The 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,[1] and is used by the prophets as the symbol of Egypt.[2] 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 the region.

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.[3]


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.

[1] Moses,(Ex. 2:3); the ten plagues (Ex. Ch. 7) [back]
[2] Amos 8:8, 9:5; Jer. 46:8 [back]
[3] 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]
Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991)



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.