#105. Does Moses strike the Nile with his staff for the first plague OR does Aaron with his own staff? (Ex 7:15-18 vs Ex 7:19-20)

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In the story related in Exodus 7:14-18, Yahweh commands Moses to take his staff, “the staff that was changed into a snake,” and to go to Pharaoh and say:

“Here, I’m striking with the staff that’s in my hand on the waters that are in the Nile, and they’ll be changed into blood. And the fish that are in the Nile will die, and the Nile will stink, and Egypt will weary themselves to drink from the Nile.”

But this is not at all what happens in the following verses. In fact, the story starts anew, with no recognition of what had been said in Exodus 7:14-18. It’s a completely new retelling, albeit with some interesting differences.

And Yahweh said to Moses: “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and reach your hand over Egypt’s waters, over their rivers, over their canals, and over their pools, and over every concentration of their waters.’ And they will be blood! And blood will be in all the land of Egypt, and in the trees and in the stones!” And Moses and Aaron did so, as Yahweh had commanded.

Ironic that the ending verse should express that all was done “as Yahweh had commanded” since indeed all was not done as Yahweh had commanded, at least not in the composite text that we now have. For what Yahweh had commanded in Exodus 7:14-18 was not done. Moses did not strike the Nile with his staff. Aaron did, and with his own staff!

We also notice some interesting differences in theme and vocabulary. While the first story of the first plague (although see #104) speaks of Moses’ staff, the snake, and the Nile, the second version has none of these elements and instead speaks of, now, Moses and Aaron, Aaron’s staff (see also #91), and Egypt’s waters drawn out to the smallest concentration.

In a previous post (#103), I had already enumerated the doublets found in the beginning of the book of Exodus. Here too we have a doublet. By now my reader should be able to recognize the second account as belonging to the Priestly writer. P subtly, or not so subtly, not only introduces Aaron into the narrative, but makes him, and his staff, the central features. In fact, one can easily spot the Priestly inserts throughout the Plague narrative by its introductory formula: “And Yahweh said to Moses “Say to Aaron…” Thus Ex 7:8-13, 8:1-3a, 8:12-15, and 9:8-12 are all parts of an original Priestly version of the Plague narrative, and all highlight Aaron and his staff.

Finally, we need to take a close look at how the later redactor ingenuously stitched these two versions together. What may be more surprising to my readers is that both versions, when separated, read as two complete, continuous, and coherent stories, with no interruptions nor gaps!

The Elohist’s version

14And Yahweh said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is heavy. He has refused to let the people go. 15Go to Pharaoh in the morning—he’ll be gone out to the water—and you’ll stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile and you shall take in your hand the staff that was changed into a snake. 16And you’ll say to him, “Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you saying, ‘Let my people go so they may serve me in the wilderness.’ And here. you haven’t listened so far. 17Yahweh said this: ‘By this you’ll know that I am Yahweh.’ Here, I’m striking with the staff that’s in my hand on the waters that are in the Nile, and they’ll be changed into blood. 18And the fish that are in the Nile will die, and the Nile will stink, and Egypt will weary themselves to drink from the Nile.” 20bAnd he raised his staff and struck the waters that were in the Nile before Pharaoh’s eyes and before his servants’ eyes, and all the waters that were in the Nile were changed into blood. 21And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile had an odor, and Egypt was not able to drink water from the Nile. And the blood was in all the land of Egypt. 23And Pharaoh turned and came into his house and did not pay heed to this as well.

The Priestly version

19And Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and reach your hand over Egypt’s waters, over their rivers, over their canals, and over their pools, and over every concentration of their waters.’ And they will be blood! And blood will be in all the land of Egypt, and in the trees and in the stones!” 20aAnd Moses and Aaron did so, as Yahweh had commanded. 22And Egypt’s magicians did so with their charms. And Pharaoh’s heart was strong, and he did not listen to them, as Yahweh had spoken.

What is most striking is the Elohist account, particularly how it continues effortlessly and without a gap from verse 18 to 20b, where there is mentioned once again Moses’ staff—so Moses does strike the Nile with his staff in this version—the Nile, the dead fish, the stink, and the undrinkable water—all themes in Exodus 7:14-18. It was in between verses 18 and 20b (remember there was no versification back then) that the redactor decided to slip in the beginning of the Priestly account. It was a thought out redaction. Take a look at how ingenuously these two versions were stitched together.

And Yahweh said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is heavy. He has refused to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning—he’ll be gone out to the water—and you’ll stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile and you shall take in your hand the staff that was changed into a snake. And you’ll say to him, “Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you saying, ‘Let my people go so they may serve me in the wilderness.’ And here. you haven’t listened so far. Yahweh said this: ‘By this you’ll know that I am Yahweh.’ Here, I’m striking with the staff that’s in my hand on the waters that are in the Nile, and they’ll be changed into blood. And the fish that are in the Nile will die, and the Nile will stink, and Egypt will weary themselves to drink from the Nile.” And Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and reach your hand over Egypt’s waters, over their rivers, over their canals, and over their pools, and over every concentration of their waters.’ And they will be blood! And blood will be in all the land of Egypt, and in the trees and in the stones!” And Moses and Aaron did so, as Yahweh had commanded. And he raised his staff and struck the waters that were in the Nile before Pharaoh’s eyes and before his servants’ eyes, and all the waters that were in the Nile were changed into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile had an odor, and Egypt was not able to drink water from the Nile. And the blood was in all the land of Egypt. And Egypt’s magicians did so with their charms. And Pharaoh’s heart was strong, and he did not listen to them, as Yahweh had spoken. And Pharaoh turned and came into his house and did not pay heed to this as well.

I felt compelled to spend some time with this contradiction and walk you through the text, because some of my more recent readers have insisted, from lack of knowledge, misinformation, negligence toward the biblical text, subjective agendas, and the valuing of traditions forged by readers living centuries later rather than the texts themselves, that the Bible does not evidence contradictions, narrative inconsistencies, or duplicate stories. None of these assertions are supported by the biblical texts, period. How and why these pundits have come to spout such erroneous positions is certainly of interest, but keeping our course firmly on the objective, the textual data refutes them, and their subjective uniformed claims, wholeheartedly. And again, this is just one example out of literally a hundred that we have already looked at and thousands that we will unravel over the next few years. In fact, not only does the Bible as it has come to be assembled exhibit contradictory stories but contradictory “histories” as well! This is actually the topic of my current book.

The reason why the Documentary Hypothesis works is that it not only explains the textual data (contradictions, narrative inconsistencies, jumbled chronological orders, duplicate stories, anachronisms, changing styles, vocab, themes, etc.) better than any other theory, but it is reinforced when we actually do see that separated out, these once independent sources function as coherent and whole narratives, each with their own set of recurring vocabulary, styles, historical contexts, themes, and theological emphases. In other words, the Documentary Hypothesis starts with the assumption that we’re reading a unified text! But by paying close attention to that text, particularly its narrative, vocabulary, and themes, the unified-text assumption falls apart and the text itself begins to show us that it is a composite of two or more sources.

The first version of this then truly hypothesis was launched in 1753 (read more: How the Bible was discovered to be a collection of contending sources). Since the assumption was that the biblical text was a unified whole and tradition dictated that it was written by Moses under divine inspiration, you can imagine the fierce opposition this hypothesis met. But time and time again, over the next two centuries, readers starting from the same 2 assumptions could not explain the textual data observed (contradictions, narrative inconsistencies, jumbled chronological orders, duplicate stories, anachronisms, changing styles, vocab, themes, etc.). The best explanation was still the source hypothesis. Today, the Documentary Hypothesis is more of a nomenclature, an unfortunate one at that, since all serious biblical scholars acknowledge the composite nature of the final form of the Bible as we have it today. It is a fact, supported by observable textual data.

This is not the end of inquiring about how and why the Bible came to be what it is today. For example, the text tells us, with reference to our above example, that these were two once independent versions. The final form of the text even shows us how they were assembled together. But it doesn’t tell us why they were assembled together. This would be a more speculative venture, and we would have to bring in other questions as well. Was this literature intended for the public or merely an elite guild? How were these scrolls used? Did they serve a purpose beyond the closure of an elite group of scribes? How did the redactor view these two versions? As history? Story? Tradition? These are all interesting questions but they require us to travel outside the text of the Bible into its broader historical and literary worlds.

Finally, what much of this study reveals is that there is a radical difference between the biblical texts themselves on their own terms and what they tell us about their authors’ beliefs, agendas, their audiences, and historical and literary worlds, and what the word “Bible”—a label of a readership living centuries after these texts were written—has come to mean, symbolize, and invoke. What if what the Bible means, and is, to our modern culture is vastly different from what the biblical texts individually and in their own historical and literary contexts were? I outline this query more fully in What is the Bible?

One thought on “#105. Does Moses strike the Nile with his staff for the first plague OR does Aaron with his own staff? (Ex 7:15-18 vs Ex 7:19-20)

  1. Since the Priestly writer claims that Aaron turned all of the water into blood, not just that in the Nile, how could “Egypt’s magicians” duplicate the feat? A better miracle, and one more beneficial to Egypt, would be turning the blood back to water.

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