Longing for the Divine

The Destroying Angel: Grim Reaper or Divine Manifestation? – Part 1

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I remember watching the movie Prince of Egypt with my kids. It dramatically portrays the ten plagues God afflicted on Egypt to convince a proud pharaoh to free the Israelites, which culminated in a final terrible plague that brought death to the firstborn of Egypt. I have often found this event troubling, for I was taught that Jesus loves all the children of the world.

I do not deny that God actively passes judgment, but I am not satisfied with cradle roll versions of Bible stories. How are we to understand the death of Egypt’s firstborn? Is God a violent and brutal killer of children, like the cruel previous pharaoh (Exodus 1:16)? I want to know about the God who killed the firstborn of Egypt; could He possibly be like Jesus?

When Jewish families gather to commemorate the events of the first Passover, they perform the unusual ritual of spilling a little wine while reciting the plagues. This is a way to remember and express God’s empathy and suffering over the Egyptian blood that was spilled. When I first experienced a Passover, I realized that God not only notices His creatures’ fates but is pained when they suffer. The Exodus tells us that the cries of the Israelites were heard by God, but if we also consider the Egyptian cries of sorrow, the tales about the plagues—especially those about God smiting the firstborn—create cognitive dissonance. What I like about the Passover custom, which has roots in the original story, is that it asks questions that are to be answered (Exodus 12:26). As Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim says, “An inner-biblical warrant exists for the people of God to raise questions” (What Kind of God?: Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, 2015, p.137).

There is some ambiguity in the narrative about who killed the firstborn. The details of the story raise a question: who did the smiting at the first Passover? On the one hand, they suggest that God did it: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord” (Exodus 12:12). The striking is clearly described as God’s activity. Yet the verse also says, “God will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you” (Exodus 12:23). What does this reference to the destroyer mean? Might the destroyer be a personification of evil, a plague or another sinister force?(Exodus 12:13) Might this figure be an agent other than God, or was it a manifestation of the Divine—a theophany?

When presented with details that challenge the simplistic versions of the stories we grew up with, we tend to dismiss them to avoid addressing troubling implications. Those who say “The Bible says it, so I believe it, and that settles it for me,” read the Bible with such simplicity. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur discusses a “second naïveté” that allows the character of God to shine through the stories of the Bible in new and fresh ways that are meaningfully informed, even for those who have been immersed in a simple reading.

So, for those who see the killing of Egypt’s firstborn as morally incomprehensible and need to resolve this dissonance, I offer an alternate view in which divine justice involves God being merciful and compassionate to the victims of oppression. From the perspective of the oppressed Israelites, the plague language represents deliverance through judgment of their oppressors. Rather than punishment with no educational function, the ten plagues can be seen as a revealing judgment—as holding up a mirror for the Egyptians that allows them to see the corruption of their unraveling society and understand how they must respond to be saved (Exodus 12:38). Indeed, the prophet Isaiah tells us that the Egyptians are also victims of oppression and would ultimately be delivered in very much the same way as God delivered Israel (Isaiah 19:19–25).

First, let’s consider the process of the plagues and what they were for. The story tells us that the plagues were a critique against the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12). God was intent on revealing Himself. I find it fascinating that the Egyptian sorcerers imitated the plagues to show that that Egyptian gods were equally powerful. These lies were believed and the truth was hidden. Egypt had given allegiance to and colluded with these false powers. A loving God, however, wants His creatures to know the nature of their false gods so they will not place trust in them. A mature understanding of the plagues allows us to see them as revealing to Egypt God’s power and the forces of love and redemption. God came to redeem but also to challenge the human pretense and evil. Destruction was expressed. There was protection for those in covenant with God and terror for the oppressors.

So, who was the destroyer who smote the firstborn of Egypt? I recently came across a new book that comments on the identity of the destroyer named in Exodus 12:23. Author David Moffitt argues that when this destroying figure is understood in light of Jewish exegetical traditions, the agent who killed the firstborn is clearly Satan (Rethinking the Atonement, 2022). However, the Exodus account seems to convey that God alone was the destroying agent who judged evil and warned the Israelites not to leave their homes, lest they encounter His presence in the form of a destroying angel. Perhaps this angel was a divine manifestation? I will leave you to decide, but I find it interesting that the term “pass over”—which shares a root with the word for the sacrificial lamb—is used differently in Exodus 12:23 than in all other passages.

In this verse, “pass over” means the opposite of passing through the land and sparing those with the sign of blood on the door. It means something like hovering to defend and preserve (Isaiah 31:5), suggesting that God threw Himself over the door or stood in the way to guard and defend these houses. God did this to prevent the destroyer from smiting. Whether one considers God’s allowing this as an active or passive judgment, a loving purpose underlay it.

So, were the firstborn of Israel protected from God or from a destructive, striking force? It seems obvious to me that they were not rescued from God but from death. The essential meaning of the original Passover is freedom from an enslaving, evil power, not from an angry God who would have killed everyone that night. Hebrews 2:14–15 tells us that Jesus died so He might “destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”

Jesus is here identified with the Passover lamb that was sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5:7). This is a story driven by grace through which we come to see judgment and death connected to the power of sin and evil and God destroying it as He provides protection and redemption. The Gospel of John illuminates this Passover love that we see in God (John 13:1 and 15:13–14). In the Passover act, we see the Father’s love for us. It is seen in the washing of dirty feet and in the defeat of our sin and death. God’s love is revealed in Christ taking our sin, our death, and our violence upon Himself to protect and liberate us. It is seen when He redeems and forgives sinners. This is the amazing story of God’s unfathomable and irresistible love. Nothing can stop that kind of love.

How does God’s killing of Egypt’s firstborn fit into this gospel of love? What love of God conveyed by Jesus judged Egypt? The cross is the beautiful story of the judged Egyptians and the redeemed Israelites held in tension. On the cross, we see God taking a stand against all oppression and evil in the world, but He does so for the Egyptians by returning as their Savior (Isaiah 19:18–25). Jesus, God’s firstborn, reveals what is really true about God. In Jesus, we see redeemed both the rejected firstborn and the redeemed firstborn, who also failed. When Jesus died on the cross, He represented the Egyptian firstborn who were taken and the Israelite firstborn who were rescued—the One true firstborn given for the ultimate liberation of all people (Exodus 4:23). On the cross, we see God’s opposition to sin; He took a stand against everything that oppresses us so that His love would not be compromised in this world. Therefore, the story does not end with the death of the firstborn; God’s judgment on oppression had to pass over to achieve the resurrection and a new and redeemed creation.

Just before the Passover, Jesus commanded His disciples to love one another as He loved (John 13:21–38). The central aim of the Passover, as Jesus saw it, was to lead us to God’s unfathomable love. I don’t know a God who slaughters children. I look beyond the simplistic portrayals of smiting to find the deeper meaning. When I examine the original echoes of Egypt, I find Jesus there (John 5:39–44). Jesus reveals God as love so that we can see the Passover story as triumph over death and victory over evil, as God triumphed over a cruel and oppressive pharaoh.

Christians really have a unique message for the world. We don’t have to let the smiting of the firstborn define God’s character, for He allowed Himself to be hung on a cruel cross and even chose to have this done on Passover day. The cross is the defining moment for God’s love. Jesus transforms how these stories and the scripture are read. The gospel understands God’s character as revealed in the Lamb that was killed with violence (Revelation 5:6). Do we see Him humbly washing the feet of Judas the betrayer, who died that night? Do we see Him washing the feet of Peter, who was prayed for and delivered? This is the same God who stood in the awful darkness as He passed through Egypt that terrible night! Behold the real God. He is merciful, gracious, loving, just, and true—all the things we see so clearly in the person of Jesus.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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