The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus

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Author: Louis Ginzberg

The Smiting of the First-Born

When Moses announced the slaying of the first-born, the designated victims all repaired to their fathers, and said: "Whatever Moses hath foretold has been fulfilled. Let the Hebrews go, else we shall all die." But the fathers replied, "It is better for one of every ten of us to die, than the Hebrews should execute their purpose." Then the first-born repaired to Pharaoh, to induce him to dismiss the children of Israel. So far from granting their wish, he ordered his servants to fall upon the first-born and beat them, to punish them for their presumptuous demand. Seeing that they could not accomplish their end by gentle means, they attempted to bring it about by force.[211]

Pharaoh and all that opposed the wishes of the first-born were of the opinion that the loss of so inconsiderable a percentage of the population was a matter of small moment. They were mistaken in their calculation, for the Divine decree included not only the first-born sons, but also the first-born daughters, and not only the first-born of the marriages then existing, but also the first-born issuing from previous alliances of the fathers and the mothers, and as the Egyptians led dissolute lives, it happened not rarely that each of the ten children of one woman was the first-born of its father. Finally, God decreed that death should smite the oldest member of every household, whether or not he was the first-born of his parents.[212] What God resolves is executed. At the exact instant marking the middle of the night, so precise that only God Himself could determine and discern it, He appeared in Egypt, attended by nine thousand myriads of the Angels of Destruction who are fashioned some of hail and some of flames, and whose glances drive terror and trembling to the heart of the beholder. These angels were about to precipitate themselves into the work of annihilation, but God restrained them, saying, "My wrath will not be appeased until I Myself execute vengeance upon the enemies of Israel."[213]

Those among the Egyptians who gave credence to Moses’ words, and tried to shield their first-born children from death, sent them to their Hebrew neighbors, to spend the fateful night with them, in the hope that God would exempt the houses of the children of Israel from the plague. But in the morning, when the Israelites arose from their sleep, they found the corpses of the Egyptian fugitives next to them.[214] That was the night in which the Israelites prayed before lying down to sleep: "Cause us, O Lord our God, to lie down in peace, remove Satan from before us and from behind us, and guard our going out and our coming in unto life and unto peace,"[215] for it was Satan that had caused frightful bloodshed among the Egyptians.[216]

Among the slain there were, beside the Egyptian firstborn, also the first-born of other nationalities residing in Egypt, as well as the Egyptian first-born dwelling outside of their own land.[217] Even the long dead of the first-born were not spared. The dogs dragged their corpses out of their graves in the houses, for it was the Egyptian custom to inter the dead at home. At the appalling sight the Egyptians mourned as though the bereavement had befallen them but recently. The very monuments and statues erected to the memory of the first-born dead were changed into dust, which was scattered and flew out of sight. Moreover, their slaves had to share the fate of the Egyptians, and no less the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon, for none was so low but he hated the Hebrews, and rejoiced when the Egyptians decreed their persecution.[218] The female slaves that ground corn between mill-stones were in the habit of saying, "We do not regret our servitude, if only the Israelites are gagged, too.[219]

In dealing out punishment to these aliens in the land of Egypt, God showed that He was at once the Master of the land and the Lord over all the gods of the nations, for if the slaves and the captives of war had not been smitten, they would have said, "Mighty is our god, who helped us in this plague."[220] For the same reason all the idols of the Egyptians were swept out of existence in that night. The stone idols were ground into dust, the wooden idols rotted, and those made of metal melted away,[221] and so the Egyptians were kept from ascribing their chastisement to the wrath of their own gods. Likewise the Lord God slew the first-born of the cattle, for the Egyptians paid worship to animals, and they would have attributed their misfortunes to them. In all these ways the Lord showed them that their gods were but vanity.

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Chicago: Louis Ginzberg, "The Smiting of the First-Born," The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, trans. Rodwell, J. M. in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus Original Sources, accessed July 5, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7DS6I5I7KAYD353.

MLA: Ginzberg, Louis. "The Smiting of the First-Born." The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, translted by Rodwell, J. M., in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, Original Sources. 5 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7DS6I5I7KAYD353.

Harvard: Ginzberg, L, 'The Smiting of the First-Born' in The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, trans. . cited in , The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus. Original Sources, retrieved 5 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7DS6I5I7KAYD353.