Book of Exodus now focuses on an unpopular subject: death.
The King of Kings (Ps. 95:3) was about to confront King Pharaoh with another king—death, the “king of terrors” (Job 18:14).
The last enemy, death (1 Cor. 15:26), would visit Egypt with one last plague and deliver one final blow to the proud ruler of the land.
In one solemn night, all the firstborn sons and all the firstborn livestock in Egypt would die, and there would be a great cry throughout the land (Ex. 11:6; 12:30). One cannot imagine the sound that filled the air. Millions of parents crying out.
Only then would Pharaoh let God’s people go.
However, death wouldn’t visit the Jews and their livestock in the land of Goshen, because the Israelites belonged to the Lord and were His special people. In the land of Goshen, all that would die would be innocent yearling lambs, one for each Jewish household.
This night would mark the inauguration of Passover, Israel’s first national feast. As Christians, we need to understand the meaning and purpose of the Passover.
The Passover and the Egyptians (Ex. 11:1–10)
The people of Egypt had been irritated by the first six plagues, and their land and possessions had been devastated by the next two plagues.
The ninth plague, the three days of darkness, had set the stage for the most dreadful plague of all, when the messengers of death would visit the land. “He unleashed against them His hot anger, His wrath, indignation and hostility—a band of destroying angels” (Ps. 78:49).
Moses heard God’s Word (10:1–3). These verses, we have studied, describe what happened before Moses was summoned to the palace to hear Pharaoh’s last offer (10:24–29). Moses’ speech (11:4–8) was delivered between verses 26 and 27 of chapter 10, and it ended with Moses leaving the palace in great anger (10:29; 11:8).
God told Moses that He would send one more plague to Egypt, a plague so terrible that Pharaoh would not only let the Israelites go but would command them to go.
Pharaoh would drive them out of the land and thus fulfill the promise God had made even before the plagues had started (6:1; see 12:31–32, 39).
Moses told the Jewish people that the time had come for them to collect their unpaid wages for all the work they and their ancestors had done as slaves in Egypt.
The Hebrew word translated “borrow” in the King James version simply means “to ask or request.” The Jews didn’t intend to return what the Egyptians gave them, for that wealth was payment for an outstanding debt that Egypt owed to Israel.
God had promised Abraham that his descendants would leave Egypt “with great substance” (Gen. 15:14), and now He repeated that promise to Moses (Ex. 3:21–22).
God had given His servant Moses great respect among the Egyptians, and now He would give the Jews great favor with the Egyptians, who would freely give their wealth to the Jews (12:36–37).
Moses warned Pharaoh (Ex. 11:4–10). This was Moses’ final address to Pharaoh, who rejected it just as he did the other warnings.
Pharaoh had no fear of God in his heart; therefore, he didn’t take Moses’ words seriously. But in rejecting God’s word, Pharaoh caused the finest young men in the land to die and therefore brought unspeakable sorrow to himself and to his people.
Two questions must be addressed at this point: (1) Why did God slay only the firstborn? (2) Was He just in doing so when Pharaoh was the true villian? In answering the first question, we also help to answer the second.
In most cultures, firstborn sons are considered special, and in Egypt, they were considered sacred. We must remember that God calls Israel His firstborn son (Ex. 4:22; Jer. 31:9; Hosea 11:1).
At the very beginning of their conflict, Moses warned Pharaoh that the way he treated God’s firstborn would determine how God treated Egypt’s firstborn (Ex. 4:22–23).
Recall that the Pharaoh had tried to kill the Jewish male babies, and his officers had brutally mistreated the Jewish slaves, so in slaying the firstborn, the Lord was simply paying Pharaoh back with his own currency.
Compensation is a fundamental law of life (Matt. 7:1–2), and God isn’t unjust in permitting this law to operate in the world. Listen to Jesus:
DO NOT judge and criticize and condemn others, so that you may not be judged and criticized and condemned yourselves.
For just as you judge and criticize and condemn others, you will be judged and criticized and condemned, and in accordance with the measure you [use to] deal out to others, it will be dealt out again to you.
Pharaoh drowned the Jewish babies, so God drowned Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 14:26–31; 15:4–5). Jacob lied to his father Isaac (Gen. 27:15–17), and years later, Jacob’s sons lied to him (37:31–35). David committed adultery and had the woman’s husband murdered (2 Sam. 11), and David’s daughter was raped and two of his sons were murdered (2 Sam. 13; 18). Haman built a gallows on which to hang Mordecai, but it was Haman who was hanged there instead (Es. 7:7–10).
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7). That should chill your bones.
As to the justice of this tenth plague, who can pass judgment on the acts of the Lord when as the psalmist said, “righteousness and justice are the foundation of [His] throne”? (Ps. 89:14)
But why should one man’s resistance to God cause the death of many innocent young men? However, similar events happen in our world today. How many men and women who died in uniform had the opportunity to vote for or against a declaration of war?
And as to the “innocence” of these firstborn sons, only God knows the human heart and can dispense His justice perfectly. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25) Besides that, who is to say that those innocent souls now reside safely in the Father’s hands?
When you read the Book of Genesis, you learn that God often rejected the firstborn son and chose the next son to carry on the family line and receive God’s special blessing. God chose Abel, and then Seth, but not Cain; He chose Shem, not Japheth; Isaac, not Ishmael; and Jacob, not Esau.
These choices not only magnify God’s sovereign grace, but they are a symbolic way of saying that our first birth is not accepted by God. We must experience a second birth, a spiritual birth, before God can accept us (John 1:12–13; 3:1–18).
The firstborn son represents humanity’s very best, but that isn’t good enough for a holy God. Because of our first birth, we inherit Adam’s sinful nature and are lost (Ps. 51:5–6); but when we experience a second birth through faith in Christ, we receive God’s divine nature and are accepted in Christ (2 Peter 1:1–4; Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:9).
Remember, the Pharaoh and the Egyptian people sinned against a flood of light and insulted God’s mercy. The Lord had endured with much long-suffering the rebellion and arrogance of the king of Egypt as well as his cruel treatment of the Jewish people.
God had warned Pharaoh many times, but the man wouldn’t submit. Jehovah had publicly humiliated the Egyptian gods and goddesses and proved Himself to be the only true and living God, yet the nation would not believe.
“Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc. 8:11). God’s mercy should have brought Pharaoh to his knees; instead, he repeatedly hardened his heart.
Pharaoh’s officials humbled themselves before Moses (Ex. 3; 8); why couldn’t Pharaoh follow their example? “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
Passover and the Israelites (Ex. 12:1–28, 43–51)
Passover marked a new beginning for the Jews and bound them together as a nation. When the Lord liberates you from bondage, it’s the dawning of a new day and the beginning of a new life.
Whenever you meet the words “redeem” or “redemption” in the New Testament, they speak of freedom from slavery. (There were an estimated 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. Tragically, there are the same number in the world today.)
The Jewish nation in the Old Testament had two calendars, a civil calendar that began in our September–October, and a religious calendar that began in our March–April.
New Year’s Day in the civil year (“Rosh Hashana”—“beginning of the year”) fell in the seventh month of the religious calendar and ushered in the special events in the month of Tishri: the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.
But Passover marked the beginning of the religious year, and at Passover, the focus is on the lamb.
Isaac’s question at his own sacrifice was “Where is the lamb?” (Gen. 22:7) It introduced one of the major themes of the Old Testament as God’s people waited for the Messiah.
The question was ultimately answered by John the Baptist when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
That the Passover lamb is a picture of Jesus Christ is affirmed in the New Testament by the Philip (Acts 8:32–35; Isa. 53:7–8) as well as by the Apostles Paul (1 Cor. 5:7), Peter (1 Peter 1:18–20), and John (Rev. 5:5–6; 13:8).
Let’s compare them both.
The lamb was chosen and examined (vs. 1–6a) on the tenth day of the month and carefully watched for four days to make sure it met the divine specifications.
There is no question that Jesus met all the requirements to be our Lamb, for the Father said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
During the days preceding Passover, our Lord’s enemies questioned Him repeatedly, waiting for Him to say something they could attack. During His various trials and interrogations, Jesus was repeatedly questioned, and He passed every test. Jesus knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21), did no sin (1 Peter 2:22), and in Him there was no sin (1 John 3:5). He’s the perfect Lamb of God.
On the fourteenth day of the month, at evening, the lamb was slain (Ex. 12:6b–7, 12–13, 21–24) and its blood was applied to the lintel and side posts of the doors of the houses in which the Jewish families lived. It wasn’t the life of the lamb that saved the people from judgment but the death of the lamb. “Without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:22; Lev. 17:11). Some people claim to admire the life and teachings of Jesus who don’t want the cross of Jesus; yet it’s His death on the cross that paid the price of our redemption (Matt. 20:28; 26:28; John 3:14–17; 10:11; Eph. 1:7; 1 Tim. 2:5–6; Heb. 9:28; Rev. 5:9). Jesus was our substitute; He died our death for us and suffered the judgment of our sin (Isa. 53:4–6; 1 Peter 2:24).
However, to be effective, the blood had to be applied to the doorposts; for God promised, “[W]hen I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). It isn’t sufficient simply to know that Christ was sacrificed for the sins of the world (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2). We must appropriate that sacrifice for ourselves and be able to say with Paul, “The Son of God loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), and with Mary, “My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46, nkjv). Our appropriation of the Atonement must be personal: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
The Jews dipped flimsy hyssop plants into the basins of blood and applied the blood to the doorposts (Ex. 12:22). Hyssop was later used to sprinkle the blood that ratified the covenant (24:1–8) and that cleansed healed lepers (Lev. 14:4, 6, 49, 51–52). Our faith may be as weak as the hyssop, but it’s not faith in our faith that saves us, but faith in the blood of the Savior.
The lamb was roasted and eaten (vv. 8–11, 46), and the eating was done in haste, each family member ready to move out when the signal was given. The meal consisted of the roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, each of which symbolized an important spiritual truth.
In order that the lamb might be kept whole, it was roasted in the fire and not boiled in water. It’s not likely that the Jews had vessels large enough for boiling a whole lamb, but even if they did, it was forbidden.
The bones would have to be broken and the meat in cooking would separate from the bones. The bones were not to be broken nor were pieces of meat to be carried outside the house (v. 46; John 19:31–37; Ps. 34:20). It was important to see the wholeness of the lamb.
We trust Christ that we might be saved from our sins by His sacrifice, but we must also feed on Christ in order to have strength for our daily pilgrim journey. As we worship, meditate on the Word, pray, and believe, we appropriate the spiritual nourishment of Jesus Christ and grow in grace and knowledge.
Along with the lamb, the Israelites ate bitter herbs and unleavened bread (Ex. 12:14–20, 39; 1:3–7). Tasting the bitter herbs would remind the Jews of their years of bitter bondage in the land of Egypt.
However, when circumstances became difficult during their wilderness journey, the people usually recalled “the good old days” and wanted to go back to Egypt (16:3; 17:1–3; Num. 11:1–9; 14:1–5). They forgot the bitterness of their servitude in that horrible iron furnace.
Their bread was unleavened (without yeast) for two reasons: there wasn’t time for the bread to rise (Ex. 12:39), and leaven was a symbol of impurity to the Jews. For a week after Passover, they were required to eat unleavened bread and to remove every trace of leaven from their dwellings.
Yeast is an image of sin: it’s hidden; it works silently and secretly; it spreads and pollutes; and it causes dough to rise (“puffed up”—1 Cor. 4:18–5:2). Both Jesus and Paul compared false teaching to yeast (Matt. 16:6–12; Mark 8:15; Gal. 5:1–9), but it’s also compared to hypocrisy (Luke 12:1) and sinful living (1 Cor. 5:6–8). Paul admonishes local churches to purge out the sin from their midst and present themselves as an unleavened loaf to the Lord.
If any meat was left over from the feast, it had to be burned. The lamb was so special that it couldn’t be treated like ordinary food. In a similar way, the manna was special and couldn’t be hoarded from day to day, except for the day before the Sabbath (Ex. 16:14–22).
They ate as families and as a congregation (vv. 25–28; 13:8–10). The meal was prepared for the family (see 12:3–4) and was to be eaten by the family members. God’s concern is for the entire family and not just for the parents. If the precious Jewish children were not protected by the blood and strengthened by the food, they couldn’t be delivered from Egypt, and that would be the end of the nation.
Though there were many Jewish households in the land of Goshen, God saw all of them as one congregation (vv. 3, 6). When local Christian congregations today meet to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God sees each individual assembly as part of one body, the church.
That’s why Paul could write about “the whole building … the whole family … the whole body” (Eph. 2:21; 3:15; 4:16). Israel was one nation because of the blood of the lamb, and the church is one fellowship because of Jesus Christ.
Not only was the Passover supper an ordinance to be obeyed (Ex. 12:14, 17, 24, 43), but it was also a “memorial” to be celebrated to keep alive in Israel the story of the Exodus (v. 14; 13:8–10).
After Israel had entered and conquered the Promised Land, it would be easy for the people to settle down and forget the great acts of God on their behalf. The annual observance of Passover would give Jewish parents another opportunity to teach their children the meaning of their freedom and what God did for them.
The adults were to be “living links” with Israel’s past so that each new generation would understand what it meant to be a member of God’s chosen nation. (See Deut. 6:1–15; 11:18–21; Pss. 34:11; 78:1–7; 145:4.)
In later years, orthodox Jews took Exodus 13:8–9 and 16 literally, along with Deuteronomy 6:8–9 and 11:18. Moses said that Passover was to be “like a sign” (see Ex. 13:9), that is, a reminder to them of what the Lord had done.
Instead, the orthodox interpreted this to mean that the Jewish men were to wear the Scriptures on their person. So, they wrote Scripture passages on parchment and put them into little boxes which they wore on the left arm and the forehead. In the New Testament, they are called “phylacteries” (see Matt. 23:5).
Eating the feast was forbidden to those outside the covenant (Ex. 12:43–51). Not only did a “mixed multitude” join with Israel when they left Egypt (v. 38), but the Jews would encounter many different nations on their march and when they reached Canaan.
Israel might be tempted to let their Gentile neighbors join with them in celebrating Passover, their “national independence day,” but the Lord prohibited this practice. Later, He would forbid the Jews from joining with their neighbors in their pagan religious ceremonies, for Israel was to be a separated people (Deut. 7:1–11).
Who were these “foreigners” whom God said the Israelites couldn’t invite to the Passover celebration?
They were non-Israelites who had never been circumcised and therefore were not children of the covenant. They might be slaves in the camp of Israel or simply strangers (resident aliens) living among the Jews.
Any stranger or servant could submit to circumcision and become a part of the nation and share the covenant privileges, but they also had to accept the responsibilities.
For we Gentiles, this is a glimpse into our future when we would be adopted to a new covenant, one written on the heart and not stone.
But first, we must look back at the death soon to cross the land. This too is a memory that we should not forget. More on that next week.