst the heaps of frogs piled up, and being overcome also with disgust at the smell of the dead creatures, they fled the country.'
Commentators on Exodus found this very convenient in explaining how the frogs could have appeared so suddenly. So, for example, when Abraham Cowley wrote his poetic ode, 'The Plagues of Egypt', he made it clear that the frogs had come from the River Nile, apparently generated from the heat of rotting fish:
The River yet gave one Instruction more,
And from the rotting Fish and unconcocted Gore,
Which was but Water just before,
A loathsome Host was quickly made,
That scale'd the Banks, and with loud noise did all the Country invade.
But in his notes to the poem, Cowley backed away from the theory of spontaneous generation, and suggested that the frogs might have fallen from the sky -- or, at any rate, that they might have appeared to fall from the sky, because they were 'suddenly produced after great showers':
When the water had been corrupted in this manner, it is no wonder if it produced a great number of Frogs; but the wonder consists in that the number was so infinite, in that it was so suddenly produced upon the action of Aaron, and that contrary to their nature, they came to molest the Egyptians in their very houses. The like judgment with this we find in profane Histories, and to be attributed to the same hand of God, though the Rod was Invisible. Athenaeus in his 8th Book, Chapter 2. reports, that in Paeonia and Dardanium (now called Bulgary) there rained down so many Frogs from Heaven (that is, perhaps they were suddenly produced after great showers) that they filled all the publick ways, and even private houses, that their domestical furniture was covered with them, that they found them in the very Pots where they boiled their meat; and that what with the trouble of the Living, and the smell of the Dead ones, they were forced at last to forsake their Country. And Pliny reports in his 8th Book, Chapter 29, That a whole City in Gallia hath been driven away by Frogs, and another in Afrique by Locusts; and many examples of this kind might be collected.
So there you have it: that's how the plague of frogs turned into a rain of frogs. We may take it for granted now, but it all comes from the well-meaning efforts of seventeenth-century commentators to reconcile the Bible with science.
posted by verstegan at 1:35 PM on April 2, 2019 [58 favorites]

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