The Plagues of Egypt: Lesson 13: The Plague on the Firstborn

Exodus 11.1-10

The Nature of the Plague

This plague not only finalized the ten plagues, it also showed the utter impotence of the Pharoah. The Pharoah, charged with maintaining control over the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) world, was shown powerless over his own house. Not one Egyptian firstborn child survived this plague, not even Pharaoh s.

To emphasize the completeness, Moses used what is called a merism. We use merisms often. From the north to the south pole; from A to  Z ;  and  from head to toe  are merisms. We use these to show completeness. In verse five we find a merism:

So Moses said,  This is what the LORD says: About midnight I will go through- out Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pha- raoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well.  (vv 4 5)

This plague struck the firstborn son of every Egyptian, from the highest ranking official (Pharaoh s son) to the lowest position in a household (a slave woman). Later, in 12.29, Moses uses a similar merism to show that this was complete.

At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. (Ex 12.29)

Why the firstborn?

The firstborn were important. The people of the ANE greatly esteemed the first born. We know that the Israelites held the firstborn in great esteem. However, this was not unique to the Israelite community. All ANE peoples valued their firstborn.

  • The firstborn was heir of a double portion of the father s
  • The firstborn was thought to have the purest bloodline in the

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power.  (Ge 49.3)

Some cultures sacrificed their firstborn to the gods. The supposed idea was that the firstborn, being greatly valued, provided the most excel- lent sacrifice.

The Egyptians valued their firstborn. The firstborn son of any Pharaoh was a cherished possession. He was the Pharaoh-to-be. Egyptian pottery, inscribed walls, and various pictures illustrated the gods mold- ing and extending life to the young pharaoh-to-be. The goddess  Hathor nurtured the pharaohs-to-be. This plague showed the impotence of the gods and Pharaoh s inability to protect his predecessor.

The Egyptians revered the firstborn cattle. The sacred Apis bull was a firstborn bull. This was a very important bull. The Egyptians identified 25 characteristics of the  perfect  bull. Being the firsborn bull was its chief characteristic.

When a bull passed the test, it became the revered Apis bull. So revered, these bulls enjoyed a  king s burial.  A mammoth tomb was constructed which contained a number of mummified Apis bulls in elaborate sarcophaguses.

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