From the Plague of Fish (דג) to the Plague of Blood (דם)

Everyone knows that the first of the ten plagues sent to afflict the Egyptians was the plague of blood. The story in Exodus 7:4—24 expresses this clearly, as do the references to the plague in Psalms 78:44 and 105:29. And yet, there is some subtle but convincing evidence that suggests that in the earliest form of the story, the water of the Nile did not turn to blood. This is a secondary motif that was added to the story at a relatively early period in the development of the biblical text. We may refer to this plague, in its original form, as The Plague of Fish (מכת הדג) rather than The Plague of Blood (מכת הדם). Indeed, blood has little in common with the subsequent plagues of frogs and lice, while fish fit in with the next plagues quite naturally.

The idea that the first plague did not originally speak of blood was suggested in 1913 by Hugo Gressmann, and was adopted in one form or another by several early critics, including one of the most influential biblical scholars of the previous generation, Martin Noth. Noth, however, simply affirmed the idea in his Exodus commentary, and provided very little in the way of argumentation. Furthermore, the idea is not even considered in some of the most significant commentaries on the book of Exodus that appeared after Noth’s. I would therefore like to spell out here the reasons that make the basic idea compelling, and also offer my own explanation for how and why the early story of the plague of דג was secondarily converted into the plague of דם. This will then give us a new perspective on the continuing development of this plague in the biblical tradition.

According to the story in Exodus 7, Moses was commanded to make the following statement to Pharaoh at the Nile, “Thus says the Lord, ‘With this you will know that I am the Lord; behold I will smite the water in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will turn to blood, and the fish in the Nile will die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will be unable to drink water from the Nile’” (verses 17—18) (Actually, a second command appears in verse 19. Here God tells Moses to have Aaron carry out the plague by stretching his staff over all the bodies of water inEgypt, turning them all into blood. As scholars have noted, this is part of a parallel, priestly version of the plague of blood, which assigns an important role to Aaron the priest. Our concern for now, however, is with the non-priestly version alone, which speaks of Moses without Aaron, and limits the plague to the Nile alone.). The division between the two versions of the first plague is generally agreed upon. The non-priestly story is found in verses 14—18, 20b (beginning with וירם)—21a (ending with מים מן היאר), 23—25. The priestly story is found in verses 19—20a (ending with כאשר צוה ה’), 21b (ויהי הדם בכל ארץ מצרים)—22. For a clear and detailed presentation see: ברוך יעקב שורץ, “התורה: חמשת חומשיה וארבע תעודותיה” בתוך צפורה טלשיר (עורכת), ספרות המקרא: מבואות ומחקרים, כרך ראשון, ירושלים תשע”א, עמ’ 187—191). The sequence of events in these verses (and in the carrying out of the command in verses 20b—21a) is as follows: 1) Moses strikes the Nile; 2) the water turns to blood; 3) the fish die; 4) the Nile stinks; 5) the Egyptians can’t drink water from the Nile. At first glance, this sequence is perfectly logical. The blood causes the fish to suffocate and die and this causes the Nile to stink. Nonetheless, there are certain oddities. First of all, element 5 seems out of place. The reason that the Egyptians cannot drink from the Nile is because the water has turned to blood. Thus, one would have expected element 5 to appear directly after element 2. What is more, the entire emphasis on the dead fish that made the Nile exude a nasty stench seems rather trivial and beside the point. True, nasty smells are an unpleasant nuisance. But this hardship pales in significance compared with the real difficulty facing the Egyptians – the Egyptians have no water supply! Why then bother emphasizing the stench?

These difficulties point to the possibility that element 5 is nonetheless precisely in the right place. The reason that the Egyptians could not drink is not because the water turned to blood. This element was not originally written in the text. Rather, when Moses struck the Nile the fish of the Nile died. This then caused a terrible stench which made it difficult or impossible to enter the close vicinity of the Nile. It also contaminated the water. This is why the Egyptians couldn’t drink from the Nile! Note that verse 18 states that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. The implication is that the Nile was full of water, but that this water could not be accessed or imbibed. This is also implied by the formulation of verse 24: “All the Egyptians dug round about the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink of the water of the Nile.” Again, theNile was full of water, not blood. The problem was that the Egyptians could not drink it.

Accordingly, verses 17—18, in their original form simply read: “Thus says the Lord, ‘With this you will know that I am the Lord; behold I will smite the water in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and the fish in the Nile will die, and the Nile will stink (or: become spoiled or contaminated) (The stench is the external sign that the water is contaminated and toxic. In Isa. 5:2, 4, באשים refers to grapes that cannot be eaten, though not necessarily odious). and the Egyptians will be unable to drink water from the Nile.’” The fish did not die from suffocation. They died because Moses struck the Nile with his staff. Perhaps the story emphasized that this was the staff that had turned into a serpent (verse 15; cf. Ex. 4:2—4) in order to hint at its venomous properties. In any event, the important question that I would like to address here is: why did someone add the phrase “and it will turn to blood” at the end of verse 17 (and the phrase “and all the water in theNile turned to blood” to verse 20)?

I would suggest that the metamorphosis of the first plague can be explained as part of a tendency that I would refer to as “mythic amplification,” that is, the propensity to intensify the mythological depth of texts or stories that have a certain mythological quality to them to begin with. Many scholars, such as Cassuto or Kaufmann, talk a lot about the Bible’s tendency to suppress or neutralize mythological elements. The opposite tendency, that of adding or amplifying mythological content, is rarely spoken of. Nonetheless, in my opinion, this tendency is no less real or significant.

From the start, the story of the first plague had a unique mythological resonance to it. This can be heard particularly in verse 25, which reads, “Seven days were completed after the Lord struck the Nile.” This passage is unique within the context of the story of the plagues (see, however, Ex. 12:12) in that it refers to God Himself as striking something down on earth, implicitly, with the מטה האלהים, the staff of God (see Ex. 4:19; 17:9). There are clear echoes here (and in verse 17, where the boundary between God and Moses striking the Nile is thoroughly blurred) of a divine act of war, since the verb “to strike” also means “to kill,” and deities often smite their enemies with clubs. Yet, in spite of the highly mythological character of the story of the first plague, its focal point still lied within the realm of the mundane, human sphere. The purpose of the plague was to kill the fish and contaminate the Nile so that the Egyptians would be unable to drink the water. For this early Biblical editor, however, this seemed disappointingly bland. Why would God personally strike the Nilefor the simple purpose of killing the fish? This hardly seemed like a worthy opponent for God’s martial efforts! God must have had some grander purpose in mind. He must have sought to deal the Nile itself, conceived of now as an Egyptian deity). The idea that the Nile was worshiped as a deity is emphasized in Jewish sources. See Shemot Rabbah 9:9; Tanhuma, 2:16; Ginzberg, 2, 348). a fatal, deathly blow. In order to give expression to this conception, he added the idea that the Nile turned to blood. God thus caused the Egyptian deity to bleed to death. The first plague was thus turned into what is referred to as “theomachy” – a battle between gods, except that the Egyptian deity is completely passive.

As I pointed out above in note 1, two different versions of the plague of blood are intertwined in the present biblical text of Exodus 7:14—25: a non-priestly story and a priestly story. All that I have spoken of above refers to the non-priestly strand. The later priestly strand, on the other hand, spoke of the turning of the waters of Egypt into blood from the outset. This story, most scholars agree, ran as follows:

19) The Lord said to Moses, Say to Aaron: Take your staff and wave it over the waters of the Egyptians, over their rivers, over their waterways, over their lakes and over all their sources of water, and they shall become blood. There will be blood in the entireland of Egypt, and in the wood and stone [houses?]. 20a) Then Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded; 21b) and there was blood in all of Egypt. 22) Then the magicians of Egypt did the same thing with their magic, and the heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he did not listen to them, as the Lord said.

How does this version of the blood plague narrative compare with the one we have been discussing until now? In this version it is Aaron that brings about the plague. This coincides with the fact that this is the priestly version of the story, and the priestly strand of the Torah seeks to highlight the role of Aaron and the priests. Also, the plague is not restricted to the Nile. Rather, all the water of Egypt is stricken. Undoubtedly, the later, priestly writer seeks to provide the reader with a version of the story that will be more impressive than the earlier one. Not only was the Nile turned to blood, but the entire land of Egypt was similarly plagued.

And how does this version compare with the earlier one in terms of mythology? I would suggest that here we find the very opposite tendency that we found taking place in the earlier story. If before we spoke of the tendency to amplify the mythological resonance of the story, here I think we can see an attempt to limit or contain the mythological. It is striking to note, for example, that the priestly version of the plague of blood cited above does not make mention of the Nile at all. It is as if Egypt were filled with multiple waterways, without any single, outstanding, major source of water! Why has the Priestly writer eliminated all mention of the Nile? I would suggest that this was part of the priestly version’s concern to shy away from the mythological overtones that were highlighted in the non-priestly story. If the Nile appeared to be depicted as an Egyptian deity that had to be killed in the non-priestly version of the story, the best way to avoid the implication that a battle between the gods was taking place was to avoid referring to the Nile altogether.

Another subtle difference between the two versions of the story concerns the way that the staff is used. We mentioned above that the staff was used to strike the Nile in the non-priestly story. In the priestly version cited above, however, Aaron is commanded to stretch out his staff and wave it over the waters of Egypt. Why did the priestly writer introduce this subtle change in his version of the story? Whereas striking with a club connotes a violent act of war, stretching out a staff and waving it seems much closer to the realm of the miraculous. The plague was thus removed from the realm of theomachy (See also the priestly story in Numbers 20:1—13. Perhaps the priestly writer sought to present the hitting of the rock as a failure to sanctify God before the Israelites because it implied that God must do battle in order to produce water). The God of Israel has no divine opponent ( In place of a military conflict between deities, the priestly source speaks of a competition between the magicians of Egypt and the wonders performed by Moses and Aaron (Ex. 7:8—13; 22; 8:1—3, 14—15; 9:11). The contest here is between the secular power of magic as a type of human science or “wisdom,” and the power of the Lord which proves to exceed it when the magicians admit “it is the finger of God”(8:15).See the compelling analysis in י. קויפמן, תולדות האמונה הישראלית, א—ג, עמ’ 461, 463). Finally, we may note that there is nothing even vaguely similar in the priestly version of the blood plague to the mythologically charged passage from the non-priestly version, “Seven days were completed after the Lord struck the Nile” (verse 25). It is clear that in the priestly version God does not come down to earth and bring on the plague. Rather, God simply commands Moses to command Aaron to bring on the plague. God is completely separated from the person of Aaron (contra verse 17).

The final redactor of the Torah narrative, of course, combined both versions of the story of the first plague. Perhaps we may find a lesson in this. The trend toward the mythological and the mystical in religion seems to be experiencing a revival in the world at large, and in certain Israeli circles as well. This often evokes strong criticism in other circles (both secular and religious), and engenders an attempt to supplant that approach with one that keeps God at a greater distance from man. Both of these tendencies are natural and understandable. Keeping God too far away can result in a cold universe lacking in clear guidance for human beings, but bringing him down too close to earth can both cripple human initiative and stifle critical thinking. The redaction of the plague stories thus provides us with a lesson. Each approach has its place, and a healthy religious system will strive to balance them both.

Dr. David Frankel is a lecturer in Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Image Credit:  Martin, John – The Seventh Plague – 1823.jpg

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