But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, That I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.
Not long ago, a woman asked me a hard question about the Exodus. “Why did God have to kill all the firstborn children in Egypt?” she asked. “After all, he is God. He is sovereign. He can do anything he wants. Wasn’t there a better way of getting Israel out of Egypt than killing innocent children?” i
It’s a fair question. God is all powerful, merciful, kind and gracious. He is forgiving and gentle. So why the death of innocents?
God is all of those things, but none of that would matter if God were not just. Justice is a quality of the divine nature that we are tempted to avoid, never considering that mercy is meaningless without justice. If justice does not demand punishment, then there is no need for God’s mercy. Oddly, it was from a sense of justice that the woman asked this question. Was it just for God to kill all the firstborn of Egypt? That is the question we have before us, and it lies right along the thread we are following.
The story is told in the book of Exodus. All of the children of Jacob, whose name would be changed to Israel, had migrated to the land of Egypt in a time of famine, but then they made a fatal mistake. When the famine was over, they stayed in Egypt instead of returning home. In the early years, the government of Egypt was dominated by one of their own, a man named Joseph. But after his death, and the death of the Pharaoh who admired Joseph, things began to change for the worse.
For a few generations, the Israelites prospered and multiplied. They were a strong and influential people, and “the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). They were bearing children at a much higher rate than the Egyptians. At length, this became a concern to the Egyptians. And they began to take measures to protect themselves and to advance their own interests at the same time. The latest King of Egypt said to his people:
Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land (Exodus 1:9-10).
Not only were the Israelites outnumbering the Egyptians, they were physically stronger. After all, they were doing all the work. The Egyptians had two concerns. One was a rebellion and the other was the loss of a very effective work force. So they set out to make slaves of the Israelites as they built some of the great treasure cities of Egypt on the backs of Israelite slaves. In the years to come, Egypt owed their entire economy to the success of a slave labor program. This would come back to haunt them later.
The Egyptians did everything in their power to suppress the Israelites, “But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread because of the children of Israel” (Exodus 1:12). The dominant feeling was fear, and one wonders if fear still lies at the roots of anti-Semitism.
So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage; in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor (vv. 13,14).
Since that wasn’t working, Pharaoh resorted to more drastic measures. He called in the Hebrew midwives and gave them specific instructions: “When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live” (v. 16).
Inconvenient children have always been victims in human society. The state has an obligation to protect the weakest and most helpless of its citizens. Here, the state was the instrument of their destruction. It was the closest thing to selective abortion that the technology of the age allowed. The midwives were to crush the skull of any male child as he was being born.
It didn’t work. The midwives refused to do it and lied to the king about it. “The Hebrew women,” they said,” are not like Egyptian women, and they give birth before we get there.” But that only worked briefly.
So Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (Exodus 1:22).
Sometimes the Bible does not belabor the obvious, so I will. Note carefully, that it was not just the government that was involved in infanticide. It was all the people who were charged with taking little Hebrew boys by the ankles and throwing them into the river to drown and it was all the people who were involved in this infanticide.
It is amazing how readily people will come to accept and then participate in such vile acts. We had a horrible example of it in our own time with the participation of the German people in the persecution of the Jews. And the German people, like the Egyptians, ultimately suffered terribly for it. Divine justice finally descended on them in the form of the armies of America, Britain and Russia.
God only knows how many Israelite babies were thrown to the crocodiles of the Nile by that generation of Egyptians. Now here is the question which you must answer if you are going to understand what is yet to come. What is a just God to do about this record of callous infanticide? Can he ignore it? Let it slide? And if he is to punish the nation for it, what punishment is just? Remember, this was not merely the sin of a few. The whole nation was involved in it.
There is an incredible irony in the next phase of this story. There was a young couple, both of the tribe of Levi, who had a son in this terrible time. Not willing to see her son thrown into the river, she hid him as long as she could. But when it became clear that would not work indefinitely, she made a little boat, placed the child in it, and laid it among the tall plants along the river. In a sense, she followed Pharaoh’s command. She put him in the river.
The daughter of this good woman, sister of the child, hid herself and watched from a distance to see what would happen to her little brother.
Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children” (Exodus 2:5-6).
This woman knew what she was doing. And in making the decision to save this child’s life, she saved the man who would be the undoing of her own people. She named the little boy “Moses” and brought him up in Pharaoh’s household as a prince in Egypt.
God’s justice is sometimes a long time coming, and in this case it had to wait for Moses to grow up. The story of Moses from this day until his exile from Egypt to his return to Egypt is a great story in itself, but we will pass over it for the moment to stay close to our thread.
When Moses returned to Egypt with his staff in his hand and God’s instructions ringing in his ears, he marched into Pharaoh’s presence with a message. “Thus saith the Jehovah, God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1). Implicit in this is the idea that there was a known festival approaching, which the Israelites were expected to observe.
Pharaoh replied, “Who is Jehovah, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not Jehovah, neither will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). There is no surprise here.
But Moses and Aaron persisted, and in the process tell us something very important about this festival: “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword” (v.3 RSV).
Note well, this is not a voluntary holiday. It has divine sanctions connected with nonobservance. Yes, it was a deliberate provocation on God’s part, but there is no reason to assume this festival was new. There is reason to believe that this is a festival that became the Passover after the terrible events to follow.
Pharaoh, of course, refused and made the burden on the Israelites that much worse. At length, God speaks to Moses and brings this issue into sharp focus.
So the LORD said to Moses: “See, I have made you as God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments” (Exodus 7:1-4).
One of the most common questions I am asked about this story is, “Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?” The answer is clear. God is just. He hardened Pharaoh’s heart to make him, and all the people of Egypt, pay for what they had done. They had committed wholesale murder most foul. They had killed the weakest of the Israelites in a callous and hateful manner. They had held a people captive generation after generation. They had grown wealthy by the use of slave labor. Justice demanded that a price be paid. Don’t overlook the last three words of the above passage: “by great judgments,” because that is what this is all about.
In the plagues that followed, Egypt’s entire slave-built economy would be left in shambles and the firstborn of every family in Egypt dead. It is chilling when you consider the implications of this. In our own country, we held men slaves through several generations and built our wealth on the backs of slave labor. God only knows how many millions of captive blacks were killed outright in the slave trade. Only God knows how many died on the voyage across the Atlantic and were thrown over the side into the sea.
And it is a tragic irony that, as a direct result of this shameful crime, we fought one of the bloodiest and most insane wars in our history – the American War between the States. Even then, I don’t know that we killed as many of our brothers as we did slaves in the trade. This country paid a terrible price for slavery in shed blood and economic loss. And it was just. It may have even been the judgment of God. We paid. God knows how we paid.
How can I be so sure that the plagues on Egypt were divine justice? This is not at all hard to see. What was the very first plague that fell on Egypt? God turned the river into blood and gave the Egyptians blood to drink. Why the river? Why blood? Because this is the place where the blood of the innocents was shed. This is where countless hundreds of little baby boys were thrown to the crocodiles. They wanted blood? God gave them blood to drink. This was the most symbolic thing Moses could have done as a first act, to point to the crimes of Egypt – in particular to the bloody murder of countless tiny Israelite boys.
And let me tell you what makes my blood run cold. In our country today, there is a different kind of infanticide going on. It is called “intact dilation and extraction.” You may know it as partial birth abortion. There isn’t a lot of difference between this procedure and what Pharaoh wanted the midwives to do. As soon as the baby was far enough out to determine that it was a boy, the midwives were supposed to whack its little head on the leg of the birthing stool and kill it. In the modern procedure, a doctor delivers all of the little fellow except the head and then he inserts scissors into the skull and sucks out the brains.
Senator Patrick Moynihan called it infanticide. And there is not a lot of difference between this procedure and other third-term abortions. Sometimes the babies survive the abortion and are killed afterward. And most people in this country seem content to have it so. I can’t help wondering how long God is going to wait before he avenges the blood of the innocents on us as he did on the Egyptians.
Anyone who takes justice into his own hands on this issue is worse than a fool. Moses tried that early in life and it didn’t work. God’s justice will transcend anything you and I can imagine. Just be sure you are on the right side of the river when it all comes down.
Nine plagues later, with the Egyptian economy in a shambles, all the people awaited the final judgment of God. They couldn’t find a way to repent and avoid it because Pharaoh wouldn’t let them. God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart to the end that justice might be done.
I have told you this story because it is here that we can again pick up our thread. There is a direct line from Abraham to Paul, and it runs right through Egypt. By the time we reach the near end of the thread, we will see the connection as clear as day. But we are not finished yet with Pharaoh.
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship the LORD. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind.” But Moses said, “You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings to present to the LORD our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the LORD our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the LORD” (Exodus 10:24-26 NIV).
This may have been true, but it was also a deliberate provocation on Moses’ part. Pharaoh tried to negotiate some standoff that would allow him to save face and keep his slaves. God was not having any of it.
But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.” “Just as you say,” Moses replied, “I will never appear before you again” (vv. 27-29).
Pharaoh had come a long way in the concessions he was willing to make, but it would never be enough. Because God intended to punish Egypt for what they had done. He refused to grant repentance to the Egyptians.ii
The Lord spoke to Moses and told him that there was one more plague coming upon Pharaoh and the land of Egypt. This one will be final, he said. Not only will he let you go, he will force you all to leave. When that happens, you will ask the Egyptians for their jewels, their gold, their silver, and they will give them gladly. There is another irony in this, because the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptian people. “Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people” (Exodus 11:3).
This plague could not come without warning, so Moses told Pharaoh what God was about to do.
Then Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the animals” (vv. 4-5).
What a cold, hard sentence God passed upon these people. From top to bottom, from high to low, no social strata were excluded. Not even the animals escaped. But remember that all of the people of Egypt were involved in the destruction, not merely of the firstborn of the Israelite children, but every single male child. God’s justice did not extend to taking all the males of that generation as the Egyptians had done. He only took the firstborn.
Then there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as was not like it before, nor shall be like it again. But against none of the children of Israel shall a dog move its tongue, against man or beast, that you may know that the LORD does make a difference between the Egyptians and Israel (Exodus 11:6-7).
There is a bright line between us now, said Moses, and you will see it. “And all of these your servants,” said Moses, sweeping his hand around the assembly, “shall come to me and bow down to me and say ‘Get out.’ And Moses went out from Pharaoh’s presence in great anger” (Exodus 11:8). That is easy to understand after all the vile acts of the Egyptians and then the final confrontation.
So, we have our answer to the original question. The firstborn of Egypt died and the economy of the nation was destroyed because of their horrible sins against the Israelites. And the people of Egypt knew this as well as anyone. Justice was served.
Out of it came the ancient Feast of Passover. How it became a great Christian holyday is a story not many have heard. But first, we must follow the thread to the first Passover.
i. The question may overlook the fact that it was not merely the children of the Egyptians who were taken, but the firstborn, whatever age he might have been. And to say they were all innocent begs the question.
ii. Compare 2 Timothy 2:25 and Romans 2:4. For man to repent, God must grant it. And despite many efforts to end slavery, it still exists today. Some 27 million people worldwide are enslaved or work as forced laborers. That’s more people than at any point in the history of the world. Social Studies Understanding Slavery, Discovery Education, discoveryschool.com.