Nile by Andrew Wilson; Shawna Dolansky

What is the Nile?

The Nile is a river in Egypt that is more than 4,100 miles (6,600 km) long. While the Nile also flows through other African countries, it is most heavily associated with Egypt. The river has been essential for Egypt’s prosperity from antiquity to the present.

Although many Egyptian gods were associated with the Nile, Hapi is perhaps the most significant. Hapi was the god greeted by Egyptians every spring, since he symbolized the annual flooding of the Nile, which brought prosperity and fertility to the land. This cyclical flood was so predictable that Egypt came to be known as the only site in the region with a steady food supply. The Bible and other ancient documents report that when food was scarce in other areas, migrants came to Egypt for supplies (Gen 12:10, Gen 41:57). Egyptians believed that the predictability of the Nile’s floods depended on upholding their larger religious principles and practices, which staved off the powers of chaos and maintained cosmic order.

The English word “Nile” derives from the river’s Greek name, Neilos, and its Latin name, Nilus. In the Hebrew Bible, there is no proper noun or title for this river: the Nile is often simply referred to as “the river” (e.g., Gen 41:1) or “the river of Egypt” (e.g., Amos 8:8). This Hebrew word used for river here may derive from the generic Egyptian word for river. Following the Hebrew, the Septuagint does not use the specific word Neilos, which appears in other ancient Greek texts. However, modern English translations typically insert the word Nile where it is implied. The Nile is not mentioned in the New Testament.

What is the role of the Nile in the Hebrew Bible?

The Nile often plays a central role when Egypt is featured in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the book of Exodus. Pharaoh commands that all the Hebrew boys be drowned in the Nile (Exod 1:22), but Moses’s mother Jochebed saves his life by putting him in a basket and placing it in the river (Exod 2:3). Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the Nile and draws him out (Exod 2:5). Later, God tells Moses to pour water from the Nile onto dry ground where it will turn into blood in order to convince the Israelites that Moses is a representative of the God of their ancestors (Exod 4:9). The Nile is part of two of the plagues against Egypt, one in which the whole river is turned into blood (Exod 7:14-25), and another in which frogs emerge from the Nile and other bodies of water and cover the land (Exod 8:1-6). God’s attacks on the Nile demonstrate his ability to damage the Egyptian economy and agriculture. The authors of these texts seem keenly aware that the Nile was considered to be the divine lifeblood of Egypt.

The association between the Nile and Egyptian prosperity continues in the Prophets, where God’s dominance over Egypt and its gods is symbolized by his power over the Nile. A recurring theme is that of God drying up the Nile: Isaiah prophesies this event (Isa 19:5-8), which he says will cause the Egyptians to worship the God of Israel (Isa 19:18-22). Ezekiel prophesies that the Nile will run dry as part of the destruction of Egypt planned by God and performed by the Babylonians (Ezek 30:12). In Zechariah, God’s draining of the Nile and associated destruction of Egypt is part of the ascent of the Judahites to power (Zech 10:11). Finally, God rebukes Sennacherib for taking credit for drying up the Nile when in fact it was God who had orchestrated Sennacherib’s successes (Isa 37:25-6; 2Kgs 19:24-5). God’s power over the Nile here, as in Exodus, is symbolic of his authority over the great Egyptian empire; in the Prophets, this is expanded into a demonstration of God’s power over the whole world.

Andrew Wilson, Shawna Dolansky, "Nile", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online:



Andrew Wilson
undergraduate major in Humanities , Carleton University

Andrew Wilson is an undergraduate major in Humanities at Carleton University. He was the valedictorian for his high school graduation.

Shawna Dolansky

Shawna Dolansky
Associate Professor, Carleton University

Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities in the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books and numerous articles on the Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. Her current research focuses on gender and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

ability to bear offspring

Not specific; not connected to a particular version.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Gen 12:10

Abram and Sarai in Egypt
10Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.

Gen 41:57

57 Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.

Gen 41:1

41 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile,

Amos 8:8

8Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the ... View more

Exod 1:22

22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Exod 2:3

3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the re ... View more

Exod 2:5

5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to ... View more

Exod 4:9

9If 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 ... View more

Exod 7:14-25

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; ... View more

Exod 8:1-6

8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 2 If you refuse to let them go ... View more

Isa 19:5-8

5 The waters of the Nile will be dried up,
    and the river will be parched and dry;
6 its canals will become foul,
    and the branches of Egypt’s Nile will d ... View more

Isa 19:18-22

Egypt, Assyria, and Israel Blessed
18 On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the L ... View more

Ezek 30:12

12 I will dry up the channels,
    and will sell the land into the hand of evildoers;
I will bring desolation upon the land and everything in it
    by the hand ... View more

Zech 10:11

11They shall pass through the sea of distress,
and the waves of the sea shall be struck down,
and all the depths of the Nile dried up.
The pride of Assyria shal ... View more

Isa 37:25-6

25 I dug wells
    and drank waters,
I dried up with the sole of my foot
    all the streams of Egypt.’

26 “Have you not heard
    that I determined it long ... View more

2Kgs 19:24-5

24 I dug wells
    and drank foreign waters,
I dried up with the sole of my foot
    all the streams of Egypt.’

25 “Have you not heard
    that I determined ... View more

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