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Aaron (Moses) changes the water of the Nile into blood - Jan Symonsz (1610)

Despite Aaron turning his staff into a snake, Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites from bondage. Then God told 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 river. Confront him on the bank of the Nile and take in your hand the staff that was changed into a snake. Then say to him, ‘Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: ‘Let my people go so that they may worship me in the wilderness.’ But until now you have not listened. This is what the Lord says: ‘By this you will know that I am the Lord; With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die and the river will stink. The Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.’”

Prince of Egypt - Moses turns Nile blood - Artist UnknownThe 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 vessels of wood and stone.”

Moses and Aaron did just as God commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt.

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. Instead, he turned and went into his palace and did not take even this to heart.

And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile to get drinking water because they could not drink the water of the river.

What the story means to us today

Pharaoh lets stubbornness and arrogance lead him to ignore God’s first warning

Moses turns the Nile River to blood - Artist UnknownThe plague of blood was the first of ten plagues inflicted on Egypt for their refusal to release the Israelites from slavery. God strikes directly at the Egypt’s most value resource, water, and an entity (the Nile) that was so revered by the Egyptians, they worshipped it as a god.

Although you would expect Pharaoh to quickly concede after such a powerful foray, he is stubborn. His status as a “god” over the Egyptians would be sullied if he bowed to God’s power. Instead, he lets his magicians convince him to ignore God’s warning.

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Additional thoughts and considerations

Was the water of the Nile turned into real blood?

The Hebrew word translated to blood in these verses could mean literal blood or the color red. It is generally believed that the water was not transformed into corpuscles of blood but rather, was turned red in color. Moses’ call to “turn the Nile River into blood” is likely similar to our calling a red moon a “blood moon”, a more dramatic way to describe the event. A river turned into real blood would surely have caused a more severe reaction from Pharaoh.

In either case, the Bible is clear that the event was a miracle produced by Moses through the power of God.

Why would God use plagues instead of instantly freeing the Israelites from bondage?

We are incapable of second-guessing God’s plan. The Bible contains many examples demonstrating the folly of humans trying to outthink God. But we can surmise potential reasons God used plagues to free the Israelites. God may have chosen to use the plagues to judge Egypt before freeing the Israelites. More likely, God used the plagues to more effectively demonstrate his immense power over mankind’s destiny.

Is there proof of the ten biblical plagues?

Moses and Aaron changing the rivers of Egypt to blood - Bartholomeus Breendergh (1631)Although Egyptians were known to favorably alter their historical records, there is evidence the Ten Plagues took place. The Egyptian Ipuwer Papyrus, a derogatory admonishment against the Pharaoh of the time, contains a record of events that match those described in Exodus including plagues, famine, and the waters of Egypt turned blood red.

Additionally, the following text was found carved in the Old Kingdom pyramid of Unas at Saqqara. It seems to reference the death of firstborn children as described in the tenth and final plague.

“It is the king who will be judged with Him whose name is hidden on that day of slaying the first born”.

Variations of this text have been found amongst other ancient Egyptian artifacts.

Was the turning of the Nile River water into blood a natural phenomenon?

Some scholars, including some biblical scholars, propose the miracle described in these verses was a natural phenomenon. The Nile floods annually in July and August. The deluge of water flows from the White Nile (the river’s source) in east-central Africa (modern-day Uganda). It travels through Sudan, the Blue Nile, and the Atbara River. Melting snows from the mountains enhance the flood waters. Rapid torrents of water dislodge soil from the river basins. Dislodged reddish clay soil tinges the water, coloring it reddish orange. This explanation, however, would not have caused a stench nor harmed marine animals.

To complete the “natural phenomenon” explanation, algae is proposed as the cause of the stench and death of marine life. It is proposed that the algae lowered the oxygen levels of the river, killing the fish. Water is changed into blook (Moses) - James Tissot (1903)However, this does not explain how it was accomplished by Moses’ staff, nor does it explain how the miracle impacted other bodies of water including water held in containers.

Attempts to explain away the biblical plagues as natural phenomena are shaky at best, silly at worst. On the other hand, Pharaoh ignored the plague, which may hint that it was something he did not fear, possibly because had seen it before.

Just as God told Moses he would do; Pharaoh ignores the remaining plagues too. It is not until multiple plagues occur – end to end – that Pharaoh begins to realize the phenomena his country experiences are something beyond natural explanation.

How did Pharaoh’s magicians turn water into blood?

The verses tell us that the Egyptian magicians “did the same things by their secret arts.” They may not have necessarily duplicated Moses’ feat, but they accomplished similar “things” to show Pharaoh this type of “trick” could be done by human hands. Possibly they mixed clay and poison with water using a slight of hand. Certainly they would not have completely duplicated Moses’ act or they would have caused widespread destruction in their own homeland.

The science and history behind the story

The god of the Nile River – Hapi

Egyptian magician - Artist UnknownThe first plague, turning the Nile River to blood, would have been especially offensive to Egyptians. The Nile was a source of life for Egyptians and was revered by all. It was worshipped by Egyptians in the form of a god – Hapi.

Hapi is an androgynous figure with a large drooping belly and breasts. He was often colored blue, representing the water of the Nile, and depicted carrying offerings alongside papyrus plants, frogs, and crocodiles. The ancient Egyptian historian Al Maqrizi wrote of virgins being sacrificed annually to Hapi as “brides of the Nile”.

Notes on Biblical translation

Blood will be everywhere, even in “the vessels of wood and stone”

The Bible says water will be turned to blood everywhere, not just the river and tributaries, but in the containers that hold water. Most translations say, “jars of wood and stone” or “vessels of wood and stone” The original Hebrew, however, translates to “in wooden and stone things” which does not specify the type of container. It may be jars or small containers, but could also reference the large settlement tanks used to store drinking water.

Bible Text

The biblical plagues - Moses turns water to blood - Artist UnknownNIV

14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes out to the river. Confront him on the bank of the Nile, and take in your hand the staff that was changed into a snake. 16 Then say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness. But until now you have not listened. 17 This is what the LORD says: By this you will know that I am the LORD: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. 18 The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.’ ”

19 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 vessels of wood and stone.”

20 Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD had commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood. 21 The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt.

22 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. 23 Instead, he turned and went into his palace, and did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile to get drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the river.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Obsequies of an Egyptian cat - John Reinhard Weguelin (1886)The NET Bible

7:14  The LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hard; he refuses to release the people. 7:15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning when he goes out to the water. Position yourself to meet him by the edge of the Nile, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. 7:16 Tell him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you to say, “Release my people, that they may serve me in the desert!” But until now you have not listened. 7:17 Thus says the LORD: “By this you will know that I am the LORD: I am going to strike the water of the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood. 7:18 Fish in the Nile will die, the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will be unable to drink water from the Nile.” ’ ” 7:19 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over Egypt’s waters—over their rivers, over their canals, over their ponds, and over all their reservoirs—so that it becomes blood.’ There will be blood everywhere in the land of Egypt, even in wooden and stone containers.” 7:20 Moses and Aaron did so, just as the LORD had commanded. Moses raised the staff and struck the water that was in the Nile right before the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants, and all the water that was in the Nile was turned to blood. 7:21 When the fish that were in the Nile died, the Nile began to stink, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood everywhere in the land of Egypt! 7:22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts, and so Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he refused to listen to Moses and Aaron—just as the LORD had predicted. 7:23 And Pharaoh turned and went into his house. He did not pay any attention to this. 7:24 All the Egyptians dug around the Nile for water to drink, because they could not drink the water of the Nile.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

14 So the LORD said to Moses: “Pharaoh’s heart is hard; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, when he goes out to the water, and you shall stand by the river’s bank to meet him; and the rod which was turned to a serpent you shall take in your hand. 16 And you shall say to him, ‘The LORD God of the Hebrews has sent me to you, saying, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness”; but indeed, until now you would not hear! 17 Thus says the LORD: “By this you shall know that I am the LORD. Behold, I will strike the waters which are in the river with the rod that is in my hand, and they shall be turned to blood. 18 And the fish that are in the river shall die, the river shall stink, and the Egyptians will loathe to drink the water of the river.” ’ ”

19 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their streams, over their rivers, over their ponds, and over all their pools of water, that they may become blood. And there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in buckets of wood and pitchers of stone.’ ” 20 And Moses and Aaron did so, just as the LORD commanded. So he lifted up the rod and struck the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants. And all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. 21 The fish that were in the river died, the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink the water of the river. So there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.

22 Then the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments; and Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said. 23 And Pharaoh turned and went into his house. Neither was his heart moved by this. 24 So all the Egyptians dug all around the river for water to drink, because they could not drink the water of the river.

Moses turns water into blood - Artist UnknownThe New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

14–18 GOD said to Moses: “Pharaoh is a stubborn man. He refuses to release the people. First thing in the morning, go and meet Pharaoh as he goes down to the river. At the shore of the Nile take the staff that turned into a snake and say to him, ‘GOD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you with this message, “Release my people so that they can worship me in the wilderness.” So far you haven’t listened. This is how you’ll know that I am GOD. I am going to take this staff that I’m holding and strike this Nile River water: The water will turn to blood; the fish in the Nile will die; the Nile will stink; and the Egyptians won’t be able to drink the Nile water.’ ”

19 GOD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and wave it over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—so that they turn to blood.’ There’ll be blood everywhere in Egypt—even in the pots and pans.”

20–21 Moses and Aaron did exactly as GOD commanded them. Aaron raised his staff and hit the water in the Nile with Pharaoh and his servants watching. All the water in the Nile turned into blood. The fish in the Nile died; the Nile stank; and the Egyptians couldn’t drink the Nile water. The blood was everywhere in Egypt.

22–25 But the magicians of Egypt did the same thing with their incantations. Still Pharaoh remained stubborn. He wouldn’t listen to them as GOD had said. He turned on his heel and went home, never giving it a second thought. But all the Egyptians had to dig inland from the river for water because they couldn’t drink the Nile water.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

14 And the LORD said unto Moses, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he refuseth to let the people go. 15 Get thee unto Pharaoh in the morning; lo, he goeth out unto the water; and thou shalt stand by the river’s brink against he come; and the rod which was turned to a serpent shalt thou take in thine hand. 16 And thou shalt say unto him, The LORD God of the Hebrews hath sent me unto thee, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness: and, behold, hitherto thou wouldest not hear. 17 Thus saith the LORD, In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. 18 And the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink; and the Egyptians shall lothe to drink of the water of the river. 19 And the LORD spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt, upon their streams, upon their rivers, and upon their ponds, and upon all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone. 20 And Moses and Aaron did so, as the LORD commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. 21 And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. 22 And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the LORD had said. 23 And Pharaoh turned and went into his house, neither did he set his heart to this also. 24 And all the Egyptians digged round about the river for water to drink; for they could not drink of the water of the river.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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