Water and Plague

Ancient Near East Studies: God's usage of cultural beliefs to make known His authority

There is a fundamental question one MUST ask while working through exegesis in Scripture. This question is often and severely overlooked by many people who study God's word daily. This issue derives from the perspective of Western Common Theology. WCT is something that I often use in my talks because it's a short way of targeting a problem that I am passionate about today. The ""I only read Scripture from an English, transliterated, interpretation"" issue. The fundamental question when studying intensely is, ""why is this language being used, why is this word being used, why is this phrase being used?"" This question (rather these) can help us better understand why God is choosing to use terms that seem strange to western ears. Words like ""living water."" 

Embracing about 70% of its surface, water is at once earth's most plentiful natural resource and an essential requirement for human life. This was particularly felt by the people of the ancient Near East, where water was often in scarce supply. Accordingly, they commonly lived along river banks and other bodies of water or dug wells to provide an amount of available water for drinking and cleansing as well as for irrigation purposes to ensure the fertility of the land. Water is a massive part of Ancient Near Eastern culture, language, and lifestyle. We don't really have, today, the same concept for water as they do. Man's everyday experience with water in its various sources often appears in idiomatic expressions. For example, something that arouses the appetite is said to ""make one 'sone's mouth water."" A past event is called ""water under the bridge."" Something that is ""watered down"" may be less persuasive or effective. A simplified explanation of the make-up or workings of a complicated device or the basic idea of a difficult problem may also be expressed by the same idiom.

So the usage of ""water"" and ""living water"" in both the Old Testament and ANE Culture has a significant purpose in its usage. The beneficial aspect of the Hebrews safe passage through the Red Sea is a reminder that God's control over water could also provide positive results for His people. For example, He brought water from a rock for the Israelites as they traveled through the Desert of Sin on the way to Mount Sinai (Exod. 17:1-7; cf. Isa.48:21) and did so again many years later (Num. 20:1-13). He also assured His people that He would bring them into a land of abundant water supply to ensure the fertility of the land and to meet the people's needs (Deut. 8:7-10; 11:11-12). Therefore, He could justly describe His relation to Israel metaphorically as ""the fountain of life-giving water"" (Jer. 2:13).  

We must compare and examine the usages of water from the above references but against that of Ancient Near Eastern Babylon and Egypt to see if there is any significance in God's usage of the terms. First, let us set a precedent for this idea that the water of life has significant meaning within the Ancient Near Eastern texts and culture. This aspect of water, as life can be found at birth as well as at death, gives an important role to the ceremony of the New Year (called Akitu) performed in Babylon on the day of the New Year, symbolizing a return to the origins of the world. Immersion in water signifies regression to the preformed, reincorporation into the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence; immersion is equivalent to a dissolution of forms. This is why a symbolism of water implies both death and rebirth [ Eliade 1957:130 ]. Eliade notes, as well, that connection with water always brings about a regeneration ""because dissolution is followed by the new birth (and) because immersion fertilizes and produces the potential of life"" (1957:130). This aquatic cosmology, he notes, has its counterpart on the human level in the belief that humankind was born of the waters. Thus, water symbolizes all the potentialities and the matrix of all possibilities of life. These precede any form, and through immersion, in them, they express the regression into the pre-formal i.e., a complete regeneration, a new birth, because water contains the seeds of a new life. As such, water is a highly ranked symbol of life. 

Gods in the Ancient Near East often used water as showing power, life-giving ability, and many other things. We see this in various texts from Marduk in the Enuma Elish, Hymn to Marduk, and even Plutarch's "On Isis and Osiris." It doesn't stop there; however, it proceeds to Pyramid texts about Hapi [See chart at the end of paper]. These gods were seen as life-bringing agrarian gods who used water, flood, and other water-archetype to pronounce themselves. It is interesting to note the connection with floods here. This connection of flood in Ancient Near East culture was seen as a good omen, not a bad one. It meant to them, in their cosmology, that life was going to return to its former state and be full of potential. The Babylonian and Egyptian New-Year ceremonies took place at the time of the start of the flooding of the Euphrates and the Nile, during the month of Nisan (Babylonia) and Akhet (Egypt). Both were symbols of renewal of the cosmological cycle and of the complementary dualism of chaos and creation. During the Akitu ("to begin," "head of the year") in Babylon, on the fifth day, the Enûma Elišh was recited in the sagila to re-enact the struggle between Marduk and Tiamat, mimed by two groups of actors (Eliade 1959:56). During the "Oper Renpet Neferet." The word for the year also means "rejuvination," which is seen throughout the story of Osiris every single year. 

Not all floods are seen as good omens, the mīlu-flood has to be a negative omen during the Nisannu month (March/April). It was a sign of plague, as the color of the mīlu-flood indicated. "If a mīlu-flood comes in the month of Nisannu and the river is like dark-red blood, there will be an epidemic in the land." Tiamat was the primeval bitter water as part of the Creation with Apsu. Her new name is a derivative of the Greek word Thalattē/Thalassa meaning "sea" (Burket 1993:92f) and Tehom in Hebrew, meaning "the depth", "the Abyss" (Tsumura 1989:159). Her belly was also used by Marduk to contain the Upper primeval waters (Enûma Elišh I:4). Thus, both Tiamat and Apophis were at their "birth" and their "death" in contact with the ancient waters. This union with the primeval waters is eventually linked to their appearance, described as reptilian. First, the serpent by itself symbolizes deformity, shapelessness, living close to the Earth, with a special bond with the Underworld (Black and Green 1992:867). 

The use of the blood-red flood should sound familiar as the use in Exodus: This is what the LORD says: By this, you will know that I am the LORD: With the staff that is in my hands I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink, and the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.

— Exodus 7:17–18

The three Egyptian seasons were the basis of the Egyptian calendar which followed the phases of the flood: Akhet (Inundation, between July and October), Peret (growing, between November and February), and Shemu (drought/sowing, between March and June) (Bonnamy 2013:16, 224, 635). This focus on the blood color of the Nile sends us back to the "blood" mentioned in the Admonitions of Ipuwer. Admittedly, the red color of the Nile could be a reference to the blood of Osiris in a positive and fertile perspective, however "blood" as mentioned in spell 254 of the Pyramid Texts and the Enûma Elišh IV:49, the blood was envisaged as a weapon as well. In this spell, the pharaoh Unas is planned as a bull of the sky who defeats his enemies. The power of the High Nile is envisaged as a destructive weapon against the enemies of the king. The god Seth's color was known to be red. He was characterized as both a god of chaos and deserts, as well as a heavenly god of fertility, rain, storms, and lightning (Coffin Texts IV 396 a-b). He was also the murderer of Osiris, the body of whom he threw into the Nile (Pyramid Texts 24d, 615d, 766d, 587b-588c). The murder of Osiris and his storm god characteristic linked Seth to the flood and its fertility aspects. However, the terrible powers of Seth could also be a sign of "death," as mentioned in the Admonitions of Ipuwer, as his power could "overflow" the Nile and cause a disastrous flood. 

This sets up the significance of Exodus' use of the red blood color in the Nile. It wasn't, as many believe today, a scare tactic in the sense of water being turned into water. No, it meant far more than that to Pharoah than it does to us reading in 2019. The Egyptians had a concept of the Nile turning blood red that predates the plagues, and that is why the Biblical usage of that plague is so essential to understand in the context of Ancient Near Eastern water archetypes. The Egyptians would have seen the Nile turn red and been alarmed not because it was "blood" like, but because for them, it was a sign that Osiris was slain. It is plausible to suggest that YHWH was showing them that He had the power to slay their gods. 

This idea that God showcases His truth over other existing cultures is not new. We look at Genesis and God overthrowing the beast, which is a central concept of Ancient Near East cosmology and religion. We see God speaking in Genesis against their idols and gods by showing them that He is the creator of all things and source of all life. This extension into Exodus is no surprise. God dismantles the concepts of foreign gods and replaces it with the truth found only in Him. 

Sources: 

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