During a recent atheist podcast on which I was a guest, a question was asked about whether I believed the Passover story of Exodus 12 was true or not, whether the Hebrew people smeared blood all over their doors while an angel of the Lord passed over all of Egypt killing every Egyptian firstborn child. In that episode I affirmed that there is definitely historical truth to the narrative, yet I denied how the atheist host portrayed it, and I also denied knowing exactly how or in what precise ways that historical Exodus "really happened." After years of study I now find it difficult to accept mainstream interpretations of popular Biblical narratives, especially the ones taught in Sunday school. I much rather prefer to interpret each letter within the Bible as it's own piece of literature within a wide stream of living tradition. Where there is clear scribal redaction, I take it seriously. Where there is a theoretically oral form behind divergent texts, I take that into consideration too. I now think there are many ways to interpret a textual tradition, and I certainly have my own preferences. In this post I'm going to comment on the methods and details which I have found persuasive for interpreting the Passover narrative.
At the time of the podcast episode I pointed out that what seems (at least to me) to be the most obvious point of the narrative is, specifically, the death of the Pharaoh’s “firstborn” son (4:22-23; c.f. 11:5;12:29) in contrast with YHWH's "firstborn," Israel (4:22-23). I do believe that the Pharaoh's firstborn died. I don't claim to understand exactly how, or by what means exactly, but I do believe that the death of Pharaoh's firstborn son is true, and that it spurred the legendary exodus of Israel from their settlement in Egypt.
I am emphasizing the death of Pharaoh’s “firstborn” son right away in order to highlight what I believe the most important detail of the exodus narrative. For not only is Pharaoh's "firstborn son" explicitly described as the one to whom the initial purpose statement by YHWH was directed (c.f. 4:22-23; thereby confirming at the outset the most basic goal of the stated judgment within the Exodus narrative1), but that same "firstborn" is later described (in Exodus 11 and 12) as the one who sits on Pharaoh’s throne.
After perusing various critical methodologies and scribal practices again,2 I am convinced that literary motifs about Israel as YHWH's "firstborn" and the death of Pharaoh's "firstborn" are so clearly front-loaded with meaning and literary intentionality that overlooking or dismissing such facts (as David Smalley, the podcast host seemed to) illustrates how different American evangelicals, fundamentalists, and even atheists are from the majority of old testament scholars. Fundamentalists and atheists even seem to be more informed by debates between each other, and not through humble attempts to discern and evaluate critical scholarship. Regarding the Exodus story, at worst they sometimes seem to be formed more by Cecil B. Demille’s visionary masterpiece, The Ten Commandments, than by any scholarly interaction with the text of the Exodus narrative itself.
To expound upon that last criticism of mine, I would like to point out that at some point in my discussion with the atheist host of the podcast he insisted that I must be saying that the text of Exodus 12 does not actually “mean what it says.” It allegedly means that all the firstborn were killed. It allegedly means God passed over all the Israelites and slaughtered every other firstborn child throughout the entire nondescript empire of "Egypt." At least, that’s what I’ve been told it must mean because that's what the podcast audience has stated in response to our episode.
In this post I would like to walk through a number of reasons why the “meaning” of Exodus 12 isn’t as obvious as David Smalley (apparently) thinks it is, and why even most Christians and atheists who agree with David would be wise to pause and reflect upon how little they actually know in comparison with actual facts. Allow me now to propose three areas of the Passover narrative which conflict with a fundamentalist approach to the meaning of the Passover in Exodus 12.
- The first is that the literary structures of the Passover narrative reflect a scribal tradition about justice from YHWH (“the LORD”) upon the Pharaoh’s house and the gods/deities protecting his dynasty. The Passover narrative is definitely not depicted as an arbitrary and indiscriminate slaughter of firstborn innocents, nor is it depicted as a slaughter of little children. Such portrayals of injustice are actually how the Pharaoh's actions upon Israelite males are depicted in the beginning of the narrative.
- The sociological & topographical indicators of the Exodus narrative do not comport with the surface-level meaning that David seemed to rest aspects of his argument upon. For example, when the text says something like "throughout the land of Egypt" that does not necessarily mean every square inch of Egyptian land at that time, or even at the time in which Hebrew scribes redacted the narrative into its final form, just as "the Pharaoh of Egypt" did not mean "the only Pharaoh at that time," because multiple Pharaoh's ruled at the same time.3 Kings and their sons often had co-regenecy as well, and during periods of political division the land of Egypt had multiple territories and monarchs.
- The Passover narrative in discussion is primarily (and obviously) liturgical and temple-centered in character, being redacted and filtered through a lens which already has the Torah established and understood among Israelite readers, and can thereby utilize the Exodus narrative as justification for later Israelite liturgical practices. One must seriously wonder why an atheist would hang his (or her) entire argument of a story's meaning (and consequently it's portrayal of absolute morality) on anachronistic conceptions.4
Although these points do not resolve all atheistic questions and challenges about YHWH’s morality in killing anybody (or allowing anyone to be killed), they certainly do show how superficial such challenges can be.5 This, I suggest, indicates a kind of truncated understanding with regard to the literature being simultaneously utilized by fundamentalists and criticized by atheists.
In this post I would like to focus mainly upon the literary structures of the Passover narrative and how they inform us. Because time and space limit detailed discussions about the second and third points, I will only touch upon them briefly in this post as such attempts appear to be helpful. Anything I think I have missed will be posted in the footnotes below.
Now it's time to dig in to the text.
As virtually every Exodus scholar has pointed out (at least the many dozens I have consulted over the last 15 years), the meaning of the Passover narrative depends largely on recognizing it’s larger (macro) and smaller (micro) literary context. It doesn’t help the english reader to focus merely on “proof-texting” (as David did), as though the english translations of very specific verses are perfectly perspicuous on their own and are in no need of being informed by ancient literary methods. Such presumptions are absolutely mistaken. In the ancient way of understanding the narrative before us, what actually helps is seeing the whole narrative in its composition, and not just a verse or two within it, and also listening to that same text by paying attention to the "musicality" of its details, particularly as is found in the original language (which was not english).
As can be seen from the literary structures below,6 the Passover section of narrative was compiled within a much larger and considerately organized scribal framework in mind, which also seems intended to balance each pericope by a number of corresponding literary sections. The much larger chiastic framework of chapters 1 through 13 can be seen below:
a enslavement and attempted decimation of Israelites in Egypt (1:1–22)
• pharaoh’s plan to murder Israelite males to control the Hebrew threat to his dynasty (1:8-10)
• a new king arose (wayyāqom). The Pharaoh does not want the Hebrews to escape the land.
• total number of Israelites entering the land: seventy representatives
b Moses, an Israelite male child, escapes death from pharaoh (2:1–10)
• Moses “grows up” (gdl) as a son in pharaoh’s house
c Egyptian strikes an Israelite; Moses strikes down (nākâ) Egyptian (2:11–22)
d call of Moses: standing on holy ground (3:1–4:17)
• distinction between holy and common: ground (ʾădāmâ) Moses stands on (ʿāmad ʿal) is holy
• topics: sign (ʾôt) (3:12), Israel’s three-day journey (3:18)
e Moses returns to Egypt (4:18–31)
• “bridegroom of blood”
f brief encounter with pharaoh (5:1–5)
• Moses and Aaron spurned
g CENTER: commissioning of Moses and Aaron (5:6–6:13)
• promise to deliver Israel from Egypt with mighty hand (yād) and mighty acts of judgment
• people doubt Moses
g′ CENTER: commissioning of Moses and Aaron (6:14–7:7)
• promise to deliver Israel from Egypt by his hand (yād) and mighty acts of judgment
• Moses’ self-doubts
f′ brief encounter with pharaoh (7:8–13)
• Moses and Aaron spurned
e′ first cycle of plagues (7:14–8:19 [7:14–8:15])
• Nile turned to blood
d′ second cycle of plagues (8:20–9:12 [8:16–9:12])
• YHWH distinguishes between his holy people and Egyptians; afflicts one, not other!
• begins: YHWH will distinguish between Egyptians and Israelites (cf. flies, plague on livestock), not afflicting land on which you stand (ʿāmad ʿal), only land (ʾădāmâ) of the Egyptians (8:21–23 [8:17–19])
• topics: sign (ʾȏt) (8:23 [8:19]), Israel’s three-day journey
c′ third cycle of plagues: Egyptians are struck down! (9:13–10:29)
• begins: YHWH warns that he has not yet struck (nākâ) Egyptians themselves, but now he will strike (nākâ) them (9:14–15); hail strikes down (nākâ) Egyptians, flocks, crops (9:25–33)
b′ YHWH will destroy Egypt’s firstborn males (11:1–10)
• Moses is regarded as “great” (gdl) by Pharaoh’s officials, and he announces the death of Egypt’s firstborn, from Pharaoh’s firstborn “who sits on his throne” (v. 5) to Pharoah’s “slave girl who is behind the millstones,” and even “the firstborn of the livestock.”
a′ freedom of Israelites from Egyptian slavery and increased population (12:1–13:16)
• YHWH authorizes a “Destroyer” to pass over Israel and destroy the firstborn of Pharaoh’s dynasty
• Pharaoh arises (wayyāqom) to mourn the loss of Egyptian life. Israelites finally escape the land with the Pharaoh’s permission
• total number of Israelites escaping the land: 600 squads of soldiers plus many more noncombatants
Notice that in the opening section of the Exodus narrative (section a: 1:1-22) we find an explicit historical stage set up for the reader, upon which the Hebrew male population is viewed from the perspective of the Pharaoh as a political threat to the Pharaonic dynasty. In it’s corresponding narrative section (a’: 12:1-13:6) we find another stage set up, only this time the outcome is exactly what Pharaoh did not want to happen, namely, the escape of the Hebrews from his land. That whole process of entrapment and escape, which began with the slaughter of true innocents by the Pharaoh and continued with Moses growing up to be “great” in Pharaoh’s house (section b), ends with Moses the “great” climactically entering upon stage again to pronounce the impending death of those in Pharaoh’s house (section b’).
In section b’ we find a variety of phrases used, beginning with “the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne.” I agree, along with various scholars, that this initial phrase indicates the focal point of the coming devastation, as portrayed by the scribes who composed the final redaction of this Exodus narrative. The focus of the first section (a) is upon a clear threat to Pharaoh’s dynasty, and the focus of the last section (a') is also upon the heir of Pharaoh’s dynasty who currently sits as co-regent of his throne.
Then we find two more illustrations—all, by the way, within the same sentence— following the coattails of the threat pronounced upon Pharaoh’s dynasty. The destruction will extend “even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstone, and all the firstborn of the livestock.” This could be interpreted hyperbolically as destroying every single firstborn human being and animal among every single Egyptian "firstborn" across the entire Egyptian empire of that time. However, such reasoning isn’t easily reconciled with the topography of Exodus narrative as a whole (which I will explain more about in future posts7), and especially not with where the Hebrews are said to be located within Egypt, or even where the previous nine plagues were allegedly contained.
It seems far more likely to interpret such passing references as an extension of Pharaoh’s dynasty—that is, the “firstborn” of the slave girl and the firstborn of the livestock of Pharaoh’s house. And by “house” I do not mean a single physical building-structure (like modern houses), but “house” in the sense of the cultic or political center of this particular Pharaoh’s domain. A final indicator of the narrative's focus being more particular than what a cursory glance offers is, fascinatingly, contained in 12:29, which not only repeats and re-emphasizes the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, and the firstborn of his livestock, but also changes the reference to the “firstborn” of the slave-girl in Pharaoh’s house to the firstborn of the captive who is in Pharaoh’s “dungeon” (which, in Hebrew can be rendered literally as his “house of the cistern”)! Such topographical limitations would considerably reduce the size of the actual destruction which fundamentalists and atheists both imagine.
A smaller framework is also contained within both halves of the larger section (above), the second half of which (6:14–13:16) informs the meaning of the death of the firstborn, as can be seen below in its own micro-chiastic scribal arrangement:
a YHWH promises to rescue his people from Egypt (6:14–7:7)
• YHWH will bring them out (hôṣîʾ) from Egypt by their hosts (ʿal-ṣibʾōtām); to bring out (hôṣîʾ) from Egypt his hosts (ṣěbāʾôt), the Israelites
• “Moses and Aaron did so; as YHWH had commanded them, so they did”
• chronological note: ages of Moses and Aaron
b YHWH’s power to create life (7:8–13)
• initial sign (môpēt) to pharaoh: Aaron’s rod becomes a snake
c opening cycle of three plagues (7:14–8:19 [7:14–8:15])
• each introduced by YHWH’s instructing Moses/Aaron to stretch forth his hand with rod, followed by statement that Moses/Aaron does so, initiating plague
d CENTRAL CYCLE of three plagues: YHWH begins plagues without hand and rod of Moses/Aaron (8:20–9:12 [8:16–9:12])
c′ closing cycle of three plagues (9:13–10:29)
• each introduced by YHWH’s instructing Moses/Aaron to stretch forth his hand with rod, followed by statement that Moses/Aaron does so, initiating plague
b′ YHWH’s power to terminate life (11:1–10)
• final sign (môpēt) declared: death of firstborn
a′ YHWH rescues his people from Egypt (12:1–13:16)
• YHWH brings them out (hôṣîʾ) from Egypt by their hosts (ʿal-ṣibʾōtām); “the hosts (ṣěbāʾôt) of YHWH went out (yāṣāʾ) from the land of Egypt”
• “the people did so; as YHWH had commanded Moses and Aaron so they did”
• chronological note: length of years of sojourn in Egypt
Various scholars recognize that the plagues form three cycles of three plagues each, plus the tenth plague, which stands alone. Each cycle follows the same pattern. The first plague within each cycle is introduced by YHWH’s instructions to Moses to go and “stand before” (hityaṣṣēb and niṣṣab) pharaoh “in the morning” (babbōqer; 7:14–15; 8:20 [8:16]; 9:13). The second plague within each cycle is introduced simply by “YHWH said to Moses, ‘Go in to pharaoh’ (bôʾ ʾel-parʿōh”)” (8:1 [7:26]; 9:1; 10:1). The third plague within each cycle has no instructions by YHWH to go and warn pharaoh; rather, Moses is instructed to begin the plague by a symbolic action (8:16 [8:12]; 9:8; 10:21). Furthermore, various scholars recognize that the literary aim of each plague cycle is directed at particular Egyptian gods who protected the Pharaoh’s dynasty and empire (e.g. Nile/Hapy; Frogs/Heket; Mosquitos/Khepri-Atum; Flies/Khepri-Atum; Livestock/Apis-Ptah-Hathor; Ulcers/Sekhmet-Amen-Re; Hail/Nut-She-Tefnut-Seth; Locusts/Senehem; Darkness/Amen-Re). Indeed, even the repeated emphasis upon Pharaoh’s “livestock” is significant because during the latter end of the 13th dynasty (in which I, along with various Egyptologists, believe the “Exodus” event took place) the firstborn cattle of Pharaohs were considered objects of veneration.
It is also very important to note that a literary pause follows the ninth plague. The tenth plague is not recounted immediately after the ninth, as it is with all the previous plagues. Instead, tension is built through a lengthy introduction to the tenth, climactic plague against Pharaoh’s “firstborn.” This structuring strategy serves not only to heighten the suspense within the overall narrative framework, but to highlight this final plague in particular as the goal or aim of the previous nine plagues. This literary pause also offers an echo of the episode about Aaron’s rod, which immediately preceded the first nine plagues. In both sections, and nowhere else in the intervening narrative, the signs that are offered are called “wonders” (môpēt; 7:9; cf. 7:3; 11:9, 10), indicating clear literary continuity. The sign of Aaron’s rod becoming a snake demonstrated a challenge to the gods protecting Pharaoh’s dynasty. This final plague will demonstrate his power to destroy Pharaoh’s dynasty by destroying Pharaoh’s firstborn “who sits on his throne,” and even the firstborn of his livestock and slave-girl.
This entire section is also framed by matching introductory and concluding units. The opening unit features the genealogy of Moses and Aaron (heightening the anticipation that these two men are going to play a key role in the upcoming events). YHWH recommissions them for the task of leading Israel from Egypt. They are to “bring out” (hôṣîʾ) the Israelites from Egypt “by their hosts” (ʿal-ṣibʾōtām). YHWH promises, “I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring forth (hôṣîʾ) my hosts (ṣĕbāʾôt) … from the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment”. The term ṣěbāʾôt (“hosts” or “armies”), which occurs in both of these units, occurs nowhere else in the Book of Exodus. So these remarks are clearly intentional literary devices to grab our attention. These “hosts” (ṣĕbāʾôt) of the YHWH’s—who are now deemed to be Israelites—are also conceptually parallel with the “hosts” (ṣĕbāʾôt) of YHWH who are heavenly beings or “gods” allotted to the nations, as referenced throughout the Torah (Deut 4:19; 32:8; et. al) and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, thereby setting up a clear theme of conflict and warfare between Israel’s God and His enemies, the gods protecting Pharaoh’s dynasty. This introductory language is then echoed in the concluding section, which recounts the fulfillment of all that was promised in the introduction.
Finally, the concluding micro-section (12:1—13:16) then recounts the tenth plague and the exodus from Egypt and contains numerous correspondences with the introduction:
a instructions for preparing for plague on firstborn (12:1–13)
• lamb sacrificed (so YHWH will not slay firstborn sons of Israel as he will firstborn sons of pharaoh's dynasty)
b memorial of eating of unleavened bread (12:14–20)
c Passover meal instructions (12:21–28)
• Moses gives instructions to the people regarding the Passover meal (pesah)
• ends: “the Israelites did as YHWH commanded Moses and Aaron; thus they did (kēn ʿaśû)”
d CENTER: the exodus and tenth plague (12:29–42)
c′ additional Passover meal instructions (12:43–50)
• YHWH gives further instructions regarding the Passover meal (pesah)
• ends: “all the Israelites did as YHWH commanded Moses and Aaron; thus they did (kēn ʿaśȗ)”
b′ memorial of eating of unleavened bread (13:3–10)
a′ instructions for memorial of redeeming of firstborn (13:11–16)*
• redemption of firstborn by lamb to commemorate slaying of firstborn Egyptian sons and sparing of firstborn Israelite sons
Incidentally, Exodus 12:1–13:16 is a surprisingly lengthy and composite section of material to function as a single unit. It also sandwiches the tenth plague between very clear rituals pertaining to Israel’s liturgical practice in the “promised land” during Passover. For this reason most scholars believe its composition is best explained as containing clear editorial work of later Israelite scribes and not a single seamless narration of historical facts understood at the time of the Passover.
This concluding section represents the climax of the narrative that began in chapter one. As often occurs in climaxes, the speed of action slows significantly to help convey the importance of the event. The coherence of 12:1–13:16 is reinforced by its symmetric arrangement. At the center of the symmetry stands the climactic event itself—the exodus and the tenth plague. The additional material of the unit forms concentric circles around this center, which accounts for what otherwise might appear to be careless organization and repetition of liturgical data. As the liturgical rituals of Israel’s Passover circle around the section about destroying the Pharaoh’s "firstborn" along with all firstborn associated with his house, the reader is reminded that this destruction was ultimately about saving YHWH’s firstborn son from Pharaoh’s oppressive dynasty, which was explicitly stated at the beginning of Exodus when Moses became “great” and rose up to tell Pharaoh to let YHWH’s people go.
“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the YHWH, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”(4:22-23).
It’s rather astonishing to consider that the word “firstborn” appears in Exodus in a variety of places, most of which are contained in chapters 11-13; but prior to chapters 11-13 the only places we find the word “firstborn” mentioned are in 4:22, 23, and 6:14, which all refer to Israel as the Lord’s “firstborn” in contrast with Pharaoh’s “firstborn.”
1. The "sonship" of Israel and the "fatherhood" of YHWH also happens to be one of the most pervasive typological symbols of Israel's writings, thereby confirming the immense value of this "firstborn son" motif in the minds of whatever scribal redactors there were prior to and at the time of the text's final form.
2. Gunkel, Mowinckel, Noth, von Rad, Coats, et. al.
3. One example of this is found in the Turin Kings List, which lists nine Egyptian kings between Sobekhotep IV and Dudimose, covering a period of approximately forty years and multiple potential monarchs who reigned within the late 13th dynasty. Some scholars speculate that each reign was successive, whereas others speculate about simple co-regency, and others multiple rival kings at the same time. There is no definitive way to know at this point in history, but there is a lot of internal evidence which necessitates a reformation of traditional Egyptian chronology to make the records we have discovered match up with other contemporary documents.
4. That would be like a modern pre-school teacher discussing the meaning of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, as though it's obvious meaning and moral purpose was to illustrate the foolishness of a round egg sitting on top of a brick ledge. Hardly anyone today is aware of the authentic meaning and moral purpose behind that nursery rhyme, even though considerable scholarly evidence points to it as a clever aphorism about a foolish drunkard who is unable to piece his life back together because of his addiction.
5. I am aware that even the death of Pharaoh's "firstborn" (whether an adult or child) raises an important set of moral questions. This narrative of Exodus, along with many other narratives in the Hebrew scriptures, clearly reveal that civil monarchs (among whom Pharaoh is but one) do not have the right to take innocent human life, though YHWH, the God of Israel, Lord and Creator of all life, does have a transcendent "right" to do so. I am also aware that atheists do not accept such distinctive justifications about God's right to "kill" human life any more readily than judeo-christian theists accept atheistic justifications about killing some human beings. (As one example, David Smalley admitted on air that one of his exceptions to killing a human being was to stop a terrorist-shooter from killing a bunch of people by killing the terrorist first. Other exceptions, such as abortion, are sometimes offered along with some "scientific" or psychological or biological justification for breaking the general principle that killing people is "bad.")
Such actions by YHWH do not appear reasonable to modern sensibilities, especially as they pertain to illustrating Divine justice, goodness, or innocence. Even the manner in which we are supposed to understand the role that death plays in this world is not obvious at a surface-level of the Exodus/Passover narrative. With this in mind, I would like to make one brief series of remarks that are intended to explain a basic commitment of my own--one that I'm personally persuaded by, and one that I don't pretend ought to persuade everyone else.
That commitment of mine is the belief that all human beings habitually project onto "God" either images of unjust severity or presumptive liberality that are alien to actual "Divinity," and that people everywhere constantly reflect habits of deformed character among every human creature they interact with rather than God himself. Consequently, I consider it to be perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the accuracy or truth of certain portraits of God that have arisen in human history. Human idolatry lurks under the surface of a lot of what people say and believe about God. Christians and Israelites are no exception to this, either.
I am also well aware that the Hebrew scriptures contain certain ways of denoting the mystery of Divine justice that many modern people consider to be alarming. I still consider such denotations to be inspired by God somehow (and exactly how, I'm unwilling to describe at length right now). I also believe they are instructive as saving truth, even though all portraits within the ancient Hebrew scriptures have been portrayed through idioms of an ancient culture that was archaic and often politically ruthless. It is precisely because I am willing to interpret these ancient texts as ancient texts--and not anachronistically through modern superficial and tribalistic sensibilities alone--that I have no interest in rejecting anything which has been traditionally (and academically) understood as inspired by God somehow. Indeed, I believe such inspired teaching can be more poignant and profound today, even moreso than previous generations, precisely because I believe it was recorded, redacted, and preserved in an idiom of vigorous severity and even divinely appointed "primitiveness."
6. The chiastic literary structures of Exodus are referenced in many academic monographs and commentaries. The structures in this post are extracted and modified from Dorsey, D. A. (2004). The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi (p. 66-67). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
7. For a detailed analysis of Egyptian topography during all periods of the Exodus alleged by various Egyptologists, see Rohl, David (2015). Exodus: Myth or History? (pp. 88-166). St Louis Park, MN: Thinking Man Media.