Did the Nile River Really Turn to Blood?
“A college professor says that the Bible contains much that is ‘myth.’ An example given is when the Bible says that the Nile River was turned into blood (Exodus 7:14-25). It is claimed that this was merely a case of red-colored ‘silt’ that churned into the water of the Nile during the flooding season of that river. How might the Christian respond to this?”
There is nothing new about this rationalistic approach to the supernatural events of sacred Scripture. For example one writer says: “Deposits from the Abyssinian lakes often color the flood waters a dark reddish brown, especially in the Upper Nile. That might well be said to look like ‘blood’” (Werner Keller, The Bible As History, New York, NY: Bantam, 1956, p. 120).
Misguided attempts to “befriend” the Bible, by helping to provide “natural” explanations for such events as the “plagues” are seriously in error, no matter how well-intentioned the commentator may be. And quite frankly, most of the time such objections are skeptically motivated. The following brief points may be offered in rebuttal.
- The divine account plainly says that the waters of Egypt “turned to blood” (vv. 17-20). While it is true that the term “blood” may be employed at times in a figurative sense (cf. Joel 2:31), the context must require it. There is no such necessity in Exodus 7. What does the term “blood” signify in connection with the tenth plague (Exodus 12:7)? Certainly not “muddy water.”
- The biblical record conveys the impression that the waters of Egypt changed immediately when Moses smote the water of the Nile with his rod. Pharaoh and his servants saw the water change color (vv. 17,20), whereas silting gradually discolors rivers.
- Ordinarily the silt influx of the Nile, in late summer and fall, was considered a blessing by the Egyptians, yet the “blood” phenomenon was a curse (“foul,” “loathsome,” and “undrinkable”) from which they sought relief (vv. 18,21).
- Normally, silting does not cause the death of fish, yet the fish of the Nile died when the waters turned to blood (vv. 18,21).
- Silting was common to the Nile, yet this did not produce a distinct “stink” (v. 18), such as occurred on this occasion. In fact, a pagan “Hymn to the Nile” (one of Egypt’s gods) declares that the river is “sweet of fragrance” (James Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near-Eastern Texts, Princeton, NJ: University Press, 1969, p. 272).
- Silting cannot account for the fact that the water in their pools, ponds, and even in their household vessels of wood and stone, changed to blood (v. 19).
- The plague was clearly an assault upon some of the “gods” of Egypt; they worshipped both the Nile and some species of fish. If this were an ordinary silting discoloration, the event would hardly have functioned as an apologetic in favor of Israel’s God, since the Nile was “colored” frequently.
- The text specifically says that this plague was of God. “And seven days were fulfilled, after that Jehovah had smitten the river” (v. 25).
- Dr. Joseph Free contended that the plagues were demonstrated to be miraculous in at least five different ways.
- Intensification — they were far beyond any ordinary occurrence;
- Prediction — specific times were indicated by the arrival and cessation of some of the plagues;
- Discrimination — some of the disasters affected the Egyptians, but not the Israelites;
- Orderliness — there was an orderly increase in severity, from the water-to-blood to the death-of-the-firstborn;
- Spiritual Purpose — discrediting of the gods of Egypt and revealing Jehovah as Israel’s Savior (Archaeology and Bible History, Wheaton, IL: Van Kampen Press, 1950, p. 95).
In summary, we must note that the Old Testament text does not even remotely suggest that the Nile merely took on the “color” of blood. There was biblical language to express that concept when necessary (cf. 2 Kings 3:22, “water. . . red as blood”). Rather, scripture says the water “turned to blood” (v. 17), it “[became] blood” and was blood (vv. 19-20). George Rawlinson, Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford, wrote:
“It is idle to ask whether the water would have answered to all the modern tests, microscopic and other, by which blood is known. The question cannot be answered. All that we are entitled to conclude from the words of the text is, that the water had all the physical appearance — the look, taste, smell, texture of blood; and hence, that it was certainly not merely discolored by the red soil of Abyssinia, nor by cryptogamic plants and infusoria. Water thus changed would neither kill fish, nor ‘stink,’ nor be utterly undrinkable” (“The Book of Exodus,” Pulpit Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961 Reprint, p. 171).
Even though some fairly conservative writers have adopted the “silt” view, and suggest that the “miracle” was one of “timing” (cf. Walter Kaiser, “Exodus,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Vol. 2, p. 350), the devout student of the Bible has no need to resort to fanciful rationalizations of the sacred text in order to placate the theories of skepticism — which are vested with motives of self-interest. A.B. Davidson, the famous Scottish scholar (Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis, Free College, Edinburgh), characterized the attempt to identify the “blood” of the first plague, with the natural redness of the Nile at its rising, as “quite absurd” (The Imperial Bible Dictionary, Patrick Fairbairn, Ed., London: Blackie & Son, 1876, Vol. 5, p. 270).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.