A River of Blood – Plague #1 (Exo. 7:14-24)
River of Blood
In September 2000 Great Britain faced a serious fuel shortage. Angered by the high cost of gasoline—or petrol, as Britons call it—truckers conspired to blockade the nation’s oil refineries. Within days the country was nearly at a standstill. There were long lines at the filling stations, where some owners charged as much as five times the former price of fuel. Reserves ran dangerously low, and Britain was within a day or two of a complete transportation shutdown: no planes, no trains, and no automobiles. It seemed that if the crisis lasted much longer, the whole British economy would collapse, taking the government down with it. It was all because of oil, the lifeblood of the modern state.
The British gas shortage shows how dependent a civilization is on the basic source of its economy, and thus it gives some idea what the Egyptians faced when their river turned to blood. The Nile meant everything to them. It was their mode of transportation, their source of nourishment, their standard for measurement, and even an object of worship. Therefore there was no better way for the God of Israel to show that He was also the Lord of Egypt than by turning the Nile into blood.
The river of blood was the first of ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptians. The Bible prefers to call them “miraculous signs and wonders” (Exod. 3:20; 7:3) as well as “judgments” (6:6; 7:4). Nevertheless, the word plague (9:14; 11:1) expresses an important truth. The term comes from the Latin plaga, meaning “a blow or wound,” which is exactly what the plagues were. God said, “I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them” (Exod. 3:20).
When he performed his miracles along the Nile, God struck ten mighty blows against not only the Egyptians but also their gods (12:12).
The story of the first mighty blow begins with God’s demand: (Exod. 7:14–16). Moses was speaking on behalf of the one true God, the Lord of Israel. God’s basic demand had not changed: He wanted Pharaoh to let his people go! This was the commission he had given to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:10, 18). It is what Moses and Aaron said the first time that Pharaoh granted them an audience: “Let my people go” (Exod. 5:1-3).
God's demands are nonnegotiable. God never changed his terms. This is because God never changes his terms: “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations” (Ps. 33:11). What was true for Pharaoh during the exodus is true for sinners in salvation. God’s terms remain unchanged. What God demands today is the same thing He demanded in the time of the apostles. When people asked what they had to do to be saved, the apostles said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 16:31). God still requires sinners to repent of their sins and be baptized into Jesus Christ. We should not expect him to make us another offer. Jesus Christ is God’s best and only bargain for eternity.
The reason God required Pharaoh to let his people go was very simple. He wanted Israel to worship Him. “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exod. 7:16). The word translated “worship” is actually the Hebrew word that means “to serve”. The same word was used back in chapter 1 to describe Israel’s slavery to the Egyptians (see v. 14), but the Israelites were not made to serve Pharaoh—they were made to serve the living God. Thus the goal of the exodus was the worship of God. God told Pharaoh to let his people go so they could give Him the glory. And since God deserves all the glory, it would not have been right for Him to demand anything less. The chief purpose of God’s people and the ultimate end of all existence is to give praise to the glorious God.
Pharaoh refused to give in to God’s demand. Twice he rejected it, hardening his heart against God’s will: Exod. 7:14. Literally, his heart was heavy (kabed), weighed down with injustice and iniquity. And it was Pharaoh’s obstinacy that brought the plagues down on Egypt. His example shows what happens to a man who sets himself up against God. Sooner or later he will be punished for his sins.
One of the reasons Pharaoh was so hard-hearted was that his heart belonged to other gods. Notice that God told Moses to wait for Pharaoh on the banks of the Nile, where it was his custom to go every morning. Maybe he went there to worship the gods of the Nile. It is easy to imagine Pharaoh blessing the waters in the name of Hapi, the god of the flood, or giving thanks every morning to Khnum, the guardian of the Nile.
In any case, it was on the very banks of the Nile that Moses confronted Pharaoh (Exod. 7:17, 18). Moses made it clear that he was speaking in the name of the Lord. In his hand he held the rod of God, the symbol of divine authority. And to show that this was a pronouncement of divine judgment, he began with the solemn words, “This is what the Lord says.”
Pharaoh needed to understand that this plague was God’s work because God’s purpose was to show the Egyptians who was Lord: (v. 17). The great purpose of the exodus was to demonstrate the lordship of God. God proved that He was Lord of Israel by delivering his people from slavery, and at the same time he proved that He was Lord of Egypt by punishing Pharaoh for his sins.
God often used signs and wonders, especially in the life of Christ and the early days of the church in Acts, to prove that he is Lord. One of the reasons Jesus performed so many miracles was to prove his lordship. When John the Baptist asked for proof that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 11:4, 5). The signs and wonders that Jesus performed—particularly the miracle of his resurrection from the dead—prove that he is Lord. But God proves his lordship through mighty acts of judgment as well as through miracles of grace. He often convinces people that He is Lord by causing them to suffer the consequences of their sins. So it was for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. It took an outpouring of divine wrath to convince them that the God of Israel was Lord over all the gods of Egypt.
The result of Pharaoh’s failure to meet God’s demand was great suffering in Egypt: Exod. 7:20, 21. Divine judgment is not an idle threat. God always makes sure that his enemies get what they deserve.
In the case of the first plague, God executed his judgment through the obedience of Moses and Aaron, who were finally putting their faith into practice. They did all these things just as God commanded. This shows how much God can accomplish through his people if only they will do as they are told.
Ultimately, however, it was God’s power that turned the life-giving Nile into a blood-red river of death. There was blood everywhere: (v. 19). Pharaoh’s entire water system was made bloody by the power of God. The river of blood started a chain reaction. The blood killed off the fish, and as they began to decompose, the whole river was putrefied. Not only was this disgusting, but if it had lasted much longer than a week (see v. 25), it would have been fatal.
The river was their lifeblood, the basis for their entire civilization. The Egyptians used the Nile for almost everything, and without it, their land would have become a desert. The river provided the transportation system that helped them move goods from place to place. It formed the irrigation system that enabled them to grow their crops. It was their water supply, and also their food supply, because fish was one of the staples of the Egyptian diet. The river’s annual floods set their calendar and gave them fertile topsoil. In short, the land of Egypt was the gift of the Nile.
THE NILE’S DEITIES
Since the Egyptians practically owed their existence to the Nile, it is not surprising that they worshiped the great river as their creator and sustainer.
At least three Egyptian gods were associated with the Nile. One was the great Osiris, the god of the Nile, who was depicted with the river running through his bloodstream. Another was Nu, the god of life in the river. But the most important was Hapi, the god of the flood. Hapi was a fertility god who was portrayed as a bearded man with female breasts and a pregnant stomach. The idea was that the annual flooding of the Nile gave birth to Egypt and nursed its strength.
God demonstrated his power over the gods of Egypt and also punished the Egyptians for their idolatry. With one single blow he gave them a water and food shortage, a transportation shutdown, a financial disaster, and a spiritual crisis. He did it all by turning the river into blood, making the object of their worship a thing of horror. God’s attack on the Nile was a direct attack on the Egyptians and their gods. It proved that Osiris and Hapi did not have the power to meet their needs. Later, when the Israelites finally marched their way out of Egypt and Moses tried to summarize what God had done to Egypt, he proclaimed that “the Lord had brought judgment on their gods” (Num. 33:4; cf. Exod. 12:12).
The gods of Egypt are perhaps mentioned in Exodus 7:19. The Hebrew original says nothing about “vessels”; it simply states that there was blood “in the wood and in the stone.” Ordinarily when the Old Testament refers to wood and stone, it is speaking of idols. A good example is Deuteronomy 29:16-17, where Moses warned the Israelites not to serve “detestable images and idols of wood and stone” like the Egyptians did.
The average American is not very different from an ancient Egyptian. We still worship the same gods—only the names have changed. What we count on, what we work for, what we play at, what we dream about—these are the gods that we worship. And what matters most to most of us is personal prosperity. We depend on our economy every bit as much as the Egyptians depended on theirs. They worshiped the Nile; we follow the NASDAQ—they are just two different names for the same god. Rather than trusting in God alone, we depend on economic growth, rapid transportation, and prepackaged foods. We even have our own creation myth. Believing in Darwinism is really just another way to worship Hapi. In much the same way that the Egyptians praised the river as their creator, many Americans believe that we have come from a random stream of genetic material.
What would happen if all these things were taken away? Imagine what life in these United States would be like if the stock market collapsed, the price of gas rose to forty dollars a gallon, the supply of drinking water was contaminated, and grocery stores started running out of food. Can you imagine the utter chaos that would ensue?
The practical application is very simple: We are to worship God by trusting in him alone for everything we need. If we trust in other gods for our peace and prosperity, we will be disappointed in the end. But if we place our confidence in God alone as our Creator and Provider, then even when everything else is taken away, we will stand secure.
It was different for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. When their gods were taken away, they hardened their hearts and refused to worship the God of Israel. The chapter ends with them returning to the power of Satan and struggling to make life work on their own terms: (Exod. 7:22–24).
Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate God’s sign. Whether they did it by sleight of hand or by the power of demons, they performed a counterfeit miracle. The irony is that rather than making the plague better, they made it worse! It would have made a great deal more sense for the magicians to undo the plague by turning the blood back to water, but they did not have the power to tamper with God’s miracle. They could not reverse the disaster; they could only repeat it, adding plague upon plague. Thus God bent Satan’s power to his own will.
What this shows is that Satan’s power is self-defeating. Even his counterfeit signs and wonders ultimately serve the greater glory of God. The supreme example is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. At the time it must have seemed like Satan’s greatest triumph: the Son of God suffering, bleeding, and dying on a wooden cross. But what Satan didn’t know was that as Jesus hung on that cross, he was turning away (or propitiating) God’s wrath by atoning for the sins of his people. Three days later Jesus rose from the dead, and Satan discovered that his greatest triumph was actually his bitterest defeat. The death of Christ was the very thing that God used to grant sinners eternal life.
No matter how self-defeating it was to make more blood, Pharaoh seems to have been impressed. When he saw that his magicians could repeat God’s sign by their own secret arts, he hardened his heart, turned his back, and returned to his palace. As the Scripture says, “he … did not take even this to heart” (Exod. 7:23). Of course he didn’t. He couldn’t! He had a hard heart, and a hard heart will continue to harden. Pharaoh’s cardiac condition prevented him from paying any attention to God, even when God judged him for his sins.
Exodus 7 closes with the pathetic picture of Pharaoh’s servants digging feverishly for ground water: “And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile to get drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the river” (v. 24). When the great gods of the Nile failed, the Egyptians were left to their own resources. This is what always happens to people who worship false gods. Sooner or later their gods fail, and the people are left scrambling to make life work on their own. If we trust in our economy the way the Egyptians trusted in theirs, we should probably grab a shovel because eventually we will need it.
God has promised that his invisible war with Satan will end with the defeat of every false god. As we study Revelation through the year, we’ll probably not study chapter 16, although I will summarize it. The book of Revelation describes the seven angels who will pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the enemies of God’s people, who in Revelation are the Romans: Revelation 16:3-7, 9.
This is an awesome and fearsome picture of divine judgment. In the same way that God punished the Egyptians for their worship of other gods, He will punish unbelievers at the end of history. In his mercy he will give man ample opportunity to repent of their sins. Will they turn back to God? No, just as the Romans refused; “they refused to repent and glorify him” (Rev. 16:9). They had hardened and hardened their hearts until not even a river of blood could turn them away from their sins. If it teaches us nothing else, the book of Exodus teaches us not to trust in other gods because they will not save us.
A river of blood will either destroy us or the shed blood will save us. It depends on which G/god we serve.
A sermon taken from Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory by Philip Ryken.