Journal article Open Access

The biblical plague of the Philistines now has a name, tularemia

Trevisanato, Siro Igino

Abstract An epidemic thought to have been the first instance of bubonic plague in the Mediterranean reveals to have been an episode of tularemia. The deadly epidemic took place in the aftermath of the removal of a wooden box from an isolated Hebrew sanctuary. Death, tumors, and rodents thereafter plagued Philistine country. Unlike earlier explanations proposed, tularemia caused by Francisella tularensis exhaustively explains the outbreak. Tularemia fits all the requirements indicated in the biblical text: it is carried by animals, is transmitted to humans, results in the development of ulceroglandular formations, often misdiagnosed for bubonic plague, and is fatal. Moreover, there is the evidence from the box and rodents: mice, which are known carrier for F. tularensis and can communicate it to humans, were credited by the very Philistines to be linked to the outbreak, and are small enough to nest in the box. Mice also explain the otherwise odd statement in the biblical text of a small Philistine idol repeatedly falling on the floor at night in the building where the Philistines had stored the box as mice exiting the box would easily have tipped over the statuette. Tularemia scores yet another point: an episode of the disease is known to have originated in Canaan and spread to Egypt around 1715 BC, indicating recurrence for the disease, and suggesting Canaan was a reservoir for F. tularensis in the 2nd millennium BC.

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