Exodus 7: The Nile is Turned to Blood

By Mary Jane Chaignot

To no one’s surprise the signs performed by Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh have no effect. Indeed, the final statement confirms that rather than taking anything to heart, “Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.” God acknowledges that Pharaoh “is a stubborn man. He refuses to let the people go.” With this, God commits to doing “the mighty signs and wonders” that will eventually move Pharaoh to release the Israelites.

Bible translations, scholars, and the general population refer to what follows as the ten plagues. But a closer look is warranted. The word, plague, means “to strike or smite,” typically an act of God that results in the loss of life. It might be surprising, then, to know that the word rarely appears in the Hebrew text during these events. Among the first nine incidents there is one use of the word “plague” (in 9:14) regarding the hail that is about to strike the Egyptians “so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.” The Egyptians are warned to have people and livestock seek shelter. Those who choose to ignore the warning will die when the hail comes down, resulting in loss of life. (Another use in 8:2 regarding the infestation of frogs is subject to interpretation.)

Likewise, there is no reference to the “ten plagues” in other biblical passages. These events are referred to as “signs and wonders” or “signs” or “wonders.” The number and order also varies. God has repeatedly told Moses that He will perform “signs and wonders” and that Pharaoh will ignore the “signs and wonders.” This terminology is very God-centered, revealing God’s activity in the lives of His people. It becomes apparent that the purpose of these events is twofold. The Egyptians will come to know the Lord, and Pharaoh will eventually release the Israelites.

Nor should readers think these are random events. There is a pattern among the first nine. Various scholars will have different groupings, but they can generally be grouped in three series of three events each. The first group is events 1, 4, and 7; the second 2, 5, and 8; the third is 3, 6, and 9. Events 1, 4, and 7 come with a warning and happen in the morning; events 2, 5, and 8 come with a warning possibly at the palace; events 3, 6, and 9 just happen. The first three events involve water issues. Events 4-6 involve physical attacks against people, livestock, then both. Events 7-9 involve attacks from the sky. The first three are done by the staff of Aaron; the second set by the hand of Moses; the third by the hidden hand of the Lord. Of course, there are also considerable variations among them in terms of duplication, length, results, and conversation. But the undeniable pattern is suggestive of something purposeful and well thought out.

Some scholars have pointed out the orderliness of these events is reminiscent of God’s work in creation. Upon the culmination of His creative work, God blesses humankind, commanding them to “Be fruitful and multiply” (See Gen 1:28). We read in Ex 1:7, “The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.” When Pharaoh’s efforts at genocide are unsuccessful, he decides to “deal shrewdly” with them. He conscripts them into slavery and “worked them ruthlessly,” in a sense, placing himself over against God’s promises and blessings. The signs and wonders, then, are the consequences of Pharaoh’s attempts to be anti-life, to undo creation. That might be why all aspects of creation become involved in these events. Water isn’t water; the sun isn’t the sun; hail, diseases, bugs, and frogs are out of control. Conversation usually centers on the effects upon humanity; but in reality, the nonhuman world suffers terribly as well. The language describing these events is hauntingly hyperbolic.

The question always arises regarding the authenticity of them. Could they really have happened? In this case scholars have acknowledged that during the flood stage, red sediment has been known to flow into the Nile giving the water a reddish hue. It is true that occasional historical events like these have been recorded by ancient civilizations. In fact, each incident can be explained by natural phenomenon, but that is clearly not the point here. What sets these apart is their intensity and chronology. Even if these could happen naturally, here they occur upon God’s command.

During these events, nature goes berserk. Through his actions against the Israelites, Pharaoh has upset the moral order of creation. God’s signs and wonders are enacted judgments against Pharaoh, the consequences for his deeds. The entire world of creation plays a role. Along the way Pharaoh is given opportunities to change his heart, to let the Israelites go, to know the Lord. He chooses to remain “a stubborn man.”

Nor is it happenstance that the first event involves water from the Nile. In like manner, the final act against the Egyptians occurs with the drowning of their army in the Red Sea. Water in the beginning and end provides a framework for the whole narrative. The blood of the Nile in the beginning will again turn red with the blood of the army at the end. There are additional symbolic aspects for involving the Nile. Pharaoh has tried genocide by having male babies drowned in the Nile; Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter among the reeds of the Nile. The Nile is considered the lifeblood of Egypt bringing prosperity and security; now it will become an instrument of destruction. It is worshiped as a god. This attack on the Nile is also an attack on the Egyptian gods; their impotence becomes apparent.

The actual details are somewhat repetitive and vague. Initially, the Lord tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake.” Now, technically, it is Aaron’s staff that turned into a snake. Nonetheless, the Lord continues, “Say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” But until now you have not listened.’”

Moses is to say, “Thus says the Lord, ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord.’ See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.”

This all seems relatively straightforward until the next section, in which the Lord tells Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’” Suddenly, it is bloodied water everywhere, not just the Nile.

Obviously, Moses and Aaron are together, and they do just as the Lord commands. Yet, it is not entirely clear which one “in the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials lifts up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river is turned into blood, and the fish in the river die. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt.” Those believing in the sediment theory claim that the lowered oxygen level causes the fish to die and rotting fish do have a pungent smell. They do not explain how this would all happen instantaneously.

Nor is it clear how “the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts.” If “all the water has already been turned to blood,” where do they find clean water to turn? Some scholars think they turned it back to water and then back to blood, but this seems to be a real stretch. If so, it becomes apparent they cannot turn it back again, even with their “secret arts.” Regardless, “Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart.” In his mind, this is clearly a standoff. If this had been a common phenomenon, it is no surprise that Pharaoh is unimpressed. But if so, it is surprising that he doesn’t say something to that effect.

“And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river.” This contradicts the flood theory because if the area is totally flooded, people would not have been able to dig along the river. Plus, scholars point out that even with the historical reddish hue, the water would still have been drinkable. So this appears to be something out of the ordinary.

“Seven days passed after the Lord had struck the Nile.” This seems like a long time to go without water. And just as importantly, scholars believe the Israelites were exempt from this problem either through having wells or access to water outside the city, even though the text doesn’t not say this. From every standpoint, it is not God’s intent to have the Israelites suffer any more.