The Plague of Dead Fish
Before There Was “Blood” There Was “Fish”
The first of the plagues sent to afflict the Egyptians was turning the Nile into blood (Exod 7:4-24). And yet, some subtle but convincing evidence suggests that in the earliest form of the story in the non-P text,  the water of the Nile did not turn to blood and that this is a secondary motif added to the story at a relatively early period in its development. We may call this makkat hadag (מכת הדג; “the plague of fish”) rather than makkat hadam (מכת הדם; “the plague of blood”), though the similarity in sound is likely coincidental.
The idea that the first plague did not originally speak of blood was suggested in 1913 by the German biblical scholar Hugo Gressmann (1877-1927), and was adopted in one form or another by a few of the early critics. However, some of the most important Exodus commentaries of the last few decades fail to even mention the idea. I believe that the idea is indeed compelling and suggest below reasons for the text’s evolution.
Moses Strikes the Nile
God commands Moses to make the following statement to Pharaoh at the Nile,
שמות ז:יז כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה בְּזֹאת תֵּדַע כִּי אֲנִי יְ-הוָה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מַכֶּה בַּמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדִי עַל הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר וְנֶהֶפְכוּ לְדָם. ז:יח וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר תָּמוּת וּבָאַשׁ הַיְאֹר וְנִלְאוּ מִצְרַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן הַיְאֹר.
Exod 7:17 Thus says YHWH, “With this you will know that I am YHWH; behold I will smite the water in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will turn to blood, 7:18 and the fish in the Nile will die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will be unable to drink water from the Nile.
The sequence of events in these verses (and in the execution of the command in verses 20b-21a) are:
- Moses strikes the Nile;
- The water turns to blood;
- The fish die;
- The Nile stinks;
- The Egyptians can’t drink water from the Nile.
At first glance, this sequence is perfectly logical. The blood causes the fish to suffocate and die and this causes the Nile to stink. Nonetheless, there are certain oddities.
Why Emphasize the Stench?
The reason that the Egyptians cannot drink from the Nile is because the water has turned to blood. Thus, one would have expected the statement, “and the Egyptians will be unable to drink” (end of verse 18) to appear directly after the statement about the water turning into blood (end of verse 17). The report about the death of the fish and the consequent bad smell should then follow, rather than precede, this statement.
What is more, the entire emphasis on the dead fish that made the Nile exude a nasty stench seems rather trivial and beside the point. True, nasty smells are an unpleasant nuisance. But this hardship pales in significance compared with the real difficulty facing the Egyptians – the Egyptians have just lost their main water supply!
Killing the Fish and Stinking up the Nile Was the Plague
These difficulties point to the possibility that the reason the Egyptians could not drink is because when Moses struck the Nile, the fish of the Nile died, contaminating the water and causing a terrible stench that made it difficult or impossible to get near it. This is why the Egyptians couldn’t drink from the Nile!
The Nile Still Has Water
Verse 18 says:
וְנִלְאוּ מִצְרַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן הַיְאֹר.
And the Egyptians will be unable to drink water from the Nile.
The implication is that the Nile was full of water—not blood—but this water could not be accessed or imbibed. This is also implied by the formulation of verse 24:
שמות ז:כד וַיַּחְפְּרוּ כָל מִצְרַיִם סְבִיבֹת הַיְאֹר מַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת כִּי לֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מִמֵּימֵי הַיְאֹר.
Exod 7:24 And all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink from the water of the Nile.
Again, the Nile was full of water, not blood, but the Egyptians could not drink it.
The Plague of Fish
Accordingly, verses 17-18, in their original form simply read:
שמות ז:יז כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה בְּזֹאת תֵּדַע כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מַכֶּה בַּמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדִי עַל הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר // ז:יח וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר תָּמוּת וּבָאַשׁ הַיְאֹר וְנִלְאוּ מִצְרַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן הַיְאֹר.
Exod 7:17 Thus says YHWH, ‘With this you will know that I am YHWH; behold I will smite the water in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand // 7:18 and the fish in the Nile will die, and the Nile will stink (or: become spoiled or contaminated), and the Egyptians will be unable to drink water from the Nile.
The same analysis goes for the parallel verses 20-21:
שמות ז:כb וַיָּרֶם בַּמַּטֶּה וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר לְעֵינֵי פַרְעֹה וּלְעֵינֵי עֲבָדָיו // ז:כאa וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר מֵתָה וַיִּבְאַשׁ הַיְאֹר וְלֹא יָכְלוּ מִצְרַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן הַיְאֹר.
Exod 7:20b He raised the staff and struck the water in the Nile, before the eyes of Pharaoh and before the eyes of his servants // 7:21a and the fish that were in the Nile died, and the Nile reeked, and the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile.
The fish died when Moses struck the Nile with his staff—perhaps it is assuming that this staff, which had turned into a serpent (verse 15; cf. Exod. 4:2-4), retained its venomous properties.
Why the Plague of Fish Was Turned into the Plague of Blood
So why was the element of the Nile turning to blood added to the plague? After all, the first few plagues are all about animals: frogs and mosquitos infest the Egyptians and their cattle die. Killing the fish and making the Nile stink fit in with these plagues quite naturally.
Explanation 1 – Heightening the Miraculous
On the most basic level, I would suggest that the addition of the turning of the Nile into blood is part of a general tendency of later writers to enhance the miraculous character of miracle stories. Dead stinky fish, like frogs and bugs, are irritating and unpleasant, but mundane. Moreover, nothing is overtly miraculous about a pond or river filled with dead and smelly fish, which might suggest a naturalistic explanation that the water was contaminated by some natural source. Turning the Nile into blood, however, perhaps under the influence of Exod 4:9, is certainly miraculous as well as majestic, and makes a naturalistic interpretation much less conceivable.
This tendency to make the miraculous even more miraculous is found in other places in the Bible as well, for example in the description of the Sea being split in Exodus 14, which amplifies an older account about wind blowing the sea back. Another instance of this phenomenon of heightening the miraculous may be found in the narrative of the plague of hail (9:13-35) in which we are told that the hail was burning with fire (v. 24). This same tendency is evident in Rabbinic literature as well, for example in the well-known claim that the manna had the taste of whatever food its eater imagined. 
Explanation 2 – Mythic Amplification and Theomachy
The metamorphosis of the first plague can also be explained as part of a tendency that I would refer to as “mythic amplification,” that is, the propensity to intensify the mythological depth of texts or stories that already have a certain mythological quality to them to begin with.
From the start, the story of the first plague had a unique mythological resonance to it. This can be heard particularly in verse 25:
שמות ז:כה וַיִּמָּלֵא שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אַחֲרֵי הַכּוֹת יְ-הוָה אֶת הַיְאֹר.
Exod 7:25 Seven days were completed after YHWH struck the Nile.
Only here, within the plague narrative, do we find God Himself, not Moses or Aaron, striking something with the staff down on earth. The mythological resonance of this verse is strengthened when taken together with Moses’ ambiguous message to Pharaoh:
שמות ז:יז כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה בְּזֹאת תֵּדַע כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מַכֶּה בַּמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדִי עַל הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר...
Exod 7:17 Thus says YHWH, ‘With this you will know that I am YHWH; behold I will smite with the staff that is in my hand the water in the Nile …
In this formulation, Moses is called upon not only to speak God’s words in God’s voice (“with this you will know that I am the Lord”), but also to physically embody God (or: to play the role of God) and to strike the Nile with the staff of God that is in his/God’s hand. Avoiding mention of Moses’ name in verse 20b highlights the ambiguity here: “he/He raised the staff and struck the water” (וירם במטה ויך את המים).
Further, echoes of a divine act of war are detectible here, since the verb “to strike” also means “to kill,” and deities often smite their enemies with clubs. Finally, the theme of a divine battle with a water/river deity is well attested in Egypt, Israel, and the ANE in general.
Killing the Nile: An Act Worthy of God
In spite of the highly mythological resonance of the story of the first plague, its original focal point still lay within the realm of the mundane, human sphere. The purpose of the plague was to kill the fish and contaminate the Nile so that the Egyptians would be unable to drink the water.
For the supplementor, however, fish hardly seemed like a worthy opponent for God’s martial efforts! Why would God personally strike the Nile for the simple purpose of killing the fish? God must have had some grander purpose in mind. He must have sought to deal the Nile itself, conceived of here as an Egyptian deity, a fatal, deathly blow. In order to give expression to this conception, the supplementer added the idea that the Nile turned to blood. God thus caused the Egyptian deity to bleed to death. The first plague was thus turned into what is referred to as “theomachy” – a battle between gods, except that the Egyptian deity is completely passive.
Punishing Egyptian Gods: Another Example of Mythological Amplification
A similar “mythological amplification” is seen in the account of the plague of the firstborn. Exodus 12:12 reads:
שמות יב:יב וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים אֲנִי יְ-הוָה.
Exod 12:12 And I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night and kill every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to animal, and I will perform judgments against all the gods of Egypt, I am YHWH.
This reference to the judgments against the gods of Egypt is mentioned here for the first time (cf. also Num. 33:4). In both Exodus 6:8 and 7:4 it is foretold that God would take the Israelites out of Egypt with “great judgments” (שפטים גדלים) but the clear implication is that these judgments will be brought against the Egyptians rather than their gods (cf. also Gen. 15:14, “and I will also judge the nation that they will serve”). How, then, are we to account for the unusual reference to the killing of the Egyptian gods?
Once again, I submit that the depiction of God personally going about the land of Egypt throughout the night to kill off the Egyptian firstborn had a strong mythological temper to it, and that this invited an intensification of that temper. If God was going about the land of Egypt on a killing rampage, one would think that he would have chosen a more worthy opponent to fight than the firstborn humans and animals. What is more, there is something rather unfair about God inflicting “judgments” on the Egyptians, since they can hardly be blamed for the enslavement of the Israelites. The gods of Egypt, on the other hand, may be held accountable for this, since gods are expected to maintain justice in their precincts (cf. Psalm 82).
Comparison to the Priestly Story: Remythologizing
As noted above, two different versions of the plague of blood are intertwined in the present biblical text of Exodus 7:14-25: a non-Priestly story and a Priestly story. The observations above all refer to the non-Priestly strand; the later priestly strand, on the other hand, spoke of the turning of the waters of Egypt into blood from the outset. This story, most scholars agree, ran as follows:
שמות ז:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶֽל אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם עַֽל נַהֲרֹתָם עַל יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם וְיִהְיוּ דָם וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים: ז:כa וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ כֵן מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הֹוָה ז:כאb וַיְהִי הַדָּם בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: ז:כב וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ כֵן חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם בְּלָטֵיהֶם וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הֹוָה:
Exod 7:19 YHWH said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘Take your staff and wave it over the waters of the Egyptians, over their rivers, over their waterways, over their lakes and over all their sources of water, and they shall become blood. There will be blood in the entire land of Egypt, and in the wood and stone [houses?].’” 7:20a Then Moses and Aaron did as YHWH commanded; 7:21b and there was blood in all of Egypt. 7:22 Then the magicians of Egypt did the same thing with their magic, and the heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he did not listen to them, as YHWH said.
In this version we find the very opposite of mythological amplification that we found in the earlier story, i.e., an attempt to limit or contain the mythological.
It is striking to note, for example, that this version of the plague of blood does not make mention of the Nile at all. It is as if Egypt were filled with multiple waterways, without any single, outstanding, major source of water! I would suggest that the Priestly writer eliminated all mention of the Nile to shy away from the mythological overtones that were highlighted in the non-Priestly story. If the Nile appeared to be depicted as an Egyptian deity that had to be killed in the earlier non-P version of the story, the best way to avoid the implication that a battle between the gods was taking place was to avoid referring to the Nile altogether!
In the Priestly story, Aaron is commanded to stretch out his staff over the waters of Egypt (נטה ידך על מימי מצרים); in the non-Priestly story, the staff was used to strike the Nile. Whereas striking with a staff connotes a violent act of war, stretching out a staff and waving it is closer to the realm of the miraculous. The plague was thus removed from the realm of theomachy; the God of Israel has no divine opponent.
No Reference to God’s Direct Involvement
Finally, nothing even vaguely similar to the mythologically charged description of YHWH striking the Nile (verse 25) takes place in the Priestly version of the blood plague. It is clear that in the Priestly version, God does not come down to earth and bring on the plague. Rather, God simply commands Moses to command Aaron to bring on the plague; God is completely separated from the person of Aaron (contra verse 17).
Balancing a Close Mythic God with a Distant One
The final redactor of the Torah narrative combined both versions of the story of the first plague. Perhaps we may find a lesson in this. The trend toward the mythological and the mystical in religion seems to be experiencing a revival in the world at large, and in certain Jewish circles as well. This often evokes strong criticism in other circles (both secular and religious), and engenders an attempt to supplant that approach with one that keeps God at a greater distance from people.
Both of these tendencies are natural and understandable. Keeping God too far away can result in a cold universe lacking in clear guidance for human beings, but bringing God down too close to earth can both cripple human initiative and stifle critical thinking. The redaction of the plague stories illustrates that each approach has its place, and a healthy religious system will strive to balance them both.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
April 6, 2017
September 13, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series