How could God kill all the firstborn of Egypt?

The Death of the First Born by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The Exodus. It was the greatest act of deliverance in the Old Testament. So many Old Testament writers refer back to this great act of God and praise Him for loving His people and delivering them from slavery.

But there is a question that comes up with the 10th plague, that of God killing all the firstborn of Egypt in Exodus chapters 11 and 12. How could God do this? How could God kill all the firstborn of Egypt?

We have to keep in mind that this is referring to children, in fact likely limited to children, because adult firstborn children would have their own families and their own firstborn that this plague would involve. So this question is one that is difficult, and frankly, I’m not going to pretend that I can answer all the nuances of questions that come to our minds when we read and hear of God’s actions in the Exodus. BUT, I will try to at least introduce some ideas that might ease some of the tension.

How Could He?

God brought about the death of the firstborn for two reasons, mainly:

1) The first reason was to show his absolute superiority over Pharaoh, and, honestly, his power and right over life and death. This last plague showed God’s dominance over the false God Pharaoh. He was worshipped as a god, considered by many to be the son of Ra, who was the god of the sun, a supposedly very powerful god. So this was God’s way of showing his absolute dominance over a man who acted and thought of himself as a god.

2) The second reason was prophetic. Only those who put the blood of an unblemished slain lamb on their doorposts were spared from this plague. This blood of the lamb very obviously foreshadows the blood of Jesus, The Lamb of God (John 1:29, Rev. 5:16-18). This gives us very clearly the second reason why God did what he did:

God wanted to communicate the incredible offense that it was to rebel against Him, the terrifying judgment that came as a result, and also the absolute necessity of justice, of blood, of life being lost on the Israelites’ behalf.

Blood had to be shed. And that truth was not just for the Israelites to know, and the Egyptians, but for all subsequent generations, and even us today. The Exodus was the greatest act of deliverance in the entire Old Testament, and it foreshadows and points so strongly and obviously to the far GREATER act of deliverance, when Christ, the only perfect Lamb of God was sacrificed on our behalf. The lamb had to be without blemish, much like Christ was without blemish. And the blood of this lamb satisfied God’s wrath for the Israelites, and his judgment fell on the lamb instead of upon their homes, and specifically, their firstborn. In the same way Jesus’ blood, his death, satisfies God’s wrath and his justice, the justice you and I deserved.

 

A related question: How could God command the Israelites to slaughter entire people groups?

Now, naturally, at least to me, this brings up another related question that comes up often: “How could a good God command genocide?” Because not only did God kill all the firstborn of Egypt here in the Exodus narrative, but there are a few occasions in the Old Testament when God commanded the Israelites to kill an entire people group, including women and children, and even animals!

The most clear example of this is 1 Samuel 15:2-3. It very obviously reveals God commanding Israel to do just this. Many have tried to work their way around this and say it doesn’t mean what it seems to say. My problem is that there is no “seeming” about it; it is as clear as day. And I think it’s important for us to at least be willing to bring this up as Christians and not avoid it, because avoiding it only leads to Christians (especially young Christians) never being exposed to these texts until they are questioned about it by the world.

We seem to be given the answer, or at least one of the answers in the Bible. In Deuteronomy chapter 20, while the Israelites are invading the promised land, God tells them in verses 16-18,

“In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.”

There it is at the end of this text. God was protecting the Israelites from impurity, from falling into worshipping other gods, like the gods of these other nations. And the thing about this particular instance is that the Israelites did not follow through with God’s command, and exactly what God said would happen, happened.

God commanded terrifying things to prevent even more terrifying evil from coming about. In a very real sense, even though it’s difficult for us to understand this on our terms, God was being gracious to the Israelites in commanding this. He was protecting them from far greater evil.

All Pain and Death: a Result of the Fall

Another thing worth mentioning here is that all death and pain and literally everything that is wrong with the world is a result of what? The Fall of man. Our sin! I’m not saying that every pain you experience is because of some sin in your life. That’s a very common misunderstanding, one that we even see the friends of Job make when all these terrible things happen to Job.

I’m saying that, ultimately, stepping back, the reason the world is not as it should be is because of the Fall. Even natural disasters are a result of the Adam and Eve’s sin. Romans 8:20-21 says that, “The creation was subjected to futility, no willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” In other words, even the natural realm reflects the fallenness of man, seemingly for the purpose of revealing to all that we need to be set free from what is wrong, ultimately, sin.

 

God is God

Now, again, I know that this doesn’t answer all questions on this issue of how God could kill all the firstborn, and command the Israelites to take out an entire people group, but hopefully this helps. Ultimately, we must understand God as being God, and having the right to do as he pleases even with life and death. And because he is God, he only does what is righteous and good, even when we may have trouble understanding how something he does is righteous and good.

He created and sustains all things and all things belong to Him. Ultimately, God does not have to answer for what he does. We have to answer for what we have done, but God is God. He loves His people despite their sin, and cares enough to communicate clearly the offensiveness of their sin, and their desperate need for a Substitute. I for one praise God that He has so clearly communicated this in His Word, and has offered that Substitute so absolutely and so magnificently in Christ.

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