The Plague of Blood

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

PARASHAT VAERA

 

The Plague of Blood

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Last week's parasha concluded with the utter failure of Moshe and Aharon to win Israel's freedom.  The two aged brothers, buoyed by their people's unanimous backing and bearing God's unequivocal words, boldly stood before the Pharaoh to win Israel's release, but to no avail.  The god king scoffed at their demands, dismissed them ignominiously, and on that very day increased the burdens of the people to the breaking point.  Henceforth, the Israelites would have to fashion bricks without being supplied with straw, but their required tally would not be decreased.  Timorously, the people scattered to collect the stubble but the quota could not be met.  The Israelite officers, appointed by Pharaoh's taskmasters to oversee their brethren's exhausted efforts, now suffered the consequences of their brief and foolish bout of faith and were harshly beaten.  Hastily, they dispatched a delegation to Pharaoh to swear their devotions and to humbly plead their case, but their impassioned entreaties fell on deaf ears:

 

He (Pharaoh) said: "you are slothful, exceedingly slothful, and therefore you are saying: ‘let us go and offer sacrifice to God'!  Now go and return to work, for straw shall not be supplied to you, but you shall meet the quota of bricks!" (5:17-18).

 

Gone in an instant were Israel's dreams of liberation, their prayers for redemption, their collective but exceedingly short-lived conviction that their fortunes would soon improve.  They had trusted Moshe and Aharon implicitly and had committed their future to the God who had finally "remembered them" (4:31), but now their hopes were crushed.  Demoralized and dejected, Moshe returned to God, scarcely able to conceal his bitterness:

 

Moshe returned to God and he said: "Oh God, why have You brought evil upon this people, and why have You sent me?  From the time that I have arrived before Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt wickedly with this people, and You have not saved your people at all!" (5:22-23).

 

 

THE PEDAGOGIC PLAGUES

 

But God was impassive: "Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he shall send them forth, and with a strong hand he shall drive them out of his land!"  And emboldened by that declaration, Moshe and Aharon returned to Pharaoh, not once or twice but many times, as the plagues began to rain down upon Egypt until the god king's resolve was finally broken.  In years past we have carefully considered the subtle patterning inherent in the plague narratives, the incremental increase in their severity, and I have suggested that the primary purpose of the Divine tour de force was neither to intimidate nor to punish the recalcitrant and incorrigible monarch but rather to guide and to teach him.  Pharaoh, the court magicians and the Egyptians slowly began to appreciate the previously incomprehensible abstraction of an invisible, incorporeal, absolute but nevertheless immediate and involved Deity, a God who was in complete control of the forces of nature, the dimensions of time and space, and the destinies of all men.  As for the Israelites, who were detached observers for most of the process, they too came to slowly surrender their own previously cherished faith – nurtured during the centuries of their exposure to the pervasive culture of a superpower – in the tangible but impersonal gods of earth and sky, wind and water, a rancorous and dissonant pantheon of selfish deities vying for the shallow devotions of unthinking men.

 

This week, we will consider the first of the plagues, the blood that struck the river Nile and temporarily made its sweet waters undrinkable.  Along the way, we will discover a rather remarkable Rabbinic tradition that sheds light on the matter from a most unexpected angle.

 

God said to Moshe: "Pharaoh's heart is hard, and he refuses to send forth the people.  Go to Pharaoh in the morning, behold he goes out to the water, and you shall stand before him on the banks of the Nile, bearing in your hand the staff that was transformed into a serpent.  You shall say to him: ‘God, Lord of the Hebrews, has sent me to you to say: send forth My people so that they might serve Me in the wilderness, but behold you have not listened until now.  Thus says God, by this you shall know that I am God: behold with the staff that is in my hand I shall strike the waters in the Nile and they shall turn to blood'.  The fish that are in the Nile shall perish and the Nile shall be malodorous, and Egypt shall be unable to drink water from the Nile" (17:14-18).

 

 

UNDERSTANDING THE RIVER NILE

 

The Nile River, its life-giving course running for a distance of one thousand kilometers from the first cataract at Aswan to the Mediterranean Sea, is the land of Egypt.  On either side of the river there is a narrow ribbon of black, arable earth that supports a teeming population, while the rocky and barren Saharan plateau stretches interminably beyond.  The black earth is intensively cultivated, with painstakingly dug and meticulously maintained water works bringing the river's vitality to the crops.  Rain is rare in the land of Egypt, and life – of man, beast, bird and tree – therefore depends exclusively upon the river's bounty. 

 

It is not at all surprising, therefore, that the Nile was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as a god.  Of course, cultivating the favor of the gods was always prudent, and all the more so in a situation that concerned life and death.  The god of the Nile, personified as male and female, was known as Hapi or "Inundation", and was thought to live in a grotto above the first cataract of the river at Aswan.  Considering the matter of the plagues in general, and the underlying Divine agenda to demolish idolatrous and polytheistic doctrines, we may safely assume that the plague of blood was intended to make abundantly clear that there was a God even more powerful and more dependable than the Nile itself, a God who fashioned its flow, controlled its annual rise and determined its efficacy in sustaining the life of all those who tenaciously clung to the black soil astride its shimmering course.  As Rashi (11th century, France) pithily remarks:

 

Since rain does not fall in the land of Egypt and the Nile rises and irrigates the land, the Egyptians worship the Nile.  God therefore struck down their deity and then He struck down them (commentary to 7:17).

 

 

UNDERSTANDING THE BLOOD

 

While Rashi addresses the fundamental question concerning WHY the river was struck at the outset of the process, he does not elucidate the particular and grotesque nature of the plague.  According to Rashi we do not know why the Nile was transformed into blood to render its waters undrinkable.  It could have easily been stricken with some other malady or effect to make it unpotable.  But who could fail to hear in this opening salvo the echo of an earlier crime perpetrated at the river's edge, by a zealous and cruel people who worshipped their own tyrannical king as an all-powerful deity?  Recall that an earlier Pharaoh, the one who had ushered in the age of oppression and slavery, had attempted to check the ever-increasing population of Israelites in Egypt's midst.  First he had subdued them with national labor and then he had pressed them into bondage, but still their numbers burgeoned.  And as we discussed last week, his commands to the midwives to slay the male children at birth mercifully went unheeded.  Then it was that the wicked Pharaoh pronounced his cruelest of decrees: "let all male newborns be cast into the Nile, so that only the females might live!" (1:22).

 

Perhaps the blood, then, was meant to serve the Egyptians as a striking reminder that they had brought the disaster upon themselves by so enthusiastically shedding the blood of the Israelite children whom they had heartlessly (but surreptitiously?) cast into the Nile's murky depths in the Book's first chapter.  It was as if those depths now disgorged that innocent blood and revealed the evil crime for all to see, for elsewhere in the Tanakh we find that the theme of "blood exposed" indicates the uncovering of a murderous felony that had been intentionally concealed by the perpetrator (see Bereishit 4:9-10; 9:4-7; BeMidbar 35:3-34; etc.).  God's power was thus matched by His concern for justice, for unlike the gods of Egypt who went about their business unfazed by moral ambiguities, the God of Israel demanded accountability. 

 

 

THE DURATION OF THE PLAGUES

 

Unlike most of the other plagues (except for darkness – see Shemot 10:22-23), the Torah states the duration for the plague of blood explicitly: "seven days elapsed after God had stricken the Nile" (7:25).  Seemingly, however, there is no indication in the text concerning how much time elapsed between the completion of the plague of blood and the onset of the plague of frogs that immediately followed.  Rashi, though, preserves an ancient tradition that "each plague would last for ¼ of a month, while ¾ of a month was spent warning him…"(commentary to 7:25).  In other words, the actual suffering would last for one week, after which the plague would be lifted, but then three weeks would elapse during which time Moshe would continuously warn Pharaoh and attempt to convince him to let Israel go.  After the end of these four weeks (for Pharaoh would never, in the end, relent), the next plague in the series would strike and so on.  Each plague period, therefore, lasted for twenty-eight days or approximately the length of one lunar month.  Significantly, according to the slightly different tradition recorded in Shemot Rabbah 9:12 that serves as the much earlier Rabbinic source for Rashi's explanation here, each plague would last for seven days and these seven days would then be followed by twenty-four days of warning.  The total plague period was therefore thirty-one days or approximately the length of a solar month. 

 

This understanding of the plague narratives certainly tends to increase the time element in the text, turning what might have otherwise been reasonably assumed to have been a quick succession of hammer blows into a long and drawn-out process.  By elongating the temporal dimension of the plagues substantially, the Rabbinic tradition has the effect of implicitly supporting the earlier stated contention that their purpose was primarily didactic and pedagogical, rather than punitive and retaliatory.  After all, if God simply wanted to punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their cruel indiscretions and to force their compliance with His demands, then He could have rained down the plagues upon Egypt in very quick succession and speedily achieved the desired results.  But if education and transformation was the goal, so that all concerned might come to appreciate and to internalize the limitations of idolatry, the foolishness of polytheism, and the transcendence of the God of Israel, then time was needed for the new ideas to sink in.  Any educational undertaking, if it is to be successful in the long term and not simply overwhelming, requires time not only for direct instruction (i.e. the seven days of plague) but for reflection and internalization (i.e. the three weeks of warning) as well.

 

Thus, the Torah provides us with a rather startling pedagogic paradigm and casts the relevant narratives in an entirely different light.  At the same time, we may now use this information to calculate the time of year that the plagues begin.  After all, each plague lasted in total for a period of one month.  The two exceptions were the plague of darkness the effects of which lasted for three days and not seven (10:21-23) and the striking of the firstborn that lasted but one terrifying night, for on the morrow the people ventured forth from Egyptian bondage into the glaring dawn of freedom (12:29-42).  In other words, the ten plagues unfolded over the course of approximately nine whole months, for we may assume that the three-day plague of darkness was still followed by the three-week period of warning and admonition. 

 

This calculation is in rough correspondence with the variant tradition preserved in Mishna Eduyot 2:10 in the name of Rabbi Akiva that the "period of judgment of the Egyptians lasted for twelve months" if we take the beginning of that judgment period to have commenced from the moment of Moshe's arrival in Egypt.  After all, it took some time for him and Aharon to gather the elders (4:29), to secure the people's trust in the mission (4:30-31), to plan the first delegation to Pharaoh (4:1), and to endure the aftereffects of Pharaoh's rejection of God's demands and his imposition of the new edict that straw would no longer be provided (5:10-21).  It took additional time for the Hebrew officers to obtain an audience with the mercurial monarch (after they had been beaten for not filling the quota "neither yesterday nor the day before" – 5:14), and for his rebuff to them to painfully sink in.  It took still more time for Moshe to return to God (5:22) and for the next course of action to be plotted out (6:2-13; 29-30).  In short, it is not at all an imposition on Rabbi Akiva's tradition to assume that all of these introductory episodes lasted for a total of about three months.

 

 

THE TIMING OF THE PLAGUE OF BLOOD

 

In any case, if the people of Israel left the land of Egypt on the fifteenth day of the "first month" or the fifteenth of Nissan, then the plague of blood must have struck about nine months earlier during the month of Tammuz.  Or, to put the matter in seasonal terms, if the people were freed during the "month of spring" (13:4), say sometime in late March or early April, then the Nile must have been stricken during the summer month of June.  What is most remarkable about the results of this calculation is that they are in perfect agreement with the natural cycle of the Nile's most astonishing feature, the miracle of the Inundation!

 

The Nile River is fed by great tributaries deep in Africa that annually fill its basin with the copious spring rains that pour down from the Ethiopian plateau.  In May, the river is at its lowest point and the Egyptian soil is dry and cracked.  But soon the rejuvenating effects of the spring rains are felt, and the level of the river begins to rise.  A green wave pours down the river course from the African interior, laden with vegetable detritus, and this is followed about a month later by a red wave rich in minerals and potash.  The water saturates the soil with such fertility that three or four crops may be cultivated and harvested annually.  These life-giving waters continue until October, when they begin to recede.  Then, the water is held in reserve by means of man-made canals and reservoirs.  The ancient Egyptians were so dependent upon the annual miracle of the Inundation that they would take careful measurements of the Nile's level at critical points along its course.  The priests of Memphis calculated, for instance, that if the river rose above eighteen cubits or else sank below sixteen as it entered the Delta, then disaster would ensue in the form of either flooding or famine.

 

If the plague of blood struck during the month of June, then the effects of that plague were all the more manifest and impressive.  After all, here was the proud Pharaoh and his devoted people eagerly anticipating the annual Inundation when Hapi the river god would restore the Nile to life and bring blessing upon the land, when suddenly and unexpectedly the waters turned to blood, so that their life-giving effects were now lethal and deadly.  The fish and other organisms in the river perished, and the stench of the waters ominously hung over the chastened land!  Who indeed was this God who had overpowered the cycles of the river and imposed His will upon it? 

 

Remarkably, Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) alludes to all of this, while never actually providing us with his computations:

 

The text states that Moshe is to approach Pharaoh in the morning as he makes his way to the river.  The custom of the king of Egypt until this very day is to go forth in Tammuz (June) and Av (July), for at that time the Nile rises and he ascertains how many degrees the level of the river has climbed.  God therefore commanded Moshe to go in the morning and to stand before the Nile and perform the sign of striking the river in the presence of the Pharaoh…so that the monarch might see the effects with his own eyes, for from the moment that Aharon strikes the river with his staff it will be transformed into blood (commentary to 7:15).

 

Thus it was by this most forceful demonstration of His prowess that the God of the Hebrews introduced Himself to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians and made the re-acquaintance of His own people Israel.  As time progressed, they would all learn more about His power and His involvement, about His abilities to utterly master the forces of nature while never neglecting the broken heart of the slave.  This Deity was indeed unusual, for He was both omnipotent as well as omniscient, and His absoluteness was mirrored by His unwillingness to countenance oppression and injustice.  In short, the entry of the God of Israel onto the stage of human history would change its trajectory forever.  As the plagues unfolded and time went on, the new realities gradually dawned.  Pharaoh came to finally accept the limits of his own seemingly absolute powers, the Egyptians began to appreciate the serious constraints of their stultifying belief in idolatry, and Israel steadily started to realize that freedom from enslavement means nothing if it is not coupled with a sense of mission and purpose.  With the striking of the Nile with blood, this intricate process of transformation was ushered in, to be ultimately completed only with the people of Israel's fateful encounter at Sinai.

 

Shabbat Shalom