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 who 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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30 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

  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.

      • Thanks, Don. I’m with you on the fact that viewing the final plague from this vantage point highlights the superiority of the God of Israel vis-a-vis Egypt’s gods. Just one quick note to sharpen some of what you’ve said: it’s not that Egypt’s gods were “made” from materials (e.g., wood, stone, and clay); rather, according to Egyptian theology, the gods existed apart from these “idols” and the Egyptians would call them into their these structures in order to worship their gods in closer proximity. Think of the idols as makeshift “bodies” for the gods. That’s why when God “executes judgment on all of Egypt’s gods” via the plagues (cf. Exod 12:12; Num 33:4), God doesn’t destroy the statutes of Egypt’s deities (because those aren’t the actual gods); instead, God executes judgment against the people and land of Egypt, which was the realm and property of the Egyptian gods. Thanks again for your comments.

  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

  9. Interesting. I did not know that the night of the slaying of the first born was predicted long before it came to pass. So the Egyptians knew what was happening and that the God of Moses and Israel is the One true God. Shalom

  10. Very interesting article! One thing is unclear to me though; you seem to be saying that the inscription implies, even foreshadows, Exodus 12:12. However, “I..will be judged *WITH* him whose name is hidden” means something different than “I..will be judged *BY* him whose name is hidden.” The first wording implies that the two share a common fate, not that one is judging the other. In English the first wording could also imply a few missing words that change the meaning somewhat, such as “I will be judged [to be] with him whose name…” implying a partnership; or “I will be judged [at the same time as] him whose name..” How did scholars arrive at a meaning that substitutes the word “by” instead of “with?”
    Is something lost in translation?

  11. God is absolutely clear and precise as to the purpose of the 10th plague in TORAH. Exod 4:22-23. The coffin text you cite mentions a god unnamed. Amun was the considered the unseen and hidden one with a hidden name. Thus, the coffin text you site, for pharaoh, might be looked upon as a prediction of the future that is now coming true but by the hand of the true God, the real God, the one who has a name not known by the Egyptians in the confrontation with Moses.

    I am a Bible historian and there is an amazing polemic nature to TORAH and ancient Egypt. I am not surprised about the connection you found. I will not get the exact hieroglyphics of this text to get the exact translation.

    Thanks – Rev. John Ferret (Light of Menorah Ministries)

  12. 1. I was told that only Jesus had blood. Apparently God the Father, Holy Spirit and the Angels don’t have blood because they are spirit.
    2. Apparently Mary (Jesus mother) never died and just transcended to heaven.

    • You’re right that divine beings (e.g., God, angels, spirits) don’t have human blood. According to the text, divine beings constitute “other flesh” (sarx heteros; Jude 1:7) that is unlike ours. The idea that Mary did not die before her ascension to heaven is a post-biblical church tradition that has no basis in the New Testament itself.

      • You are right, Dr Schaser, Mary was a young Jewish virgin, who gave birth to our Messiah, by the power of the Spirit of HaShem. After the death of her Son she went to live in Ephesus with John, a close friend and follower of Jeshua. There is no evidence that she ascended into heaven and did not die but the story was made up by early roman church fathers to elevate her to a sort of goddess to worship her. This was one of the reasons that Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation.he was protesting the false doctrines perpetrated

  13. Since the first born belongs to the Lord and had to redeemed….(the Egyptians would have revered the first born… The double portion, the mantle… And the quest for revenge before the Lord’s people could recover)
    They were under the curse… Also it is interesting to note … That the spirit of death could not distinguish between the Egyptian or the Jewish first born except for the blood….likewise we who walk daily with the Lord are covered by the blood of Jesus and therefore protected …when natural or other calamities occur…

  14. is ther other meaning of it? the name which is hidden in hieroglyphs may point the god aumun rah. or amun. also connected may name amon in tanach. but anyway the name of G-d is not hidden but aser yehyeh aser as direct talking to moshe rebbenu israel. you know. very interesting while disappointed. because if amun is that G-d. that is not G-d of Abraham Issac Yakov. because already pharaoh and his ministers knew the name of him as their deity amun. akenaton dillemma isnt it? if abraham didnt know the name, how he worship and listens the G-d?

  15. If I hear properly, the inscriptions were made long before Moshe came to tell Pharaoh about the God of Abraham, Issac and Jakob. So it is understandable that when they wrote on the coffins, they did not yet knew Who He was.

    Shalom

    • That’s right — the god to whom the Egyptians originally referred in the coffin texts is not the God of Israel, but the writer(s) of Exodus may have known the more ancient Egyptian tradition of this unknown god and asserted that this god is actually the God of Israel.

      • Paul does something similar when he is Athens, recorded in Acts 17:23 “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” Is this connected to the Egyptian account? Or coincidental?

        • Nice connection, James. The two accounts aren’t directly related, but you highlight something that’s more than a coincidence: in ancient pantheons, there were often spots for unknown gods, or at least gods whose identities and motives were not fully known to the worshiper. Acts shows this to be the case for the Greeks, and Exodus for the Egyptians. Yet another example is the so-called “Prayer for Every God” (c. 7th century BCE), an Assyrian prayer that asks for help from the god and goddess “whom I do not know.”

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