When God commissioned Moses in Midian He told him three things would happen upon his return to Egypt: God would strike Egypt with great miracles (3:19-20); He would enable the Israelites to leave Egypt with great riches (3:21-22); and He would kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son (4:22-23). The first of His predictions has come true with the occurrence of the first nine plagues. The remaining two are now imminent. It’s time for the great and horrible final chapter of God’s showdown with Pharaoh and Egypt. Everything to this point has been prologue to this final solution.
Exodus 11-12 recounts arguably the most important event in the Old Testament (outside of creation). God will show this when He continually reminds Israel of what He does here and refers to Himself throughout the rest of pre-Christian history as the God who delivered them out of Egypt. The deliverance itself will point to the ultimate redemption to occur 1400 years later when Christ becomes the perfect Passover lamb. Its weight in history and God’s supernatural preservation of its memory are why it’s still observed as a holy day over 3400 years later.
These three verses form a parenthetical account of what happened before Moses appeared before Pharaoh in 10:24 after the plague of darkness. God tells Moses that one more plague is coming and as a result this time Pharaoh will not only let them go, he will drive them out. But that’s not all. The people are to ask the Egyptians for articles of silver and articles of gold and the Egyptians will enrich them as a result. This second command has to sound odd to Moses (although he also heard it at the burning bush) – they’re just supposed to ask the Egyptians for their stuff and the Egyptians will give it to them? They’ve been slaves in this culture for generations but suddenly their masters who have treated them as less than human are going to give them their most valuable possessions?
The text doesn’t say explicitly what happens when the Israelites obey God’s command (we’ll find out later), but it does say that God gives the Hebrews favor in the sight of the Egyptians, hinting at what happens when they start asking for valuables. This shows how dramatically the plagues have changed everything in the land. The relationship between the Israelite slaves and the Egyptian masters is now turned upside down. The Egyptians may also think that giving away their silver and gold gains them approval with Israel’s God who’s afflicted them.
The people aren’t the only ones who have gone up in the Egyptians’ estimation. Moses himself is now seen very differently around the country. He’s greatly esteemed in the land of Egypt, both in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people. Even if Pharaoh doesn’t see it, the people know who brings word from God and who announces the plagues. There probably is a certain amount of fear that surrounds Moses too. Think about what this means for Pharaoh. His isolation – hinted at when his servants pleaded with him to let Israel go before the plague of locusts (10:7) – now may be total with Moses being so exalted in the land. Pharaoh is supposed to be divine, but God has made a mockery of Egypt’s gods and by association Pharaoh too. It could be that Pharaoh’s esteem has receded as Moses’ has increased. This also might explain why Pharaoh hasn’t threatened Moses or tried to eliminate him up to now. [It’s interesting to think about Moses writing verse 3, isn’t it? Especially in light of his later claim to be the most humble man on earth (Num 12:3). We have to remember that he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so he writes verse 3 because it’s a part of the story God wanted told and because it’s true.]
This scene is confusing because Chapter 10 ended with both Pharaoh and Moses swearing that they’d never see each other again (10:28-29), yet here is Moses talking to Pharaoh about the coming plague. It could be that this is another part of the conversation that took place after the plague of darkness but Moses decided to include it here along with God’s words in verses 1-3. The other explanation could be that while Moses and Pharaoh said they wouldn’t see each other again, they both cooled off and now resume their strange relationship.
Regardless of how we explain it, Moses is back in front of Pharaoh to give him one last chance to free the people or suffer some horrific consequences. He tells Pharaoh that God is personally coming to kill all the firstborn in Egypt in the middle of the night. The firstborn of all families will die – from great Pharaoh down to the humble (non-Israeli) slave girl. No one will be spared. He even tells him there will be a great cry throughout the land as a result (amazing that Pharaoh can hear something this awful and know that everything to this point that Moses has said has come true and yet still ignore it – imagine being one of Pharaoh’s servants and overhearing this conversation and knowing there’s nothing that can change his mind or change what’s about to happen). [Two questions about this plague that the text doesn’t explicitly answer: does it affect adults and does it affect girls? If a household is made up of a married couple where one or both spouses is the firstborn of their respective parents, do they die along with their own firstborn? Or is it just the firstborn of that particular household? The fact that Pharaoh himself is presumably the firstborn in his family and yet lives may argue for the plague only affecting the firstborn of a household (primarily children). As to the second question, it’s notable that when God predicted this plague to Moses back in Midian He said that He would specifically kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son (4:23). However, that could be a symbolic reference to Egypt as a whole since God says at the same time that Israel is His firstborn son. The text will tell us later that every house in Egypt is affected – that would seem to imply that firstborn daughters die too. That could also, however, argue for the other conclusion on question one – that adults are affected along with children. Something else to keep in mind is if this plague is an allusion to the coming death of Christ it would seem to make sense that it just affects sons. It would also more clearly act as a reversal of the earlier Egyptian pogrom that killed the mail newborns of Israel. And lastly, God will sanctify all firstborn males as part of the Passover remembrance, so that too argues that this just affects the sons. At the end of the day, it’s probably safe to assume that only the males die but not nearly as clear if adult children not living with their parents die too.]
Not only will the firstborn of the human population die but so will the firstborn of all the cattle (what’s left after the pestilence and the hail). The devastation of the land will be complete – everything and everyone will be affected. [It’s ironic that the one who was saved from the Egyptian scheme to wipe out all the male children of Israel is the one who announces the coming death of the firstborn of Egypt.]
The firstborn of Egypt will die but not the firstborn of Israel. God will spare His people to make sure the Egyptians know who controls the deaths. Pharaoh will know beyond a shadow of a doubt who killed his child.
Moses ends his proclamation to Pharaoh with a bold prophecy. The people of Egypt – Pharaoh’s servants specifically – will be so desperate as a result of the coming plague that they will come and bow down before Moses and beg him to take the Israelites and go (Moses’ newfound stature in the country may play a role in this). Moses and the people will then leave. Notice he doesn’t say anything about Pharaoh letting them go – simply that the Egyptian people will demand it.
Moses leaves Pharaoh in hot anger. This may be the tie back to the scene at the end of Chapter 10. Moses and Pharaoh trade threats and Moses leaves in anger. Why is he angry? It could be that he rages at what Pharaoh’s pride has finally brought about. Pharaoh’s arrogance has crossed the final line and massive death is the consequence that awaits.
Chapter 11 ends with an epilogue. Pharaoh won’t let the people go because God won’t allow him. God wants to glorify Himself one more time at Pharaoh’s expense. Also – as a summary to all the plague accounts – Moses lets us know that he and Aaron have done all the things God commanded them to do. They performed the signs and they delivered the proclamations. Pharaoh is officially without excuse – he’s been warned and shown miracles and afflicted with plagues. Any rational person would’ve given in by now. That he hasn’t is why the tenth plague comes.
God institutes the Passover remembrance and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This day will be celebrated every year for all time. A Passover meal will be followed by seven days of eating unleavened bread – all to remember what God did on this day in delivering Israel.
Some items to note:
- If a household is too small to eat a whole lamb, it is to join with others. Later regulations will institute that no fewer than 10 people may split a lamb.
- The lamb is chosen four days before Passover – leaving time to find the perfect male and also showing that Israel won’t have time on that night to find an appropriate sacrifice.
- The lamb is roasted because that is the quickest way to prepare it. Boiling requires more time to dress and gut the lamb.
- They will eat unleavened bread to show that they will have to leave Egypt in haste and there won’t be time to leaven the bread and let it rise. Leaven will later come to represent sin.
- The lamb is set apart for God; therefore it can’t be eaten as leftovers the next day.
They are to take the blood of the lamb and paint it on their doorposts and the lintel of their houses. This is so that God will see the blood when He goes through Egypt and will pass over their houses and not slay their firstborn. Any house that does not have blood on its door will be struck. It’s notable that God hasn’t needed any sign to this point to spare the Israelites in other plagues. That means the blood on the doors is ultimately for THEIR sake, not for His. He wants them to understand that blood must be shed for their deliverance to occur.
God says in verse 12 that He will execute judgment against the gods of Egypt. This states specifically what we’ve seen with all the plagues. God has afflicted Pharaoh and the people but has also very clearly shown their gods to be impotent. Here He will kill humans and animals and thus show Pharaoh and his son – both held as divine – to be powerless before Him and also show the gods represented by animals to be nothing in comparison to Him.
Moses calls the elders of Israel and institutes the feast and tells them what must be done to prepare for the coming plague. In instituting the feast he says it will be for their children, so no one ever forgets what God is about to do. The people’s response is notable – they bow down and worship. They realize the gravity of what’s about to happen – God is about to redeem them by shedding the blood of the Egyptians and sparing them.
It happens. God passes through the land and strikes all the firstborn of Egypt. Every house is affected – every house has someone dead. As a result of the deaths, there is a great cry that arises throughout Egypt (similar to the cry of Israel in its bondage – God answers one cry by causing the other). Imagine the noise – a middle-eastern demonstrative culture responds to death in every household in the country. The cry must be intense and overwhelming.
Pharaoh calls for Moses and tells him to go. No strings attached – take everyone, take all your possessions, take all your livestock, go wherever you want – just go. Just as God said he would, Pharaoh now drives them out of the country. Notably, his last words to Moses are, “…and bless me also.” He’s scared for his own life. “Please leave but please beseech your God not to kill me.”
The Egyptian people urge the Israelites to go too. They’re mourning but they’re also terrified. Are the deaths over – are more to come? They want Israel to go so the deaths stop. It’s at this time that the Israelites ask them for gold and silver and clothing (it’s interesting that God hadn’t said anything about clothing – the people must just slip that in – “while you’re at it, have any clothing you could give us too?”). The Egyptians are so panicked and frightened that they say yes to everything – “Take whatever you want, just leave!” In this way the Israelites plunder the Egyptians. This is no minor event – the amount of prosperity that accrues to the Israelites will later be seen in how they’re able to give to the building of the tabernacle and also their sin with the golden calf. [How much must the heads of the Israelites be spinning at this point? In one night they’ve changed from Egyptian slaves to free people leaving their generational home with great wealth.]
There is controversy over how to translate the numbers recorded in these verses. Could it be possible that 600,000 men make up the nation of Israel? If so, it translates to roughly 2,000,000+ people including women and children. Logistically it’s hard to imagine this large of a number. How long would it take for a group that size to simply march and camp and communicate (imagine organizing a camp for all the people in metropolitan Indianapolis)? The translation of the Hebrew is up for debate and therefore it’s difficult to know what’s correct. It IS notable, however, that the number is repeated and stays consistent throughout the Pentateuch. It also jibes with a later compulsory offering for the tabernacle (Ex 38:24-26).
The 600,000 are joined by a mixed multitude that goes up with them. Apparently others in Egypt decide to join Israel in leaving the country (see Num 11:4). It’s interesting to wonder if these families – and we don’t know if they’re Egyptians or perhaps slaves from other cultures – were affected by the plague. Did they obey Moses and put blood on their doors and thus escape death? God will later say that only the circumcised can participate in the Passover meal but perhaps the presence of these people argues for their inclusion in God’s protection on this night (it doesn’t make sense that they would suffer the loss of their firstborns and then choose to join Israel).
Note the last statement of verse 38. Israel leaves with a very large number of livestock. This has to be one more gut punch to the Egyptians. Their economy and lives are in ruins – what’s left of their cattle just had all their firstborn die overnight – and the Israelites move out with great herds.
The people leave after living in Egypt for 430 years. This number – as we discussed in our study of the first chapter of Exodus – is up for debate as to its meaning. We also don’t know for how many of the years the people were enslaved.
The text includes two more ordinances in regard to the Passover meal – first, the lamb isn’t to be divided. Each house eats its own lamb whole and the bones of the lamb aren’t to be broken. Second, no uncircumcised male is to eat the meal. If someone is visiting an Israelite house, he either must skip the meal or be circumcised in order to eat (a fairly stiff requirement for eating – one would have to be pretty committed to a meal and/or really hungry).
God’s wrath is great and terrible. Think about the Egypt and the Egyptians that Israel leaves. The land is in ruins. The livestock are largely dead. There is no plant life. No trees. No crops. There are dead carcasses everywhere – some fresh from the last plague and some in various states of decay. Every house is in mourning over its dead children. The people themselves not only have very little ability to make a living – because of the devastation of every means of producing food or income – but they are now personally much poorer for giving away their valuable possessions. What God has done to them as a result of their ruler’s pride and their own role in subjugating Israel is breathtaking and sobering. It truly is terrifying to fall under God’s wrath.
God will and does judge. Notice who goes through the land of Egypt and kills all the firstborn. God makes it clear that He does this Himself. We make a grave error when we assume a God of love can’t judge or that eternal hell can’t be what awaits the unredeemed. The tenth plague in Egypt, Noah’s flood, the coming destruction of the Canaanites – all argue for a God who does and will keep His word about ultimate judgment. Those who aren’t redeemed will most surely be judged.
God redeems. His wrath and judgment are what make His redemption so amazing. What does the Passover show about God and what does it point to? It shows that He’s a God of redemption and that He will provide the ultimate redemption with the ultimate Passover lamb. Why does the Passover lamb have to be a perfect male? Because the ultimate lamb will be a perfect male. Why can’t the bones of the lamb be broken? Because the Lamb of God’s bones won’t be broken. Why does blood have to be painted on the doorposts and lintel? Because it shows that blood has already been shed and therefore more death doesn’t have to occur – the substitutionary death has paid the price for that household. The lamb is Christ. The redemption of Israel points to our redemption. The blood that spares the household that displays it is the blood of Christ that substitutes for our own. A death has occurred; no further death is necessary. The Passover lamb died – the Israelites lived. OUR Passover lamb died – WE live.
God’s wrath is terrible. God’s judgment is sure. God’s redemption is therefore glorious and loving and amazing. That’s why this is the most important event in the Old Testament. It points to the love that will someday spare God’s people from God’s wrath by sacrificing God’s Son.