“See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood; and the fish in the Nile will die. The Nile will stink so that the Egyptians will find it impossible to drink the water of the Nile.” — Exodus 7:17-18
Many commentators point out there is a well-structured literary artistry to the Torah’s portrayal of the Ten Plagues. Biblical scholars generally divide the first “natural” nine plagues up into three groups of three each, with the “supernatural” final plague standing alone unto itself. It is also commonly accepted that the plagues serve to underscore the power of the Israelite’s God over Egypt, and in fact, over all nature. Scholar Nahum Sarna’s comments typify this well-known interpretation:
The controlling purpose behind this literary architecture is to emphasize the idea that the nine plagues are not random vicissitudes of nature; although they are natural disasters, they are deliberate and purposeful acts of divine will – their intent being retributive, coercive and educative…They are to demonstrate to Egypt the impotence of its gods and, by contrast, the incomparability of YHVH, God of Israel, as the one supreme sovereign God of Creation, who uses the phenomenon of the natural order for His own purposes. (JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, p. 38.)
The theological agenda of the Biblical author notwithstanding, it is also possible to detect a powerful environmental attitude expressed in the description of the plagues – and the first six in particular. What does it mean that the waters of the Nile were turned to blood? Some have suggested that this phenomenon might be viewed as a naturalistic reference to the overflow of red silt that is produced from the Nile during Egypt’s heavy rainy seasons. It has also been suggested that the mixing of bacteria with the red earth could conceivably affect the oxygen balance of the Nile’s waters, resulting in the killing off of the river’s fish described in verse 18.
In turn, the compromising of the Nile’s waters may well have initiated a kind of chain reaction – bringing a inevitable sequence of plagues into the Egyptian community. It is not unreasonable to imagine, for instance, that the drastic change in the Nile’s waters led to the second plague: an over abundance of frogs displaced from their natural habitat. The third and fourth plagues – lice and insects – would also be an inevitable by-product of the putrefying fish and frogs. This imbalance could easily have created a fertile breeding ground for pestilence, resulting in the fifth and sixth plagues: cattle disease and boils, respectively.
The ecological significance of the first six plagues is undeniable. The Torah describes a dramatic process in which the compromising of the Nile’s precious balance initiates an environmental domino effect – eventually reaching out into Egyptian society itself. Contemporary scientists teach us much the same thing: the biodiversity that pervades our natural world exists in an intricate balance. The moment the habitat of one species is compromised, other elements of our biodiversity are inevitably affected.
This warning was dramatically expressed in 1992, when approximately 1,700 of the world’s scientists (a majority of them Nobel Prize laureates) signed the “World’s Scientists Warning to Humanity.” Regarding the current threat to living species, the letter stated:
The irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one third of all species now living, is especially serious. We are losing the potential they hold for providing medicinal and other benefits, and the contribution that genetic diversity of life forms gives to the robustness of the world’s biological systems and to the astonishing beauty of the earth itself.
Much of this damage is irreversible on a scale of centuries or permanent. Other processes appear to pose additional threats. Increasing levels of gases in the atmosphere from human activities, including carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel burning and from deforestation, may alter climate on a global scale. Predictions of global warming are still uncertain—with projected effects ranging from tolerable to very severe—but the potential risks are very great.
Our massive tampering with the world’s interdependent web of life—coupled with the environmental damage inflicted by deforestation, species loss, and climate change—could trigger widespread adverse effects, including unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand.
While we may not be used to reading the Exodus story as an environmental cautionary tale, the challenge posed by Parashat Va’era is nonetheless profound. Embedded within this story of spiritual/political liberation may lie an ecological vision with equally universal implications. Have we unleashed a similar series of plagues upon our contemporary world? Will we yet find a way to maintain the “world’s interdependent web of life?”