Last time, we talked about the first nine plagues, but I left the tenth for part four. Here we have the tenth plague, the death of the firstborns, the passover, and the subsequent release of the Hebrews by Pharaoh.
This can be cruel, no matter how you slice it, but it seems particularly bad when considering that it was God Himself who made it so hard for Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. There are times when we could have seen it as Pharaoh simply being hard headed and mean, but when there are specific passages stating that God did the hardening Himself, it’s a little rougher. This is one of those places when it is easy to see the argument that God is cruel and doesn’t really care about people.
At the same time, we aren’t properly considering history when we do this. God has already attempted to get better people by starting over with a good family, He has saved the Egyptians and the surrounding people from a horrible and intense famine, and yet they didn’t pass this crucial memory on and insist on being cruel to the Hebrews. Would God have been so okay with doing this if the Egyptians had remembered what they owed Joseph? Would He have done this to a group that hadn’t turned on the people who saved them? Let’s not forget that the prior Pharaoh instructed all the Egyptians to throw Hebrew baby boys into the Nile and that all the Egyptians had been oppressive taskmasters.
Somewhere around here we cross the line between punishing horrible people and victim-blaming, though. Surely not every Egyptian that was alive to throw a baby in the Nile did so and surely many more had been born since then (given that Moses is over eighty according to chapter seven) that had nothing at all to do with that. What about the slave girl whose firstborn was also killed by the tenth plague? What did she do to deserve that?
The other plagues are terrible but this is on a whole different level and it clearly states that God wanted this one to happen in chapter ten when He tells Moses that He hardened the hearts so that He “may show these signs” to them and the freeing of Israel would be attributed to Him alone. I do get the inherent danger in seeing it as Pharaoh giving them their freedom instead of God.
Let’s dig in and see what else we find here.
God instructs Moses once again to have the Hebrew people ask their masters to give them stuff, and this time it’s addressed to both genders. He even specificies that He will give them favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, which is contrary to some of the other ways things have happened up to now. He had just hardened their hearts against letting the Hebrews go but it does make some sense for this group to have conflicted feelings about the Hebrews. Even though they don’t want to let the Hebrews go, they can still like them enough to give them stuff, maybe in the hopes that they will be satisfied and more plagues won’t be heaped on them. It seems a little extra mean that God does this knowing that He’s about to kill their firstborns. And that’s another thing.
Remembering (according to the research from Genesis) that Hebrew uses masculine and feminine pronouns for everything and that the masculine is used for groups that contain both men and women, this doesn’t have to mean just the sons. While it does make more sense for the Egyptian victims to be the firstborn males as the heirs, we are left to assume that all families have males. But not all families have males. Some families just have daughters. Were these families exempt? Doesn’t sound like it.
Also, I didn’t know before that this pertained to all the cattle as well. Do cattle care which sex the firstborn was? I don’t think so. Perhaps it did matter to the Egyptians, it still doesn’t have to be the males according to the way it is explained. If you go back to Genesis, we find that when God first mandated that every male be circumcised, He uses “male.” Of course, that is talking about all and not just firstborn, but He could have said firstborn male and didn’t. That’s not to say that it was or wasn’t firstborn male depending on availability, but I am saying that it is an assumption that we make based on cultures, not something that is specifically said.
Here we get those first instructions about the passover. I have always found it interesting that they must mark their homes. I have gotten to a point at work where I have had to give interlocking instructions for something that has to be precise. All I can think is that these instructions were meant to ensure that safeties were in place.
Then there’s this little nugget that I’ve never heard before:
on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements.
What?! Okay, we’ve seen God proclaim Himself the one true God, so who are these other gods? I managed to find some speculation on whether this is “gods” as we think of it, or simply those who are considered authority, or maybe even the symbols of their gods.
So, Passover instructions are given to Moses and he passes them on to the people and death takes the firstborns.
for there was not a house where someone was not dead.
And then Pharaoh let them go. His heart was perhaps released from God’s hardening, or he had at last been beaten down enough for his anger to have gone. Whether his anger in the previous plagues was God reaching into his heart to harden it without Pharaoh’s will or it was God just knowing that these plagues were going to make him more angry than sympathetic, it was done.
It was a little crazy that Pharaoh asks to be blessed as he sends them out the door. Perhaps he regrets those actions which he could not have prevented himself from doing (or could he?) Perhaps he is seeking some form of forgiveness or its an expression of his grief.
As this last and most devastating blow hits Egypt, this verse follows:
The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.”
They either finally see that God is serious or they are finally allowed to see, perhaps we will never know which for sure. Either way, they certainly send the Hebrews off with enough stuff that they are considered to have “plundered” the Egyptians.
Verse 40 specifies that the total time the Hebrews were in Egypt was 430 years.
When God gives some more instructions on how to keep the Passover feast for future generations, there is a mention that no one may eat of it that is a part of a household with uncircumcised males. My ESV says that no “uncircumsed person” can eat it, and it seems like a weird place to strip gender here. Female circumcision isn’t part of the Hebrew tradition and there is no other indication that women are to be excluded from this ritual, so I don’t get why they did that.
This chapter opens with the call to “consecrate” all the firstborns of the Hebrew population. The study portion of the Bible I’m using has a great note that this call reminds the Israelites that their firstborn were spared and that they really belong to God anyway. Again, firstborn is used. At first, firstborn seems specifically ungendered pertaining to the Hebrews:
the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast is mine.
but then later it’s:
all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.
This makes sense for the time since it has been obvious from the beginning that the daughters are not important to the family lines here. Whatever our modern belief about it, I don’t think it’s fair to insert it into past events. While the practices of the Hebrews may seem or be misogynistic and diminish their women, God was making a point that may not have been as easily made using both genders here. So while it’s culturally misogynistic for the Hebrews at this point, I don’t believe it’s God that makes it so.
Aside from the gender thing, there is also the redeeming happening. Sacrifice has to be made for the lives of the Hebrew firstborns. Their life is essentially being traded, and not so much just exempted. It’s an interesting thought process that goes all the way back to the result of Adam and Eve knowing they were naked resulted in the death of an animal to cover them with and introducing the institution of blood sacrifice.
This scene is followed with that God purposely took them the long way so that they didn’t go back to Egypt when the wars began. I guess He knew that they weren’t prepared for war. Sometimes people just aren’t prepared for what they are promised.
It also specifies that Moses took the bones of Joseph so that he could be returned to the resting place of his fathers as he had asked to be.
Here’s another verse that I thought was interesting, mostly because I had never heard it before:
And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.
So no wasting time here, they were moving.
So there are my feelings and impressions on chapters 11-13 of Exodus. Have you read it? What do you think?