I’m working on a poem based on the first of the ten plagues of Egypt, where the River Nile was turned to blood. It’s not easy, this whole business of plagues, as I’ve said before. It feels an ancient interpretation of events, and I’m seeking to be honest about the unease that interpretation stirs in me. At the same time, a series of catastrophies befalling a nation, even as great an empire as ancient Egypt, seems so current, so in line with our daily news broadcasts, that I’m sticking with it, and seeking to be open to the movement of the Spirit, to show us what wisdom, what help, there may be for us. One of my guiding principles when I find a passage difficult is to ponder – if all scripture is useful for teaching us goodness, then what use is this scripture? What goodness might be learned from it?
As I’ve been allowing my mind to inhabit the story, a number of things have come to mind, and won’t be shaken. The first is the symmetry of the story. The story most people remember about Moses – if they are familiar with the narrative at all – is how he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket concealed among the reeds in the Nile, found in the morning when she went to bathe. This new Pharaoh seems to keep to the same tradition, of visiting the river at dawn to bathe, accompanied by attendants. Moses therefore finds himself standing near the place where he was left by his mother, and found by the princess, waiting to challenge Pharaoh. The symmetry is so striking I’ll copy the retelling from my earlier post Retold : On the banks of the Nile.
“On the Banks of the Nile.
Jochebed and her daughter Miriam slipped out just before dawn. They walked silently, shapes blending into the darkness. At every sound they stopped, afraid the slave mastrs might hear them. They crept down to the green banks of the Nile, the great river that was the lifeblood of all Egypt. There, by the trembling papyrus, they stopped and set down their load. It was a tightly woven basket, a tiny boat, contaiing Jochebed’s three-month-old baby son. She lifted the lid and leaned down to kiss him, splashing him with her tears.
Miriam said, “I’ll stay nearby and try to keep him safe….”
Jocobed slid the little boat into the reeds, and ran back to her cramped mud-walled slave house. “May God protect and keep him!” she prayed.
She knew Pharaoh wished her son dead, along with all the other Israelite baby boys. For the Egyptians hated the Israelites now. The Egyptians had forgotten how Joseph had saved them from starvation many generations ago. In Egypt, the Israelites had grown in number and strength, and the Egyptians looked at them with fear in their eyes. So they made them slaves, but they could not crush them.
In his anger Pharaoh summoned the two midwives who delivered the Israelite babies, and gave them a terrible order:
“When the babies are born, let the girls live, but kill the boys.” The midwives bowed as they left, but they would not do such a terrible thing! The baby boys continued to live, and grow strong.
Then Pharaoh commaned everyone. Throw all the baby boys into the Nile!”
Miriam stayed by the Nile, hidden among the reeds near her tiny brother’s basket, and waited. Then she heard the sound of singing, and saw the princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, coming towards the river with her maids. Miriam hardly dared to breathe. Would the Egyptians find her brother? The princess and her attendants were so close now. Miriam watched the princess take off her jewels and glide into the water. It shimmered like gold in the early morning light. Then the princess stopped. She had seen the basket in the reeds, and sent one of the slave girls to fetch it.
Peering inside, the princess saw the baby crying. Her heart melted. “This is one of the Israelite babies!” she said. Miriam seized her chance. She scrambled out of the reeds, and bowed down before the princess. Swallowing her fear, she spoke.
“Your Highness, shall I find one of the Israelite women to nurse this baby for you?”
“Why yes, go as quick as you can!” For the baby was crying very hungrily indeed. Miriam ran back home to get her mother.
“Care for this child, and bring him back to me when he is weaned. I’ll pay you for your trouble!” said the princess, gently placing the baby in Jochebed’s arms.
Jochebed’s heart nearly burst with joy. She had her son back! So she sang him Hebrew songs, the songs of the Israelites, and told him of thier God, and his promises, while he was a young child. She prayed for him, and cared for him tenderly until it was time to give him up to Pharaoh’s daughter. The princess called him Moses, and adopted him as her own son. He grew up as an Egyptian prince, educated by the best tutors and trained to rule.”
From The Bible Story Retold
Within this symmetry is also a terrible symmetry of justice. This is the subject of the poem I’m still working on, so I’ll say more when I share that with you. But I’m sure you’ll note, if you read the story above, that the river at this time was a place of death for the baby boys born to the Hebrew slaves. The river that was the life-blood of Egypt had become for them a place of death. On doing a bit of research, it seems that some ancient commentators suggest that this first plague was a punishment of the Egyptians for that terrible act, and that ties in with description of the plagues as judgement. My previous poem, The space in between, also holds this possibility.
Others see the plagues as a challenge to the Egyptian gods, and this one is a challenge to Hapi, often seen as a symbol of life and fertility brought by the river’s floods. As we’ve seen, the cruelty of the command to throw the babies into the Nile is in itself a serious undermining of that understanding of the river as a source of life and fertility, and perhaps an offence to those principles even under the Egyptian’s own belief system.
If there is some truth in these understandings, then this first plague might also be a foreshadowing, a forewarning of the last and most terrible – the death of the firstborn boys. We shall explore further.
For now, here is the fragment of story we are dealing with, taken, as they all are, from my book, The Bible Story Retold.
You can find the original Exodus account here.
Ten blows for Egypt
Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh of the terrible things that would happen if he did not set the slaves free, but he would not listen. And so, it began.
First they spoke to Pharaoh by the Nile as he went down to bathe. Moses and Aaron stood by the banks of the river and said, “This is what our God says: you must free our people to go to the wilderness. If you won’t listen, the river will become blood red, undrinkable, stinking. Egypt will be thirsty.”
Pharaoh turned away and carried on toward the bathing place. Then Aaron raised his staff and brought it down on the water with a mighty splash. The water swirled, thickened, and reddened, like blood, and gave off a foul smell. Fish floated gasping to the surface and died. But Pharaoh’s magicians could change water too, so he simply went back to the palace, unimpressed. He would not let the people go.From “The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters”, published by Lion
The next thing I’ve been thinking about in the light of this passage, is our own waterways, and whether they bring life, or death. If this difficult passage is useful, and I believe it is, one of the things that it may be teaching us is that actions have consequences. We can live harmoniously with God, with each other, with creation, or not. And those choices have consequences.
Yesterday, it was revealed that not a single one of Britain’s rivers met water quality standards. This is terrible, a tragedy for all the life that depends on rivers. And all life does depend on water. As we reflect on the ancient story of the Nile, the lifeblood of the country, turning undrinkable, we can remember how important our own rivers are, and how the actions of people, and corporations, may make them instruments of harm, rather than good. If this passage is to train us in goodness, and perhaps rebuke us, this is one way we can permit it to do so.
We can seek to become aquainted with our own rivers, our own watershed, and seek to care for it – perhaps with a litter pick, or perhaps with simply our respect and affection. Maybe, as we explore, we may notice things that spoil – outlet pipes, plans for unsympathetic development – and then take action. We may notice things that help – conservation efforts, stands of trees, efforts to clean up rubbish – and wish to join in. We’ve been walking our river the Deben over the lockdown, and you can read a poem about that here. If we start with love, and respect, then our care may lead to different action.
Perhaps you can see why it’s taking me a while to write my poem about this first plague! There has been much for me to think about, to prayerfully mull over. I’ll share it when it’s ready, and I hope that’ll be soon. Thank you for joining me on this Exodus journey.