Nile in N.E. Africa was the source of life or disaster for the civilizations
flourishing in its bordering valleys. The yearly flooding enriched the
fields of the lower Nile Valley with fertile black alluvial soil, an inundation
so vital that the ancient Egyptians viewed it as the annual renewal of
the first act of creation.
The name Nile (Nilus in modern Hebrew) is not explicitly mentioned
in the Bible. The biblical Hebrew word for the Nile is rvay (ye'or),
a loan word from the Egyptian 'itrw (river), which by the period
of the Middle Kingdom came to designate the Nile as the river par excellence.
The Nile plays a prominent part in the early stories of the Exodus,
and is used by the prophets as the symbol of Egypt.
We examine a theory regarding the bloodied waters of the Nile River in
the first plague inflicted upon Egypt.
The first plague has been explained as the extreme intensification of a well-known
phenomenon that occurs periodically in the bile valley. The river is fed by
melting snow and summer rains that pour down from the highlands of Ethiopia
and carry with them sediment from the tropical red earth that characterizes
Following from this explanation, the plague must have resulted from the abnormally
heavy rainfall that led to an excessively high rise of the Nile and washed down
inordinate amounts of the red sediment. The neutralization of this substance,
which normally occurs in the course of the flow of the river, was now retarded,
so that the entire river took on a bloody hue. As a result, flagellates and
purple bacteria washed down from the high mountain lakes, together with the
particles of red earth, disturbed the oxygen balance and killed off the fish,
which produced a foul stench.
The Nile inundation, which
reaches its height in September/October, has a bearing on the explanation for
the next plague as well. The Egyptians personified and deified the river Nile
as the god Hapi, to whom offerings were made at the time of inundation. The
flooding itself was regarded as a manifestation of the god Osiris. It is quite
possible, then, that the biblical account of the contamination of the river
served to discredit Egyptian polytheism. Also, by commencing the series of the
plagues with the striking of the Nile waters, the text suggests an underlying
notion of retribution, measure for measure, for Pharaoh's iniquitous decree
that all newborn males be cast into the river.
This type of calamity is found elsewhere in the literature of the ancient Near
East. A Sumerian text about the goddess Inanna tells of three plagues that she
brought upon the world; in the first she turned all the waters of the land into
blood. An Egyptian literary work by a certain Ipuwer, which purports to be a
description of contemporary chaotic conditions, mentions that "the river
[Nile] is blood" and "people thirst for water." In another Egyptian
text, supposedly centering on the exploits of a magician who is one of the sons
of Ramses II, the young man tells his mother that should he be defeated in a
contest, the water she drinks take on the color of blood.
Moses,(Ex. 2:3); the ten plagues (Ex. Ch. 7) [back]
Amos 8:8, 9:5; Jer. 46:8 [back]
The Nile and its pools teemed with fish, an important ingredient of the
popular daily diet, though taboo in certain pious Egyptian circles. The
rotting of the fish was therefore a heavy blow. [back]
M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society, 1991)