9.1. The First Plague: Turning Water into Blood (7:14-24)

The setup:

(14) And the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.

(15) Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake.

(16) And say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.” But you have paid no heed until now.

(17) Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood;

(18) and the fish in the Nile will die. The Nile will stink so that the Egyptians will find it impossible to drink the water of the Nile.’ ”

The actual plague:

(19) And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt — its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water — that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.”

(20) Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood

(21) and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.

The Egyptian magicians respond:

(22) But when the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them — as the Lord had spoken.

Pharaoh’s reaction:

(23) Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this.

(24) And all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile.

(14) And the Lord said to Moses: The first three plagues are aimed at undermining the authority of the Egyptian sorcerers and magicians. To accomplish this, these plagues are constructed such that the magicians are able to duplicate the first and the second (in order to draw them into the contest), but not the third – and they themselves admit defeat.

Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go: That is, everything is going according to Pharaoh’s preconceived plan.

(15) Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile: Turning the water of the Nile into blood corresponds to the third of the three signs that Moses performed for the Jews (4:9).

Taking with you the rod that turned into a snake: The staff was at first only a sign. But because of Pharaoh’s resistance, signs now become plagues.

(16) And say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness”: In his meeting with Pharaoh, Moses still speaks of religious rituals, and not of the nationalist aspect of returning the Jews to their land.

“Let My people go that they may worship Me”: This now-famous phrase is most often heard quoted not in full but only in part: “Let My people go!” But “that they may worship Me” is omitted, as if to suggest that the purpose of the Exodus was simply to liberate the Jews from slavery. From the Torah’s perspective, however, freedom from slavery was for the Jews only a means to and end. The goal was to bring them to their Land in order to serve the Almighty.

But you have paid no heed until now: Thus, Pharaoh himself is to blame for the harsh measures that God must resort to in dealing with him.

(17) Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood: Because you yourself said (5:2), “I do not know the Lord,” it must be explained to you. By this you shall know!

(18) And the fish in the Nile will die. The Nile will stink so that the Egyptians will find it impossible to drink the water of the Nile: Egypt deifies nature, and are thus enslaved by it. But the Nile, most of all, is the primary force of nature and the source of all life in Egypt, symbolizing Egyptian stability. The plagues, and the reset of the Egyptian worldview, must therefore begin with the Nile.

(19) And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt: The first three plagues are targeted at destroying the illusion of Egypt’s inviolability. Since those plagues represent a “competition” with the magicians as Pharaoh’s representatives, Aaron executes them as Moses’ representative.

(22) But when the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them — as the Lord had spoken: This first plague, water turning into blood, is very much like Egyptian magic. There is nothing special about it, nor was it supposed to actually convince Pharaoh of anything. The purpose of this plague is simply to “stiffen Pharaoh’s heart,” which only reinforces his belief in Egypt’s predominance.

(23) Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this: Notice that Pharaoh does not even ask for the plague to be lifted (as he will do in future plagues, as we shall see). The Egyptians have other water sources, which they can draw upon quite easily. There is thus no real crisis.

(24) And all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile: The first plagues were deliberately kept somewhat mild, to allow the Egyptians to retain their freedom of choice.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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