Friday, October 16, 2009

Was It Blood or Did It Only Look Like Blood?

Recently I heard about a question regarding one of the notes in the new Lutheran Study Bible that caused a bit of a stir. So, I looked it up to see for myself what it said. In Exodus 7:17 the Lord instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh that when he struck the Nile with his staff the water in it would "turn into blood" (ESV; NIV - "changed into blood"). The footnote referencing this verse in the LSB reads: "The same sense as Jl 2:31, where the moon is to be turned into blood; thus it was not a chemical change into real blood, but a change in appearance, possibly because of red algae. The Admonitions of an Egiptian Sage (late third millenium BC) refers to the Nile as being turned into blood." Now admittedly I have always believed that the water of the Nile did in fact turn into the substance of blood. This was new to me.

I was curious, though, whether the idea presented here was new to biblical interpretation in the LCMS. Maybe I just missed this over the years. So I went back and checked the last study Bible, the Concordia Self-Study Bible from 1998, a Lutheran edition of the original NIV Study Bible. The study note on this same verse reads: "The first nine plagues may have been a series of miraculous intensifications of natural events taking place in less than a year, and coming at God's bidding and timing. If so, the first plague resulted from the flooding of the Nile in late summer and early fall as large quantities of red sediment were washed down from Ethiopia, causing the water to become as red as blood (see the similar incident in 2Ki 3:22)."

Now I had two explanations, both of them, however, claiming that it was not actual blood, but the appearance of blood caused by other "natural events." One said it could be "red algae" and the other "red sediment." I have to admit that the absence of the claim of "supernatural events" puzzled me, despite the claim of these things happening "at God's bidding and timing," or the LSB claim that "A natural chemical phenomenon was immediately intensified and precipitated by the hand of God." Either way God's hand would be involved, especially since all life and existence exists purely by his power and according to his divine will. Still, there is a difference between "natural" and "supernatural," the later clearly being outside of the usual and expected course of events.

Going back in time one more step I also consulted CPH's Concordia Self-Study Commentary from 1971/1979. On this verse Dr. Walter R. Roehers, who was also part of the Concordia Self-Study Bible project, notes that "The Nile, Egypt's 'lifeline,' turned into bloody sewage. At an abnormally high flood stage it carried with it so many particles of fine red earth and microscopic bacteria as to render it 'foul,' undrinkable, and deadly to fish" (p. 66). Both explanations are combined here: organic and non-organic. Yet, they are also more natural than supernatural.

Finally, I went all the way back to 1923 to the beloved and well-used Popular Commentary by Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann. Kretzmann, surprisingly, claims that the water of the Nile was to be turned into blood and "not merely be given a blood-red color through the presence of microscopic animals or particles of red clay, but actually be changed into blood, that the river throughout the length of Egypt would flow with the liquid which commonly pulses through the arteries and veins of men and beasts" (p. 124, vol. 1).

Interesting. One might have claimed at first that Kretzmann would not have had the scientific awareness of the possible natural causes back in 1923, but he is clearly aware of them. Nevertheless, he sides with the supernatural explanation, now presenting me with two conflicting interpretations. Somewhere between the early 20's and the early 70's the interpretation underwent a change. But why? Was the explanation of a "God directed" natural clause more plausible to modern understanding than a purely "supernatural" one? Yet why did Kretzmann, aware of these alternate explanations reject them out of hand? I have to admit that with this brief investigation I am left with more questions than answers, and a bit of new concern. Perhaps someone else may have an explanation of the change in interpretation that I have missed.

Note: All four of these sources are still carried by Concordia Publishing House, although the last one by Kretzmann is now part of the new "print on demand" service as referenced in the above link. One might also note that the entire Popular Commentary is now available online through the Kretmann Project. For some further reading on the above topic and verse one might consult "Did the River Nile Really Turn to Blood?" by Wayne Jackson.


Jeff said...

The Lord said, I am the Lord: behold I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood".

Works for me.

For what it is worth, here is what the 1988 Thomas Nelson Study Bible mentions aboout this- "...the plagues displayed God's almighty power and proclaimed His holy name (9:16). The effects of the first miracle (v.21) seem to prove that the blood was real... In addition to the loss of their fish and their drinking water, the Egyptians suffered the extreme indignityof seeing the gods of the Nile made loathsome before their very eyes".

Paul McCain said...

Greetings, thanks for your note, tracing the history of this interpretation in our circles.

I think we need to be careful that we not say that either the water actually turned into blood [whose blood? Human? Animal?], or that there was no miracle at all, it was just sediment in the water, or only algae in the water.

As I've said to several people, the note in TLSB is defensible, and actually, in my opinion, helpful. There are so many denyinng that a miracle happened, and try to make fun of the text. We can choose to understand that the water actually, chemically, turned into human blood, as a miracle. Or we can certainly understand that, as he did with frogs, biting flies and locusts, the Lord "accelerated" the things of nature in a miraculous way.

I actually have personal experience with Red Tide and it is an amazing thing. The water does turn bloody and it STINKS to high heaven.

Here is a photo of red tide, just scroll down a bit:

Here is something I sent to a person who asked me about the note in TLSB. Perhaps you, and your readers, might find it useful:

Water Into Blood Ex. 7:17

The notes at Exodus 7 offer explanations of how God providentially and also miraculously used naturally occurring phenomena to accomplish this particular plague. God did the same with other naturally occurring phenomena, such as the plagues of locusts, frogs, and biting insects. The article on page 1674 in The Lutheran Study Bible offers a helpful discussion of the distinction between miracles and providence, a distinction that is often not made.

The notes in The Lutheran Study Bible do not deny the miraculous work of God in sending a plague in the form of water turning to blood (e.g., note for Exodus 7:19, “no ordinary natural event”).

The TLSB note for Exodus 7:17 points to Joel 2:31, which describes a similar transformation with blood and uses the same Hebrew construction found in Exodus (cf Brown, Driver, Briggs Lexicon entry on lamedh, section 4 a). If Joel 2:31 is taken literally, that would mean the moon will turn into blood. However, in the New Testament, this same transformation is presented as a description: “the full moon became LIKE blood” (Revelation 6:12; use of Gk hos). Therefore, the fuller context in Exodus and the rest of Scripture leads us to read “turn into blood” as a description of how the water changed and not as a chemical change from water into literal blood. These observations are not based on historical-critical assumptions but on careful grammatical reading, Scripture interprets Scripture, and sound theological distinctions.

Once again, we thank you for your strong interest in TLSB. As you read, please be sure to consider each note in view of the surrounding notes and look up the many cross-references. They will help you understand the conclusions and intentions of our writers and editors.

Don Engebretson said...

Thank you for your explanation, Paul. I have to admit, as I did in the post, that I was unaware of this explanation until just recently - and I concentrated in OT exegesis at CTS-FW of all things! I will have to read the article you reference in TLSB. There is much in this Bible I have yet to discover (I have not had the Bible for very long). I would like to research this subject a bit more. I'm not entirely sure of the problem with saying that the water turned into blood, unless saying so betrays an unwillingness to recognize other possible natural explanations, albeit with the realization that this remains the work of God.

All told, I thank you for responding and helping to clarify the questions I raised.

God's blessings!

Jeff said...

What does the study Bible say about Gen 32:33?

Nathan Jastram said...

The problem with the notes in the Lutheran Study Bible at Exod 7:17–24 is that they treat one hypothesis as though it were an accepted fact. Could the Hebrew mean that the water was blood red? Yes, as Joel 2:31 shows when it uses the same words to describe the moon. Could the Hebrew mean that the water turned into blood? Yes, as literally hundreds of passages show when they use the word “blood” according to its most common meaning. If the Hebrew could mean either, the notes carry speculation too far when they say, “thus it was not a chemical change into real blood, but a change in appearance….”
The strongest argument supporting the “algae or sediment” hypothesis is that Egyptians could dig shallow wells for “unbloody” water along the Nile, suggesting that the earth could filter out the algae or sediment from the “bloody” Nile waters. But the shallow wells could also have yielded pure water because God’s plague did not extend to water that was gathered from new wells.
On the other hand, there are several strong arguments against the “algae or sediment” hypothesis. When God originally spoke of the miracle, he said, “If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground” (Exod 4:9). It is interesting that the Lutheran Study Bible does not add a note to that verse claiming that the water would gather sediment or algae as it was poured from the container to the ground, making it blood red. Second, the sediment or algae that could collect in the Nile would not naturally have affected all the ponds and pools and water in containers (Exod 7:19). Third, some miracles “intensified” natural phenomena (frogs, gnats, flies, plague, boils, hail, locusts), at least one was supernatural (Angel of Death), and some are debatable (blood, darkness). Even the Lutheran Study Bible uses the word “possibly” when advancing the hypothesis that the darkness was caused by a sandstorm. Why omit the word “possibly” when advancing the hypothesis that the “blood” was “a change in appearance” rather than “a chemical change into real blood”?
Since the sign of the snake was clearly supernatural in contrast to the lying sign that the Egyptian magicians performed, is it not likely that also the plague of blood was supernatural in contrast to the lying sign of the magicians (Exod 7:22)? Perhaps God turned the waters into blood, and the Egyptian magicians turned them into blood red by adding sediment or algae.

Nathan Jastram said...

This is a continuation of my previous post. More than just being too confident in their speculation, the notes in the Lutheran Study Bible at Exod 7:17–24 could be subtly dangerous. There is a widely accepted notion today that miracles are impossible, and that the miracles described in the Bible are either mythological or natural phenomena that have been misinterpreted. The editors of the Lutheran Study Bible do not subscribe to the anti-miracle point of view, but the summary rejection of the more supernatural understanding of these verses leans in that direction.
There is also the danger of losing sight of the principles of biblical interpretation. It is simply bad hermeneutics to assert that because a word can mean something, therefore it does mean that in this passage. The word “blood” can mean “blood red,” but God would not have been amused if the Israelites had painted their doors with red paint during the Passover instead of with the blood of the Passover lambs (cf. Exod 12:7, 13). Nor would Jesus be amused if pastors taught that the wine of Communion is “blood” in the sense of being red. Many words have more than one meaning, and to determine the proper meaning in a particular passage requires proper principles of interpretation.
In the case of Exod 7:17–14, two principles that are particularly applicable are that the words should normally be interpreted according to their common meaning. Sometimes it is clear from the context that words are being used in uncommon ways, but such is not the case here. The second principle is that the interpretation should agree with the context, both far and near. The original discussion of this plague in Exod 4:9 renders it unlikely that “blood” should be understood as a color caused by algae or sediment.

Don Engebretson said...

Dr. Jastram,

Thank you very much for your very informative comments. I think that the added information you have provided will be helpful for present and future readers of this blog as they work to understand the notes in the Lutheran Study Bible, as well as how we deal with the miraculous in biblical interpretation in general.

Stan Lemon said...

Ditto Pastor Engebretson's thanks Dr. Jastram!

Chief of Sinners said...

I think it is helpful to remember that while the tec\xt in Joel may be the same construction, the two books are completely different genres, and therefore should be read differently. As some prominent St. Louis profs. remind me often, you do not read Genesis the way you read Revelation! Two different genres. I think that to conclude that the Nile did not turn into blood because of the construction in Joel is to ignore the difference in genre.

Also, if you read back further, God tells Moses to throw water on the ground and it will change into blood. On the ground! There would be no algae on the ground and if there was red sediment on the ground it would be no miracle. No, this text I think firmly makes clear that it was literal blood.

Roger said...

This question cannot be left open to interpretation. Ex 7:21 clearly states "There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt." How can we so tenaciously hold to the plain reading of scripture in one place and leave it open to interpretation in another? If we are willing to sacrifice "there was blood," then out of consistency we must also sacrifice "this is my blood."

To sacrifice consistency is to sacrifice integrity. I refuse to sacrifice the integrity of scripture or my own integrity as a Christian man. There is no question. The river turned to blood.