How does the plague of the firstborn from Exodus fit into the biblical theme of the firstborn? And what does it mean when Yahweh calls Israel his firstborn son? In this episode, Tim and Jon explore the theme of the firstborn in the Exodus scroll.
To call someone the firstborn is not necessarily a statement of their actual origin. This family was never the firstborn in any of the generations. But what’s being referred to by calling them a firstborn is a status, a role. God is so closely identified with Israel that Yahweh’s own power, name, and authority are invested in these people. Firstborn becomes essentially a way of saying, “This is my image. This is my representative.”
In part one (00:00-19:23), Tim and Jon recap the theme of the firstborn, which is about God’s desire to share power, rule, and authority with humanity. God’s choice to share power with creatures who, at face value, seem unworthy results in an attempt to seize power from humans (the serpent in Genesis 3). This foundational story sets in motion a pattern of humans trying to seize control in a way that brings harm to themselves and others.
God consistently chooses unlikely leaders—at least according to human standards. To be chosen by God is an honor, but it inadvertently puts the chosen one in harm’s way because of the jealousy or rivalry of others.
God’s “choosing” is always for a twofold purpose: to rule and represent Yahweh as an image of God and to receive the Eden blessing of abundance. Sometimes, those purposes are separated and split between more than one person. For example, Yahweh gives Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, an Eden blessing of abundance. But Yahweh gives his second-born son, Isaac, both abundance and the responsibility of carrying on the chosen lineage.
Ultimately, God wants to bless all humanity, but he chooses one person/family to be a vehicle for that blessing. And God is continually subverting human expectations and understandings of power to bless humanity.
At the opening of the Exodus scroll, we’re told that the family of Israel has been fruitful, multiplying in Egypt since the death of Joseph (Exod. 1:7). This detail is a key indicator that God has chosen Israel for the Eden blessing, even though strong and powerful Egypt would be the more obvious choice. The author then depicts the pharaoh of Egypt as a crafty serpent. Egypt is also descended from Ham, so we’re encountering another rivalry between Shem and Ham (see Episode 3, “Rivalry Among Brothers,” for more on the sons of Noah).
Often, God’s chosen one is marked by the fact that they are oppressed in some way. Frequently, God chooses immigrants in foreign lands to receive his blessings, which is the role Israel plays in this narrative. In the New Testament, it’s precisely these people—the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the excluded—that Jesus chooses to include in his Kingdom.
In part three (37:19-52:07), the guys zero in on Exodus 4, where the firstborn theme comes into even clearer focus.
After God selects Moses (also a later-born son) to represent him before both Israel and Egypt, he announces to Moses that the nation of Israel is his firstborn son.
The Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says, “Israel is my son, my firstborn. So I said to you, ‘Let my son go so that he may serve me;’ but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I am going to kill your son, your firstborn.”’”
Yahweh is so closely identifying himself with Israel that he is designating them as his image on earth. This family has always been God’s chosen people, but he’s re-designating them as his firstborn inheritors so that there will be no doubt of their status—either to the current generation of Israel or to Pharaoh.
In Exodus 4:23, Yahweh explains the final plague against Egypt, the plague of the firstborn. All people of all statuses belong to Yahweh, so he can give or take away their lives. Yahweh reverses what Pharaoh brought on Israel when he decreed that all firstborn sons be killed (Exod. 1:15-16), but Yahweh provides something Pharaoh never did: a choice and a chance to be saved. Just as when he asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Yahweh is the one who both demands the life of the firstborn and provides a substitutionary sacrifice. In this way, God’s justice and his mercy are not at odds with each other, a reality that will be most fully displayed later in the biblical story through the life and death of Jesus.
In part four (52:07-01:11:44), Tim and Jon continue exploring the plague of the firstborn and the spiritual realities at play in the midst of this famous event.
In the plague of the firstborn, Yahweh challenges Egypt’s sense of security and power—the continuation of its lineages through firstborn sons. However, this is not the only power structure Yahweh is challenging here. In Egyptian spiritual beliefs of the time, the pharaoh was considered to be an incarnation of their greatest god.
For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and fatally strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the human firstborn to animals; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am Yahweh.
The Passover event is a strike not only against humans and animals but also against the elohim (gods) of Egypt. This sounds odd unless we consider this against the backdrop of the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Again and again, we read that human choices to do evil are always intertwined with the influence and animating power of spiritual forces—spiritual beings set against Yahweh and his purposes. (For example, the partnership of human and spiritual evil is especially apparent in the flood narrative in Genesis 6. In fact, the author of Exodus uses language to describe the plagues that is an exact match to language used in the flood narrative.) When God deals with evil human power structures, he is also dealing with evil spiritual power structures.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Lead Editor Dan Gummel. Edited by Tyler Bailey and Frank Garza. Mixed by Tyler Bailey. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.