The slaying of the firstborn is the final, and most severe, divine measure against Egypt. Why did God need to use such a harsh tactic? Why was this particular plague the necessary conclusion to God’s barrage against Egypt? Answers may lie in inscriptions from ancient Egyptian coffins that reference an enigmatic event known as the “night of the slaying of the firstborn.”

The tenth plague unfolds as follows: “In the middle of the night (לילה; lailah) the Lord slayed all the firstborn (בכור; bechor) in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the animals” (Exod 12:29). In light of the environmental plagues beforehand, the deaths of the firstborn may seem like an unexpected intensification of divine ire. Yet, the Egyptians would not have been shocked; they were already familiar with a long-held tradition that described a night on which the “firstborn” would perish. Hundreds of years before the Israelites came out of Egypt, the scribes of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2100 BCE) etched funerary inscriptions onto royal coffins; one of these inscriptions says of the deceased, “I am he who will be judged with ‘Him-Whose-Name-Is-Hidden’ on that night of the slaying of the firstborn.” (Coffin Texts VI:178).

The Exodus narrative echoes this coffin text in its reference to God “slaying” (נכה; nakah) the “firstborn” (בכור; bechor) in the “night” (לילה; lailah). Even more strikingly, the Egyptian text refers to a god called “Him-Whose-Name-Is-Hidden.” This mysterious title seems to indicate a deity known to the Egyptians (based on the hieroglyphic addition that scholars call the “divine determinative” following the sentence). Yet, the Exodus account repurposes this Egyptian tradition of an unnamed god and applies it to the God of Israel whose name is initially hidden from both the Egyptians and the Israelites. Pharaoh asks Moses, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord” (Exod 5:2). Likewise, Moses asks to know God’s name when he encounters the divine presence at the burning bush: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exod 3:13). According to Scripture, the god the Egyptians knew as “Him-Whose-Name-Is-Hidden” turns out to be the God of Israel, and the people of Egypt (and their gods) end up being “judged” by God on the night of the slaying of the firstborn.

This is why the final plague had to be the death of the firstborn: the text preserved on Egyptian coffins, which describes an unnamed deity judging the dead on the night of the slaying of the firstborn, was something that the God of Israel ironically repurposed so that the final plague would parallel the Egyptian tradition in a way that afflicted Egypt, and liberated Israel.

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51 COMMENTS

  1. Would this inscription on such coffin occurred during Joseph's time as the right hand man of Pharoah?
    Joseph required the Egyptians to be circumcised in order to receive portions of grain so that they wouldn't starve.

    I believe that Joseph had something to do with this inscription.

    Be Blessed
    • Is there a passage from the Bible, or perhaps an ancient Egyptian document, that documents such a requirement (from Joseph, to circumcise the Egyptians). I know Rashi taught this, but where did he get the idea?

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  2. How do you know that the dating of Egypt is not in error and that these inscriptions actually preserve the records of that night when YHWH slew the first born?
  3. I find this very interesting, However, I'd like to add this---> Each of the 10 plagues parallel a specific 'god' of the Egyptians. The 'main god' during most of the pharaonic reigns was Amun-Ra. Amongst Amun Ra's many duties was the protection of the firstborn son in Egyptian families. The first serious plague (not the snake from the staff that Pharoah's magicians could duplicate) was the plague of turning the Nile into blood. The protection of the Nile was given to Hapi (amongst several other gods) who were in charge of the Nile including its inundations that brought life to Egypt. Something to think about and, possibly, add to your teaching on this.
    B.H. Miner, Ph.D., Pastor
    • I would think this a testament to the superior power of the Most High. Even though Egypt worshiped these gods, The Most High proved they were as worthless as the material they were made from. Adonai is, Adonai.

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  4. This series of comparisons of God's creation in Genesis w/ His undoing of nature w/the plagues in Egypt is fascinating & truly new insights/connections for me.

    Thank you for bringing out such richness in these texts, going to the original Hebrew & analysis of the language to further understand the import of these events on each other.
  5. Thank you for all the emails, I am a Portuguese Catholic and, love reading them keep up the good work please, in my opinion the world own so much to Israel history that was the cradle of our believes and creeds.

    Yours sincerely

    Manuel Ermida Moleirinho
    Australia
  6. Thank you Dr Schaser for a most interesting item which I will most certainly study further. It is true that as surely as our great God judged Egypt he will most certainly one day judge this sinful world and as He brought Israel out so to He will deliver His people in that great day. Thank you so much.
  7. This is such a beautiful addition to my years of Bible study .. I am a Christian about to marry a wonderful man from Israel who s coming to Arkansas to wed me. We are so in love and do
    Excited to follow the words of God.
  8. Hi there really enjoying learning about the Hebrew flavours that illuminate and straighten are thinking in the word of God. I have stopped preaching and teaching a while ago as I could not reconcile where the historical linguistics were taking me with the ‘traditions’ I thought were ‘truth’ my inner witness was just not at peace .... now I am ... the journey continues
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