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The Nile River, the Nile in the Bible, and the Nilometer

Rivers figure prominently in the Bible, in the people’s economic life, in their well-being, and in prophecy. The first rivers mentioned in the Bible are the four rivers crossing the Garden of Eden.

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:10-14).

The River Euphrates is also known later in the Bible as the Mighty River.

The Nile River is (likely reference) mentioned in Genesis 15:18-

In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I have given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates:

In the 5th century Herotodus said that without the Nile, there is no Egypt. Its importance is clearly seen. Where the river has its sway, there is green. Where there is no river, the desert begins. The Egyptian people have always depended on the Nile for life.

ATS Dictionary explains,

As rain very seldom falls, even in winter, in Southern Egypt, and usually only slight and infrequent showers in Lower Egypt, the whole physical and political existence of Egypt may be said to depend on the Nile; since without this river, and even without its regular annual inundations, the whole land would be but a desert.

The Nile has two branches, the White and the Blue, and its overall length is 4,000 miles! About 900 miles of the great river flows through Egypt proper.

The Egyptians lived by the annual flooding of the Nile. When the floodwaters receded, it left behind fertile silt, which added greatly to the nutrient level of soil for crops.

Smith’s Bible Dictionary explains the specifics, and you will rapidly come to understand the Nile’s importance for the region.

“With wonderful clock-like regularity the river begins to swell about the end of June, rises 24 feet at Cairo between the 20th and 30th of September and falls as much by the middle of May. Six feet higher than this is devastation; six feet lower is destitution.” –Bartlett. So that the Nile increases one hundred days and decreases one hundred days, and the culmination scarcely varies three days from September 25 the autumnal equinox. Thus “Egypt is the gift of the Nile” – [as Herodotus first stated].

Thise are the agricultural and geographical facts. As for the Nile in the Bible, Moses was indirectly named due to his having been found in a basket in the Nile River. Exodus 2:10-

When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

The name Moses is Hebrew from the word mashah; drawing out (of the water), i.e. Rescued; Mosheh, the Israelite lawgiver — Moses, according to Strong’s Concordance.

We read of the Nile again in Exodus 7:21. One of the plagues of Egypt against Pharaoh involved the Nile.

And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.

There is an interesting article at Atlas Obscura revealing the locations of and history behind the “Nilometer.”

In ancient Egypt, the behavior of the Nile could mean life or death each harvest season. So, long before the Aswan Dam was constructed to manage the flooding of the great river, Egyptians invented an instrument to measure the waters in order to predict the Nile’s behavior: the nilometer.

There were three kinds of nilometers, and examples of all three can still be seen around Egypt. The simplest was a tall column housed in a submerged stone structure called a stilling well. One of these nilometers can be seen on Rhoda (or Rawda) Island in Cairo, an octagonal marble column held in place by a wooden beam at the top that spans the width of the well. The stilling well included a staircase so that priests, who were in charge of monitoring the nilometers, could walk down and examine the column.

Measuring shaft of the Nilometer on Rhoda Island, Cairo. Baldiri/CC by SA 3.0

The remainder of the article at Atlas Obscura is interesting. Check it out!

Sadly, the Nile also figures prominently in biblical future prophecy as well.

The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. (Revelation 16:4).

This evokes the former plague we read about in Exodus 7. J. Orr’s Commentary reminds us of the impact it had on the people.

The first of the series of plagues which fell on Egypt was of a truly terrific character. At the stretching out of the red of Aaron, the broad, swift-flowing current of the rising Nile suddenly assumed the hue and qualities of blood. The stroke fell also on the reservoirs, canals, and ponds. Whatever connection may be traced between this plague and natural phenomena (see Hengstenberg) it is plain that it stood on an entirely different footing from changes produced under purely natural conditions.

1. The water was rendered wholly unfit for use.
2. It became deadly in its properties (ver. 18).
3. The stroke was instantaneous.
4. It was pre-announced.
5. It descended on the river at the summons of Moses and Aaron.
6. It lasted exactly seven days (ver. 25).

An event of this kind was palpably of supernatural origin. Contrast Moses with Christ, the one beginning the series of wonders by turning the river into blood; the other, in his first miracle, turning the water into wine (John 2:1-12). The contrast of judgment and mercy, of law and Gospel.

The smiting of the Nile was – 1) A proof of the power of Jehovah, 2) A blow at Egyptian idolatry, 3) A warning of worse evil to come, 4) The removal of the plague at the end of seven days betokened the unwillingness of God to proceed to extremities.

Those extremities will come to full fruition and power during the Tribulation. In Isaiah 19 we read of the Burden of Egypt and God’s plans for the people.

And the waters of the sea will be dried up, and the river will be dry and parched,

Barnes’ Notes interprets the as-yet-unfulfilled prophecy this way:

Shall be wasted – This does not mean “entirely,” but its waters would fail so as to injure the country. It would not “overflow” in its accustomed manner, and the consequence would be, that the land would be desolate. It is well known that Egypt derives its great fertility entirely from the overflowing of the Nile. So important is this, that a public record is made at Cairo of the daily rise of the water. When the Nile rises to a less height than twelve cubits, a famine is an inevitable consequence, for then the water does not overflow the land. When it rises to a greater height than sixteen cubits, a famine is almost as certain – for then the superabundant waters are not drained off soon enough to allow them to sow the seed. The height of the inundation, therefore, that is necessary in order to ensure a harvest, is from twelve to sixteen cubits. The annual overflow is in the month of August. The prophet here means that the Nile would not rise to the height that was desirable – or the waters should “fail” – and that the consequence would be a famine.

What a disaster looms for Egypt (and the rest of the world!) Our God is creator and Sovereign over all. He will do it. One way to ensure that you are not present on earth for the coming Tribulation disaster of famine and judgments is to repent and place your faith in Jesus. Sins will keep you here but faith in the resurrected Son of God, in whom salvation is found in no other, will rescue you from the day of wrath.

Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who dwells in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? (Amos 8:8)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick natural history overview of the Nile River in the Bible. The Lord made the Nile. It has sustained people for thousands of years. It’s been a border, a life’s blood, and a symbol. It’s been used as a judgment and it will be used so again.

The Bible is rich with things to study. The best part is that all studies lead us back again to the same source: Jesus. He is the wellspring of life, all water flows from Him.

but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:14)


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.