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Christoph Berner

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2021

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Blood, Frogs, and Impurity

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TheTorah.com

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https://thetorah.com/article/blood-frogs-and-impurity

APA e-journal

Christoph Berner

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,

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Blood, Frogs, and Impurity

"

TheTorah.com

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2021

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https://thetorah.com/article/blood-frogs-and-impurity

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Blood, Frogs, and Impurity

Three curious details in the plagues of blood and frogs show the hand of a post-priestly editor and his concern about purity laws.

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Blood, Frogs, and Impurity

Passover Haggadah, Braginsky Collection B317, f.28, c. 1739. e-codices

In the first two plagues,[1] we find three enigmatic details:

  • Blood appears inside wood and stone (Exod 7:19);
  • Frogs infest Pharaoh’s ovens and kneading bowls (Exod 7:28);
  • A seven-day period is marked between these plagues (Exod 7:25).

These three details have a strong thematic connection.

Blood in Wood and Stone (Exod 7:19)

The account of the plague of blood begins with YHWH’s description of the impending plague:

שמות ז:יט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְ־הוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֱמֹ֣ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֡ן קַ֣ח מַטְּךָ֣ וּנְטֵֽה־יָדְךָ֩ עַל־מֵימֵ֨י מִצְרַ֜יִם עַֽל־נַהֲרֹתָ֣ם ׀ עַל־יְאֹרֵיהֶ֣ם וְעַל־אַגְמֵיהֶ֗ם וְעַ֛ל כָּל־מִקְוֵ֥ה מֵימֵיהֶ֖ם וְיִֽהְיוּ־דָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה דָם֙ בְּכָל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וּבָעֵצִ֖ים וּבָאֲבָנִֽים׃
Exod 7:19 YHWH said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, and in wood and stone.’”

The meaning of “and in wood and stone” is unclear. What exactly is being pictured?

The most common interpretation, going as far back as the Greek Septuagint, is that the blood appears “in [things] made out of wood and stone” (ἔν τε τοῖς ξύλοις καὶ ἐν τοῖς λίθοις). The point is made more explicit in the Aramaic translation of Targum Onkelos, וּבְמָנֵי אָעָא וּבְמָנֵי אַבְנָא, “in wooden vessels and in stone vessels.” What turns to blood, according to this, appears to be the water in their cups, bowls, and other storage containers, implying that the Egyptians would have no water to drink. Nevertheless, the biblical text says nothing about “vessels.”

An alternative interpretation suggests that water in wood/trees refers to sap, and water in stone to mountain springs.[2] But this too is unlikely: What difference does it make if tree sap turned to blood, and why would mountain springs be categorically different than the pools of water mentioned earlier in the verse?

A more promising interpretation is that this phrase is an allusion to the Egyptian idols, which are often referred to in the Bible polemically as “wood and stone” (‛etz wa’eben). For example, as part of the threat of expulsion from the land, Moses says in Deuteronomy:

דברים ד:כח וַעֲבַדְתֶּם־שָׁ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֔ים מַעֲשֵׂ֖ה יְדֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם עֵ֣ץ וָאֶ֔בֶן אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־יִרְאוּן֙ וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּן וְלֹ֥א יֹֽאכְל֖וּן וְלֹ֥א יְרִיחֻֽן׃
Deut 4:28 There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, that cannot see or hear or eat or smell.
דברים כח:לו יוֹלֵ֨ךְ יְ־הֹוָ֜ה אֹתְךָ֗ וְאֶֽת־מַלְכְּךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תָּקִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יךָ אֶל־גּ֕וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יָדַ֖עְתָּ אַתָּ֣ה וַאֲבֹתֶ֑יךָ וְעָבַ֥דְתָּ שָּׁ֛ם אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים עֵ֥ץ וָאָֽבֶן׃
Deut 28:36 YHWH will drive you, and the king you have set over you, to a nation unknown to you or your fathers, where you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone.[3]

This interpretation can be found in the late first millennium Exodus Rabbah (9.11, Shinan ed.):

מהו: ובעצים ובאבנים? רבותינו אמרו: אף עבודה זרה שלהם לקו בדם, כמה דאת אמר: אמרים לעץ אבי אתה ולאבן את ילידתנו.
What does “in the wood and stones” mean? Our rabbis said: “Even their idols were struck with blood, as it says (Jer 2:27): “They said to wood, ‘You are my father,’ to stone, ‘You gave birth to me.’”[4]

The implication of the allusion, then, is that YHWH will desecrate the Egyptian idols with blood as a prelude to his promise:

שמות יב:יב ...וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים אֲנִי יְ־הוָה.
Exod 12:12 … and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I am YHWH. [5]

The desecration here is not just making them physically disgusting, but ritually contaminated, rendering them useless.[6]

Frogs in Pharaoh’s Ovens and Kneading Bowls (Exod 7:28)

The second plague will also begin in the Nile, when, as YHWH describes to Moses, an army of frogs will leave the river to invade the country and creep into the very last corner of the Egyptians’ dwellings:

שמות ז:כח וְשָׁרַ֣ץ הַיְאֹר֮ צְפַרְדְּעִים֒ וְעָלוּ֙ וּבָ֣אוּ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ וּבַחֲדַ֥ר מִשְׁכָּבְךָ֖ וְעַל־מִטָּתֶ֑ךָ וּבְבֵ֤ית עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ וּבְעַמֶּ֔ךָ וּבְתַנּוּרֶ֖יךָ וּבְמִשְׁאֲרוֹתֶֽיךָ׃
Exod 7:28 The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls.

The plague ends when Moses prays to God on Pharaoh’s behalf and the frogs die:

שמות ח:ט ... וַיָּמֻ֙תוּ֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִן־הַבָּתִּ֥ים מִן־הַחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וּמִן־הַשָּׂדֹֽת׃ ח:י וַיִּצְבְּר֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם חֳמָרִ֣ם חֳמָרִ֑ם וַתִּבְאַ֖שׁ הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Exod 8:9 …the frogs died out in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. 8:10 And they piled them up in heaps, till the land stank.

For most commentators, the reference to the ovens and kneading bowls is merely an especially vivid detail illuminating the extent of the frog invasion, yet the detour into kitchen inventory of all things is strange. Why single out frogs invading and ostensibly dying in ovens and kneading bowls?

A possible answer can be found in the legal stipulations of Leviticus 11:29–38, which deals with various forms of contamination caused by different kinds of creepy crawlies.[7] Among other things, it discusses the rule if the carcass of any such animal should touch an oven or a stove:

ויקרא יא:לה וְ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁר־יִפֹּ֨ל מִנִּבְלָתָ֥ם ׀ עָלָיו֮ יִטְמָא֒ תַּנּ֧וּר וְכִירַ֛יִם יֻתָּ֖ץ טְמֵאִ֣ים הֵ֑ם וּטְמֵאִ֖ים יִהְי֥וּ לָכֶֽם׃
Lev 11:35 Everything on which any part of the carcass falls shall be unclean; whether an oven or stove, it shall be broken in pieces; they are unclean, and shall remain unclean for you.

Frogs are not mentioned in the list, but they fit in this category. Thus, following the stipulations of Leviticus 11, once in contact with the dead frogs, the Egyptian ovens and kneading bowls are irrevocably contaminated and must be broken. This would be the most severe and lasting consequence of a plague that otherwise causes only temporary inconveniences for the Egyptians.

Seven Days after YHWH had Struck the Nile (Exod 7:25)

This chronological note appears following the plague of blood, and before the plague of frogs:

שמות ז:כה וַיִּמָּלֵ֖א שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים אַחֲרֵ֥י הַכּוֹת־יְ־הוָ֖ה אֶת־הַיְאֹֽר׃
Exod 7:25 Seven days were fulfilled after YHWH had struck the Nile.

This verse, which is more of a prelude to the plague of frogs than a conclusion to the plague of blood, explains that the beginning of the second plague takes place seven days after the beginning of the first.[8] By using the verb מ.ל.א (“to be fulfilled/become full”), the text stresses that precisely seven days have passed before Moses and Aaron address Pharaoh again and perform the next plague.

Identical terminology is found in several stipulations in Leviticus. For example, the ceremony of ordaining Aaron and his sons as priests also lasts seven days, and uses the root מ.ל.א multiple times:

ויקרא ח:לג וּמִפֶּ֩תַח֩ אֹ֨הֶל מוֹעֵ֜ד לֹ֤א תֵֽצְאוּ֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים עַ֚ד י֣וֹם מְלֹ֔את יְמֵ֖י מִלֻּאֵיכֶ֑ם כִּ֚י שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים יְמַלֵּ֖א אֶת־יֶדְכֶֽם׃
Lev 8:33 Now from the entrance to the Tent of Appointment you are not to go out, for seven days, until the time of fulfilling the days of full-mandating. For seven days (it takes) to fill your hands (in mandating). (Fox trans.)

The purification of a woman after giving birth to a boy (33 days) or a girl (66 days), makes use of מ.ל.א as well (e.g., Lev 12:4, 6).[9]

Aaron, who will eventually be chosen as Israel’s high priest, must perform his tasks in purity. As it was Aaron who struck the Nile, coming into direct contact with blood and dead fish, and it will be Aaron who brings the frogs, he must complete a seven-day purification period in between.[10]

Post-Priestly Redactions

Evidence suggests that the three details that I have discussed above appear to be the work of a later redactor:

1. Blood in the wood and stone—The phrase about blood in the wood and the stone comes after the summarizing statement of the verse:

שמות ז:יט ...נְטֵֽה־יָדְךָ֩ עַל־מֵימֵ֨י מִצְרַ֜יִם עַֽל־נַהֲרֹתָ֣ם ׀ עַל־יְאֹרֵיהֶ֣ם וְעַל־אַגְמֵיהֶ֗ם וְעַ֛ל כָּל־מִקְוֵ֥ה מֵימֵיהֶ֖ם וְיִֽהְיוּ־דָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה דָם֙ בְּכָל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וּבָעֵצִ֖ים וּבָאֲבָנִֽים׃
Exod 7:19 ...Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, and in wood and stone.’”

The mention of a specific detail is unexpected after such a summary, suggesting that it was a later addition.

2. Frogs in the ovens and kneading bowls—As a specific detail coming at the very end of the verse, this phrase too is stylistically problematic:

שמות ז:כח וְשָׁרַ֣ץ הַיְאֹר֮ צְפַרְדְּעִים֒ וְעָלוּ֙ וּבָ֣אוּ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ וּבַחֲדַ֥ר מִשְׁכָּבְךָ֖ וְעַל־מִטָּתֶ֑ךָ וּבְבֵ֤ית עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ וּבְעַמֶּ֔ךָ וּבְתַנּוּרֶ֖יךָ וּבְמִשְׁאֲרוֹתֶֽיךָ׃
Exod 7:28 The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls.

Moreover, its placement goes against the pattern of the verse, which lists all the areas affected by the frogs in a hierarchical pattern: Pharaoh’s palace, followed by the houses of his officials, and then the common Egyptian people. It seems strange to return to the palace kitchen at this point. [11] Here, too, it seems likely that the phrase is a later addition.

3. Seven full days later—This verse is unique in the plague account; nowhere else is the length of time between one plague and another described.[12] Moreover, the verse appears as part of the non-Priestly plague account, though the style is distinctly Priestly, and the thought and terminology reflect a Priestly mindset. It seems, therefore, that a later author, who stood in the tradition of the Priestly school, added this note into the biblical text after P and non-P were already combined.

Literary-Historical Implications

Since all passages addressing purity issues appear to be secondary in their respective (Priestly and non-Priestly) literary contexts,[13] they must originate from a late, post-Priestly reworking of the combined (P and non-P) Plague Narrative. Purity is only a marginal aspect of the overall plague narrative, even in the passages that scholars attribute to the Priestly source.[14] The Priestly legal collections, however, place great emphasis on purity issues, and, in keeping with this, a later editor touched up the narrative here and there with details connected to purity legislation.

We see, therefore, that even after the plague narrative was compiled in its current form, scribes continued to revise it. This particular redactor made use of Priestly law, both to intensify the plagues against Egypt and to ensure the purity of Aaron and Moses during their divine mission.

Published

January 14, 2021

|

Last Updated

August 31, 2021

Footnotes

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Prof. Christoph Berner is Professor for Old Testament Studies/Hebrew Bible at the University of Kiel. He holds a Th.D. in Jewish Studies/New Testament and a Priv-Doz in Old Testament Studies/Hebrew Bible, both from the University of Göttingen. He is the author of Jahre, Jahrwochen und Jubiläen: Heptadische Geschichtskonzeptionen im Antiken Judentum, (de Gruyter, 2006); Die Exoduserzählung: Das literarische Werden einer Ursprungslegende Israels, (Mohr Siebeck, 2010); and the editor of The Reception of Biblical War Legislation in Narrative Contexts, (2015) and Book-Seams in the Hexateuch I: The Literary Transitions between the Books of Genesis/ Exodus and Joshua/Judges (2018) [both with Harald Samuel]; Clothing and Nudity in the Hebrew Bible (2019) [with Manuel Schäfer / Martin Schott / Sarah Schulz / Martina Weingärtner].