Why did God destroy the first born Egyptian sons?

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By BibleAsk Team


The story of God destroying the firstborn sons of Egypt is a significant and solemn event in the biblical narrative, particularly in the book of Exodus. It marks the culmination of a series of divine interventions intended to liberate the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. This essay will explore the theological, historical, and moral reasons behind this act, using references from the Bible.

Historical Background

While in Egypt, “the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7, NKJV). The “few” in number had become a “mighty” nation of many (Genesis 46:3; Deuteronomy 26:5, NKJV). The more Egyptians afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew (Exodus 1:12; 1:20).

For this reason, the Egyptians “were in dread of the children of Israel” (Exodus 1:12, NKJV). So, Pharaoh decided to slaughter all male Israelite newborns to try to stop the growth of Israel (Genesis 12:2; 22:17; 46:3).  Pharaoh commanded “all his people” to throw Israel’s first born sons into the river (Exodus 1:22, NKJV). He wanted to drown the Hebrew infants and feed them to the crocodiles (Genesis 43:32).

Murder is prohibited in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13). And it was punishable by death: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6, NKJV; Numbers 35:30). Solomon wrote, “[T]he Lord hates…hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:16-17, NKJV). Romans 13:4 states that governments have the God-given right to destroy murderers. And Revelation 21:8 (NKJV) says that all sinners, which includes murderers, “have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

Thus, the nation of Egypt was guilty of the crime of murdering all the Israeli innocent babies. Those precious souls were “a heritage from the Lord” (Psalm 127:3, NKJV) and born in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; Acts 17:25; Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Eighty years later, God punished Egypt for their crimes of murdering the innocent (in addition to their other sins of idolatry, rebellion and unbelief). He brought ten plagues upon Pharaoh and all his land (Exodus 7-12). The first plague God sent upon Egypt was turning water to blood (for the blood of the babies), while the last was destroying all of Egypt’s firstborn. This act was “the chastening of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 7:19; 11:2). “He did not spare their soul from death… and destroyed all the firstborn in Egypt” (Psalm 78:49-51). God does serve justice.

Context of the Plagues

To understand why God destroyed the firstborn Egyptian sons, it’s crucial to set the context within the broader narrative of the ten plagues. The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for centuries, and God called Moses to lead them to freedom. When Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites, God sent a series of plagues to compel him. These plagues increased in severity, demonstrating God’s power and judgment against the gods of Egypt and the stubbornness of Pharaoh.

The Tenth Plague

The death of the firstborn was the tenth and final plague. This event is described in Exodus 11:4-6 (NKJV):

“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. 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.”‘”

Theological Reasons

  1. Judgment Against Idolatry: The plagues, including the death of the firstborn, were judgments against the gods of Egypt. In Exodus 12:12 (NKJV), God states: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord.” This plague specifically targeted the perceived strength and future of Egypt, demonstrating that the God of Israel was supreme over all Egyptian deities.
  2. Divine Retribution: The killing of the firstborn can also be seen as divine retribution for Pharaoh’s previous decree to kill Hebrew male infants. Exodus 1:22 (NKJV) records Pharaoh’s order: “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.'”The death of the firstborn Egyptians served as a measure-for-measure punishment, highlighting the justice of God.
  3. Covenant Fulfillment: God’s actions in Egypt were also a fulfillment of His covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to deliver their descendants from bondage. This is reiterated in Exodus 6:5-7 (NKJV): “And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.'”

Historical and Cultural Context

  1. Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart: Repeatedly, Pharaoh hardened his heart against letting the Israelites go, despite the devastation caused by the previous plagues. This stubbornness is highlighted throughout the narrative, such as in Exodus 9:34-35 (NKJV): “And when Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hard; neither would he let the children of Israel go, as the Lord had spoken by Moses.” The final plague was a direct consequence of Pharaoh’s persistent refusal to heed God’s command.
  2. Demonstration of God’s Power: The plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn, were intended to show both the Egyptians and the Israelites the power and sovereignty of the Lord. This is expressed in Exodus 7:5 (NKJV): “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.”

Moral and Ethical Considerations

  1. Judgment and Mercy: While the death of the firstborn is a severe judgment, it also serves as a backdrop to God’s mercy towards the Israelites. God provided a means of protection through the Passover lamb, as described in Exodus 12:21-23 (NKJV): “Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you.'” This event prefigures the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, whose blood protects believers from spiritual death.
  2. Divine Will and Human Responsibility: The narrative underscores the tension between divine will and human responsibility. While God permits Pharaoh to carry on his evil plans even harden his heart (Exodus 10:1), Pharaoh bears the responsibility for his own actions.

The Passover and Its Significance for All People

The Passover is central to understanding the tenth plague. It commemorates God’s deliverance of the Israelites and the sparing of their firstborn. The instructions for the Passover are detailed in Exodus 12:1-14, which include the sacrifice of a lamb, marking of doorposts with its blood, and the meal of unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This ritual was to be observed annually, as a perpetual reminder of God’s salvation.

In mercy, God ordained that the blood of the lamb on the door posts can be also applied by any Egyptian, who chooses to place his faith in the God of Israel. Thus, God extended salvation from death to the Egyptians’ children. The Scriptures tell us that many Egyptians put their faith in God and left the land of Egypt in the Exodus placing their lot with the children of Israel (Exodus 12:38).

Symbolism and Typology

The events of the first Passover are rich in symbolism and typology, pointing forward to the New Testament and the work of Jesus Christ.

  1. The Passover Lamb: The lamb without blemish sacrificed during Passover prefigures Jesus Christ, whom John the Baptist refers to as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 NKJV).
  2. The Blood of the Lamb: Just as the blood of the lamb protected the Israelites from the destroyer, the blood of Christ protects believers from the ultimate judgment. This is articulated in 1 Peter 1:18-19 (NKJV): “Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”
  3. Deliverance from Bondage: The physical deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery is a type of the spiritual deliverance believers experience through Christ. Romans 6:17-18 (NKJV) captures this spiritual reality: “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

The Firstborn and the Consecration to God

Following the plague, God commands the consecration of the firstborn of Israel to Himself, as recorded in Exodus 13:1-2 (NKJV):

“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is Mine.'”

This consecration signifies the Israelites’ acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and their gratitude for His deliverance.

Ethical Reflections on the Death of the Firstborn

The ethical implications of the death of the firstborn raise profound questions about divine justice and human suffering. From a biblical perspective, several points can be made:

  1. Divine Justice: The death of the firstborn is portrayed as a just response to the persistent sin and rebellion of Pharaoh and Egypt. It serves as a dramatic demonstration of God’s power and justice.
  2. Human Suffering and Sin: The suffering of the Egyptians, including the loss of their firstborn, reflects the broader biblical theme of the consequences of sin. Just as Pharaoh’s sin brought suffering to his people, sin in general leads to suffering and death, as seen in Romans 6:23 (NKJV): “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  3. Redemption (even for the Believing Egyptians): Amid the judgment, the Passover provides a powerful message of redemption and hope not just for the Israelites but also for the Egyptians that chose to leave their idolatrous religion and be a part of God’s people by placing the blood of the lamb on the posts of their homes (Exodus 12:38). God’s provision of a way to avoid the judgment through the blood of the lamb points to the ultimate hope found in Christ’s sacrifice for all believers whether Jews and Gentiles.

Conclusion

The destruction of the firstborn Egyptian sons is a profound event in the biblical narrative. It serves as a demonstration of God’s judgment against sin and idolatry, a fulfillment of divine promises, and a foreshadowing of the ultimate redemption for all believers (Jews or Gentiles) through Jesus Christ. The theological, historical, and ethical dimensions of this event highlight divine justice and mercy, human responsibility, and the hope of salvation.

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In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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