The Ten Plagues
The Tenth Plague ‑ Exodus 11
The tenth chapter of Exodus closes whilst Moses is in audience with Pharaoh about the three days of darkness. Pharaoh had just told Moses to leave the audience-chamber and not come back. "See my face no more" he said "for in that day you see my face you shall die." "You have spoken well" retorted Moses "I will see your face again no more". The eleventh chapter, if read as continuing the narrative in consecutive order of events, introduces the apparent contradiction of a subsequent interview with Pharaoh following the one at which those words were spoken. There was in fact no further interview; verses 1-3 of chapter 11 constitute a parenthesis in the narrative and refer to something that occurred before the ninth plague. Verse 1 should properly be rendered "Now the Lord had said unto Moses . . ." etc. It was before Moses had gone in to Pharaoh over the ninth plague that God told him about the coming smiting of the first-borns and its consequences, the deliverance of Israel. At the same time Moses was told to instruct the people that they ask of their Egyptian neighbours gifts of gold and silver. The words for "borrow" and "lend" in the Hebrew are equally applicable to the asking for and receiving of gifts, and the shade of meaning intended has to be related to the context. It must have been obvious on this occasion that there could be no question of "lending" in the commonly accepted sense of the word since the Egyptians knew perfectly well that the Israelites intended going away and not coming back. Since by this time the Egyptian people generally were terrified of their inconvenient neighbours and wished nothing so much as to see the last of them, favours of this kind would doubtless be granted with alacrity and the Israelites were probably well loaded with the treasures of Egypt by the time they did leave the country. The suggestion sometimes made to the effect that this "borrowing" was a bit of sharp practice on the part of Israel can hardly be sustained. Such valuables as they did acquire must be held to have been gifts ‑ almost bribes, maybe; anything to placate these people who had so powerful a God and to get them out of the country.
The rest of chapter 11 is then, logically, a continuation of the interview with Pharaoh. "I will see thy face again no more," Moses had said, but that was not his last word. Standing stern-faced and resolute before the angry monarch, he pronounced the dread sentence the Lord had previously authorised him to pass. "Thus says the Lord, 'About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die. From the firstborn of Pharaoh . . . and all these thy servants shall come down unto me, and shall bow themselves to me, saying, 'Get thee out, and all the people that follow thee'; and after that I will go out'."
That did end the interview. What Pharaoh said in reply, if he said anything at all, is not recorded. It seems from verse 8 that he did not get the chance. According to that verse, as soon as Moses had spoken, "he went out from Pharaoh in a great anger". True to his word, he never saw the face of Pharaoh again. The die was cast, the obduracy of Pharaoh had made the last dread tragedy inevitable, and Moses was finished with him.
Why did Moses manifest "great anger", so unlike his usual peaceable and unruffled disposition, at this particular time? There is nothing like it recorded in any of the eight previous occasions. It could not have been on account of Israel for he knew that the deliverance was now nigh at hand. There was no question of frustration or disappointment over the progress of events. The matter was out of his hands now and in the hand of God. He had only to deliver the final message and walk out, knowing that his work was almost immediately to be crowned with success and the Exodus become a reality. His anger could not have had anything to do with that. Was it then because Moses knew now that nothing could save all those firstborn sons of the Egyptians from sudden death and he was sick at heart at the prospect?
The people of Egypt, the nobility and officials at the royal court, urged them to go and had in fact been urging Pharaoh to give way. That is evident from Ex.10.7. Only the obstinacy of one man stood in the way, and because of that, all Egypt must suffer this cruel affliction. The character of Moses is revealed in the Pentateuch as that of an essentially kindly and tolerant man, albeit stern and even ruthless where the enemies of his God or the nation he was creating, were concerned.
Many of those Egyptian parents who were to lose their firstborns had been his own personal friends in days of youth, forty years earlier, when as the adopted son of the Pharaoh, Queen Hatshepshut, he had moved freely among them. He thought of the tragic times when the newborn sons of his own people were destroyed at birth by the cruelty of this Pharaoh's grandfather, the renowned Thothmes I, and felt concern for all those Egyptians who were to suffer the same way. In a violent upsurge of emotion at what he now knew must come, he turned his back upon his callous opponent and "went out from Pharaoh in a great anger".
The stroke did not fall at once. The expression in Ex.11.4 "About midnight will I go out..." does not mean that the Angel of Death was to visit Egypt that same night; only that the visitation would occur at midnight. Chapter 12 makes it clear that at least a week elapsed while the people were receiving instructions and making preparations for the great event. It was now April, the tenth month of the Egyptian year and the seventh month, Nisan, according to the Hebrew method of reckoning. Now there was to be a change; the month in which the Exodus took place was to be accounted the first month of the year. That was the first instruction Moses gave them. (Ex. 12. 2). For ever after, Israel counted Nisan the beginning of the year for all religious matters and retained Tisri, (October) the original first month, for secular considerations.
On the tenth day of the month Nisan, said Moses, each family was to select a choice year-old lamb or kid from the flocks and care for it until the fourteenth day. On the evening of that day they were to kill the lamb, smear its blood on the doorposts and "lintels" ‑‑ and eat together of the flesh, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, in a solemn ceremonial feast. The 'lintel' is a small look-out port above the doorway of Egyptian houses of the period. They were to eat, attired as if ready for a journey and they were to remain inside their houses all night. During that night the Angel of Death would come down upon Egypt and in every house except those marked with the blood, the firstborn son would die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of his humblest subject. But the angel would pass over those houses bearing the sign of the blood, without harming any within.
Thus was born the ceremony of the Passover, an observance that made Israel unique among the nations and is kept today, a living testimony to the reality of those events transpiring so long ago. No existing national ceremonial or memorial in any other nation is so old as the Passover. For more than three thousand years it has been repeated annually in every part of the world where the descendants of the people of Israel are to be found. The continued existence of this ceremony leaves no doubt that the events which gave it birth must have happened as related. They are evidence of the absolute truth of the Exodus from Egypt.
The 12th chapter recounts in full the Lord's instruction to Moses and Aaron respecting the detail of the Passover ceremony. The command to keep it as an ordinance for ever was included and that command has been faithfully obeyed.
There is an interesting reference in vv.7-20 to the "seven days of unleavened bread" following the feast, during which no leaven might be used in their food. The first and seventh days are additionally to be marked by a cessation of all labour and made holy to the Lord. It probably marks the introduction to Israel of a seven-day week with one day, the Sabbath, a rest day. The Egyptian calendar at that time was based on a ten-day week and no rest day at all. It is likely that this part of the instruction was intended for future Passovers. Its implementation at the moment of the Exodus would not have been very practicable.
Further stipulations (vv.24-27, 43-49) required the people to instruct their children in the meaning of the ceremony and the details of their escape from Egypt. To this day at each Passover a lad formally asks why they keep this feast and is answered by one of his elders in traditional words. They provided for the position of non-Israelites among them. Such could become adopted into the commonwealth of Israel by undergoing the rite of circumcision who were then entitled to partake. Otherwise no foreigner or stranger was allowed to share in the ceremony.
The instructions had been given, so "the people bowed the head, and worshipped. And the children of Israel went away, and did as the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron; so did they." (Ex.12.27-28). It is evident that the entire community was now fully persuaded that the promise was to be fulfilled and their deliverance effected. There were no objections and no doubts. A few days must have elapsed whilst word was passed throughout Goshen to everyone of the two to three million Israelites involved and very busy days they must have been. It says much for the organising skill of Moses and his lieutenants that so great a number of people at so short a notice should be ready. On the evening of the fourteenth day of Nisan, the April moon being at the full, in the year now dated 1440 BC, they were gathered in their houses attired as for a journey. The slain lambs were on the tables before them and the doors were marked with the blood, awaiting the tremendous event prophesied more than four centuries earlier to Abraham. "Thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs . . . that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge, and they shall come out with great substance. . . in the fourth generation they shall come hither again." (Gen.15.13-16). In many a shuttered and bolted house those words must have been recited, and prayers for deliverance ascend to God, as they waited in faith for the Lord to come down.
(to be continued) AOH