So now things are coming down to the climax of this grand farce. God tells Moses that there’s one more plague coming, and afterwards Pharaoh will finally be able to let them go. So to prepare, he should tell the Israelites to go “ask” the Egyptians for their gold and silver. And because the Egyptians are scared shitless of Moses and the plagues, they give up the treasure.
Then Moses goes in to see Pharaoh and deliver the superfluous warning of the coming plague. And that plague will be the death of the firstborn of every single household in Egypt, from the Pharaoh on down to the servants and prisoners and even the livestock. You know… the livestock who all died in an earlier plague… and then were killed in the plague of hail as well. Someone ought to look into these apparently regenerating livestock – we could be overlooking the solution to world hunger.
Of course, Pharaoh once again ignores the warning because God hardened his heart, and Moses leaves him “in a hot anger.” I don’t blame Moses for being mad; he knows these warnings and demands are a farce since Pharaoh has been denied the freedom to acquiesce to them, and being forced by Yahweh to go back over and over again to play out the same tragic puppet show must be really frustrating.
Next God gives some very specific orders about how the Israelites should protect themselves from having their firstborn killed. Every household is supposed to take an unblemished year old lamb (either goat or sheep), kill it, and mark their doorposts and lintels with the blood. Then they are to eat the lamb – all of it including the head and guts. And it must be roasted; not raw and not boiled. They are to have a side of unleavened bread and use bitter herbs. And anything that’s left over must be burned before morning. And they have to eat it with their belts fastened, their sandals on their feet, and their staffs in their hand. And they have to eat it quickly. This is the Passover, so named because while they’re having this little feast God will pass over their houses on his mission to kill all the firstborn of Egypt. And the reason for eating quickly while fully dressed is because God said after the firstborn were killed the Egyptians would kick them out of Egypt immediately.
Then they are given instructions that every year for the rest of time they are to celebrate the event by eating only unleavened bread for seven days. Anyone who doesn’t is supposed to be cut off from Israel. Oh yeah… and their slaves can partake of it as well. Here we are, the Israelites haven’t even been released from their own slavery and they’re already making statutes for stuff their slaves are allowed to do. Well, at least we know God and the Israelites have no issue with slavery, just with themselves being slaves.
So, all the instructions having been given, the appointed night comes and sure enough god kills all the firstborn.
“Ex 12:29 At midnight Yahweh struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, an all the firstborn of the livestock.”
There are those regenerating livestock again. Some of them are being killed for the third time! Also interesting to note that the captives in the dungeon – you know, people who are explicitly not participating in the society that was oppressing the Israelites – were also punished.
Anyway, at this point Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron, and he tells them to take their people and get the fuck out right now. So the Israelites depart with the gold and silver they plundered from the Egyptians. According to the Bible, there were six hundred thousand men, plus women and children (who aren’t numbered, since only the men are important in the Bible). So… let’s say between 1.5 and 2 million people. According to the Bible, they had lived in Egypt as a people for 430 years.
So then Yahweh gives Moses some additional instructions about the Passover feast. Foreigners and hired servants aren’t allowed to eat it unless they are circumcised. Slaves can eat it (after they are circumcised). It has to be eaten in one house, and no part of it can be taken outside. None of the lamb’s bones can be broken. He also instructs Moses that all the firstborn, whether humans or livestock, are to be consecrated (i.e. sacrificed) to him.
Moses passes on all the instructions to the Israelites, though he makes some alterations (are we supposed to assume that God told him all of these details and the Bible just didn’t bother to record that part of the conversation, or that Moses just made this shit up?). For example: though all the firstborn supposedly belong to God, Moses tells the Israelites that a donkey can be redeemed (bought back) by substituting a lamb. But if you can’t afford the lamb, you have to break the donkey’s neck. The very next thing he says is that you redeem a child with a lamb as well, but nothing is said about what you do if you can’t afford the lamb. Do you have to break the child’s neck? He doesn’t say. I guess you just better make damn sure you can get a lamb somewhere.
So the Israelites set out from Egypt with God leading them on, appearing in the form of a pillar of smoke during the day and a column of fire by night. But instead of leading them directly toward Canaan (they would have to pass through Philistine lands, and God doesn’t want them deciding to go back to Egypt to avoid war with the Philistines), he leads them toward the Red Sea where he has them set up camp. Then:
“Ex 14:4 ‘And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them [the Israelites], and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am Yahweh.’ And they did so.”
Oh… did you think he was done fucking with Pharaoh’s mind? Not at all! Pharaoh set out to pursue the Israelites because God once again took over his mind and forced him to do it. In fact, it’s repeated at least two more times in the story that God changed Pharaoh’s mind and forced him to pursue the Israelites. Apparently this fact is very important in the original text, but for some reason it was never part of my Sunday school lessons on Exodus. Possibly because it’s indefensible.
So Pharaoh gathers up his army and sets out after them. When the Israelites saw the army approaching, they got scared and started asking Moses why he’d dragged them out here into the wilderness if all they were going to get out of it was being killed by Pharaoh’s army. Moses responds that they should just trust that God will fight for them.
God then commands Moses to hold out his staff over the sea, and it will part for them so that the Israelites can cross. Now… we all have this image in our heads from things like the Charlton Heston movie The Ten Commandments where the sea leaps up at his command. What’s actually described is that God brings up a strong east wind that pushes the sea apart slowly over the course of an entire night. He (in the form of the pillar of fire/smoke) moves between the Israelites and the army in order to keep the Egyptians from attacking while this process is going on.
Then the Israelites begin to cross the sea. And once they’re across God gets out of the way so the Egyptians can pursue them. Now… I always thought even as a child that these Egyptians were pretty stupid. I mean, epically dumb on a level seen only in Congress. After all these plagues and with the sure knowledge that God will happily kill people by the cartloads, they then choose to follow the Israelites between these massive walls of water. Well, the Bible provides an answer to that stupidity.
“Ex 14:17 ‘And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.’”
That’s right. The secret to the Egyptians’ stupidity turns out to be God. Because he thinks it brings him glory to take over their wills and march them like mindless little lemmings into an obviously suicidal situation.
So there we go. God marches the Egyptians into the sea. Then he sends them into a panic while he sends the water crashing back in on them. The Egyptian army and the Pharaoh all drown, and the Israelites are free. So they sing him a song, and the captivity in Egypt is over.
In the next post, we start the Israelites’ journey to Canaan. If we’re lucky we’ll get as far as the Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments, but that depends how much commentary is needed along the way. Quite a bit actually happens between here and there, though it’s not all that dramatic so we don’t hear about it a lot.
Take care all!