Q&R: Why would a Christlike God kill the firstborn of Egypt? Brad Jersak
What do you make of the death of the firstborn in Egypt? If God is not a vengeful and retributive death-dealer, how do you read that story?
The Egyptian firstborn who died in the tenth plague (Exodus 12) were ultimately victims of Pharaoh’s willful defiance, and were specifically slaughtered by ‘the destroyer.’ The New Testament finally reveals that ‘the destroyer’ is not God nor even the agent of God (contra the original story) but the enemy of God who steals, kills and destroys (John 10:10)… the ‘destroyer’ is Abbadon who comes from the pit (Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12, Psalm 88:11, Proverbs 15:11; 27:20, Revelation 9:11).
This conclusion opens up a plethora of questions, and concerning these, we hear so many opinions and speculations. Let’s start with the great range of Jewish speculations (those taught by rabbis). These range from:
- The story is just a story. It didn’t literally happen VERSUS This is our history and God was with us delivering us from our enemies (and continues to do so).
- The death of the Egyptians is attributed to God OR to the destroyer OR to Pharaoh’s sin OR to a natural tragedy (for example, see: https://www.livescience.com/58638-science-of-the-10-plagues.html).
- The firstborn were themselves evil and complicit in the oppression of the Jewish slaves OR they were innocent children who didn’t deserve death at all OR the firstborn were collective victims of Pharaoh’s defiance, etc.
- The firstborn had every opportunity to be saved by observing the Passover and some actually were (based on Exodus 12:38) OR their death was inescapable and they really never stood a chance OR their death was completely contingent on Pharaoh’s refusal of God’s warnings.
Here’s a good example of how Jewish rabbis have wrestled with the dilemma: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/does-passover-celebrate-the-death-of-innocent-egyptians_b_2821971
The Passover as a Christian Text
Now, as Christians, we read the Passover in light of Jesus Christ and his Passover gospel. We approach this text as Christian Scripture, so we need to use a specifically Christian hermeneutic (a Christ-centered interpretation), as I’ve laid out in A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way. In that book, I retrieve the ancient 3-stage interpretation of the first Christians:
1. Literal sense: First, we ask, what does the passage itself say. What is the author’s point of view? We read the words of the story carefully, noting the what, why and how of authorial intent. On my most recent reading of the story, I noticed an interesting element concerning God’s judgment of the Egyptian gods:
- “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.” (Exodus 12:12).
Fascinating … there’s something going on here in terms of the demolition of trust in false gods. This particular verse also assigns the violence directly to God. But if we read carefully, we also discover that within the story, we see multiple narrators with different (even competing) points of view who provide different layers to the what, how and why questions. Even “who killed the firstborn” depends on which verse you read. Is it God? Is it the destroyer? Is it an active judgment? Is it a passive consequence?
The answers to those questions are complex because there is more than one voice telling the story, more than one hand at work on the text before we receive the final version, and their perspectives may even stand centuries apart. What they share is the story of Israel’s miraculous redemption out of slavery in Egypt, their liberation event to be commemorated. But for Christians, that’s not really the point…
2. Moral sense: Next we ask, how might this story shape us into Christlike disciples? (2 Corinthians 3:16-17, 1 Cor. 10:1-11). It calls us to recognize that we too were once enslaved to the kingdom of darkness and have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb into ‘the kingdom of God’s Son’ (Col. 1) and so to live as those who have been set free, and not take on again any yoke of bondage. Even then, we’re not quite done…
3. Spiritual (or gospel) sense: The crux (literally) of a Christian reading of Exodus asks how is this story is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We would say that in his death and resurrection, Christ has conquered “Pharaoh and Egypt” (death and Satan) and “plundered” its goods (Exodus 12:36, Matt. 12:29), and led us into the “promised land” of freedom in Christ through his death and resurrection, fulfilled at last during the actual calendar Passover celebration. That is the Christian meaning of Passover and the Exodus.
As for the problem of the death of the firstborn, John 10:10 and Romans 6:23 serve as our guiding revelation: that God is a life-giver, not a death dealer, and that the wages of sin (itself) is slavery and death, while the free gift of God is eternal life through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, Christ reveals God as love, life and light so that we come to see judgment and death are intrinsic to sin, rather than reactive violence on God’s part. It is not “the wages of sin is that God will kill you,” but that “the wages of sin itself is that IT will kill you.” We can call that dynamic “the destroyer” … but with grateful hearts we say, “Ah yes, but there’s a Passover Lamb for that!”