14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water. Stand on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that turned into a serpent. 16 And you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” But so far, you have not obeyed. 17 Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood. 18 The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile.”’” 19 And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’” 20 Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. 21 And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile. 25 Seven full days passed after the Lord had struck the Nile.
I was really surprised last Monday to see this news headline: “’No Nile, no Egypt’, Cairo warns over Ethiopia dam.” That comment was made by the Egyptian foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, to reporters just last week. He was talking about Egypt’s displeasure over the building of the $4.7 billion Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia.
“No Nile, no Egypt.” It is a fascinating statement, and one that is pretty much true: the Nile River is the life-source of Egypt and without it Egypt would crumble. That statement is true today and that statement was true thousands of years ago when Moses and Aaron stood before stubborn Pharaoh calling for him to release the Israelites from their bondage. Pharaoh steadfastly refused. Thus, the Lord struck Egypt with a series of curses. And the first way that the Lord struck Egypt was by striking the Nile.
“No Nile, no Egypt.” The Lord would remind them of that fact.
I. The Theological Foundation of the Plagues: The Utter Sovereignty of God (v.14-18)
As always, the acts of God in the Exodus are only intelligible from the vantage point of a robust theology of who God is. The Lord has given Moses many theological lessons already. Now, He does so again, here on the threshold of the ten terrible plagues.
14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water. Stand on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that turned into a serpent. 16 And you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” But so far, you have not obeyed. 17 Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood. 18 The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile.”’”
God has been teaching Moses, but, through Moses and Aaron, the Lord will now teach Pharaoh. The key statement is this: “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” Do you see? The Exodus is theology in practice. The Exodus is not primarily a story of liberation. It is a story of glorification through liberation. God reveals Himself to Moses, Aaron, the Israelites, and the Egyptians as the one true God. He is able! “By this you shall know that I am the Lord!” In many ways, then, the point of the Exodus is to teach, to inform, to instruct: “By this you shall know…”
We have seen this “I am” before. Do you remember? Back in Exodus 3, Moses questioned God concerning His name and concerning what he, Moses, was to say to the Israelites when questioned:
13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
Only God can say, “I am!” God is sovereign in Himself. He is pure being, undiluted by sin or imperfection. Neither you nor I can say, “I am!” We can only say, “I need to be…” or “I hope to become…” But God is God: the unchanging, immutable, holy, sovereign One. He can say, “I am.”
Even that word “I” is significant. Roy Honeycutt quotes Stauffer’s powerful observation that Yahweh’s “I” statements mean that God is always the subject and can never be the object. Furthermore, this “I” saying means that “God will not tolerate any second subject, any other God.” I like that. God is always the subject and never the object. God acts. He is not acted upon. He is the first mover, the great King of Heaven and Earth. He is the definite and definitive “I.”
II. The Spiritual Significance of the First Plague: The Nile as Life (v.19-21)
So God, the eternal subject, acts. In acting, He strikes first the heart of Egypt: the Nile River.
19 And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’” 20 Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. 21 And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.
“No Nile, No Egypt.” The Lord turns the water of Egypt into blood: a startling, unsettling plague indeed! He did not turn only the water of the Nile to blood. He turned even the water “in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone” to blood. The Hebrew word translated “vessels” is not actually in the text. It has been assumed that the reference to “wood” and “stone” refers to wood and stone vessels, and that may very well be the case. Some Old Testament scholars, however, suggest that “wood” refers to tree sap and “stone” refers to springs of water. Regardless, this is a picture of the totality of the plague. The befouling of the Nile was a great tragedy for Egypt.
Roy Honeycutt points out that Egypt “was essentially rainless” and that “the Nile…made life possible in the midst of the wastes of sand and rock.” Furthermore, the Nile had theological significance. Honeycutt notes that “in the days when the Egyptian language was forming, and before the emergence of formulated theology in Egypt, the Nile River apparently had theological priority over the sun.” This did not the remain the case, as the sun came to be seen as more powerful than the Nile, but there can be no doubt that the Nile River held a more-than-important place in Egyptian theology, psychology, and society.
The Nile was also worshipped as a deity in the form of the Egyptian god Hapi. Peter Enns says that “an attack on the Nile is in effect an attack on Egypt’s gods.” Once again, the Exodus teems with theological insights. The one true God strikes the watery god of Egypt, the Nile. God is a jealous God. He will not long tolerate rival claims to deity. He alone is God. Thus, the striking of the Nile was a natural catastrophe for Egypt only secondarily. Primarily, it was a spiritual catastrophe for Egypt. God was striking one of the primary sources of their power, as they saw it, by striking the Nile.
There is further theological significance to this plague. The 6th century believer, Cassiodorus, saw the turning of the Nile into blood as a kind of opposite to Jesus’ miracle at the wedding of Cana. In Egypt, God turned water to blood before which the people cowered in revulsion. In Cana, Jesus turned water into wine to which the people flocked.
That is an interesting observation, but more interesting still is the theological significance of blood. Israel would learn the great truth that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). The Jews would learn the saving power of blood in Egypt, as the angel of death passed over their blood stained doors. They would learn it in the sacrifices and offerings of blood they would make to the Lord God. And the world would learn it definitively in the person and work of Jesus Christ, whose blood is the fulfillment of all lesser sacrifices.
Given the saving importance of shed blood in scripture, it is therefore poignant and startling that the bloody Nile would be a sign of judgment and the anger of God. The blood of the Nile meant that God’s wrath had come to Egypt. The blood of Christ means that God’s love has reached to the world. The blood of the Nile meant death and destruction. The blood of Christ means life and forgiveness.
To reject the blood of Christ is to come under the judgment of God. To accept it is to be saved. Egypt had rejected the one true God and persecuted His people. Thus, He turns their watery hope to blood, telling them thereby that they were under His just and wrathful hand.
III. The Spiritual Opposition of the Magicians: The Mocking Satan (v.22-25)
Once again, however, the Egyptian magicians, fueled by demonic power, imitate and mock the people of God.
22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile. 25 Seven full days passed after the Lord had struck the Nile.
Concerning how the Egyptian magicians had un-bloodied water with which to work their own magic, a few proposals have been put forth. St. Augustine suggested that they either had sea water brought to them or, “what is more likely,” they had un-bloodied water “because in that part of the country where the children of Israel were those plagues did not take place.” To support this theory, Augustine pointed out that many passages suggest that Israel was spared the plagues themselves. For instance, in Exodus 8:22, the Lord says this about the fourth plague, the plague of flies:
22 But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth.
And in Exodus 9:4, the Lord says this about the fifth plague, the death of the cattle:
4 But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing of all that belongs to the people of Israel shall die.
We see the same phenomenon in Exodus 10:23 concerning the ninth plague, darkness:
23 They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived.
And, of course, the firstborn sons of Israel were spared the terrible plague of death. So this is a real possibility: that the water of the Israelites was unaffected and could have been used by the magicians.
It has also been suggested in a more provocative proposal that the first plague “was immediately reversed,” that the Lord turned the water to blood and then back to water. Then, in imitation of this, the Egyptian magicians did the same, but that the Lord allowed their curse to linger, bringing devastating effects. In this scenario, as Terence Fretheim put it, “ironically, it is the effect of their [the Egyptian magicians’] work that makes for continuing problems (7:24).” I do not find this proposal persuasive, personally, but it is an intriguing thought. At the least it does justice to the idea that the Egyptian magicians did exactly as Moses and Aaron had done: they turned the Nile to blood, which would necessitate an un-bloodied Nile for them to turn to blood.
Regardless of how this happened, the point is that, once again, the devil works his powers of imitation and mockery. Again, in the conflicting power struggle between Moses, Aaron, and the Egyptian magicians, we are seeing the cosmic battle between the forces of the Devil and the Lord God in a microcosm.
In Revelation 12:9, we find this description of Satan:
9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
Satan is “the deceiver of the whole world.” He remains so today. One of the crucial lessons for us to learn at this point in the Exodus story is that we must not be swayed by false powers that threaten to deceive us. The Devil is a liar and a thief and a deceiver. To this day his magicians work wonders that cause people to marvel and shudder with fear. That is why discernment is needed, and a careful eye. In 1 John 4, John wrote:
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
Had the Egyptians tested the spirits, they would not have been duped by these wonder-workers and charlatans. Had they tested the spirits behind this magic, they would have seen that any magic that operates against the will of almighty God is always and ever from Satan himself. And we must heed this truth as well. When you find something startling or impressive or persuasive, you must ask, “Does what I am seeing here uphold the truth of the gospel? Does it conflict with anything the Lord Jesus has said? Does it fit in with the truth of the gospel, or does it distort or tempt me away from gospel truth?”
Here in this first plague, the magicians are still able to mimic and impress. But this will not last long. The tricks of the devil cannot long keep pace with the power of a holy God. Again, we must remember this as well. If the great thrills of your life are derived from unholy sources, they will, no matter how much they entice you right now, end in disaster and judgment.
Take comfort in the true power of the true King.
Shun the false powers of the enemy.
 Honeycutt, p.336.
 Honeycutt, p.337.
 Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr. “Exodus.” General Articles, Genesis-Exodus. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.1. Revised (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.334.
 Peter Enns, Exodus. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p.200, n.16.
 Joseph T. Lienhard, ed., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament, vol.III. Thomas C. Oden, ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.43-44.
 Lienhard, p.44.
 Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.115.