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Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10

Derek Caldwell

Was the plague on the firstborn the murder of innocent children?

Having laid some groundwork now for the use of hyperbole in the Old Testament, and especially hyperbole in relation to the depiction of warfare in the Pentateuch, we must now go back in time to look briefly at a couple of the most difficult biblical events to understand: the tenth plague and, in the next article of this series, the great deluge of Genesis.

Pharaoh’s Hard Heart

The plagues Yahweh sends to Egypt in the Book of Exodus are hotly debated. Some believe they never happened, yet others believe there is a natural explanation for their occurrence (and thus, ancient people must have just assumed God was responsible, though some believe God used natural events at inexplicable times). But the narrator of Exodus paints a different picture. This is, once again, judgment on a people: a slaveholding nation that would not let Yahweh’s people go free. Yet it is also a judgment on the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12).

The tenth plague, the plague on the firstborn, may sound familiar to us: “This is what the Lord says: about midnight, I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn cattle as well. There will be loud wailing through Egypt—worse than there has ever been or will be again” (Exodus 11:4). And this did come to pass, for in Exodus 12:30 we read, “Pharaoh and his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.”

There is in this tragic account a sort of Shakespearean quality that we will see more than once: the evil you invoke will be the evil that consumes you in the end. This quality is at play in the hardening of Pharaoh, the plague on the firstborn, and perhaps even in the “destroying angel” referenced in Exodus 12:23.[1]

God’s hardening of Pharaoh is often a sign of the alleged unfairness of God’s actions against Pharaoh. One might justly ask how God could punish someone who was incapable of following God’s instructions, especially if God is the one who made this impossible! The first thing to recognize is that Exodus 9:12 is the first time God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. While God foretold of His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4:21, the earliest example of it happening is in 9:12. Before that, though, Pharaoh hardened his own heart several times (Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:15, 32; possibly 9:7).

Similar things happen elsewhere in Scripture too, especially in the case of  Judas: God’s hardening or allowing evil spirits to enter a person does nothing to change the will of the man involved. Rather, this action in some way only hastens them to act out what they are already going to do (John 13:18-30). If anything, God speeds up the action and quickens the resolve, but He does not create it.

Once we start reading of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, these references are intermixed with examples of Pharaoh still hardening his own heart. As far as I can tell, there is no instance of God hardening someone’s heart who did not already have a hard heart on the path of destruction. There is a mystery over what precisely this “hardening” is as well. Is it an active action or a passive one? Does God simply remove His common grace, and the person becomes all they would be were God not constantly restraining them? Or perhaps it is like Robert Bergendescribes it: any demand made upon Pharaoh to recognize someone else as the ultimate sovereign would have been enough to harden his prideful heart.[2] Either way, in the end, it is what Pharaoh brought into the world—His pridefulness—that stops him from being able to stop the disaster at his doorstep. And his pride is that disaster.

Plague On The Firstborn Sons

We see this also in the plague on the firstborn, whatever we make of such an event. Before this pronouncement was made—in the Tenth plague (meaning there were nine previous plagues to show that God had both the power to implement such a plague, that His warnings should have been taken seriously after nine other plagues, and that it is a “last resort” plague)—Pharaoh was attempting to either oppress them into extinction or exterminate all of the Israelite slaves for fear that they were getting large enough to be a threat to Egypt (Exodus 1:9-14). Soon after, finding this plan ineffective, it was Israel’s newborn sons (all of them, not just the firstborn) who were being killed by order of Pharaoh and by the action of regular Egyptians (Exodus 1:22), many of whom saw Israelites as nothing other than chattel.

Not all Egyptians were like this, of course. In fact, Moses was saved from just such a fate by a tender-hearted Egyptian woman, Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised Moses as her own son (Exodus 2:1-10). And, of course, the very fact that this was a plague on the firstborn sons of Egypt informs us that this may be an attack on the system of slavery in Egypt itself, as this was a society built on primogeniture where the firstborn son holds the power within a family unit, which would take a particularly cruel hue in a slave society. An attack on this system is a great way to cripple a society. This also highlights the fact that we do not know exactly who these firstborn sons were: Does it mean the literal firstborn sons, in which case it could be people of any age (from one day old to eighty-four years old)? Was it more of a designation for those who held power within a family unit? While this may seem like a way to slip out of the obvious moral concern (to a degree), we have already established that we are dealing with a different culture in a different location at a different time, and sometimes that means the “literal reading” of the text is not the most accurate.

The Destroying Angel

And finally, we see this Shakespearean notion in the concept of the “destroying angel” (Exodus 12:23). This is another mysterious figure in the text. The author of Exodus has been detailing how God will deliver the death blow in this final judgment, but suddenly there is a “destroyer” or “destroying angel” named who is the bringer of death. The fact that this being may be an angel is not an automatic sign of his allegiance, as angels could also be “fallen” yet still under the control of God. Some commentators suggest that, in this case, the destroyer is one of God’s trusted agents who He sends to do His dirty work. For instance, one commentator remarks that “in Mesopotamia, the demon Lamashtu was responsible for the death of children, while Namtar was responsible for the plague. Egyptians likewise believed in demons that threatened life and health.” Demons, the author says, were often thought to be operating without any independent will, and here the destroying angel (which may be a demon) is operating as an instrument of Deity.[3] Although, it is odd that here God sends an angel where elsewhere He is happy to send other nations’ armies to judge the wickedness of others.

Other traditions exist concerning the destroying angel, however. In the example given above of the demons Lamashtu and Namtar, for instance, one could make the case that God’s hardening also means God’s withdrawing His common grace and/or His protective power, and that this allows the destroying angel/demon—ever on the prowl for human victims—to enter in and destroy (much like the evil spirit that entered Saul after the God removed His spirit from him in 1 Samuel 16:14). We can potentially see some instances of this with the destroying angel within the biblical text. For instance, in 2 Samuel 24:15-17, the destroying angel—an angel tasked with bringing some form of plague upon Jerusalem, the “city of David,” for David’s transgression (2 Samuel 5:7, 9-10)—is given access to Israel for their sin. In verse 16 we read, “When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand.’” The author of 1 Chronicles even retells the 2 Samuel 24 story of the census that brought the plague upon Israel (by David’s choice, vv. 13-14). In 2 Samuel, God incites David to go and take the census, but then God judges David for taking the census (v. 10). In 2 Samuel 24:1 we read that “the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them.” But in 1 Chronicles 21:1, we instead read that “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” This is not so much a correction as it may be a further elaboration to protect from misunderstanding. It could be that it was understood God was ultimately in charge in 2 Samuel, but the people at the time would have known how God incited David: by allowing Satan to whisper in his ear. That may have been known, and 1 Chronicles just makes it clearer. Or, it could be that David had become so deluded in those moments that he actually thought God would tell him to do something that God would not have wanted him to do. This, again, may have been understood yet later elaborated upon to make it clear and prevent any false attributions to God of inciting godlessness.

Theologian Stephen De Young writes that in Jewish tradition, this destroying angel was known as “Samael,” whose name translates as “the venom of God.”[4] Samael is associated with the death of the firstborn of Israel as well as the 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles verses mentioned above. Along with that, he is also identified as the angel who killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in 2 Kings 19:35. This angel both brought death and delivered souls to Sheol. And so, De Young explains, “God’s preservation of the souls of the righteous from Sheol … took the form of preserving that soul from the hands of Samael.”[5] Interestingly, De Young notes that this idea is also referenced in Jude 1:9, which makes the mysterious mention of a battle over the body of Moses between the archangel Michael and Satan. Jude is referencing a text known as “The Assumption of Moses,” which refers to Samael as the one “who takes the soul away from man.”[6] Samael is often synonymous with Satan, who is seen as an enemy of God and yet his vicious ways are used in God’s sovereign plan.

The overall point here is that there seems to be this destroying angel that God protects us from most of the time, until we so reject His design for us and act as little gods ourselves—which typically means we act with injustice and brutality—that God gives us what we so desire: life apart from Him. As Paul states in Romans 1:24-28, God has granted people the desire of their hearts, and they have opted to live a lie rather than a life, worshipping and serving “created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). But life apart from Him means life where the evil of the world has no more barriers against fully devouring us with its crushing mandible. And given that many of the ideas of “gods” in the ancient Near East may have been demons, as Paul tells us about Gentile gods (1 Corinthians 10:20), perhaps God withdrawing His protective hand has allowed Egypt to see that the gods they worship are only gluttonous demons with a taste for blood. “Who else could be the destroyer in Exodus,” Origen of Alexandria writes, “except the one who is the cause of destruction to those who obey him and who do not resist and struggle against his wickedness?”[7] Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser refers to this sort of notion as the “Deuteronomy 32 Worldview,” by which he speaks of God giving humanity what they wanted—to worship “gods” other than Him—to their detriment, though ultimately having mercy on Israel: “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples, according to the sons of God [i.e., other “gods”]. For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9). And these other “gods” often ended up being “demons” (32:17).[8] And so, in the end, the principle is once again true: the evil with which you crush others will be that which crushes you. Living by the proverbial sword, the Egyptians died by the sword (Matthew 26:52).

This may seem an odd proposal to some, and faithful Christians may fear that this somehow inhibits the sovereignty of God. As uncomfortable as it may seem to us, they say, we just have to accept that God employs an angel who violently kills. It’s not an unfair point. However, this is not the only time God uses an agent in the way described above. In part 3b of this series, I briefly highlighted how God uses the God-forsaken Assyrians to judge Israel, only to turn around and judge Assyria for their extreme wickedness in that judgment (Isaiah 10:5-34). Furthermore, Ezekiel 21 describes the commissioning of Babylon to destroy Israel. Babylon could have always destroyed Israel rather easily were it not for God’s protection—that is one of the evidences for the supremacy of God, after all. There was no need for God to force Babylon to invade Israel—they were simply freed to do what they wanted to do all along. By allowing this, though, no one would say that Babylon was on God’s good side. In time, they, too, would be judged by God (Isaiah 47; Jeremiah 50:1-20). Babylon was the enemy of Yahweh, even when He used them for His purposes against unjust Israel.

Before we leave the Tenth Plague, a couple of other points should be made. First, we may again be dealing with hyperbole, as this account deals with both a swift and vast defeat of enemy forces. And even the language of the destruction to come upon every house, even the house of slaves, could be argued to be similar to other Old Testament warfare language that says one thing yet means another. And indeed, this is a war: a war of judgment against the “gods” of Egypt (Exodus 12:12). Commentators have even noted that the plagues are, in some way, an attack upon and refutation of the gods Egypt worships.[9] But more to the point, note that Exodus 12:30 states “there was not a house without someone dead.” This strikes me as most likely hyperbolic since, first, we know that some houses would have been protected because of the blood on the doorposts (Exodus 12:7, 13) and, second, not every house would have had a firstborn inside of it.

Lastly, as already noted, this plague was the tenth plague. By the time the tenth plague rolled around, nine other plagues had confirmed for the Egyptians that this God had their own gods’ numbers—this God was greater than any other gods. And while there is no direct evidence of this, it may be that the instruction given to place blood on doorposts was passed around for all those who wanted to place their trust in the Lord rather than in the Egyptian deities. As a matter of fact, this may be why we read in Exodus 12:38 of a “mixed multitude” coming with Israel from Egypt. This is not to say that an Egyptian who had been protected by God in the final plague necessarily had to leave with Israel in the Exodus, but it certainly appears as if some did. And given that the word for “multitude” is of the same root as the word used for “swarm” in Exodus 8:21, we can assume that this is a very large number of people.

And so, though the tenth plague was still a violent affair, we can at least see hints that it may not have been as widespread as we thought and that a rescue was offered to many who, not hardened, would have been wise enough to accept. It may still be mysterious, but I hope it has at least been shown that there are some nuanced understandings of this passage that are faithful to the biblical text.

All articles in this series:

Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction

God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2

God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3

God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4

God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5

The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6

Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7

Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8

Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9

Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10

The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11

Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12

Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13

Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14

Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15

To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16

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Image: Marc Chagall (1887-1985), “Moses and his brother come to Pharaoh and claim the freedom for the people of Israel (Exodus, V, 1-4),” 1931

[1] See also Psalm 78:49.

[2] Robert D. Bergen, “Introduction and Notes” to Exodus (Exodus 4:21), The Apologetics Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 91-92.

[3] John Walton (editor and contributor of Old Testament notes), Cultural Background Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), Exodus 12:23, 130.

[4] Stephen De Young, The Religion of the Apostles (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2021), 124.

[5] De Young, 125.

[6] Also known as The Ascension of Moses. See Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Vol. 2: From Joseph to the Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, nd), Accessed April 27, 2022, https://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8JVRAVUWX4DS9GD.

[7] Origen, Against Celsus 6.43, in Thomas C. Oden and Joseph T. Lienhard (eds.), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament III: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 66.Origen also identifies the destroying angel as Azazel, the supernatural enemy of God whom the sins of Israel are sent back to in Leviticus 16. For more on this understanding of the word typically translated as scapegoat, see an excerpt of Roy Gane’s commentary on Leviticus in John H. Walton (ed.), Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009) on John Walton, “Azazel and the ‘Scapegoat’ (Leviticus 16),” Zondervan Academic, March 6, 2009, https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/azazel-and-the-scapegoat.

[8] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 112-15. I have quoted the NIV version, but with the incorrect Masoretic text reading “sons of Israel” replaced by the proper “sons of God” reading found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint. The textual evidence of this reading is better, plus the “sons of Israel” did not yet exist in the time period and event this passage is referencing—the Tower of Babel. Heiser comments that these other “gods” were members of God’s divine council, lesser elohim, which is not a word entirely synonymous with how many in the West use the term god today. Yahweh is a type of elohim, meaning He is of the spiritual realm, a spirit Being (John 4:24). But He is the greatest and He has created all other Elohim. There is no other being like Him or as great as Him.

[9] See my article on Old Testament “copying” at https://lightengroup.org/floods-and-plagues-old-testament-copying-series-2/.