28 March 2015

Exodus 7:8-24

“Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt.” (vv. 20-21)

Psalm: Psalm 134


The book of Exodus begins with the important words, "Now there arose a new king in Egypt who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). The reference to Joseph points back to Genesis chapters 37-50, which explain the rise of Joseph to prominence in Egypt and the subsequent migration of the sons of Jacob (the Israelites) with their families into Egypt. These migrants are referred to as the Israelites or Hebrews. The new Pharaoh (king) notices that the Israelites are plentiful and worries that they will soon outnumber his own people. The historical irony within the story of Pharaoh's prejudice is that he likely came from an invading people who were not native to Egypt. The chapters that follow unfold the richly detailed stories of Moses and the Exodus of the Israelites. This story includes confrontations in which Moses tells Pharaoh, "Thus says the LORD, 'Let my people go.'" (eg Exodus 8:1). These prophetic encounters include signs and plagues, and the significant event of the Passover.

Read without the context of the whole Exodus narrative, today's passage makes for unusual reading. It is contains the stories of the first two signs that Moses and Aaron perform in an effort to convince the king to release the Hebrew slaves. It is important to understand the sense that a sign points to otherworldly power. Perhaps the king, who has his own sorcerers, expects that a person claiming to express a divine command will perform some wonder or sign to prove the power of his god. In the first sign (verses 8-13), the rod wielded by Aaron becomes a snake. The sorcerers perform something similar, but the text indicates it is by their trickery as opposed to divine power. The sign concludes with the hardening of Pharaoh's heart and his refusal to listen to Moses and Aaron.

In the second sign, Moses and Aaron use the staff to turn the River Nile into blood, or at least a thick red substance, that kills the fish and life within it. Numerous explanations are offered by scholars for this sign as indicating a natural disaster with natural origins. For example, the red algae might alter the appearance of the Nile, or the washing down of red clay soil from streams that fed into the river. The impact of the story on the people gets lost in these attempts to explain it away. The Nile and its tributaries gave life to Egypt. The people are left without their staple diet of fish and must scrounge around the banks of the river hoping to find water untainted by or filtered from the thick red substance. Again, there is the pattern of Pharaoh's hardened heart and his refusal to listen.

Some may find the stories of the signs and plagues morally problematic. Turning the River Nile to blood has consequences for the people of Egypt. They suffer as a result. The implication is that God is afflicting Egypt with these disasters as punishment of Pharaoh's refusal to release the Hebrews. Pharaoh's refusal to listen to Moses and Aaron and to see the signs they produce as evidence of God's power is the result of his hard heartedness. The signs of divine power, however, bring suffering to people in Egypt who were likely powerless and poor.

To Ponder

  • How helpful is it to read a text like Exodus 7 without reading the whole of the Exodus story?
  • How might the story of Pharaoh's harshness toward the Israelites affect your thinking about the issue of immigration and the government's treatment of immigrants in our own society?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley

Cindy Wesley is the director of studies at Wesley House in Cambridge. She is responsible for the life of the chapel and for advising students about their courses and modules.