Good morning! Today in Exodus 11-13 we read about the final deadly plague against Egypt and the departure of the Israelites from Goshen, interspersed with descriptions that set up and ritualize the observance of the Passover.
The (mercifully brief) description of the slaughter of all firstborn Egyptians ranks among the most brutal acts ever attributed to God. Even the livestock aren’t spared. I cannot believe that this was truly an act of God, and it’s helpful here to remember that the narrative is written by Hebrews, long after the time in Egypt (if it actually happened at all) was a distant memory. Firstborns were treated with special care and dignity in ancient times, and they were considered inheritors of the full measure (or at least the largest stake) of their parents’ assets. The significance of the firstborn is carried forward in Jewish tradition by the consecration of the firstborn that is instituted here, a ritual reminder that the first always belongs to God. We’ll see the significance of firstborn children is carried forward in the next books of the Torah.
God gives a way to protect Hebrews from the carnage of this final plague—the slaughter of a lamb and the marking of doorposts with its blood. The biblical record here contains multiple sets of instructions for how the Passover is celebrated in later centuries, which suggests that the commands are already given here with the later “promised land” in mind. I don’t know what to make of the distinctions between who can participate and who cannot, but observation of this festival is a major indicator for who’s in and who’s out of the Jewish faith. Other ritual signs of the Passover include symbols of haste (unleavened bread, eating with sandals on, etc) that make sense only in the original situation of the story. Notice the instructions to “remember” and “tell your child”, which are further clues that all these instructions for observing the Passover date from well after the time itself. This is such a formative, powerful symbol that later Christian theology (including the writing of the New Testament) will identify Jesus with the Passover lamb, by whose blood salvation was gained for those who believe (that is, belong with the “in” group).
What do you make of the numbers given at the start of the exodus from Goshen? There were more than a million Jews leaving Egypt, if we presume as many women and children as the men who are counted in 12:37. This seems too large to have really left no historical remnant if it had occurred, but I’ll leave the facticity of this account to others. The theological takeaway is God’s faithfulness to a covenant made generations earlier to the patriarchs and matriarchs. Moses demonstrates his own allegiance to the covenant by grabbing the bones of Joseph (from four hundred years earlier!) on his way out of town. God’s presence with the people is unmistakable, in pillars of cloud and fire. The decades-long journey of the Hebrew people through the wilderness and to the land of Canaan has begun. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Exodus 14-16. Thanks for reading!