Link to the earlier article: The Bible you haven’t read – Part 2
According to the Bible, there were ten plagues sent against Egypt when the Jews were trying to leave the country (Exodus 7-12). The tenth plague was death of the firstborn of every family.
Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, 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. (Exodus 11:5)
In this verse, we hear how God will kill the firstborn child of everyone in the entire country. However, the Egyptians can avoid this fate if the Pharaoh will let the Jews go. Why doesn’t he?
And the LORD said unto Moses, Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you; that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt. And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh: and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land. (Exodus 11:9-10)
God intervenes to prevent the Pharaoh from making that decision. In fact, God says that he will harden the Pharaoh’s heart multiple times – including in Exodus 4:21, before any of the plagues occur. As a result, the Egyptians suffer the ten plagues, and, finally, millions die, no matter how they lived their lives, simply because they were born Egyptian. The reason God “hardens [his] heart” is so that “His wonders are multiplied” and everyone knows that He is God. It’s an amazing level of callousness. It reminds me of the earlier “landlord principle” which says God can do anything to anyone because humans are his creation. One would scarcely expect Saddam Hussein to issue an order to kill the firstborn child of everyone in an entire nation simply to prove his power. I can’t help but imagine a five-year old child surrounded by tiny plastic army-men stomping on them repeatedly and reveling in his own power.
Christians will sometimes say, “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever”. (Gee, I hope not.) Yet, even when I was a Christian, I couldn’t help but think that the God of the Old Testament is quite a bit harsher than the teachings of Jesus (although, even Jesus made lots of criticisms, and Revelations is plenty harsh). About the time I was reevaluating Christianity, I remember thinking that if Christianity were actually true, that the Bible records the “growing up” of God – the God of the Old Testament being a brash, temperamental teenager without much concern for anyone. I don’t think that now – now I think it was the “growing up” of human culture and that change is reflected in the actions of their imaginary gods. Of course, one could also read these verses and come to a belief in dystheism (God exists but is not wholly good), and say that all the Biblical references to a “good” or “perfect” God are inaccurate and similar to the way a common peasant might flatter a king by praising his “goodness”, “mercy”, and “perfection”.
Also, an interesting little contradiction from the Exodus story is that the Egyptian livestock get killed over and over, and are still alive in Exodus 14.
The Fifth Plague (The Plague on Livestock):
“[T]he hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats.” (Exodus 9:3)
“And the next day the LORD did it: All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died.” (Exodus 9:6)
Then the Seventh Plague (The Plague of Hail):
“Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.‘ Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.” (Exodus 9:19-21)
Then in the tenth plague, God kills the firstborn of all the beasts (translated as “cattle” in some versions):
“Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, 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.” (Exodus 11:5)
Then in Exodus 14:6-9, the Pharaoh pursues the Jews with chariots and horsemen:
“So [the Pharaoh] had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.”
One could claim, of course, that the Pharaoh stole the Jews’ livestock, but before the tenth plague, Moses explicitly refuses to leave their livestock in Egypt. And in Exodus 12:32 / Exodus 12:38, God tells the Jews to take their flocks and herds. So, that explanation isn’t available.
Biblical Commentary: (Link) Exodus 11:9 says why God does these things: “that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt”. Maybe that explanation is undesirable, because Biblical commentaries have come up with their own ideas about why God sends the plagues and hardens the Pharaoh’s heart:
One explanation for “the plagues is that the plagues were punishment for the Egyptians’ long abuse of the Israelites, as well as proof that the gods of Egypt were powerless.” God kills all of the firstborn in the tenth plague, yet I doubt every Egyptian was involved in the abuse of the Israelites. The God of the Old Testament makes a habit of making groups of people suffer even if not all of them committed whatever theoretical crime they are accused of. (This comes in handy a few Old Testament books later, when entire cities – including women and children – will be slaughtered by the Jews.) As far as “proof that the gods of Egypt were powerless”, it seems a bit excessive. Who needed the proof? The Egyptians who were suffering through each of the ten plagues (even though they aren’t the “chosen ones” and, therefore, will get no divine communication)? The Jews – who will see numerous miracles in the desert? Do the Jews really need to see the death and suffering of Egyptians to “prove” their God is real? Should God make non-Christians suffer divine miracles today to prove to Christians that he is real?
Jewish Exegesis justifies the last plague with two arguments: Retribution in kind, and Self defense (the claim is that Exodus Exodus 10:28 alludes to a plan by Pharaoh to “slaughter all Hebrew children. By inflicting upon Pharaoh the same thing he planned for the Hebrews, his plan was thwarted”). The “retribution” argument falls flat because the Pharaoh had not carried out his plan, and you can’t do retribution for something that hasn’t happened. The second, “self defense”, argument fails because many of the firstborn included small children and livestock. Were small children and livestock a threat to the Israelites? Further, there are other alternatives: killing Pharaoh to stop the plan, or divine intervention which causes the deaths of Egyptian soldiers on their way to carry-out the plan.
Another explanation is that “the first-born sons of Egypt were in fact the decision makers, and communally responsible for the deeds of the nation, good or evil.” However, since the firstborn included small children, livestock, and even leaders who may have opposed the Pharaoh’s plan (and there were likely plenty of them since God was hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, but never mentions hardening the hearts of all the Egyptians). Besides, when God is involved in hardening people’s hearts, they lose their free-will, and therefore, lose culpability in their own actions.
None of the Biblical commentary seems to provide a good answer to the moral questions in this story, and they can’t even agree on the correct explanation (which raises questions about what God was trying to communicate if no one – not even the Jewish and Christian leaders – can come to an agreement on it). In the end, I think ancient people often had deep grudges against their neighbors. They often treated each other horribly – putting them into slavery, killing them and taking their women, etc. My guess is that ancient Jews had very few moral qualms with a story that ends in the mass murder of Egyptians. Further, Egypt was in control of the “land of Israel” until around the eleventh century BC – which means (according to secular views that there was no major exodus) Jewish ancestors very likely lived under Egyptian occupation when it controlled Israel, and therefore, didn’t care for them very much. One gets a sense that the modern-day middle east hasn’t really “grown up” in it’s attitudes towards it’s neighbors, which is why the Middle East continues to be a tumultuous mess. They haven’t found a better way – a secular, moderate way – because they’re still following the harsh “you deserve death because you’re not one of us” morality of their imaginary God.