Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral, Palm Sunday (9th April 2017).
THE EVENT: THE DEATH OF THE FIRST-BORN
Preparation for the Passover (12.21-28)
This morning’s study begins with the build-up to the event. Moses tells the people of Israel to select their lambs.
The verse which caught my attention is 12.22: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door your house until the morning.”
What interests me here is the reference to hyssop (also known as marjoram), which with its stem and hairy leaves could be used as a ‘brush’ for applying liquids on to a surface.
- In the OT hyssop is associated with priestly rituals of cleansing (see Lev 14.2-6, 49-51; Num 19.4-18).
- In Psalm 51,7 David in his plea for forgiveness asks to be purified with hyssop.
Bearing in mind that the final plague takes the form of some kind of epidemic, it is almost as if the blood of the Passover lambs protects by creating some kind of anti-septic barrier.
I find it significant that in John’s account of the death of Jesus there is a reference to hyssop. For in John 19.29, in response to cry of Jesus ‘I am thirsty’ we read: “they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth”. Only John mentions that the stick on which the wine-soaked sponge was lifted up, was a “stalk of hyssop” (GNB) – was John connecting the death of Jesus with the death of a Passover lamb?
12.29: “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock”
What precisely happened? Various words are used in the Book of Exodus to describe this dreadful final plague:
- In Ex 11.1 God says “I will bring one more plague (nega)” – GNB: “one more punishment”
- In Ex 12.13 a related word for plague (negep): “I will pass over you and the plague shall not destroy you”
- In Ex 9.15 there is a reference to what the NRSV & REB call a “pestilence” (deber); GNB “disease”; the NIV, however, simply translates “plague”
- In Ex 12.23 the plague is referred to as ‘the destroyer (mashit), a word associated with destruction & pestilence (see 2 Sam 24.15-16 & Isaiah 37.36
Fretheim: “It is best to think of a pestilence epidemic that kills quickly. A kind of ‘black death’. We are perhaps to imagine the firstborn suddenly becoming violently ill, so that everyone else was awoken and was trying to help in any way possible until the first-born died”. A modern parallel which comes to mind is the kind of chemical or nerve gas which was used to kill the brother of the president of North Korea as he passed through an airport in Malaysia.
While there may be a rational explanation to the other plagues, this last and final plague is beyond explanation. True, some have drawn parallels with the black plague or with a massive flu pandemic – these diseases can strike down apparently healthy people in an amazingly short time. But nothing can account for the selectivity of the disease: it struck down only first-born males and avoided homes that had the blood of the Passover lamb on the door frame.
Some commentators have sought a rational explanation. Philip Hyatt, for instance, suggested that “there was a severe epidemic which took the lives of many Egyptians, including the first-born son of the King – the Crown Prince who was destined to succeed him… The Hebrews in Egypt took advantage of the situation to make their escape from slavery; possibly they were even permitted to do so by the frightened Pharaoh” (144).
Personally I find it easier to accept the text as it stands. In a way which I do not understand,“the Lord struck down all the first-born of Egypt” (12.29)
The Egyptians scream
12. 30 “And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead”
H.L. Ellison commented that this was “A typical piece of oriental writing, for there must have been homes, especially in the light of Egypt’s high infantile mortality, where there was no first born to die”. Even if true, it was a horrendous event
According to the Exodus account it was “at midnight” that death invaded the homes of the Egyptian people. However, John Goldingay in his popular commentary headed this section ‘The 3 a.m. scream’. He wrote: “In the Western world where we organize our own time rather than following nature’s time, midnight is not the middle of the night; it is about the time I put the light out. So think of yourself as having been asleep for several hours when suddenly you are awoken by a terrible scream” (58).
This was no isolated scream – all over Egypt these fearful loud crying could be heard – rich and poor alike were affected. Both the king and the prisoner in the king’s dungeon lost their first-born. This was a ‘mass disaster’ on a grand-scale.
Sometimes parallels are drawn with the genocidal killings of the Holocaust or of Rwanda, but here only the first-born were killed. But the term genocide could be better attributed to Pharaoh when he ordered the killing of all the Hebrew boys (1.16) for had that succeeded, then in time Pharaoh would have killed off the people of Israel.
12.31-32: “Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! God, worship the Lord as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!
George Knight: “Pharaoh suddenly discover that he is no longer a god; he is but a man, a father who has lost his little boy. And so at last Pharaoh responds to God’s command to ‘Let my people go’ saying ’Rise up and go’”
Pharaoh adds: “Bring a blessing on me too!” The blessing in question was that Moses should lift the curse which, as Pharaoh saw it, he had put on Egypt and its king. Knight: “Like all mortal men, he is afraid to die, even though he has no compunction about ordering the death of others”.
THE THEOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE; JUDGMENT IS FOR REAL
A time of darkness
Whether we talk in terms of midnight or of 3 o’clock in the morning, it was a time of darkness – and all the more so in ancient Egypt where the darkness could not be eliminated at the touch of a switch.
Fretheim: “The darkness of the night matched the darkness of the deed. No household was spared, not one. Indeed, no barnyard… As hard as it is to say, the victims were primarily children: both boys and girls – whoever happened to be the firstborn. It helps but little to say that there was no suffering; to use a modern image, it was sudden (infant) death syndrome throughout Egypt that night” (140).
Actually most scholars suggest that it was first-born males who died… but even so, that still does not rob the horror from the event. It was a dark, dark night
For me the darkness underlines the mystery of the event. There is so much I do not understand. God may be at work, but how? Does God really kill babies? The thought seems impossible.
- The more rationalistic commentators would argue that it was actually ‘natural causes’ at work – and that we cannot blame God himself.
- Others have suggested that it wasn’t actually God who killed the first-born, but rather his angels. In Psalm 78.49 where this incident is referred to, we read: He let loose his fierce anger, wrath, indignation and distress, a company of destroying angels” – indeed the AV speaks of God “sending evil angels”. But whether God used agents or not, there is no doubt that ultimately he was ‘the Destroyer’.
- Others have sought to tone down the awfulness of the event by drawing attention to the immense mortality rates in those days. Child death prior to our modern era was a common event. Our Queen Anne, for instance, lost all the 17 children to which she gave birth. All this is true – and yet however much we try to tone down the story, the fact is that God was in the business of death rather than of life.
HL Ellison commented: “When it is a question of yielding to God’s will, man has an almost boundless power for self-deception. God seldom forces men to yield, but when he does, it can be an aweful thing” (68)
God is a God of judgement as well as a God of salvation. There are dire consequences for those who refuse to acknowledge God. That was Pharaoh’s sin. For in Exodus 5 we read that “Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go….’. But Pharaoh said: ‘Who is the Lord that I should heed him…? I do not know the Lord’” (Ex 5.1-2) – REB “I do not acknowledge the Lord”.
The story of the Bible is that we turn our backs on God at our peril……
All too often people make a false contrast between God of the OT and the God of the NT; as if the God of the OT is a God who revels in doom and destruction, whereas the God of the NT is a God of love who would never hurt anybody.
But the reality is the God’s wrath and God’s love are features of both Testaments.
So in Ezek 18.32 we read: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live”. Here we learn not just that the God of the OT does not delight in the death of sinners – but also that we cannot spurn God indefinitely. If we refuse to take notice of God and insist on going our way, then we must be prepared to take the consequences.
God alone is the Lord of life and death. This was the lesson that Pharaoh had to learn,
Ellison: “Possibly no land in antiquity was more obsessed with death than Egypt. The real power of the priesthood lay in its alleged ability to guarantee the dead a safe passage to the ‘Western World’ under the benign rule of Osiris’”
THE PLUNDERING OF THE EGYPTIANS (33-36)
The Hebrews ‘stripped clean’ the Egyptians of their possessions.
Fretheim: “Their status has now changed: they leave Egypt ‘dressed out’, not as slaves, but as persons who have been raised to a new level of life by their God. Their raiment and jewellery are those of persons no longer bound but free”. Similarly. Duane Garrett 365: plundering’ is something a victorious army does to a defeated army. With the death of the firstborn males, we have an image of Israel, under YHWH, triumphantly leaving the field of battle.
Augustine used the metaphor of ‘plundering the Egyptians’ to argue how Christians can engage with non-Christian thought. “If those, however, who are called philosophers, have said things with are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared, rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use … In the same way, all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labour, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some of the most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them.” Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 2.40.60.
THE EXODUS (37-39)
“The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about 600,000 men on foot, beside children. A mixed crowed also went up with them”
A vast crowd
600,000 men implies a company of two or three million with the women and children, which would mean the Israelites were as numerous as the Egyptians and far more numerous than the population of Canaan
Knight: “Before medical science succeeded in keeping alive new babies, populations were small. There were only 2 million people in England in Shakespeare’s day. Two million people could not have gathered around one rock in the wilderness for a drink.” But the word for a thousand can also mean a family or ‘clan’ – and something like 600 families fits the scale of things.
A mixed crowd
Those on the road to freedom consisted of more than the descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob. Perhaps other slaves. Perhaps Egyptians who had become convinced that Israel’s God was the true God. Perhaps even some Egyptian men who had fallen in love with some Israelites girls. Whatever, many non-Israelites had been integrated into the community of faith
Fretheim 143: “God’s redemption is not for the chosen few; it is for the sake of all the world. Would that every community where the people of God are gathered could be called a “mixed crowd”
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
- The death of the first-born speaks of God’s judgment on those who spurn him. “Who is the Lord that I should heed him?” (Ex 5.1-2) declared Pharaoh. To what extent can we draw parallels between Pharaoh and people today who refuse to take God seriously? To what extent do you agree that God’s wrath and God’s love are but two sides of the same coin? In this regard how helpful do you find the comment that “God sends nobody to hell – we send ourselves”? Leon Morris wrote: “God pays men the compliment of allowing them to live without Him if they choose. But if they live without him in this life, they must also live without him in the next”.
- The death of the first-born also speaks of the innocent who suffer because of human sinfulness. But to what extent is God responsible for that suffering? “The Lord struck down all the first-born” – does that mean that God was in the business of killing babies? Richard Coggins commented: “We are left to reflect for ourselves on the appalling ways in which human imagination can envisage divine action”.
- Reflect on the way in which Christians have applied the metaphor of ‘plundering the Egyptians’ to taking over secular insights for Christian purposes. Lionel Windsor gives examples of how ‘secular wisdom’ helped him to communicate the Gospel and serve God’s people: “Rock performances. Accounting textbooks. Voice coaching sessions. Self-help books. Leadership seminars. Adult education techniques. Sociological surveys. Jazz piano lessons. Child safety courses. Food safety courses. Statistical surveys. Statistics lectures. Corporate management textbooks. Primers on psychology. Magazine articles on cosmology. Blogs on modern communication techniques. Tips on writing style”. But there are dangers too. Secular management techniques can hinder as well as help the church.
- “A mixed crowd also went up with them” (v39). How do you react to Terence Fretheim;s comment: “God’s redemption is not for the chosen few; it is for the sake of all the world. Would that every community where the people of God are gathered could be called a “mixed crowd!”