I have been dreading this passage since we turned to Exodus in our walk through the whole Bible. Once you get past Exodus 11 (link), you have the Passover and redemption and the lamb. That's such good stuff that I would almost redo the chapter divisions of the Bible and put Exodus 11 and 12 together and leave it be.
However, I started this as a chapter-by-chapter exercise. Even though the chapters are artificial, I'll stick with it.
The people of Israel are in bondage in Egypt. This has started because of a political change in Egypt and the situation has degraded. Now, there is a conflict between God Almighty and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Along the way, Pharaoh has tried to keep the Hebrews under control by establishing a policy of oppression, increased labor, infanticide at birth, and infanticide shortly after birth.
God's response has been measured increase. First, He sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh with the instruction to free the people. Yet Pharaoh did not listen. God displays a few non-destructive signs of His power, but Pharaoh refuses to listen. Then destruction starts in the nation, first minor, then major. Egypt has seen cattle die, crops destroyed, and the withholding of light from their land. That last one? Consider that while Egyptian Civilization is the gift of the Nile, the Egyptians were taught that Pharaoh was the descendant of the Sun God, Ra. That was a big deal.
Yet Pharaoh refuses to listen. He is suffering, his people are suffering, but two things remain: he stays in charge, and he stays stubborn. Now, it's very easy to look back and ask how Pharaoh stayed in power. After all, we would vote out someone that blind to the realities of life, right? Except that people in power are often loathe to relinquish it, even in democracies and republics. Consider the Roman Republic or the Weimar Republic—both fell to dictatorship, though one went more gradually than the other, through people's unwillingness to fight that dictatorship off.
The Egyptians could have considered rising against Pharaoh, but they did not. It was not too long before this that a revolt had ousted the ruling dynasty, and the same will occur later in Egyptian history. So, it was not unprecedented for the time and region. Instead, the Egyptians cast their lot with Pharaoh and keep it there.
The final warning then comes: the firstborn of all Egypt will die. From Pharaoh to slave, the firstborn will die at midnight. It's not even phrased as a warning, it's given as a statement of fact. Which is all the more tragic: the stubbornness of Pharaoh is so obvious that there's no reason to make it a question, will he let the people go and avoid it? It's just going to come.
Now, there is a great grace in the next chapter: instructions for avoiding the tragedy and those instructions are spoken openly to all, not just the Hebrews. Those who will heed the voice of God may avoid the death.
This brings us to a question: Is this what it takes? To get our attention? To get your attention? How many must die for you to know? Will it take the loss of the next generation to get our attention and break our stubbornness? Is this what it takes?
It should not take this in our lives. Heed the warnings, the dead cows, and the darkness and turn quickly.
Today's Nerd Note: With the exception of the Psalms, the modern Chapter-Verse divisions of Scripture are not original to the text. These came along in various forms across the years, sometimes to make reading easier, sometimes to make copying easier. Medieval times saw the birth of the modern system. As such, it is important not to hang too much on those chapter divisions: they are helps but not perfect ones. So, that something is at the end of a chapter does not mean it is of greater or lesser importance.
Psalms are the exception, as they are a collection of, well, Psalms, and so were originally separate. The Hebrew system does not align perfectly with the modern English numbers, though, so there are a few differences. Psalm 9 & 10 are one psalm in the Hebrew so this drops the numbering by 1. The same numbering occurs, as far as I can tell, in the Latin Vulgate. So, "The Lord is My Shepherd" is actually Psalmus 22 in Jerome's work.
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