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 pyramids and royal coffins. Several of these inscriptions refer to a time of judgment from an unnamed deity. For instance, one of the so-called Coffin Texts 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 mysterious 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.