The Tit-For-Tat Problem
by Farrell Till
For sheer absurdity, few tales in pagan mythology can match the biblical stories of the Egyptian plagues. The incidents that led eventually to the death of all firstborn in the land and quickly thereafter to the Israelite exodus from Egypt began with a tit-for-tat confrontation between Moses and Aaron and pharaoh’s magicians (Ex. 7:8-13). To show the power that Moses and Aaron had in reserve, Aaron, we are told, cast his rod down, and, presto, it became a serpent. Apparently unimpressed by Aaron’s demonstration, pharaoh called for his magicians and sorcerers, who “did in like manner with their enchantments.” Aaron’s rod, however, swallowed the rods of pharaoh’s magicians. At this point, we might wonder why the “inspired” writer of this quaint little tale said that Aaron’s rod swallowed the rods of pharaoh’s magicians. Surely it would have been the serpent that had been Aaron’s rod that swallowed the serpents that had been the magicians’ rods. To spare inerrantists the trouble of lecturing us on the figure of speech called ampliatio, however, I won’t quibble about the word used to designate what swallowed what, although this does seem to be a careless bit of writing by one whose hand was presumably guided by the omniscient god who created the universe. Just suffice it to say that Aaron’s rod or serpent, whichever the case may have been, saved the day by swallowing the magicians’ rods or serpents, whichever the case may have been. Score one for Yahweh and the good guys.
If one accepts the premise that God once routinely and personally intervened in the affairs of men to achieve whatever results he desired, there is admittedly nothing in this story so far that could be characterized as preposterous. Beyond this point, however, as we will soon see, that situation changed dramatically, and absurdity was quickly piled upon absurdity. What we want to glean from this part of the story before we wade through the sea of absurdities that follows is the evident fact that whoever wrote this part of the Bible obviously intended the tale of the Egyptian plagues to be perceived as a confrontation between the power of Yahweh invested in Moses and Aaron and the magic of pharaoh’s magicians. The writer’s strategy seemed to be to tell the story as a tit-for-tat contest between the power of Yahweh and the power of pharaoh’s sorcerers until finally the latter would have to give up and admit that Yahweh’s power was greater than theirs.
It was a good idea to apply to the duel of the rods, but in choosing to continue it into the infliction of the plagues, the writer very quickly got himself into a peck of trouble. Apparently still unimpressed with Aaron’s power, even after the swallowing of the other rods (serpents?), pharaoh refused to release the Israelites from bondage. Yahweh then showed him a thing or two by sending the famous plagues upon the land of Egypt. The first plague was the changing of the water of Egypt into blood. Through Moses, Yahweh commanded Aaron to stretch his rod, (which had once been a serpent), over the waters of Egypt to change them into blood. To understand just how complete and thorough this plague was said to be, let’s notice the passage that recorded the event. For the sake of clarity, I will quote the modern English of the New Revised Standard Version with Yahwehsubstituted for the LORD:
Exodus 7:17 Thus says Yahweh, “By this you shall know that I am Yahweh. See with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. 18 The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.” 19 Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt--over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water--so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”
Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded. In the sight of pharaoh and of his officials, he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, but the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts (Ex. 7:17-22). One wonders why Yahweh said, “See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile,” when the staff wasn’t in Yahweh’s hand; it was in Aaron’s hand. Although this also strikes me as rather careless writing on the part of an “inspired” writer, again I won’t quibble. This will spare inerrantists the trouble of an excursion into that land of how-it-could-have-been scenarios that fundamentalist apologists are famous for. “Well, you see, in saying that the rod was in his hand, God could have meant that the power in the rod ultimately emanated from him, or he could have meant blah, blah, blah, and etc., etc., etc.” What would inerrantists do without figurative “explanations” when they find themselves in tight spots!
There is, however, an even greater problem than careless writing in this passage; the thinking behind the writing was incredibly myopic. It is one thing to say that after Aaron had cast his rod down and changed it into a serpent, pharaoh’s magicians “did in like manner with their enchantments” and changed their rods into serpents; it is quite another to say that “the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts” (v:22) after Moses and Aaron had changed into blood the water throughout the whole land of Egypt, from the river [Nile] down to the water in vessels of wood and vessels of stone. Please notice the statements emphasized by bold print in the passage above to see that the extent of the plague was allegedly as thorough and complete as I have indicated. How, then, could pharaoh’s magicians have duplicated Aaron’s feat this time? If Aaron had changed all of the water throughout the whole land of Egypt into blood, including even the water in stone and wooden vessels, there would have been no water available for pharaoh’s magicians to show their stuff and duplicate the feat. I would think that any inerrantist should be able to see this, but if they can’t, perhaps someone can at least explain to us how the magicians were able to pull off this remarkable stunt. At any rate, we have to score one for pharaoh and the bad guys this time. Moses and Aaron merely changed all the water there was into blood; pharaoh’s magicians changed all the water there wasn't into blood. They were some magicians, to say the least. Hence, what we have here is a story that amounts to asserting both X, (all the water of Egypt was changed into blood), and not X, (all the water of Egypt was not changed into blood). It is unreasonable to believe that after Aaron and Moses had changed all of the water throughout all the land of Egypt into blood, pharaoh’s magicians could have done “likewise with their enchantments.” As I have already noted, it would have been a logical impossibility for the magicians to have done likewise with their enchantments, because there would have been no water left for them to change into blood.
Even if we assume that once all the water in Egypt had been changed into blood, it would have somehow been logically possible for someone else to duplicate the feat by changing water that no longer existed into blood, it was certainly a stupid act on pharaoh’s part to have his magicians do the same. As I explained in "Pharaoh, the Nincompoop," no responsible chief of state would cause civil unrest by intentionally inflicting catastrophes on his country, but as the plague stories were told, pharaoh at first had his magicians perform tit-for-tat whenever Aaron and Moses brought a plague. When all the water was changed into blood, pharaoh had his magicians do likewise; when they brought the plague of frogs, pharaoh had his magicians bring even more frogs. This part of the plague stories presented pharaoh as an incompetent dunce. If, for example, terrorists should contaminate all water east of the Mississippi with a deadly chemical, the president would be an idiot if he ordered his agents to do the same thing to all water west of the Mississippi. How idiotic! The plague stories would have been more credible if the magicians had been presented as agents of pharaoh who undid the plagues as Aaron and Moses inflicted them on Egypt. Instead, we find this tit-for-tat premise in the accounts of the first plagues. Whatever Aaron and Moses did, the Egyptian sorcerers also did. Who can believe such nonsense? We have to wonder how Egypt, with such incompetence sitting on the throne, ever managed to become a major power in that part of the world.
As I have often said, however, there is no such thing as a biblical discrepancy that will not send inerrantists scurrying to find some way to explain it, so, needless to say, there have been some how-it-could-have-been attempts to explain how Pharaoh's magicians could have done likewise with their arts after Aaron and Moses had changed all the water throughout all the land of Egypt into blood. Some inerrantists use the all-didn't-mean-all explanation and insist that where the text says that the water throughout all the land of Egypt became blood, the writer didn't mean that every last molecule of water became blood but only that a preponderant part of it did. When the original copy of this article was posted on the Errancy list, one of the members formed a separate, restricted board called Christians Combating Biblical Errancy (CCBE), which allowed only Bible believers as members so that they could pool their ideas to formulate satisfactory "explanations" of biblical discrepancies being posted at Errancy. Their initial explanation of the water-into-blood problem was a variation of the all-didn't-mean-all "solution." Their spokesman Matthew Bell presented the "explanation" on October 4, 1998.
It states nowhere in the text that absolutely no water existed for the magicians to perform their feat. Indeed if one uses the principle of exegesis (defined by F.Till as, "exegesis" means to derive from the text the meaning of the language used within it), then one would come to the opposite conclusion that F.Till does. The text states that the magicians did likewise. We derive from this (the text) that to have done so they would have water to use. That the text does not specify where or how they obtained this water does not mean that there was none in existence.To claim such is to argue from that which the text does not say (eisegisis [sic]), and go against what it does say (exegisis [sic]).
When Bell and his CCBE cohorts argued that if the text says that after Aaron and Moses had changed the water in all the land of Egypt into blood, the magicians of Egypt did likewise, then there must have been some water somewhere for them "to use," they were begging the question of biblical inerrancy by arguing that if the Bible said that it happened, then somehow it happened, even thought we may not know how it happened; hence, they were resorting to a variation of the all-didn't-really-mean-all explanation. On the same day that Bell posted this "solution," I sent"Blood, Water, and Magicians (1b) in reply to his post to show that, contrary to what he was claiming, the problem did indeed concern what the text said, since what the text said constitutes a logical impossibility.
I've never claimed that the text does not say that the magicians did likewise with their enchantments, and that is the whole point. My argument is that the text had to be in error in making this claim, because it is a logistically impossible claim. If we grant that Aaron and Moses changed all of the water in Egypt into blood, an act that would have been possible if there were any such thing as an omnipotent god working on their behalf, it would not have been possible for the magicians to do the same thing that Aaron and Moses did, because all the water in Egypt had already been changed into blood. So the argument is not about whether the text says that the magicians did the same as Aaron and Moses but whether the text could be accurate in saying that they did. If something is logically impossible, then it couldn't have happened. That's the issue that Bell and the CCBE keep evading.
Bell promptly sent this "reply." By the way, Bell is Scottish, so I will retain his British spelling and punctuation.
At this point we see no textual reason to 'grant that Aaron and Moses changed allof the water in Egypt into blood'. What we do agree with is that Moses and Aaron changed all of the water in Egypt into blood that is categorised in the text. Anywater not categorised in the text immediatley sinks your whole argument. Please textually demonstrate your assertion that 'all', as in absolutely no exceptions, of the water in Egypt was turned to blood? A failure to do so from the text invalidates your argument of logistically impossible.
Bell and his CCBE colleagues just never seemed to understand the logistical-impossibility factor in this plague story or else they understood it but just didn't wanted to admit that it was there. The matter is as simple as I explained above: although an omniscient, omnipotent deity, if such should exist, could certainly have changed all of the water throughout all of the land of Egypt into blood, once this had been done, not even an omnipotent power could have done likewise with his arts, because doing so would have required the performance of a logical impossibility, and not even "God"--if he exists--could perform a logical impossibility. "God," for example, could not make square circles, because square circles are logically impossible, since any geometric pattern that is a circle could not be a square, and any that is a square could not be a circle. As for Bell's references to whatever water was "categorized" in the text, the water that was "categorized" was, according to the text, the water "throughout all the land of Egypt." That, then, would have been inclusive of all the water in Egypt. If not, why not?
In an unfinished written debate that I began with the Church-of-Christ preacher Jerry Moffitt back in 1992, which he dropped out of after only three exchanges, I presented this same problem, which Moffitt tried to explain by claiming that the magicians dug for ground water along the river and then changed that into blood. This was simply a variation of the all-didn't-mean-all "solution," which I will be addressing later, but first, I want to quote a hypothetical example that I used to present the tit-for-tat problem to Moffitt.
Let's suppose that Mr. Moffitt and I, both possessing genuine supernatural powers to perform miracles, decided to have a showdown, and to get things started, I waved my hand and instantly changed all the trees in Texas into stone. Would Mr. Moffitt then be able to duplicate my feat? No, how could he? There would be no trees left in Texas for him to act upon no matter how great his powers might be. If a newspaper reporter covering the duel should later write an article that said, "After Till had changed all the trees throughout all the territory of Texas into stone, Moffitt did in like manner with his enchantments," wouldn't anyone reading that be justified in questioning this reporter's journalistic accuracy?
The problem is as simple as recognizing that not even the god Yahweh--if he exists--could have done that which was logically impossible. If the biblical text had said that pharaoh's sorcerers had changed all the blood created by Aaron and Moses back into water, there would have been no issue concerning logistical impossibilities in this story, but no such claim was ever made. The Exodus writer simply said that after Aaron had changed the water throughout all the land of Egypt into blood, pharaoh's magicians "did likewise with their enchantments" (KJV), and therein lies the problem. The text claims that a logical impossibility was performed.
All through my exchanges with Bell and his CCBE cohorts, this part of the problem was largely ignored by them, but we can see in the quotations above from Bell's "responses" that he was essentially arguing that all didn't mean all. If the text says that pharaoh's magicians did likewise with their enchantsment, then somehow they did likewise with their enchantments, so there had to have been some water somewhere for them to act upon. That was the essence of Bell's "solution," so he was, as I noted above, begging the question of biblical inerrancy by assuming that all didn't mean all.
Moffitt's variation of the all-didn't-mean-all solution to this problem was based on the biblical claim that the Egyptians found drinking water by digging along the river.
Exodus 7:24 says the Egyptians got water to drink by digging round about the river. They could get plenty enough to show they turned water to blood in as many vessels as they chose. Till alludes to this digging only eight lines later, and surely only some kind of adversarial forgetfulness led him to ignore it here.
Well, actually, the text that Mr. Moffitt quoted doesn't say that the Egyptians found water to drink by digging round about the river; it says only that they dug for water round about the river. If someone should say that Jones drilled for oil on his property, that wouldn't mean that he found oil but only that he drilled for it. The Exodus writer may have indeed meant that the Egyptians actually found water by digging along the river, but if this was what he meant, then he erred when he said that the water throughout all the land of Egypt had been changed into blood, including even the water that was in ponds, pools, and vessels of stone and wood, because if the Egyptians found drinking water by digging round about the river, then the water that they found this way would have come from the river. Hence, it would not have been true that all of the water in the river had been changed into blood, and certainly it would not have been true that the water throughout all the land of Egypt had been changed into blood, for if the Egyptians had actually found drinking water by digging along the river, the water that they found would have been water that was in Egypt. It would not have been water that they found in China or North America.
What mystifies me about most apologetic solutions to discrepancies like the one presently under consideration is the failure of the "apologists" to see that they are making their omniscient, omnipotent deity also look like a nincompoop, who was unable to inspire his chosen writers to narrate events clearly enough that there would be no misunderstanding of what had happened. Here is the biblical account of the changing of the water throughout the whole land of Egypt into blood.
Exodus 7:19 Yahweh said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt--over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water--so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'" 20 Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, 21 and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as Yahweh had said.
Now let's just suppose that Moffitt and other would-be apologists who use this same explanation are right and that pharaoh's magicians dug for water, filled some containers, and changed that water into blood. Look how simple it would have been to have written the story to make it clear that this was what had happened.
Exodus 7:19 Yahweh said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt--over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water--so that all the water above ground may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'" 20 Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, 21 and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and all the water above ground,including even that in vessels of wood and vessels of stone, became blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt dug along the river, filled some vessels with water found under the ground, and did to it the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as Yahweh had said.
Now if the story had been written in this way, there would have been no dispute at all about what had allegedly happened. Even the staunchest biblical skeptic would have been able to understand what was claimed in the story: after Aaron and Moses had changed all water in Egypt above the ground into blood, Pharaoh's magicians dug along the river, found water under the ground, and changed that water into blood with their secret enchantments. The "word of God" has reached a sorry state of affairs when a retired English teacher is able to tell a story with better clarity than someone who was inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent deity.
[If the would-be apologist Robert Turkel, whose "solution" to the livestock-of-Egypt problem I will address in a later article, reads this and says that my problem is that "God" didn't kiss my patoot, besides begging the questions of whether "God" exists and was in any way involved in biblical tales like the Egyptian plagues, he will be evading a legitimate question about ambiguity and confusion in the Bible: why couldn't an omniscient, omnipotent deity have done a better job of "inspiring" those who wrote the books of the Bible?]
As this series of articles continues, I will be quoting a Jewish rabbi, who has been a longtime member of the Errancy list. His "solutions" to discrepancies in the Old Testament almost invariably involve some Jewish tradition that he believes explains whatever discrepancy is being claimed. Just recently, he cited a Talmudic solution to the problem of the Egyptian livestock that seemed to keep rising from the dead after the plague of murrain had killed "all the livestock of Egypt." When I asked why we should consider Jewish tradition to be any more reliable than anyone else's, he sentthis reply on November 24, 2005.
In a recent post to HILL I started to explain why Talmudic explanations are better than the musings of a Gleason Archer. The extra-Biblical records of ancient Israel are thousands of years closer to the source material than Gleason Archer is. Furthermore Archer admittedly invents his answers based on hope and whim. Even if such apologetics is based on the occasional historic event, it is still an outright after-the-fact invention. Talmudic explanation carries the traditional public claim of a nation who are the ones responsible for bringing you your copy of the Bible to begin with.
The rabbi's position, then, is that traditions that are closer to "the source material" will be more reliable than those that are further removed. He may be surprised to hear me say that unless bias or prejudice is present in traditions, proximity would make them more reliable than sources further removed, but what reading I have done in Talmudic traditions--which is admittedly not nearly enough to make me an authority on the subject--has shown that they contain not just obvious bias for the view that the god Yahweh favored the Jewish people but also have downright absurdities in them. I find it hard to believe that the rabbi can read those Talmudic traditions without seeing in some of them as much "hope and whim" for accuracy and inerrancy in the Torah as anything ever said in the writings of apologists like Gleason Archer. When we examine later some of the rabbi's Jewish traditions--which will figure into my analysis of the plagues that affected Egyptian livestock--we will see that he seems to think that traditions that were 1400 to 2400 years removed from the time when the plagues allegedly happened should be accepted as explanations of inconsistencies and discrepancies in the plague stories. I fail to see, however, why a Jewish source living, say, 1400 years after the time of the alleged Egyptian plagues should be considered a credible source of information about what presumably happened during the plagues, because entirely too much time had passed between the events and the formulation of the traditions. Furthermore, claiming that the traditions had been formulated centuries before they were actually written down would not make them any more credible, because there would have been ample time for them to have undergone corruption and embellishments. However, we are going to see the rabbi claiming later that Jewish sources who lived 1400 and even as late as 2400 years after the time of the alleged plagues should be accepted as reliable sources, but this claim would be somewhat like saying that a person today would be a reliable source of information about events that happened in AD 700 and 300 BC. If such a source were indeed reliable, his credibility would be due to research and not to his 1400- and 2400-year "proximity" to the events.
Bias and prejudice absolutely must be considered in evaluating the reliability of any written document, and that would be especially true of ancient ones that have no corroborating records to compare them to. If someone lived even within a relatively short time of the events being commented on, his opinion would be severely compromised if he exhibited signs of either bias or prejudice. If, for example, a Jewish source 2,000 years closer to the time when the Egyptian plagues allegedly happened has an obvious bias for the traditional view that the plagues were inflicted on Egypt by the Hebrew god Yahweh but no contemporary records corroborate what he reports by way of solutions to problems in the stories, his attempts to reconcile inconsistencies or explain discrepancies in them would really have no more credibility than a modern-day Gleason Archer or Norman Geisler or Josh McDowell trying to do the same thing by postulating purely speculative solutions. The rabbi mentioned above has been a longtime member of the Errancy list, and he almost invaribably tries to explain Old Testament discrepancies by appealing to Jewish traditions in the Talmuds. I am certainly no Talmudic scholar, but I have read sections of them and have found much of their commentary on biblical texts to be entirely speculative and at times patently ridiculous.
Since I will be quoting the rabbi mentioned above in my article that addresses a major problem in the plague of murrain, which allegedly killed "all the livestock in Egypt," I will quote here his opinion of the first-century AD Jewish writer Philo Judaeus. Since the rabbi, as we will eventually see, cited the authority of second-century and eleventh-century AD Jewish writers on the grounds that they were closer to events in biblical times than modern apologists like Gleason Archer, I asked him if Philo Judaeus, who lived before the rabbi's earliest source, would be even more "reliable" than the ones he had cited, he sent me this cautious approval of Philo on December 9, 2005.
Philo would be a better source since he is closer in general. However, we would need to know more about Philo's expertise. How much of a master of Torah was he compared to say the sages of Yavneh? I know that the Mechilta was arranged/ratified by the main academy of Pharisees in Israel in its time. Was Philo?
In any case, Philo was an important Jewish philosopher, and since he lived at that early time (about 100ce) his insights are very valuable to us (as are the comments of Josephus). Do you have something from Philo we should be considering?
The rabbi seemed a bit uninformed about Philo Judaeus, because he "lived from about 20 BC to about AD 50" (David M. Scholer, "Foreward: An Introduction to Philo Judaeus of Alexander," The Works of Philo, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993, p. xi). Anyway, I will be quoting the rabbi's Jewish sources later in analyzing problems in the other plague accounts, at which time I will also appeal to what Philo said in reference to the same plagues.
The brother of Moses, by the divine command, smote with his rod upon the river, and immediately, throughout its whole course, from Ethiopia down to the sea, it is changed into blood and simultaneously with its change, all the lakes, and ditches, and fountains, and wells, and springs, and every particle of water in all Egypt,was changed into blood, so that, for want of drink, they digged round about the banks of the river, but the streams that came up were like veins of the body in a hemorrhage, and spurted up channels of blood like springs, no transparent water being seen anywhere (The Works of Philo, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, p. 468, emphasis added).
A serious problem in all variations of the all-didn't-mean-all solution to the claim that pharaoh's magicians duplicated the first plague is that they ignore the obvious strategy of the Exodus writer, which was to communicate that the plagues in general were thorough and more comprehensive than anything the world had ever seen in even those that sometimes happen naturally, such as calamities that are caused by hail, locusts, and diseases like murrain and boils. The writer's theme of totality and completeness was recurrent in his descriptions of all the plagues.
- First, he claimed that the magicians of Egypt did the same as Aaron and Moses after they had changed all the bodies of water throughout all the land of Egypt into blood. Since the scope of this plague has already been explored at length above, I don't need to rehash here the biblical claims of its extent.
- He claimed that Moses and Aaron had warned pharaoh that a "plague of frogs" would be brought upon the "whole country" (8:2), which would make the river "swarm with frogs," bring frogs into pharaoh's palace, bedchamber, and bed, and into the houses of pharaoh's officials and people, and into their ovens and kneading bowls (8:3-4). When pharaoh didn't comply, the plague was executed, and frogs came up and "covered the land of Egypt" (8:6). When the plague was removed by Yahweh's intervention to kill the frogs, they died in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields (8:13). They were then gathered together "into heaps, and the land stank" (8:14). This tale was obviously written with the intention of communicating that the whole land of Egypt was polluted with frogs.
- He claimed that when Aaron struck the dust with his staff, "all the dust of the earth turned into gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt." [The KJV and other versions present this as a plague of lice rather than gnats.] The writer didn't say that just "some" of the dust or "most of the dust" or a "significant part of the dust" turned to gnats; he said that "all the dust" turned to gnats "throughout the whole land of Egypt," so again the writer obviously intended to communicate a scope of totality and thoroughness in his description of this plague.
- He claimed that swarms of flies would fill the houses of pharaoh and the Egyptians and "also the land where they lived" (8:21) when the next plague came, and when it did come, the writer claimed that "the land was ruined because of the flies" (8:24).
- He claimed that the plague of murrain killed “all the livestock of Egypt” (9:6). The extent of this plague will be analyzed in detail in another part of this series, so I won't jump the gun and discuss that point here. Suffice it to say that the text clearly says that "all the livestock of Egypt" died in the plague of murrain, and as plagues against livestock go, it would be hard to have one more extensive than a killing of "all" the livestock.
- He described the plague of boils as a scourge that afflicted "humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt" (9:9), so just as the plagues before this one covered "the whole land of Egypt," the plague of boils struck throughout the whole country of Egypt.
- He described the next plague as one that would be "the heaviest hail to fall that has ever fallen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now" (9:18). When the hail was sent, it fell "on the whole land of Egypt, on humans and animals and all the plants of the field in the land of Egypt" and was again described as "such heavy hail as had never fallen in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation" (9:22-24). The writer went on to emphasize that it "struck down everything that was in the open field throughout all the land of Egypt" (9:25). Totality and thoroughness--these were recurrent themes in the writer's descriptions of the plagues.
- Next came the plague of locusts, which the writer claimed "came upon all the land of Egyptand settled on the whole country of Egypt." He described them as "such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again" (10:14). Like so many other biblical writers, this one consistently described the plagues in superlatives that communicated either totality and completeness or that they were the worse that the land of Egypt had ever seen or ever would see again.
- The writer's theme of absolute totality continued as he told about the removal of the locusts. Yahweh sent a wind, which blew the locusts into the Red Sea, and the removal was totally complete: "Not a single locust was left in all the country of Egypt" (10:19). Now imagine that; the plague consisted of a "dense swarm of locusts" unlike any that had ever been before or would ever be again, yet every last one of the little boogers was blown out to sea. Not a single one was left in ALL the country of Egypt.
- Then came the plague of "dense" darkness, which covered "all the land of Egypt for three days" (10:22), except, of course, for where the Israelites lived. Otherwise, this darkness was so dense that it could be felt (10:21), and the people couldn't see one another and couldn't move about (10:23).
- Finally came the death of the firstborn, which the writer said would kill "every firstborn"--not some firstborn but every firstborn--"in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock" (11:5). The writer said that this plague would cause "a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again" (11:6), and when the plague actually came, the writer said that Yahweh struck down at midnight "all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock"(12:29). He further claimed that "there was not a house without someone dead" (12:30), so as in all of his other accounts of the plagues, the Exodus writer emphasized the totality and thoroughness of the plagues.
Later in this series, I will be referring back to this section to remind readers that the Exodus writer went out his way to emphasize that all of the plagues were unmitigatedly thorough in their scope. I introduced this point here in order to challenge the credibility of the all-didn't-mean-all "solution" to the tit-for-tat problem in the story of the first plauge. All, all, all was the writer's recurrent theme in his accounts of the plagues. The water throughout all the land of Egypt was changed into blood, all the dust of the earth throughout all the land of Egypt became gnats [lice], all the livestock of Egypt died in the plague of the murrain, hail heavier than any that had ever been fell throughout allthe land of Egypt, locusts covered all the land of Egypt, and so on. Hence, there is no reason at all to think that when the writer said that the water in the rivers, lakes, ponds, pools, and vessels of stone and wood throughout all the land of Egypt became blood, he didn't mean exactly what he said. In making the first plague this extensive, the writer failed to realize that his tit-for-tat theme that he began in Aaron's duel of the rods with pharaoh's magicians could not be extended into a story claiming that the water throughout all the land of Egypt was changed into blood, because if Aaron had actually performed this feat, it would have been logistically impossible for pharaoh's magicians to have done the same with the "secret arts." The writer simply made a claim without thinking that what he was saying would not have been possible.
Earlier, I used a hypothetical example in which someone with presumably supernatural powers had changed all the trees in Texas into stone. Once this had been done, it would not have been done, an opponent could not have duplicated the feat, because there would have been no trees left in Texas for him to change into stone. Let's put aside the supernatural element to consider how that once some events have happened, they could not be duplicated. If, for example, a pandemic disease should strike country X and kill all the people there, it would be logistically impossible for another disease to strike on the heels of the other in the same country and immediately kill all of the people in it, because there would be no people left there to kill. Likewise, if an asteroid struck lake X and evaporated all of the water in it, a second asteroid immediately impacting in the same place could not evaporate water in the former lake bed, because there would be no water there for it to evaporate. In the same way, once that Aaron and Moses had changed the water throughout all the land of Egypt into blood, pharaoh's magacians, no matter what presumed powers they may have had, could not have duplicated the feat, because there would be no water left for them to change into blood.
This is all so obvious that even biblical inerrantists would see it if they were not so emotionally attached to their "inspired word of God." If this first plague story were in some other ancient document, such as the Babylonian Chronicle or the Moabite Stone or the Ebla tablets, biblical inerrantists would immediately recognize it had made a logistically impossibe claim, but because it is in the Bible, they twist themselves into verbal pretzels to try to explain how it could have happened.
Two solutions to it? To quote Turkel's reader, wait a minute; there couldn't be two solutions to the problem, because if the Egyptian sorcerers did in some way, known only to the god Yahweh and his inspired writer, duplicate Aaron's feat, there would have been just one way that this was done, not two. By saying, then, that there are "two solutions," Turkel was admitting that he is just speculating and that there is no sure solution to the problem that his reader identified.
What Turkel meant, of course, is that there are two how-it-could-have-been "explanations" of this problem. The first one he gave was the digging-beside-the-river "solution," which I don't need to comment on, because that was addressed above and found inconsistent with the "totality factor" that the Exodus writer emphasized in all his accounts of the plague. The same is true of Turkel's second "solution," but since it wasn't addressed above, I will quote it and then show why it won't work either.
Even better, though, to my mind: Fresh water from the Nile's source outside of Egypt would have kept flowing and replaced the blooded water within a matter of a couple of days. Not that it helps - who needed more blood??? It's worthwhile to note that it isn't assumable that the water assumed every characteristic of blood, including viscosity; as long as and [sic] looked, and smelled, like blood, it was enough for it to be called that descriptively...it is not as though samples were taken to detect corpuscles, and the Hebrew word had a precise scientific meaning! I also wonder whether the statement that the Egyptians magicians "did the same" or "did so" by their arts means, they repeated Moses' performance, or that it was part of their known repetoire of tricks to turn water into blood.I am glad that Turkel said that water would have flowed into Egypt from the "source" of the Nile "outside of Egypt," because the biblical text said that "all the waters that were in the river turned to blood" (Ex. 7:20), so if all the water in the river was changed into blood, that would have included the water all the way up to its source, one of which was in Ethiopia. I quoted the first-century AD Jewish writer Philo Judaeus above, and in his description of the scope of this plague, he said that "throughout its whole course, from Ethiopia down to the sea," the water in the river changed into blood, so this would indicate at least something about Jewish traditions of how extensive the plague of blood was. We will see, then, that Turkel's speculation about fresh water flowing in from the source of the Nile doesn't really solve much of anything.
I hardly know where to begin to expose the flaws in Turkel's "solution," which turned out to be a multifaceted solution that rambled on to say that the sorcerers could have done it this way or they could have done it that way, and so on. First, let's consider whether Turkel's claim that fresh water flowing in "from the Nile's source outside of Egypt" would have replaced the blood within "a couple of days" is compatible with the biblical record. Turkel apparently doesn't know that the source of the Nile is some 4,000 miles south in Lake Victoria in Uganda, and the Blue Nile, which flows into the White Nile at Khartoum, Sudan, begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, but this source of the Blue Nile is about 1,000 miles from the confluence of the two main rivers that form what we know as the Nile River that eventually flows through Egypt. As the crow flies, Khartoum is about 1,000 miles from the Nile Delta, where the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh would have happened, but a look at a map of Northeast Africa will show that the Nile hardly flows as the crow flies. It snakes its way into Egypt in loops and curves, one of which actually turns the river channel into a southwest direction, away from Egypt, for a distance of about 100 miles, before it turns north again toward Egypt. In other words, the "source" of the Nile "outside of Egypt" would have been thousands of miles from where Moses and Aaron were having their confrontation with Pharaoh and his sorcerers, so fresh water from "the source" of the Nile would have had to flow at about 80 miles per hour to reach Egypt within the "couple of days" that Turkel thinks would have been long enough for fresh water to have reached the Nile Delta. If we assume that fresh water encountering blood could flow fast enough to wash the blood on out to sea that fast, I guess we are supposed to think that the sorcerers said to Aaron and Moses, "Just wait a couple of days, and when fresh water flows down, we will do likewise with our secret arts," and then Aaron and Moses and Pharaoh's entourage all sat twiddling their thumbs for two days, waiting for fresh water to come in so that the sorcerers could show Aaron and Moses a thing or two by duplicating their feat. As I noted above, a far more impressive feat would have been for the sorcerers to have changed the blood back into water, but who am I to tell the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe how to inspire his revelation to mankind?
Turkel apparently recognized this problem in his how-it-could-have-been scenario, because he went on in another of his inimitable attempts to banter a discrepancy away, in this case, by quipping that it wasn't as though samples were taken [from the river] "to detect corpuscles." To this, I can only say that if Aaron didn't turn the water throughout all the land of Egypt into blood, then why did the inspired writer say that he did? Was he incapable of saying that Aaron waved his rod and the water throughout all the land of Egypt became red like blood. After all, it isn't as if similes were not used by biblical writers. (If Turkel wants me to cite some examples for him, I will be happy to accommodate the request.) Turkel further quibbled that the Hebrew word for blood didn't have a "precise scientific meaning," but the English word blood didn't originate as a scientific word either; nevertheless, when native English speakers hear the word blood, they know what it means. When, for example, a journalist describing a crime scene says that blood was all over the floor, we don't think that he means that water colored with red dye was on the floor. In the same way, when we read in texts translated from Hebrew that the brothers of Joseph dipped his coat into the blood of a goat (Gen. 37:31) or that the priests were to sprinkle the blood of bullocks "round about the altar" (Lev. 1:5) or that the blood of the paschal lamb was to be put onto the doorposts and lintels (Ex. 12:7) or that Moses put his finger into the blood of a sin-offering and smeared it onto the horns of the altar (Lev. 8:15) and so on, we don't wonder at all if samples of the "blood" on these occasions were checked for "corpusles." We simply accept that the writers meant what they said, because it is very easy to recognize when the Hebrew word dam [blood] was being used figuratively, as when a poetic text referred to washing garments in "the blood of grapes" (Gen. 49:11) or to the drinking of the "blood of the grape" (Deut. 32:14).
That the Exodus writer meant that the water throughout all the land of Egypt was literally changed into blood is rather apparent in the various texts that refer to this alleged incident. At least twice, psalmists said that the rivers of Egypt were "turned into blood" (Ps. 48:44; Ps. 105:29) I know of no biblical writer who ever said in referring to this plague that the water became "like blood"; they said that it became blood. When Yahweh first called Moses to send him on the mission to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, he gave a demonstration of his power that would be with Moses as he set about fulfilling this mission.
Exodus 4:1 Then Moses answered, "But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, 'Yahweh did not appear to you.'" 2 Yahweh said to him, "What is that in your hand?" He said, "A staff." 3 And he said, "Throw it on the ground." So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it. 4 Then Yahweh said to Moses, "Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail"--so he reached out his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand--5 "so that they may believe that Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you." 6 Again, Yahweh said to him, "Put your hand inside your cloak." He put his hand into his cloak; and when he took it out, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. 7 Then God said, "Put your hand back into your cloak"--so he put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored like the rest of his body--8 "If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign. 9 If they will not believe even these two signs or heed you, 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."
I am sure that when Turkel reads this he doesn't think that Moses' staff became something like a snake but not literally a snake or that his hand became white with something like leprosy but not literally leprosy, so why would he think that when Moses would take water from the Nile and pour it onto the dry ground, it would become only something like blood but not literally blood with corpuscles that could be scientifically checked. If he is going to argue that the water throughout all the land of Egypt didn't literally become blood, he needs to explain his literary criteria for reaching that determination. Then he should tell us if the frogs that came up onto the land and into the houses were literal frogs or just comething like frogs? Were the lice literally lice or just something like lice? Were the flies literally flies or just something like flies? Was the murrain literally murrain or just something like murrain? Were the boils literally boils or just... well, even Turkel should get my point here.
So what about Turkel's claim that "a couple of days" passed after which fresh water flowed in from outside of Egypt to give the sorcerers the opportunity to do "in like manner with their secret arts"? Does the biblical text support this speculation? I will let readers decide.
Exodus 7:20 Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, 21 and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as Yahweh had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart.
If this two-day interval between Aaron's feat and the duplication of it by the sorcerers actually happened, where is the linguistic evidence of it in the text just quoted? It isn't there, because it exists only in Turkel's imagination. As any competent composition teacher would tell Turkel, when there are no time transitions in narrative writing to indicate the passage of time between events described in the narrative, readers should assume that the events had happened one after the other with no significant delays. I mentioned earlier that the way the Exodus writer told the plague stories made Pharaoh look like a nincompoop, and now Turkel's speculation of an unmentioned and completely unimplied two-day interveral between verses 21 and 22 quoted above makes the "inspired" writer of Exodus look as unskilled in narrative writing as a below-average grade-school student. Earlier, I showed how the narrative of the blood-plague narrative could have been written to show clearly and unequivocally that the sorcerers had dug along the river to find water to change into blood, so now I will show Turkel how easily a competent writer could have told this story to make it clear that the sorcerers had changed fresh water from the Nile's source into blood after "a couple of days." I will emphasize in bold print the transitional expressions that communicate significant delay between Aaron's feat and its duplication by the sorcers.
Exodus 7:20 Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, 21 and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 After the flowing of the river had brought down fresh water two days later, the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as Yahweh had said. 23Pharaoh turned and went back into his house, as he had done before when Aaron changed the river water into blood, and he did not take even this to heart.
I noted earlier that "the word of God" has come to a sorry state of affairs when a retired English teacher can write with better clarity than someone who was "inspired" by an omniscient, omnipotent deity. I also said that if Turkel should read this and resort to his usual quibble that Till is upset because God didn't "kiss his patoot," besides begging the questions of the existence of "God" and of his involvement in the writing of the Bible, he will be evading a perfectly legitimate question: If the Egyptian sorcerers did duplicate Aaron's water-into-blood feat in the way that Turkel speculates, why couldn't the omniscient, omnipotent one have inspired his chosen writer to say so in specific language that would have left no doubt about what had happened?Now that I have said this twice, maybe Turkel will actually try to answer a rebuttal argument.
And maybe pigs will fly someday too.
Besides the fact that the narrative does not provide any linguistic basis for Turkel's speculation that two days had passed between Aaron's feat and the sorcerers duplication of it, what the text says later on clearly shows that Turkel's "solution" to this "old chestnut" is completely absurd, because as the narrative continued, it specifically stated that the plague of blood had lasted for seven days.
Exodus 7:22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as Yahweh had said. 23Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river. 25 Seven days passed after Yahweh had struck the Nile.
Knowing Turkel's penchant for shameless quibbling, I fully expect him to say that the text says only that "seven days passed after Yahweh had struck the Nile," but that doesn't necessarily mean that the bloody water lasted that long. I would admit that this is a possible meaning of the text, as it is worded, but it is far more likely an incorrect interpretation. Why would the Exodus writer have said that the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water and then immediately have added that seven days passed after Yahweh had struck the river unless he meant that the plague had lasted for seven days? In the context of the passage from Philo Judaeus, which I quoted above, Philo went on to say of the plague of blood that "this evil lasted seven days" (The Works of Philo, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, p. 468). This, however, means only that Philo understood the text in the same way that I do, but if this is not what the writer meant, he made Pharaoh look even more moronic than I described him above and in this section of Part Two, because the spin that Turkel is trying to put onto this tale would mean that after Aaron's plague of blood had sent the Egyptians frantically digging for water alongside the river, two days later when potable water was finally available again, Pharaoh the genius had his magicians duplicate Aaron's feat and pollute the water again. I doubt that Pharaoh would have been stupid enough to bring a second national catastrophe like this onto his country.
Now let's consider a final problem in Turkel's "solution." He offered it as if he absolutely knew that this was what had happened, but at no time did he say, we can know that Pharaoh's sorcerers duplicated Aaron's feat only after fresh water had flowed down from the source of the Nile and washed the blood away, because temple inscriptions or papyrus documents or some other extrabiblical records discovered by archaeologists report that the Nile was once polluted for two days and then polluted again after fresh water had flowed down. No, he offered nothing like that to corroborate his "solution"; he simply asserted that this was what had happened.
In other words, Robert Turkel is just another biblical inerrantist who claims to have insights into the meanings of biblical texts that have eluded ordinary readers for centuries. He doesn't seem to understand that anyone with a bit of imagination could always postulate how-it-could-have-been scenarios to explain away inconsistencies and contradictions in any written text, whether biblical or secular, but the postulation of a how-it-could-have-been explanation doesn't explain anything unless it is supported by evidence that would make more likely than not that the postulated scenario is what had actually happened. In the matter of how the sorcerers had duplicated Aaron's amazing feat of changing the water of Egypt into blood, for example, I could say that immediately after the water in Egypt became blood, the sorcerers used their secret arts to bring in heavy rain clouds and wash Aaron's blood away, after which they then changed all of the rain water into blood. Thus, the Egyptians digging for water along the river for seven days were searching for water there not because of Aaron's feat but because of the miracle wrought by the sorcerers.
Let Turkel tell us why this how-it-could-have-been would not be as tenable as his.]