#104. What is the first plague: the staff into serpent OR the waters into blood? (Ex 7:8-13 vs Ex 7:14-18)


Close readers of the Plague narrative (Exodus 7-9) have observed that it too seems to be a composite of, mainly, two different sources: the Priestly source and the Elohist. Each version stresses unique themes and accentuates different aspects of the story. We will see in #106 that Psalms 78 and 105 also preserve variant versions of the Plague signs and their order. Here, we are interested in the first sign, which in the composite text is the turning of the Nile into blood. But the Priestly source may have had a different first sign.

Recall that the Priestly source does not make an appearance until Exodus 6:2 (#87)—its revelation scene. Moses then takes Yahweh’s message to the people, but “they did not listen” (6:9). In other words, in P there is no dialogue between Moses and Yahweh about needing a “sign” to persuade the children of Israel to believe him. He simple relates the revelation to the people, but they don’t listen.

Next (Ex 6:14-25), we get a long Priestly insert by a later redactor of, not Moses’ genealogy, but Aaron’s! Indeed the genealogy starts by listing the sons of the sons of Leah, Jacob’s firstborns. But look where it ends: Aaron, his son Eleazor, and his grandson Phinehas. This is not a coincidence. In another Priestly passage, it is to Phinehas that Yahweh pronounces the last of his covenants: the eternal covenant of the priesthood (Num 25:13)! It is no coincidence either that here Yahweh is seen as legitimating the Aaronid priesthood as sole priests from Phinehas’ descendants onward. Who do you think penned these passages? Aaronid priests who traced their genealogy back to Phinehas, and back to Aaron! Yahweh becomes a mere mouthpiece to legitimate and authorize the claims of the Aaronid priestly guild. How can we say this? Because studying the Bible’s texts tells us this. For instance, we will also see the Levite written texts of Deuteronomy, and parts of the Elohist text, use Yahweh to proclaim the utter opposite—namely that only the Mushte Levites are to be priests! But I’m getting to far ahead of myself here.

After the genealogy we get a resumptive repetition—that is the scribe who inserted this Priestly genealogy tells us that he has inserted material by repeating the very words that were before the insert right after the insert. Look closely at verses 13 and 26. They’re the same!

The Priestly text then continues (Ex 6:30-7:7) to narrative how Aaron is commissioned on account of Moses’ failure, due to his “uncircumcised lips” (#93). And then both Moses and Aaron appear in front of Pharaoh and perform the 1st plague sign in the Priestly source!

And Yahweh said to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “When Pharaoh will speak to you saying ‘Produce a wonder!’ then say to Aaron. ‘Take you staff and throw it in front of Pharaoh. Let it become a serpent.'” And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and did so, as Yahweh had commanded, and Aaron threw his staff in front of Pharaoh and in front of his servants, and it became a serpent. And Pharaoh, too, called the wise men and the sorcerers; and they, too, Egyptian’s magicians, did so with their charms: and they each threw his staff and they became serpents. And Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs. And Pharaoh’s heart was strong, and he did not listen to them, as Yahweh had spoken. (Ex 7:8-13)

Now compare this passage, its vocabulary, phrases, emphasis, and plot with the 2nd Priestly plague sign (Ex 7:19-20a + 22):

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 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.

The two passages clearly exhibit the same language, style, and emphases, particularly the mention of Moses and Aaron, Aaron’s staff, the Pharaoh’s magicians, and the Pharaoh’s strong heart, as Yahweh had commanded/spoken. These similarities, along with the fact that there is no sign produced for the people in P, have led commentators to argue that in the original Priestly version of the Plague narrative the staff-to-serpent was the first sign. There is also the added element that the first sign in the non-Priestly material, the turning of the waters into blood, is done with Moses’ staff, not Aaron’s (#91)! See tomorrow’s contradiction.

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