The Announcement of the Death of the Firstborn
In Exodus 11, YHWH declared the coming death of the firstborn. It is this plague that would be the last straw for Pharaoh and would finally lead to his acceding to YHWH’s demands. He would then drive the Israelites from his presence. 11:4-8 seems to follow from 10:29, with 11:1-3 functioning as an explanatory note.
The explanatory note serves the purpose of highlighting the power that Moses and the Israelites had gained among the Egyptian people. While Pharaoh continued to resist YHWH’S demands, the Egyptian people were becoming increasingly fearful of the consequences of his insane recalcitrance (10:7; 12:33). The hardness of Pharaoh rendered the Egyptians the powerless occupants of a vessel that their nation’s captain seemed hell-bent to shipwreck in his hubristic opposition to the will of YHWH. The Israelites gained great favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, who realized what it meant that YHWH was on their side. Moses, as the mouthpiece of YHWH, was viewed with particular fear and honour. The Israelites were instructed to request gifts from the Egyptians (vv.2-3). YHWH would give them favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, so that the Egyptians would readily hand over silver and gold to them.
As we go through the narrative of the Exodus we will see that there were those who came to fear the word of YHWH through the plagues (9:20-21). Those who came to fear the word of YHWH, while not immune, would have been saved from the full force of the plagues. Many of these Egyptians would later have been found among the mixed multitude that departed from Egypt with the Israelites (12:38). The plagues introduced a process in which rebellion against YHWH was gradually whipped up into a terrible madness in the dragon Pharaoh, while many of the Egyptians were humbled to the point where they recognized YHWH’s supremacy, some of them to the extent of leaving Egypt to serve him.
The final plague would involve the death of all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt, man and beast. In this plague a clear distinction would be made between the Israelites and the Egyptians: the air of Egypt would be torn with the cries of the bereaved, while not even a dog would bark among the Israelites (vv.6-7). Through this distinction the Israelites would be more clearly divided from the Egyptians.
This event would occur at midnight. The last two plagues – the plague of darkness and the death of the firstborn – and the Passover and the Red Sea Crossing are all events in which the night or darkness is stressed. YHWH is switching the lights off in Egypt as the Israelites leave.
After the announcement of the final plague, Moses would no longer present himself before Pharaoh, seek him out, or be summoned by him. Rather, Pharaoh and his servants would have to present themselves to him and bow down to him (v.8), recognizing that, as the prophet of YHWH, he was now the greatest power in the land of Egypt.
The Meaning of the Firstborn Son
The death of the firstborn was probably limited only to those between one month and five years of age and only involved the sons (cf. 4:23; 13:13-15; Numbers 3:40-43). The firstborn boys of Israel had been slain by Pharaoh at the start of Exodus: now YHWH would slay Egypt’s boys and claim Israel’s boys for himself. YHWH declared that Israel was his firstborn son and that if Pharaoh didn’t release him, he would kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son (4:22-23).
The firstborn son represented the strength and authority of the father and the family (cf. Genesis 49:3; Deuteronomy 21:17; Psalm 78:51; 105:36). He was the standard-bearer for the family, a concentration point for the family’s identity, who also received a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). In biblical patrilineal society, where great emphasis is placed upon the continuance of the family line over time and family, nation, and covenant people typically function as more powerful loci of identity than that of the individual, the firstborn son has huge significance and bore a heavy burden of responsibility upon his shoulders. The strength, authority, and rule of the nation were represented by males, and by the firstborn sons in particular. The firstborn sons would also be the guardians of the people. The son was the image of the father, representing his authority, strength, and rule within the world. The nation was God’s firstborn son, and the firstborn sons of Israel symbolized the identity of Israel as a whole.
The concept of the ‘image’ is not one that is applied in an undifferentiated way to male and female in Scripture. The ‘imaging’ relationship is primarily the relationship between father and son, associated with rule, power, and authority. Adam bore the image of God in a way that Eve did not and it is from Adam in particular that that the image that we bear is received (Genesis 5:3; 1 Corinthians 15:47-49). This principle is a broader distinction between male and female in Scripture. Women are associated with glory, the final word, life, communion, the future, and perfection (note the prominence of the daughters in securing the future of Israel at the beginning of Exodus), while men are associated with image, the founding word, authority, rule, and strength. This isn’t about one sex being ‘better’ than the other, but about each sex having a unique symbolic meaning and vocation.
In 1 Corinthians 11:7 Paul points out this principle (one not novel to him) as he declares that man is the image and glory of God, while woman is the glory of man. The human race, male and female, is the image and glory of God, although this identity and vocation is ministered by and to the race in a ‘membered’ fashion. As Paul points out, neither man nor woman can ever be independent of each other (1 Corinthians 11:11-12) and the vocations that we have all been given are never private or autonomous rights that set us apart from everyone else, but ministries to which we have been appointed for the empowering of others and the securing of the identity of the whole body.
All of this is important background for understanding the meaning of the final plague and the Passover. The threat to the firstborn males was not solely a threat to some individuals within Egypt and Israel, afflicting people by severing sentimental bonds. The threat was far more fundamental and existential: a symbolic threat to the very personal being of the nation. By claiming the firstborn sons of Israel for himself, YHWH was making a claim on the nation as a whole, not just upon a particular fraction of the individuals within it. As people who are inclined to think individualistically, and not thinking of other people bearing dimensions of a shared identity for us, this can be hard for us to grasp.
Institution and Memorial
Exodus 12:1 begins with a temporal disjunction, shaking us loose from the general linearity of the previous narrative. It clearly situates us in a time when the children of Israel are no longer within the land of Egypt, but looks back to that time in narrating the institution of the Passover. If we study the chronological clues within it, we shall also see that it throws us back before the preceding narrative, before the announcement of the final plague to Pharaoh. This disruption of time provides an avenue for us to follow into the meaning of this particular text.
The text also begins with a changing of Israel’s calendar, so that their religious calendar would begin in the month of Nisan. This change set apart the events described in the chapter as fundamental for Israel’s subsequent orientation in time and history. The yearly cycle of festivals would take its starting point here. Chapters 12 and 13 speak to the relationship between times, looking back, looking forward, establishing the pattern for the future. As Louis Marie Chauvet has observed, Exodus 12:1—13:16 does not chiefly present us with a historical narrative of the Exodus, but with a liturgical recitation and memorialization of it. The ‘time’ of these passages is one that is shared between the Israelites at the first Passover and everyone who celebrates the Passover subsequently.
To this point in our studies, our focus has been upon the relationship between various accounts within the sacred history. It is here that the fourth wall is clearly cracked and we see that the story of Exodus was also about the worshipping community all along. In the celebration of the Passover and the keeping of the law of the firstborn, the event of the Passover is made present to the worshipping community. The worshipping community memorializes the first Exodus, that past event reconstituting the present reality. It is in that event that the community rediscovers its identity and the life of the present is set into motion.
The biblical ‘memorial’ is not designed primarily to bring a past occurrence to the mind of the worshipper, as we might think. For instance, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the point is not chiefly that the worshipper reflects upon the fact and meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, but that Christ’s death be brought to God’s mind, calling God to act in the present on the basis of that past covenant-constituting action. As a covenant memorial, the Passover served to re-establish the community of the present in its living connection with the founding covenant reality of the past, primarily through appeal to God, who established that covenant. The celebration of Great Passovers was especially important at key junctures of Israel’s national history, where the people needed to be reconstituted in the life and vocation of the covenant – after crossing the Jordan in Joshua 5, by Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 30, then later by Josiah in 2 Chronicles 35.
There is a measure of contemporaneity between the worshipper and the original covenant-constituting event. In the act of memorialization, the worshipping community to some extent inhabits the same ‘time’ as the original participants in the historical event. The events of the first Passover become living and present, and the worshipper a participant in them.
As will become clearer over the course of these studies, the liturgical memorialization of the founding event in the present does not merely involve the past giving new life and orientation to the present: it also provides us with a reality-filled promise of a future and functions as a petitionary act for that future. We memorialize the foundational covenant event cycle by cycle until all of the promises of the covenant are fulfilled.
The Sacrifice of the Firstborn
Both Hebrew and Egyptian firstborn males were threatened by YHWH (cf. 4:24-26). This is why circumcision, the celebration of the Passover, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, and the displaying of its blood were given such importance. The firstborn of Israel – and, by extension, Israel as YHWH’s firstborn – would be saved through this celebration.
The theme of the firstborn is incredibly strong within these chapters (as I have pointed out elsewhere, the bloodied doors are associated with birth and the womb). In Numbers 3:13 we are told that, in the Passover, YHWH sanctified all of the firstborn sons of Israel to himself, claiming them as his own. The beginning of Israel’s strength and the symbol of its authority belongs to YHWH. The Levites are later exchanged for the firstborn sons, representing YHWH’s claim upon his people and their identity. The sacrifice of the firstborn is part of Israel’s setting apart as a kingdom of priests. The ministry of the Levites re-presents the identity of the whole nation as the kingdom of priests, the firstborn son, and authoritative image of YHWH to the nation.
We have already commented upon recurring sacrificial themes in the stories of the patriarchs and their children. One passage that I passed over with little comment to which I now intend to return is that of the Aqedah, Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac in Genesis 22. YHWH instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his first and only son by Sarah. On the brink of taking Isaac’s life, which YHWH has claimed, Abraham’s hand is stayed and he sees that a ram has been provided in Isaac’s stead for an ascension offering. The sacrifice of Isaac still occurs after a fashion, however. While Isaac’s life was redeemed by the sacrifice of the ram, he was still claimed by YHWH. While the sort of sacrifice is slightly different in Exodus, there is still a divine claiming and sacrifice of the firstborn of Israel. The sons of Abraham are claimed as YHWH’s sons in the Passover too: the sons of Israel are born on YHWH’s knees.
As we have already recognized, the claiming of the firstborn is a symbolic claim upon the entire nation. They are the human firstfruits, the initial expression of the strength and virility of the nation and the symbol of all subsequent power to come. The dedication of the firstfruits to YHWH was a symbolic donation of the entirety. Through the Passover, as through the Aqedah, the entire people were set apart as YHWH’s firstborn son – not merely the seed of Abraham. From that point onwards they represent, not only the authority of Abraham within the world, but the authority of YHWH. The Passover thus involves themes of adoption.
Other Themes in the Passover
The cutting off of the leaven of Egypt was a sort of corporate circumcision, a cutting off of the old strength and life principle of Egypt. As the old strength and life principle was cut off, the new strength – the firstborn sons – was claimed by YHWH. This is also a process of purification, a removal of the old leaven of Egypt’s wickedness from Israel’s system. It is related to other seven day periods or processes of purification, such as those associated with childbirth (Leviticus 12:2), cleansing those who had touched the dead (Numbers 19:11), or the cleansing of lepers (Leviticus 14:1-9). The use of hyssop in the application of the blood of the Passover might suggest some connection with the cleansing rites associated with leprosy in Leviticus 14 and with contact with the dead in Numbers 19, some of the only other occasions where hyssop is mentioned. Israel must cleanse itself from its contact with Egypt’s plague of corruption. Passover is the beginning of that process. The whole process involves suggests that a decisive break is taking place, in preparation for a new creation.
The Passover involves a meal. The unique way in which this meal is first eaten, with the displaying of the blood, and eaten in haste, ready to depart, does not apply to every subsequent celebration. However, it is an act that binds together the household and nation in a shared covenant reality, all participating as they eat of the Passover lamb.
The display of the blood purifies and sets apart the house as a sanctuary, where YHWH can dwell, the inhabitants can be safe, and judgment is averted. The bitter herbs associated it with the suffering of Egypt, in contrast to the honey of the Promised Land. The fact that the sacrifice must be roasted rather than boiled and must not be eaten raw (12:8-9 – boiling was the usual form of cooking for sacrificial meat) is significant. The lamb must be brought into contact with the divine fire that symbolized YHWH’s consuming or preparation of the sacrifice and which creates a powerful sacrificial aroma. The lamb also remains intact, without any of its bones being broken or parts separated (the red heifer in Numbers 19 seems to be the only other animal in the sacrificial system kept intact in such a fashion).
It must be consumed in the same day, with any leftovers being burned. The peace offering for thanksgiving (for deliverance from death) in Leviticus 7:15 is the only other sacrifice for which this is stipulated. The fact that the lamb should not be divided and that the whole of it must be eaten inside the house suggests that unity and wholeness in association with it is of paramount importance. There is an undivided animal, an undivided meal, and a complete participation. Participation in the sacrifice binds all together in a single place, event, and body. Out of a people fractured by slavery and a disjointed history, through the Passover, YHWH will form one whole nation.
The Passover was the fundamental sacrifice, the sacrifice that preceded all of the later sacrifices of the sacrificial system. It was in this sacrifice that all of Israel was included in the sacrifice of the firstborn. Both YHWH and the people partake of the whole sacrifice – YHWH through the roasting fire, and the Israelites through eating – rather than separating it between them, forming a stronger association between the partakers than a divided sacrifice would. All of the eaters are implicated in the sacrifice, being claimed by YHWH within it, and the firstborn especially so.
In the darkness of the night of the Passover, YHWH killed the young male children of the Egyptians, much as the Egyptians had killed the Hebrew boys previously. He cut off the symbolic strength of the Egyptian nation and claimed the firstborn sons, the ‘images’ of Israel – the great symbols of their strength and authority – for his own. In the process, he was declaring Israel to be his firstborn son and opposing the tyrant who would not release that son. The book of Exodus began with the daughters courageously securing the future of Israel in conflict with the dragon, Pharaoh. Now we see YHWH securing the wellbeing of the seed that the women struggled for in their enmity with the serpent, claiming the seed for himself.
The celebration of the Passover was not a one-time event, but an event at the heart of a yearly cycle of feasts. The institution of the Passover in Exodus connects the present with the past, reconstituting the covenant people in the present in the foundational covenant event and reorienting them towards the fulfilment of the covenant reality in the future. As a memorial, the Passover appeals to God to re-establish the covenant and bring about its promises and is not only a subjective reminder of past events.
Exodus offers the entire nation up to YHWH and binds it together in a single event and participation. The Passover and feast of unleavened bread serve to separate Israel from the life of Egypt and all that it represents, both in the original event and every subsequent celebration.