Then the LORD said to Moses, Say to Aaron, Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over their reservoirs of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone (Exodus 7:19).
The first plague is all about water. Moses meets Pharaoh in the morning as he is heading out to the Nile, perhaps to offer the morning sacrifice to the divine river. And the plague targets Egypt’s water sources. The Holy Spirit lists four sources of water –
rivers, streams, pools, reservoirs – to show that all the water in all four corners of Egypt becomes undrinkable blood.
What is true of the first plague is true of the whole Exodus story: the whole story is a story of water. Pharaoh drowns Hebrew infants in the river. Moses is rescued through water, and when he gets to Midian he gives water to the daughters of Jethro. One of the signs of God’s power is Moses’ ability to turn water to blood, and when Israel flees from Egypt they flee through a sea. When Israel thirsts in the wilderness, Moses strikes the rock and water flows. Nunquam sine aqua Moses: Moses is never far from water.
But is that reassuring? Not necessarily. Water is ambiguous. Water is necessary for life, but water is also deadly. Floods rage through cities, and even our sophisticated modern technologies can’t stop them. People drown in bathtubs and swimming pools and throw themselves from bridges. Water gives life, and it kills.
The water of the exodus is also ambiguous, both life-giving and deadly. Water is life for Moses and for Israel in the wilderness. On the other hand, because of the Egyptian attacks on Israel, their river of blood is filled with dead fish as it was full of dead Hebrew boys. The Red Sea later becomes the grave of Pharaoh, his horses, and his riders. It is a sea of life for Israel, a sea of death for Pharaoh.
All this is relevant to baptism, of course, for baptism is simultaneously a symbol of death and a ritual of life. This sprinkling of water doesn’t look like much, but Scripture teaches us to look with faith and see here a crucifixion and a grave. In baptism, we are joined to Christ in His cross and tomb. As we pass through these waters, we die to the world, die to Adam, die to Egypt.
Ultimately baptism is a sign of life. Having been buried with Christ, we are raised up with Him through the faithful working of the Father who raised Jesus from the dead. The Lord delivers us from the waves of death waters, and we pass through on dry ground into new life.
Thus, though it is a sign of death, baptism is not meant to frighten us or to make us doubt. It’s meant to have the opposite effect, to assure us of God’s love that is stronger than death, God’s fiery love that no waters can quench. Like the waters of Egypt, the water of baptism turns to blood, but the blood mingled with this water is the blood of Jesus, which does not kill but cleanses our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. This water sprinkles us with the innocent blood of Jesus, which does not defile but delivers.
Most importantly, this water reassures us because it is the water of Jesus, the greater Moses. Jesus too is never far from water: baptized in the Jordan, constantly criss-crossing the Sea of Galilee with His disciples, walking on water, teaching from a boat, gathering disciples who will be fishers of men, sending them out to baptize. Jesus is a greater Moses whose first sign is not a plague but a blessing, who turns water not to blood but to wine. The waters of baptism assure us because they are the waters of the Bridegroom, the waters that calls us to a feast of wine, the marriage supper of the Lamb.