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.