Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love Endures forever…
…to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
his love endures forever
Psalm 136 vs.1 & 10 (NIV)
Psalm 136 (and 135), a litany of God’s enduring love, includes the tenth plague. What does this teach about love? How is the smiting of the firstborn a sign of God’s enduring love? The four senses of scripture will help us explore this question. We’ll begin with the literal sense.
- The Literal Sense
Psalm 136 rehearses God’s mercy by recounting a number of his deeds. These deeds include the creation, as well as events in the redemptive history of Israel. It is a psalm that would most likely have been read corporately and responsively.
Verse ten, which thematically transitions from the creation to redemption, recalls the end of the Egyptian captivity. It is the only plague referred to in the psalm. Rather than rescue his people through a mere show of power, the Lord gives Pharaoh a chance to release them through his own volition. The plagues serve to persuade Pharaoh and demonstrate God’s glory. At their climax, God sends forth the Angel of Death to smite all the first born of the land (Exodus 12-13) .
The stubborn refusal of Pharaoh is complex. The Lord has already determined to harden his heart, but it was simultaneously a heart which had hardened itself in years of oppression and infanticide. In this context, the plagues serve to display God’s glory, a glory characterized by mercy. The preeminent mercy he displays, however, is in his faithfulness to his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–in his hearing the cries of his chosen people. It is primarily in the context of covenant that psalm 136 accords honor and prestige to the slaying of the first born. Despite, and even in light of the terrible nature of this plague, the psalmist insists it is a sign of God’s of everlasting love.
Its terrible reality is emblematic of a love which will go to nearly any length in its pursuit of the beloved, even into the darkness of death. God is willing to purchase Israel at a dread price. He is faithful to such an extent, Israel can believe he will allow nothing to separate them (Rom. 8:28-39). He is remover of obstacles, a performer of wonders, a mighty God, terrible to behold.
Finally, that such is considered a plague is to draw attention to the obvious. Our children are precious to us and our first born often hold a special place. The eldest is often a representative of the family, the inheritor of what is passed down, and even sometimes one’s only child. The loss of a child is universally regarded with gravity.
A Brief Apology: Death Comes for All
Before moving on to the next post (the allegorical sense), let’s take stock of the texts moral complexity. The Exodus passage is one many difficult scriptures (Gen. 7:21-23); Numb. 31:17-18; etc.). God meets out death. He meets out such death to adult and child alike.
In this case, the tenth plague, the difficulty is only partially attenuated by reference to Egyptian culpability. Pharaoh is repeatedly unrepentant, and God revisits upon him and his people that cruelty which they have been themselves complicit in exacting.
But at the heart of these difficulties is the loss of innocent life (Ex. 23:7).* Retributive justice is insufficient to give an account. The difficulties and repugnance attendant upon such a verse may give rise to the need for a full blown theodicy (an inquiry into God’s goodness and righteousness), which goes well beyond the scope of this post.
I want to pause and point out that for some the very fact of death, violence, and suffering are sufficient proof of God’s injustice, even his unreality. Such a conviction not only precludes God at the outset, but renders almost all death and suffering as pointless, cruel, and inscrutable. But if we deem the death of children as uniquely unjust, we are hard pressed not to read some death as justified or more just.
In Scripture, death is a universal condition resulting from the fall. Death is therefore, as death, indiscriminate. It comes for the old and young, for the Israelite and the Egyptian, for the faithful and unfaithful alike.
In this context, the Exodus story is not describing an exception, but a unique and terrible application. We can say that none of those who died under this plague would have been otherwise excluded from death. Grievous as it is, their death was not miraculous in its very nature.
The story shows this in that, unlike in the case of the frogs or darkness which are de facto localized to Egyptian neighborhoods, death is pandemic. We can go further.
In as much as death is indiscriminate, if there is a miracle, it is in the preservation of the Israelite people who were equally threatened by the Angel of Death. Their exemption, the Passover, is not simply by fiat, but within the enactment of a covenant sign, painting blood on their doorposts. Israel is passed over in light of their faithful enactment of a blood sign.
Finally, this passage does not designate judgement of persons. The death of the first born is not a sign of their individual wickedness or rejection by God. Strange as it may seem, we are not encouraged or even permitted here to read into the scriptures any disfavor upon those smitten by the plague.
This passage therefore draws us not to the cruelty of an event, but to the cruelty of death and loss itself. If God is unjust, it is not here so much as in the very conditions of existence in which suffering and death occur.
*Such innocence refers not to being unstained by a curse, but rather in reference to an event such as a particular crime. That innocence has always been part of God’s criteria consider Genesis 6:9, 18:24; The dynamics between covenant and righteousness are not being explored here. However, death as a universal fact would justified under such criteria.