Sunday, May 19, 2019

Inbox: Blaming the Buzzsaw

Concerning the judgment of the Egyptian firstborn in Exodus 12, Qman writes:

“I would say that many people would sort of be appalled at the fact that the Egyptian firstborn (mostly politically innocent; depending on age, this could be into young adulthood) had to bear the brunt of this whole affair. What would the conversation between God and that creature be when they met? God to firstborn: ‘Sorry I just had to kill you because your king had a major attitude.’ How would that go over?”

Good question.

Generally Appalled

People are often appalled when God judges sin, not least by the sobering thought that they may be next in line. When we don’t like the sentence, standard practice seems to be to blame the Judge who delivered it. I’m not inclined to do so, for the obvious reason that taking offense at something God has done is about as useful as being offended by a tidal wave or a falling meteor: it doesn’t change the facts. Even the petulant “I don’t like you so I’m not going to believe in you” attitude copped by the Richard Dawkinses of the world doesn’t help much if we are all in fact created beings on our way to eternal life or judgment, and not just random arrangements of atoms on our way to being forever dispersed.

Whether or not we like God’s verdicts, it remains the case that it will never be you or me making that call.

“I don’t like reality” is not a meaningful sentiment, as common as it may be. The question of God’s existence does not turn on whether we like him or not. In fact, God does not have to justify himself to us at all. Any scenario in which either we or the Egyptian firstborn will meet the Creator of the Universe after we die and call him to account for his behavior seems to me more than a little improbable. This has been understood since ancient times, and the latter chapters of the book of Job make that case powerfully.

That said, let me offer some context from Exodus that may make this particular pill a little less bitter.

The Stakes

I think most modern readers would heartily agree that slavery is a very bad thing, among the Baddest Things Ever. By our enlightened Western metrics, enslaving one person is evil. Therefore enslaving an entire nation must be exceedingly evil.

The Israelites lived in Egypt for 400 years. They were guests for a while, then subsequently made to engage in forced labor by the native population. Rob Hyndman has argued the actual period of national slavery was 119 years, from about 1565 to 1446 BC. That estimate is thought to be on the low end. The number of Israelites freed from this evil indignity by the death of the Egyptian firstborn is thought to be in the range of 2.5 million. Add to this number the Israelite parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who had lived and died in slavery prior to the Exodus, and the scope and time frame of the wickedness perpetrated by the Egyptians is roughly comparable to that of U.S. slave owners in the century and a half prior to Emancipation in 1862.

These are the stakes we’re talking about here. You may remember that America fought a civil war over this issue, in which somewhere between 600,000 and 850,000 men died. Getting Israel out of Egypt, which had come to depend on slavery economically, was never going to be bloodless. Let’s face that fact. Human history does not work that way.

One more thought: Pharaoh did not enslave the Israelites on his own. He could not possibly have stood over hundreds of thousands of Israelite men with a whip and unilaterally enforced his will. In fact, Exodus makes it plain that putting Israel to forced labor was agreeable to the Egyptians generally, at least up until the eighth plague, and that they participated in it. Every Egyptian profited from slavery. Any Egyptian repelled by the notion had ample opportunity prior to God’s deliverance to show his character by pulling up stakes and going to live elsewhere.

The Alternative

Bear in mind also that at the time God chose to strike down the firstborn of the Egyptians, every other possibility had been absolutely exhausted. God had already bombarded Egypt with nine different plagues: blood, frogs, gnats, flies, loss of livestock, boils, hail, locusts and darkness. The Almighty had shown his power over Egyptian bodies, psyches and property, all to no effect. And yet not just Pharaoh but the Egyptian people are said to have “hardened their hearts”. There was no negotiating possible, and no amount of further damage that did not involve serious loss of human life was going to do a bit of good. That had already been demonstrated.

What exactly was God supposed to do: concede defeat? Say to his people, “Sorry, Israel. I really meant to keep those promises I made to your forefathers, but I just don’t have the stomach to do what it takes. I guess you guys are on your own.”

The very idea is preposterous.

For consistency, those who make that sort of argument should also concede that the U.S. Civil War was too great a cost to end slavery, and that America would be better off if the institution were still carried on today because at least no innocents would have died.

The Options

Further, the Egyptians who lost their loved ones were not without both warnings and options. God had Moses tell Pharaoh and his advisors exactly what was going to happen. You might think the fact that Moses had made this sort of pre-plague announcement nine times before already — and the fact that every word he said had come true on every single occasion — might have put the fear of God into the Egyptians, but this was not the case.

All the same, any Egyptians who did fear the God of Israel had several options open to them:
  1. Leave Egypt until the plague was over. The judgment of which Egypt was warned was not of Egyptian nationals wherever they might be throughout the world. It was of the firstborn “IN the land of Egypt”, the Israelites excepted. I would have been saddling my camel.
  2. Overthrow Pharaoh. Public sentiment was against Pharaoh. After the eighth plague, Pharaoh’s servants were telling him, “Egypt is ruined. Let the men go.” An insurrection would certainly not have been an unprecedented move. Such things happen all the time when rulers do not represent the will of the people in matters of public policy that impact the nation severely.
  3. Beg the Israelites for Mercy. The Israelite firstborn had a way to escape God’s judgment open to them through the blood of the Passover lamb. The average Egyptian could not possibly have failed to notice that none of the plagues visited on Egypt had fallen on the Israelites in the land of Goshen. God had made a clear distinction between the two populations. In the book of Joshua, Rahab of Jericho came to believe in the God of Israel. She defected, saving her entire family. The Israelites accepted and protected them. If their Egyptian neighbors had displayed Rahab-like faith, the people of God would surely have granted them protection in their homes. It’s possible some did, though we’re not told. A “mixed multitude” of other nationals left Egypt with Israel. Perhaps some of these were Egyptians of faith.
Who Was Really Responsible?

So who was really responsible for all this carnage? Was it God, who struck the Egyptians, or was it the various Egyptian decision-makers, who kept on begging to be further afflicted long past the point that any rational people would have humbled themselves and conceded?

Three points to consider:
  • There is no indication of any upper age limit to God’s judgment. A firstborn remains a firstborn whether he is a month old or an octogenarian. God gave plenty of warning to the Egyptians. Any firstborn above the age of responsibility who stayed in Egypt and subjected him- or herself to God’s judgment made an informed decision and chose to take the risk.
  • Throughout history, the welfare of children has always depended on the choices made by their parents. This is either nature’s way of motivating parents to take their responsibilities seriously, or it is God’s. You decide. Jesus escaped Herod because his father Joseph believed the angel’s warning and took him to Egypt. Samuel judged Israel because his mother gave him to God. Over 37 million babies worldwide die annually because their mothers choose to abort them. In this case, each firstborn Egyptian child had a parent or parents who made their choices for them and thereby settled their fate. We may not like it, but it’s not a unique feature of this particular situation.
  • Pharaoh hardened his heart. This is stated three separate times. God certainly hardened it too, but Pharaoh and his servants definitely possessed agency in this matter. They were not merely passive recipients of God’s wrath. And just as the choices of parents impact the welfare of their children, so the choices of rulers inevitably impact their people for better or worse. This too is simply reality.
In Summary
  1. God had determined to undo a great wrong: the enslavement of his people. We would all agree that is a good and even necessary goal. Many would argue freedom is worth dying or killing for. But history shows us this state is rarely achieved or maintained without significant cost in human lives.
  2. The Egyptian people chose to pit themselves against God, despite multiple warnings of what would follow, and repeated evidence that God was fully capable of carrying out whatever he promised.
  3. When someone knowingly opts to run face-first into a buzzsaw, do we blame the buzzsaw?


  1. You have provided an excellent, thorough, and wide ranging analysis of this scenario. In a sense I came to a similar answer (except for the detail) since I would not pose this type of question without also having thought of a potential answer. I thought that one could distill this answer as, given (or admitting to the possibility) that God exists then one would have to accept the attributes ascribed to him. Therefore any one of his decisions is to be accepted with complete faith and trust in perpetuity. The only caveat being that we must be able to deduce that it truly is a decision originating with him. And that is where the Bible and our conscience comes in as a guide.

  2. I like the bit about "complete faith and trust in perpetuity". That says it well.