The Tenth Blow: Death

As Motyer remarks, this lengthy introduction to the tenth plague sets it apart from the other nine, and underlines the Passover as a new beginning (Ex 12:2).

11:1  The LORD said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt; after that he will release you from this place. When he releases you, he will drive you out completely from this place. 11:2 Instruct the people that each man and each woman is to request from his or her neighbor items of silver and gold.”

“One more plague…after that he will release you” – As Motyer comments, the first nine plagues were probationary, and God knew beforehand that they would not lead to Israel’s liberation (Ex 3:19, etc.).  But with this final plague, success is announced beforehand.

This request fro items of silver and gold ‘was consistent with the Lord’s requirements, given later at Sinai, for the respectful release of a debt slave. The Lord insisted that a person bound by debt as a servant should be released after six years of labor (Deut. 15:12–15). At the time of release, the owner must generously shower the person with material goods, giving them a good material start for their new life after slavery. God was requiring the same generosity from the Egyptians.’ (Bruckner)

11:3 (Now the LORD granted the people favor with the Egyptians. Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, respected by Pharaoh’s servants and by the Egyptian people.)

As Bruckner observes, the language of ‘favour’ and ‘respect’ hardly suggests the popular notion of ‘plundering the Egyptians’.  This softening is anticipated in Ex 8:19; 9:20; 10:7.

Referring to vv2-3, Fretheim comments on the ‘softening of the Egyptians’ hearts’, contrasting it with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  Bruckner comments that ‘The new respect and graciousness of the ordinary Egyptians is an ironic miracle, demonstrating the lordship of Yahweh over all people.’

‘Anyone with an ounce of sense among the Egyptians had long since realized that resistance to the Israelites’ God Yahweh was useless. Indeed, the Egyptians in general had come to respect the Hebrews (presumably partly out of fear and partly out of pragmatism) and saw their pharaoh’s policy of continued resistance to the exodus for what it was: a fanatical, destructive, hopeless stance that was doing nothing but harm.’ (Stuart)

Pharaoh is alone!

This interlude is presented to highlight one thing: Pharaoh stands alone! He is the one whose stubbornness has brought Egypt to this point. Pharaoh’s own servants will come and bow before Moses (11:8)! One is prompted to wonder: If it had not been for Pharaoh, what would the effect of these signs have been? History has shown that this picture of the difference between a country’s leaders and its people is not uncommon.

11:4 Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt, 11:5 and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. 11:6 There will be a great cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again. 11:7 But against any of the Israelites not even a dog will bark against either people or animals, so that you may know that the LORD distinguishes between Egypt and Israel.’ 11:8 All these your servants will come down to me and bow down to me, saying, ‘Go, you and all the people who follow you,’ and after that I will go out.” Then Moses went out from Pharaoh in great anger.

“About midnight” – Signifying, not the transition from one day to the next (in Hebrew thought, that occurred at dusk), but rather the deepest, darkest time of night.

“All the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die” – As Bruckner comments, ‘Scripture does not back away from the difficult reality that God takes life to redeem life.’

‘The deaths of firstborn sons may…be understood in light of Exodus 13:1–2, 11–16. The firstborn of Israel, man or animal, particularly belonged to the Lord (13:2). From this time forward this symbol reminded Israel that life itself belongs to the Creator, who “goes” (yatsaʾ) to Egypt in order to redeem Israel from slavery. If God had not gone “throughout Egypt,” no Israelite would ever have left the country. The Creator purchased redemption with the innocent life of the firstborn of animals, slave girls, the freeman, and the nobility. It costs God the very creation itself to do this.’ (Bruckner)

‘In the book of Exodus the Lord speaks and acts as the Creator of life and death and, therefore, the one who rightly takes and gives life. In calling Moses, the Lord said, “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go … but you refused … so I will kill your firstborn son.” In the next verse, the Lord sought to cause Moses’ death, presumably because he had not dedicated his firstborn son through circumcision (4:22–24). See comments in the Introduction.’ (Bruckner)

Derek Flood disputes the OT text at this and many other points.  He thinks that certain acts that in the OT are ascribed to God are, in later Jewish thinking (and in the NT) ascribed to the devil.  Flood refers to the Book of Jubilees (circa 100 BC) and says that ‘while Exodus says that God killed the firstborn children in Egypt (Ex 11:4), the later book of Jubilees instead attributes this to “the powers of Mastema” which literally means in Hebrew “the powers of Hate” (Jubilees 49:2). This illustrates the shift in thinking that was occurring within Judaism at the time which recognized the obvious moral difficulty in attributing acts of evil to God’  (Disarming Scripture, p102).  We think that Flood’s interpretation completely undoes the logic of the OT narrative.  However, we are prepared to consider a double agency in the causation of such events (as with the double hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the double causation of our Lord’s crucifixion).  In this case, we might invoke postulate the classic distinction between God’s prescriptive and permissive wills.

“Against any of the Israelites not even a dog will bark against either people or animals” – ‘A simple, graphically idiomatic way of saying that the Israelite humans and cattle would simply see no harm whatever from the tenth plague.’ (Stuart)

Why do the innocent suffer?

‘The mercy and fairness of God’s actions in the case of the tenth plague on the Egyptians is a subset of the question of the mercy and fairness of God in all his dealings in a fallen world corrupted by original sin. Those who from our limited point of view tend to be regarded as “innocent” are regularly the victims of disastrous and even fatal circumstances and events. We trust a wise and loving God relative to their eternal destiny, but we certainly cannot deny that they suffer unfairly and unevenly in a world that is subject to such unfairness by reason of its subjection to futility as a result of human sin.’ (Stuart)

11:9 The LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.”
11:10 So Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not release the Israelites from his land.

Fretheim remarks that this statement sums up all the signs up to this point.

The implementation of this announcement of doom will be recorded in Ex 12:29-32.  The instigation of the feasts of the Passover and the Unleavened Bread will be reported next.