Exodus 7:14-24: A Bloody Nile
It has been said that San Diego, and Southern California as a whole, is essentially a desert with an ocean next to it. Take away the ocean and San Diego would have about as much to offer as any other desert town. There would be no ocean breeze to make the climate ideal throughout the year - temperatures would be in the 90s but with no beach within thirty minutes. There would be no cause for the Navy to be here, for Sea World to be here, or for vacationers and conventioneers to come. Remove the ocean from San Diego and all of a sudden housing would be affordable. San Diego would simply be one more dot on the map to someplace else. Take away the ocean and the life of San Diego would dry up in a heart-beat. San Diego is not built next to the ocean, but on the ocean.
Just as San Diego is a desert with an ocean next to it, so Egypt is a desert with a river running through it - the Nile. Remove the Nile from Egypt and all of Egypt is a barren wasteland. The Nile was the foundation of Egyptian civilization. Their agriculture and economy depended upon the Nile. It was not just a source of water and fish, but also of good soil. The Nile is the longest river in the world (4,145 miles from its remotest headstream in Burundi, Africa). Its major source is Lake Victoria in east central Africa, from where it flows a distance of 3,470 miles through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea.
Our concern is with the last 600 miles, which is the Nile basin in Egypt. This basin would flood annually during the late summer or fall. Before entering Egypt the Nile passed through the Ethiopian highlands. Here it would pick up sediment. During the annual flood of the Nile, this sediment would be deposited in the Egyptian basin/delta. This annual deposit of fresh sediment is what kept the Egyptian soil so fertile, enabling Egypt to supply much of the Mediterranean world with grain. This explains why the Israelites would always go to Egypt whenever there was a famine/drought in the land. Thus, the Nile not only provided Egypt with the water so necessary for life and agriculture in the desert, but also rich nutrients for their soil, making their land extremely productive. In short, the Nile was the life-line of Egypt.
Now we are ready for Exodus 7:14-24. This is the first mighty act of judgment (out of ten) that Yahweh delivers upon Pharaoh and Egypt with the purpose that Israel, Egypt, and Pharaoh might know that (1) Yahweh is the One who Is (and Pharaoh is no longer), (2) that "Thus says Yahweh" is the determining word of reality (and not "Thus says Pharaoh") and (3) that Israel and their worship/service/labor belong to Yahweh (and not to Pharaoh). Mighty act of judgment number one: the Nile is turned to blood.
Yahweh tells Moses to go to an unyielding Pharaoh and to announce, "By this you will know that I am Yahweh: 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." Yahweh/Moses strikes the Nile, it turns to blood, the fish die, and the river stinks so bad that the people are unable to drink its water.
Further, Yahweh tells Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out his staff over all the waters of Egypt, from canals to buckets, to change this water to blood as well. Aaron performs the task so that "blood was everywhere in Egypt." Before Aaron could get to all the potted water, the Egyptian magicians demonstrated that they too could turn water into blood. Interestingly, they can only imitate Aaron. They either made no effort or had no success at reversing this Yahweh-driven transformation of water to blood. But Pharaoh's heart was hard. He simply turned his back on the whole matter and went inside his palace, leaving the Egyptians to search and dig along the banks of the Nile for some drinkable water.
Was the Nile really turned into real blood? Some folks who are bent on proving that the miracles did happen take "blood" as a reference to the color of the river. Yahweh/Moses turned the river red. They go on to point out that this really could happen because at the annual flood stage when the river carried the silt from the Ethiopian highlands the water turned red. For these people the miracle is the timing. But this does not take the text or the event seriously enough. First, the text does not say that the river became as blood. In Hebrew, that could have been accomplished by prefixing merely one letter to "blood." In any case, the annual flood did not kill all the fish or make the water undrinkable. The color changed to red, but it did not bring these effects.
Taking the text seriously, God turned the Nile into blood. But taking the text equally seriously, notice that the reason the people could not drink the water of the Nile was because of its stench from all the dead fish (7:21). They could not drink it not because it was blood, but because of its smell. So was it water or was it blood? My answer: It was death. Instead of being a source of life, the river had been changed into a source of death. All the fish died. The river reeked like death. More, what is blood to your body? Life. But what is blood that is flowing out of the body, spilt blood, or a river/field of blood? Death. Yahweh changed the Nile from a river of life into a river of death.
Ironically, God was not the first to change the Nile into a river of death. Pharaoh himself already turned the Nile into a blood river when he ordered the Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into it. Yahweh was just showing it for what it was, or rather, for what Pharaoh’s word had made it.
In changing the Nile into blood, into a river of death, Yahweh is making a statement about the source of life. Pharaoh and Egypt all looked to the Nile as their source of life. And as noted, they were quite right to do so – but not at an ultimate level. Yahweh, in making the Nile a river of death, is asserting that Yahweh is the ultimate source of life. Yahweh controls the Nile, the Egyptian life source, and therefore is the source of life.
This is all the more significant because the Egyptians deified the Nile, worshiping it as a god and identifying particular gods with it (Hapi and Osiris to name two). Through the worship and placating of these gods the Egyptians believed they could insure the coming of the much needed annual flood. The Nile-to-blood judgment dethrones these Egyptian gods as lord of the Nile and demonstrates that Yahweh is the Master of the Nile. Pharaoh and Egypt cannot control Yahweh (neither can Israel). God’s will shall be done, even with the Nile. Yahweh rules the Nile. Yahweh is the source of life. Yahweh can turn lesser sources to death with a word and an outstretched hand - if that's what it takes to demonstrate that “He Is” and everything else is comparatively not.
I can't escape the picture of Egyptians digging alongside the Nile, frantically searching for drinkable water now that their source of life has been turned into death. Why didn't they go to Moses? Why didn't they beseech Yahweh? Why did they keep digging by a river of death? Yeah, it used to be life, but now it was clearly death. Why did they keep digging there?
I think of people who dig for life where there is no authentic life. Golfer John Daly comes to mind. He had a bright career but his alcoholism cost him his wife, his name, endorsements, and no doubt much of his game. He entered a rehabilitation program and was making a comeback on life. He even had a sponsor on the PGA tour. But after a while he decided that life wasn't worth living sober - too much of a battle and he could not enjoy himself. He left the program and went back to his addictions, boasting about how much he was enjoying himself. How sad. He continues to dig where there is only death polluted water.
While the Nile is not evil in and of itself, it still is not the ultimate source of life. The question is, are we basing our lives on secondary sources or the Ultimate? Are we worshiping these secondary sources or the Ultimate? Where are we digging?