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Q. Was God Cruel To The Egyptians At The Exodus?

Question: I Watched The Movie, “The Ten Commandments,” This Easter Season, And It Seemed To Me That God Was Cruel, Especially In The Killing Of The First-Born Of Egypt. How Could A Loving God Do This?


This is a reasonable question to ask, and certainly worthy of a thoughtful answer. Here are some things we learn from the Bible that put the killing of the first-born in perspective.

FIRST: While it is true that God did send the death angel to kill the first-born males of Egypt (Exodus 11:4-5), let us remember that Pharaoh (with the support of all Egyptians) ordered that every newborn Israelite male be killed (Exodus 1:8-22).

SECOND: God publicly warned Pharaoh and Egypt what would happen, but Pharaoh only hardened in his resolve not to let the Israelites go.

THIRD: The killing of Egypt’s firstborn could have been avoided, had Pharaoh simply released the Israelites as God required.

FOURTH: While God spared the Israelite firstborn, the Israelites were required to observe the first Passover, and to put sacrificial blood on their door posts. They had to obey God’s command by faith in order to be spared (Hebrews 11:28).

FIFTH: This is the outworking of God’s covenant with Abraham, many years before:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (Genesis 12:1-3).

SIXTH: It was not the Israelites’ goodness which spared their firstborn, but God’s covenant promises, and the blood of an acceptable sacrifice (see Exodus 6:5-8).

SEVENTH: God is merciful and compassionate, not willing that any should perish. The severity of God’s dealings with Egypt was not pleasurable to God, but was the only just response to the cruelty and oppression of Egypt for many years.

6 The LORD passed by before him and proclaimed: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, 7 keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).

31 Throw away all your sins you have committed and fashion yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why should you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:31-32).

11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ezekiel 33:11)

EIGHTH: We learn from the Book of Jonah that God sends those to warn Gentile nations which oppress Israel of impending judgment, and to give them the opportunity to repent and escape God’s judgment.

NINTH: It is easy (especially from movies related to the exodus) to think of the death of the firstborn primarily in terms of babies and infants. However, we should not assume that the firstborn of Egypt were innocent “collateral damage” in this conflict. I believe we are wrong to think of the firstborn only as infants and toddlers. The firstborn son is the rightful heir of the father, to lead or to rule in his place. Thus, I would think that the middle-age firstborn of Egypt would be the current leaders (or at least would-be leaders) of the nation. If not already leaders, they would be the next generation of leaders. And, if leaders, they would be those largely responsible for the oppression of the Israelites.

Let us also bear in mind that God Himself (in contrast with Jonah) is well aware of the relative innocence of the very young:

9 God said to Jonah, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant?” And he said, “I am as angry as I could possibly be!” 10 The LORD said, “You were upset about this little plant, something for which you have not worked nor did you do anything to make it grow. It grew up overnight and died the next day. 11 Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!” (Jonah 4:9-11, emphasis mine)

TENTH: The oppression and cruel treatment of the Israelites, was carried out by the Egyptians, as a nation, and not just by Pharaoh and his leaders:

13 The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; 14 and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them (Exodus 1:13-14, NAU; see also 3:8-9; 6:5-7).

ELEVENTH: Pharaoh and the Egyptians had already experienced God’s power to fulfill His warnings in the nine previous plagues. To fail to take this final warning seriously was folly.

TWELVTH: Previously, there were those Egyptians who feared the word of the Lord and who acted wisely to avoid the judgment which Moses foretold:

18 I am going to cause very severe hail to rain down about this time tomorrow, such hail as has never occurred in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 19 So now, send instructions to gather your livestock and all your possessions in the fields to a safe place. Every person or animal caught in the field and not brought into the house– the hail will come down on them, and they will die!”‘“ 20 Those of Pharaoh’s servants who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their servants and livestock into the houses, 21 but those who did not take the word of the LORD seriously left their servants and their cattle in the field (Exodus 9:18-21, emphasis mine).

It would seem that this final judgment could also have been avoided by any Egyptian who believed God and acted accordingly.

THIRTEENTH: How could a “good” God not also be a just God? Do we really believe that a just and righteous God can turn a blind eye to the horrible oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians?

FOURTEENTH: God was equally severe with the Israelites when they were guilty of sin. God did not simply bless Israel, regardless of their sins, and yet punish all other nations for their sins.

58 “If you refuse to obey all the words of this law, the things written in this scroll, and refuse to fear this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, 59 then the LORD will increase your punishments and those of your descendants– great and long-lasting afflictions and severe, enduring illnesses. 60 He will infect you with all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will persistently afflict you. 61 Moreover, the LORD will bring upon you every kind of sickness and plague not mentioned in this scroll of commandments, until you have perished” (Deuteronomy 28:58-61, emphasis mine).

With all these things in mind, I believe that we can safely say this, with the apostle Paul:

Notice therefore the kindness and harshness of God– harshness toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Romans 11:22).

Here is the good news: We are all as worthy of death as the firstborn of Egypt. Our sins make us worthy of death:

For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

The Lord Jesus is God’s “firstborn” if you would. He is also the Passover Lamb:

7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough– you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:7-8, emphasis mine).

Many years ago, the innocent blood of the Lord Jesus was shed to pay the penalty for our sins, and to bestow on us the gift of eternal life. Let us apply His precious blood by believing in God’s word and trusting in Jesus as our Sacrificial Passover Lamb this season.

Related Topics: Character of God

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