It’s not uncommon to hear that parts of the Bible are barbaric, or that God must be evil if some of the things that He’s said to have done are true. In this post I want to tackle one event that seems, on the surface, to be utterly despicable, but actually points to the greatest central truth in Christianity: the killing of Egypt’s firstborn.
The story comes in Exodus 12. It is the last of the plagues that God has sent against Egypt, plagues designed to show His power to the people and convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Up to now, Pharaoh’s been refusing, and the plagues have got steadily more dangerous for humans. At first they were annoying, then damaging to property; now they’re getting life threatening to the point where God says he will kill the firstborn child in every house in Egypt. How on earth can anyone reconcile that with what Christians say about a loving, merciful God?
First off, let’s remember that this isn’t arbitrary. These plagues against the Egyptians came about as a direct result of their oppression of Israel and Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel worship God (Moses is always asking for the Israelites to be allowed to go and worship, that’s what this is all about). The plagues themselves are warnings and signs of God’s power. This is God’s mercy. He doesn’t punish the Egyptians straight away for their oppression of the Israelites, but he gives them several chances to let the Israelites go peacefully. Pharaoh knows what he’s getting himself in for; even his advisors end up telling him to let the Israelites go! It’s not like God has just decided to wipe out a large proportion of Egypt because He’s mean.
Furthermore, in emphasising mercy we can forget about justice. In Exodus 12:12 God calls this plague ‘judgement on all the gods of Israel’. Depending on what you believe that could be seen as a literal punishment for whatever demonic agencies could be behind Egypts idols, or the gods could be seen as a representation of Egyptian culture, making the plague a punishment for the Egyptian life of idolatry. God, for all His mercy, doesn’t leave sin unpunished. It is this quality that allows him to promise victory over evil and death and that allows the oppressed and the weak to trust Him.
But there’s more to the story. Even in this terrible punishment is the promise of incredible mercy. The Israelites are told that if they want to avoid the death of their firstborns they must sacrifice a perfect lamb (12:3) and mark their doors with its blood (12:7). God says he will pass over any door with the blood on it (12:13). So what’s all this about lambs and blood? This is an early example of the idea of buying someone’s life with the blood of a substitute, which seems bizarre but when you consider that In Egypt God was carrying out the just penalty for a culture’s sins – death – it might make a bit more sense that there needs to be something to pay for the sins of Israel (it’s not like they’re perfect).
It’s this idea that was writ large in Jesus. He is the Passover lamb for all of us who choose to smear His blood on our lives. People often ask that if Jesus died for all of us, then why do we have to accept Him? Well this story might shed a bit of light on that. If a family had killed the lamb, but then not put its blood on their door, they would have a) not obeyed God’s full command, and b) the sacrifice itself would be meaningless, because it’s the blood that was the sign for God. If people don’t accept the sacrifice, then it’s like the lamb was killed in their household, but they ignored God’s command to smear their door with the blood. It seems silly, right? Well yeah, it is silly, especially if you think that Jesus’ sacrifice might be real but you don’t act on that. If you were alive then and there was even the possibility that the lamb was killed in your household, you’d look into it and see if you could smear the blood on your door, right? Well why wouldn’t you now?
Jesus was the completion of everything that God began to do in the Old Testament, including this. He is the lamb for all of us and His blood is the sign of the Passover on our lines. His death was an act of limitless mercy, available to all of us, the ultimate mercy that means we never have to face the judgement passed on Egypt and her gods.