Meditations in Exodus: 28. First Plague – Blood
Ex 7:14,15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes out to the water. Wait on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was changed into a snake.
So now the battle really commences. The matter of the staff was merely a warm-up. For some reason Pharaoh (and no doubt his retinue) were going down to the Nile. Now earlier in the book the Princess had regularly gone down to bathe. Possibly Pharaoh did the same thing. Others have suggested that he went down to perform rites to welcome the Nile when, each year, it flooded and brought silt with it that then made the surrounding areas some of them most fertile in the land.
The Egyptians worshiped the Nile because when it flooded it extended agricultural life eight miles to either side of its banks. It not only brought irrigation for crops, but it also supplied its marshes for pasture and hunting wild game. It also contained a wealth of fish that was basic to the diet of the Egyptian and so in a variety of ways it truly brought life to the otherwise desert-covered land.
Now we need to bear in mind that many of Egypt’s gods were also associated either directly or indirectly with the Nile and its productivity. For instance, the great Khnum, (the water god and potter god of creation), was considered the guardian of the Nile sources, a life bringer. Another of the gods, possibly one of the greatest, was Osiris, who was the god of the underworld. Now listen – the Egyptians believed that the river Nile was his bloodstream. Now take note of what follows.
The Lord in our present verses instructs Moses and Aaron to go and meet Pharaoh in the morning and meet him on the banks of the Nile (note, the Lord knows exactly what Pharaoh will be doing). They are not to demand release of Israel – they have already done that – but reiterate that that is what they have done and then tell him exactly what they are about to do, strike the Nile with Moses’ staff and turn it to blood (v.16-18) and it will be so bad that “the fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.’ “ (v.18) It is important that Pharaoh hears it before it happens so that there is no question as to why it happens – it is God!!!!
But actually this ‘plague’ or disaster is to stretch much further than just the Nile: “The LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, `Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt–over the streams and canals, over the ponds and all the reservoirs’–and they will turn to blood. Blood will be everywhere in Egypt, even in the wooden buckets and stone jars.” (v.19) This they do and exactly that happens (v.20,21)
Then the story takes on an element of farce: “But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh’s heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said.” (v.22) Now presumably they took buckets of water already around the palace and by occult means turned the water into blood – pretty stupid really because they were removing the last of the clean water for drinking!
Pharaoh is unmoved, just as the Lord said he would, but consider the intellectual and emotional turmoil that must be going on in the minds of the superstitious Egyptians. Remember what we said: they believed the great Khnum was considered the guardian of the Nile sources, a life bringer, and that that the river Nile was the bloodstream of the greatest of their gods, Osiris, who was the god of the underworld. Suddenly it IS blood and it is flowing down to the sea. Is the literal lifeblood of this all-important ‘god’ being drained away, and is it the cause of Khnum? Is there a war among the gods, are they angry with Egypt, is Osiris about the die? And that is apart from the practical catastrophe of there being no clean drinking or washing water – ANYWHERE in the land. And how has this come about? Moses and Aaron! Or at least ‘their god’.
At which point the superstitious Egyptian, hearing what has happened may be weeping in anguish, not only at the loss of water but at the loss of their very gods who they have relied upon. It is as if this crusader has come with his magic staff and stabbed the very heart of Osiris by his magic powers. Or perhaps there is indeed another god who is all-powerful and has come to slay their gods and challenge the very heart of their beliefs about their gods who have up until now provided water for them and thus irrigation and life in a variety of forms. The very heart of their basic economy has just been threatened – and Pharaoh is too stubborn to do anything about it.
In many ways this first plague is one of the worst, threatening everything about the life of Egypt. As we’ll go on to see, other plagues follow on or flow from this one but don’t be deceived, they are not merely natural outworkings, they are the disciplinary judgment of God. This judgment has struck not only at Pharaoh’s pride, and not only at the very economy of the land, but at the very belief system grounded in superstitious fear that held these Egyptians slaves. That’s funny, it was the Israelites who were supposed to be the slaves wasn’t it? Well now the fear has been multiplied but it is very mixed and confused. Ours gods, their God, what is happening, what is going to happen, how will all this end?
It might be useful to conclude by reminding ourselves that the intent of these first ‘plagues’ is not to kill but to discipline – to bring change of behaviour. The Lord later says through one of His prophets, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) and “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32) Be careful when you hear people attributing God as the cause of a death. He certainly does on occasion but mostly not. His desire is to bring life not final judgment, deliverance rather than death wherever it is possible. Thank Him for that.