Exodus 12: The Tenth Plague and the Exodus

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The time has come. “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well.” The narrator confirms that all aspects of Egyptian society are affected, from Pharaoh at the top all the way down to the prisoner in the dungeon, perhaps a wartime captive. The dungeon literally means “pit house,” since apparently pits were quite common in their prisons. This event has long been foretold, and no one is to be exempt, not even the cattle. This dark deed is done in the dark of night.

“Pharaoh and all 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.” It should be noted that the first born could have been a girl or boy. Age is not a factor, so every house is affected. Attempts to explain the sudden death of these children have not been successful, but scholars liken it to a plague that kills quickly. There is no known plague that would only kill one person per household. However, readers will recall that early in this story, Pharaoh ordered the killing of newborn males. His attempt at genocide would eventually have had a huge impact upon Israelite society. This is now having a huge impact on Egyptian society.

So, for some scholars this is how it should be: measure for measure. Others struggle for a better understanding given God’s qualities of love and mercy. It is true that oftentimes, children are the ones who suffer the harshest consequences for the misdeeds of their parents. But the bottom line is that this is the Lord’s doing, and the narrator does not dwell on it. Looking at the bigger picture, however, this could also be another indictment against the Egyptian gods. Egypt’s firstborns are being dedicated to the Lord, again showing the impotency of their gods. It is, also, another example of creation being undone, of devolving into chaos.

During the night, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites!” Suddenly, the presence of the Israelites brings danger to the Egyptians. “Leave my people!” He orders them to leave before more killing happens. While it is tempting to think everything is happening in the dark of night, readers are reminded that the Israelites have been instructed to stay in their houses until morning. No doubt, it takes time for the messengers to find Moses and Aaron and for them to return to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh is ready and waiting for them: “Go worship the Lord as you have requested.” Some scholars think he is only willing to let them go into the wilderness to worship the Lord. Yet, in the very next breath he tells them to “take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.” This time there are no caveats, no last minute exceptions. He is really anxious for them to leave. He tells them to “go!” and only asks that they bless him. Perhaps, he finally recognizes his powerlessness in the contest with the Lord. Blessings, as well as cursings, are usually followed by the expected results, and in this case it probably means that he hopes the dying will stop. It is noteworthy that, at no time however, does Pharaoh ever admit any wrongdoing.

“The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. ‘For otherwise,’ they said, ‘we will all die!’” The Egyptians echo Pharaoh’s concerns. Get out before more bad things happen! “So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing.” This indicates the haste with which they packed up to leave.

“The Israelites did as Moses instructed and had asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing.” Prior to the last plague God had instructed Moses to tell the people to do this. The only reason it is successful is that “the Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.” “Plundered” suggests the Egyptians were willing to give them whatever they asked – just as long as they kept moving. Again, it is important to know that the Lord is the one who makes the Egyptians favorably disposed to the point of them giving their gold and silver to the Israelites.

Some scholars have argued that this was partial payment for their many years of service. It’s an interesting argument, but it doesn’t support the idea of “plundering.” Since this is the Lord’s doing, it also cannot be an attempt on the part of the Egyptians to bribe them to leave. The text is clear that the Egyptians gave freely of their riches. So, the Israelites are ready to go, and they are not leaving empty-handed. They are given treasures and bounty, much like a victorious army marching off with the spoils of war. They are slaves no more; rather they are all decked out. These articles will be essential in future stories, specifically in making the golden calf and providing ornamentation for the tabernacle.

Thus far, the story has been moving briskly with no elaborations, only factual information. The narrator says nothing about the Israelites beyond these few activities. No doubt they are overjoyed to be leaving, but perhaps they are also filled with anxiety over their future. No data is given. Nor is there any comment on the losses experienced by the Egyptians or their protection during the night. In this way, the story moves quickly from death to life.

“The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth.” Scholars estimate the distance to be about eight miles. This would take some time. The word “Sukkoth” means “booths.” Obviously, families are added along the way. “There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.” This matches the census taken in Numbers 1. Allowing for women and children and the “many other people that went up with them,” the total number would have been as much as 2-3 million. The identity of the “many other people” is speculative, but most think these would have been slaves that were not Israelites. In other words, the early Israelites were a diverse group.

Many people have questioned these numbers. Of course, it is totally plausible; nothing is too great for the Lord. However, such a large group does not take into account that a large city, according to archeological findings, would have housed roughly 5,000 people. Nor do archeological findings confirm that such a large group of people migrated out of Egypt at any one time. Scholars question the etiology of the word “thousand,” in that, early on, it might have meant “tent group” or “clan.” It is possible, then, to render this as “600 families/clans left Egypt.” Later, it was used to designate a “tribal division,” and eventually became the word “thousand.”

While that might bring the numbers down to a manageable figure, it diminishes the magnitude of God’s saving act. So scholars have come up with another option. In the final editing of these stories, the authors counted the period of Exodus to extend until the time of the temple during the reign of David. The 600,000 number could, then, refer to all the Israelite men from the time of the exodus through to the founding of the kingdom when they were thoroughly settled in the Promised Land. This marked the final end of the exodus. Regardless, the point of this story is all about God’s ultimate saving act. That does not change as archeological facts come and go. Suffice it to say, scholars cannot know for certain how many people left the country.

In addition to the vast numbers of people were “also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” These people weren’t sneaking out. They were able to go with all their possessions. “With the dough the Israelites had brought from Egypt, they baked loaves of unleavened bread. The dough was without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves.” This is now the second mention of unleavened bread in this short story. It highlights just how important this ritual is to the story itself.

“Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the Lord’s divisions left Egypt.” Just as the precise number of people cannot be verified, neither can the precise date be determined. While the text claims it is exactly “430 years to the very day,” scholars aren’t sure which “day” is the reference point. Four hundred years matches the time mentioned in Genesis 15:13, but in 15:16 the Lord tells Abraham his descendants will return after four generations. And the genealogy in Exodus 6 has roughly four generations between Abraham and Moses. Perhaps, a generation lasts 100 years. That Pharaoh is never named is the bane of every scholarly attempt to accurately date this event. Once again, scholars have to accept the ambiguity of the timing. The actual length of stay is immaterial; the only relevant factor is that their stay ended with God’s miraculous saving acts.

Embedded in this account are also some tidbits of information foreshadowing what lies ahead. It specifically states that they left “on foot.” This would be expected for a people who has been enslaved for hundreds of years, but it also is a term used for the infantry. When they leave, they go by “divisions,” another military term. This motley group of people will, eventually, have to fight their way into the land.

“Because the Lord kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the Lord for the generations to come.” There is a play on the word “vigil.” It means “watch,” but it also has the connotation of “protect, keep.” So the Lord is watching over them this night; in return, they are to watch for Him by keeping the Passover. This has led to the practice of having the Passover meal extend as long as possible into the evening. Clearly, God has made good on His promises. They are out, or on their way out, of a country that has oppressed them for hundreds of years. In many ways, though, this is not the end of their challenges. Leaving will prove to be harder than they anticipated.