When God Killed Egypt’s Firstborns (Exodus 11-12) Questions By Joel Cohen
The Government of Israel was under tremendous pressure worldwide for killing innocent civilians and children in its responsive attack on Gaza. But even the most strident protagonists against Israel would privately recognize that the Israelis have not set about killing innocents – that these innocents are “collateral” victims caused by Hamas’ own deliberate strategy to place their weaponry in the homes and communities of civilians of innocents, which, in turn, essentially requires Israel to proceed as it has. For Israel, sadly, there may be no other choice, even though the killings of innocents are not its goal.
But on that fateful night in Egypt so many years ago, God actually carried out a deliberate plan to kill innocent baby boys who, by happenstance, were firstborn. For, as He said, “I shall go out in the midst of Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone . . . .” And, as later reported, He actually did it.
• One can understand God killing Pharaoh himself and his princely son (even though astonishingly God let Pharaoh, who deserved it most, off the hook). One can understand, too, God’s killing many of the rank and file Egyptians who seem to have been Pharaoh’s “Willing Executioners,” to coin Daniel Goldhagen’s memorable phrase; but why kill innocents – total innocents, some babies?
• What kind of lesson is God teaching us with this? After all, isn’t God the Ultimate Role Model?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
Joel—your question is a difficult and troubling one at all times and especially when we are being called upon to defend the actions of the Israeli army in Gaza.
I would like to address your issue through a reflection on the “rules of war” as they have been understood throughout Jewish history. Today, the Israeli Army has a policy in which there are specific guidelines for what type of collateral damage is unavoidable and what needs to be avoided at all costs. This policy has been the topic of discussion and debate in recent years.
In ancient Jewish history, this consideration does not seem to be the rule. Much has been written to try to justify the mitzvah to kill all of Amalek, even the innocent among them. I imagine that we will have the chance to discuss this issue when we reach that section in the Torah. However, how God can command the murder of innocents remains a serious question in spite of all the attempts at justification.
So, now that we recognize that the killing of the first born was not a unique case in Jewish History, we can begin to understand it. First, if we accept the view that the purpose of the plagues was to educate the Jews in their belief in God, maybe God needed to perform the ultimate act of revenge to convince the people of His might. A possible answer—but does that satisfy our sense of justice and morality?
Rather, I would suggest an explanation based on a famous Midrash concerning the hesitancy of King Saul to kill all of the Amalekites. The Midrash tells us that “the one who is compassionate when cruelty is called for, will end up being cruel when compassion is needed.” While we cannot know the reasoning of God, He just may have been teaching that generation and all future generations a lesson that in life, you must respond to situations in an appropriate manner—even if that response is not always the most compassionate one. We will never know why God determined that killing the first born was the appropriate response at that moment but the lesson is one that lives on to this day.
To add to Rabbi Mintz train of thought, while the loss of life, any life, is a tragedy certainly the loss of innocent lives are a major tragedy, Yet as in all wars including Gaza – there is collateral damage, it is possible that here too the firstborn were the collateral damage of Egypts war against the Jews.
The Midrash Tanchuma explains the verse “Lemakeh Mitzrayim Bivchorayhem – The plague of the Egyptians through their firstborn” to mean, that on the last Shabbat before our ancestors left Egypt they designated lambs for the upcoming Passover Sacrifice. They explained to their Egyptian neighbors that they were instructed by G-d to offer up a sacrifice because the night of their redemption was at hand. On that night, they told their neighbors, all first-born Egyptian males would die.
Upon hearing this, the Egyptian first-born men pleaded with Pharaoh to liberate the Jews, but Pharaoh refused and an armed clash erupted between the first-born Egyptians and the National Guard. Many died in this battle, but Pharaoh’s forces ultimately prevailed. This revolt was titled a “great miracle” and it is commemorated every year on the Shabbat before Passover. This was the day that the First born who were the principal taskmasters of the Jews recognized the power and existence of G-d.
Just as in Gaza, the firstborn/civilians were warned of the impending catastrophe and given an opportunity to react, this is the cause of the civil war that erupted. Yet they too were overpowered by the Egyptian National Guard – the Hamas of the day, causing them to be collateral damage.
Nevertheless we must remain cognizant of the fact that loss of life even the lives drowning Egyptian soldiers pursuing the fleeing Jews were something that G-d did not take lightly and hushed the singing angels with the words,” My creatures are drowning, it is not a time to sing.”
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