(Ex. 12:29) Why would God slay the firstborn of the Egyptians?

CLAIM: Why are the people of Egypt held responsible for the actions of Pharaoh? Isn’t this cruel and unusual? They didn’t disobey God. Why would they be held responsible?

RESPONSE: A number of responses can be made:

First, the Egyptians were guilty of inhumane and horrific crimes. They committed infanticide (Ex. 1:22) and multi-generational slavery (Gen. 15:13; Ex. 5:14-16). God had promised to curse those who cursed Israel (Gen. 12:3). So, if God didn’t act, he would have been breaking his promise to Abraham.

Pharaoh had murdered all of the infant Hebrew boys by drowning them in the Nile River, and Pharaoh had “commanded all his people” to do this as well (Ex. 1:22). The Egyptian people were far from innocent when they followed these horrific orders from Pharaoh (contra Shiphrah and Puah in Ex. 1:15). Moreover, the Egyptians had grown rich by enslaving the Jewish people for 400 years (Gen. 15:13). While the pharaohs led these public policies, the Egyptian people benefited from his decision to enslave the Jews. At the very least, the Egyptian people were culpable for standing idly by while this was happening. Elie Wiesel—a survivor of the Holocaust—famously wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”[1]

Second, Pharaoh killed every infant Hebrew boy, but God only judged the firstborn of Egypt. God’s judgment was mild in comparison to Pharaoh’s judgment. Moreover, the text never states that Pharaoh’s edict to kill the Hebrew infants was ever rescinded. So, it’s possible that the Pharaoh was currently killing the Hebrew boys at the time of the plagues.

Third, some Egyptians escaped from judgment with the Hebrews. The instructions for the Passover meal mentions the “alien,” who decides to participate in the Passover supper (Ex. 12:19). Therefore, when the text says that “all” of the Egyptian households were struck with a plague (Ex. 12:29), this no doubt refers to those unbelieving households.[2] Moses uses hyperbolic language when he refers to “all” of the people being struck with judgment. Earlier, the text states that “all the livestock of Egypt died” (Ex. 9:6). Yet, later we read about more livestock being judged (Ex. 9:24-26).

All of this explains why the Egyptians had turned to appreciate the Israelites: “The LORD had caused the Egyptians to look favorably on the people of Israel. And Moses was considered a very great man in the land of Egypt, respected by Pharaoh’s officials and the Egyptian people alike” (Ex. 11:3 NLT). Indeed, some of Pharaoh’s top advisors followed God’s words and were spared from judgment (Ex. 9:20-21). This explains why a “mixed multitude” or a “rabble of non-Israelites” (NLT) escaped Egypt alongside with the Israelites (Ex. 12:38).

Fourth, the last plague was a last resort. God warned Pharoah with nine straight plagues. Most of these plagues weren’t fatal—only extremely annoying or even painful. Yet, Pharaoh refused to relent. God patiently gave many chances to Pharaoh for repentance, but Pharaoh gave none (Ex. 1:22).

Fifth, the firstborn sons of Egypt were below the age of accountability. Scripture often describes how children are not held responsible by God because they are too young to be held responsible. Consider several biblical examples:

  • Isaiah writes that there is an age before a child is able to “know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isa. 7:16).
  • The children of Israel were not held responsible for the sins of their parents during the Wandering. Why? They had “no knowledge of good or evil” (Deut. 1:39).
  • When David’s newborn baby died, he said, “I will go to him one day, but he cannot return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23 NLT). Of course, David believed that he was going to be with God after death (Ps. 16:10-11), and the New Testament authors state that David is in heaven (Rom. 4:6-8). This demonstrates that his infant must also be in heaven.
  • Jesus implies that little children will be in heaven (Mk. 10:14; Mt. 18:3; 19:14).

The text states that God took the lives of the firstborn at “midnight” (Ex. 11:4; 12:29). Ancient people went to sleep at dusk and awoke at dawn. So, the firstborn would’ve died in their sleep, which was “an act of grace.”[3] This would’ve resulted in bringing the children immediately into the presence of God in heaven. Of course, the Hebrew infants did not peacefully die in their sleep, but rather, they drowned in the Nile River (Ex. 1:22).

Sixth, God has certain moral rights over human life that we don’t. God is the author and creator of life. Therefore, he has unique rights over all human life.[4] To far lesser extent, a mother has certain rights over her child that she does not have over other people’s children (e.g. disciplining the child, making decisions for the child, etc.). Since God is the creator and sustainer of all people, he decides how long we get to live (Ps. 139:16). God takes everyone’s life at some point. It’s called death. We acknowledge this when a surgeon is bringing someone back to life. We say that he is “Playing God.” God allows everyone to die; the question is, When? We live everyday—not as a right—but by the mercy of God. When God took the lives of the firstborn in Egypt, he was acting on prerogatives that rightly belong to him.

Seventh, the God who took the firstborn son gave his firstborn son. We would be remiss if we didn’t point this out. While we might feel horror at the fact that God would judge the firstborn of Egypt, we need to remember that we’re dealing with the same God who paid this great and terrible price himself by giving up his “only begotten son” (Jn. 3:16). While God is willing and able to judge, he was also willing to take our place in judgment at the Cross of Christ.

[1] Elie Wiesel. U.S. News and World Report. 27. October, 1986. Cited in Elizabeth Knowles, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 816.

[2] Similarly, Exodus 9:24 describes the hail hitting “in all the land of Egypt.” However, verse 26 qualifies the fact that Goshen was spared.

[3] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 265.

[4] Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004. 257.