Exodus 11: Announcing the Death of the Firstborn

By Mary Jane Chaignot

After having just announced Pharaoh will not see him again, Moses is back with one more announcement. There will be one more plague. It starts innocently enough with Moses remembering the Lord had said, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt.” This word for “plague” literally means “stroke,” in the sense of “touch, strike, or death.” It is a different word from the one used in Ex. 9. Without going into any detail, the Lord confirms that after this plague, Pharaoh and the Egyptians will let them go. In fact, the Lord states, “They will drive you out completely.” The word has a sense of force to it.

In anticipation of their journey, the “men and women alike are to ask their neighbors for articles of silver and gold.” The narrator adds in a side note that this will be possible because “the Lord made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and Moses himself was highly regarded in Egypt by Pharaoh’s officials and by the people.” This is such an interesting concept. Imagine the people giving valuables to the Israelites in defiance of Pharaoh. How many times is it the case that the masses are more amenable to others than their leaders? However, being “favorably disposed” could also have other meanings. The people have already suffered in many ways during the previous plagues. They could be joyfully supporting the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt. They care little about a power struggle between Pharaoh and the Hebrew God.

It is also possible that the Israelites have been somewhat integrated into Egyptian neighborhoods, working alongside many of them. We already know that Egyptian women work as midwives for the Hebrew people. It is very possible that they are more familiar with each other than previously indicated. Likewise, Pharaoh’s officials have a better understanding of Moses than Pharaoh. Along with understanding comes respect and a measure of fear. They have watched him perform these many signs and, long ago, stopped trying to copy them. Pharaoh may be the most powerful person in Egypt, but his policies have caused him to become increasingly isolated from the people of his country and the officials in his palace.

Clearly, Moses and the Lord have a longer conversation because the very next thing readers are told is that Moses is repeating the Lord’s message to Pharaoh. And a harsh message it is! He tells Pharaoh, “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 of the cattle as well.’” Everyone will be affected, from Pharaoh at the top to the lowliest maid. “Hand mill” is, literally, “behind the two mill stones.” It was considered to be a most degrading work, even for a slave, and oftentimes it was relegated to prisoners. The point is that no one will be spared.

While this might be shocking news to Pharaoh, it is not new information for readers. The Lord shares this outcome with Moses (see Ex. 4:21-23) before he ever leaves Midian for Egypt. The Lord foretells the scenario that will transpire. By referring to Israel as His firstborn son, the Lord justifies this action. And while this statement seems to be limited to Pharaoh’s son, by the end of the story it will include all firstborn males.

Moreover, for this act, Moses and Aaron will no longer be the instruments of God’s design. God, himself, will be the one going throughout Egypt. How this will happen remains unsaid for now. And while scholars have offered theories about possible natural causes for some of the previous plagues, they have nothing for this one. No pestilence would work like this, no natural tragedy. It is something that happens at the hand of God. In that sense, it is another attack against the Egyptian gods. Osiris is their god for the dead, yet the Hebrew God can strike at will, rendering Osiris powerless and ineffective.

The result: “There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt – worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.” Obviously, this is in response to the many times the Israelites wailed over Egyptian policies. Indeed, the word used for “loud wailing” is very similar to the “loud cry” of the Israelites back in Ex. 2:21, and the exact word used in Ex. 3:7-9. It was this crying out that set all these events in motion.

Moses continues the Lord’s message by saying, “But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal.” The words for barking are really “sharpen its tongue.” Though slightly obscure, it means that not even the dogs will sense anything amiss or be aroused by movements in the dark. All will be well at the Israelites’ households. Moses adds, “Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. All these officials of yours will come to me, bowing down before me and saying, ‘Go, you and all the people who follow you!’ After that I will leave.” Here is another example showing how isolated Pharaoh has become. All his officials will go to Moses “bowing down” before him, asking him to leave and to take his people with him.

“Then Moses, hot with anger, left Pharaoh.” Moses delivers the message, turns on his heel, and walks out. He already knows that future negotiation is futile, but he also sees the futility in this plague. It is so senseless. The level of destruction and death that is about to befall the country is unprecedented. No one is to be exempt. Starting with Pharaoh, all the way down to the lowliest servant, everyone will feel this pain. And it will include animals as well as humans.

The Lord had said to Moses, “Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you – so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.” Perhaps this statement is meant to comfort Moses, reminding him that Pharaoh has been obstinate all along. From the beginning, God’s purpose has been twofold: to release the Israelites from oppression and to show his wonders throughout the land – so that people will know Him.

“Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country.” It is possible that a last minute change of heart could have happened, but nothing in the story suggests it. Pharaoh has a purpose in God’s plan and that has been one of obstinacy allowing the signs and wonders to be performed. Despite “all” the wonders that have happened, Pharaoh will refuse to let them go. The stage is now set.

Now comes the harder part for scholars. How does one explain this loss of innocent lives? How does one understand a deity that protects one group of people at the expense of another? These are not easy questions to answer, especially for those that foster a literal reading of the text. Almost from the beginning, Rabbis tried to rationalize God’s actions, though it is completely consistent with the ancients’ beliefs that God was simply in control of every aspect of their lives and would, literally, come to their defense.

Today, scholars are more likely to look at the literary aspects of this story. At issue is the concept of the firstborn and why that would have been so devastating to a nation. Readers will recall that this story begins with the Egyptians being responsible for abominable mistreatment of the Israelites, culminating with the order to kill all male babies. Now, at the end, all firstborn sons will be killed. Just as the killing of the male babies was intended to be a devastating blow to the Israelites, now loss of their firstborn sons will be a devastating blow for the Egyptians.

The importance of the firstborn son cannot be overstated. Not only does that child represent all those that are yet to come, in essence being the first of many, but he also, technically, belongs to God. Like the firstling of the herds or the firstfruits of the harvest, he is the firstborn of the womb. All these “firsts” are considered precious and, to some degree, sacred. The Hebrew word for “firstfruits” means “the choicest part, the beginning, the best.” People were to offer their “firstfruits” as a sacrifice to God, giving Him the best and not holding back. Such a sacrifice was acceptable to the Lord. Of course, firstborn sons are not sacrificed, but they are granted specific succession rights and responsibilities. To lose that son, then, along with every other firstborn son, symbolizes the beginning of the end for everyone.

Throughout this story, then, Moses and Pharaoh have been portrayed as opponents. Moses is the representative for the Israelites; Pharaoh is the representative for the Egyptians. Not once does the Egyptian Pharaoh negotiate in good faith. Though the outcome was predetermined from the beginning, Pharaoh was locked in a power struggle with the Hebrew God. He would not give up until the loss was so personal that he had no reason left to fight. The victors writing the story would have had no problem with the Hebrew God delivering the final and fatal blow. In biblical terms, the punishment fit the crime.