A Death In The Family

Losing a son.

Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt by Charles Sprague Pearce (1877)

In Exodus chapters 11 and 12, we are told the story of how the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. The escape comes after the last of 10 plagues on the Egyptian nation, the final plague being the death of every first born son in Egypt.

God did not exclude the Israelites themselves from this plague. He gave them instead a way to save their first born sons’, if they followed a set of specific instructions.

Until a short time before I wrote this post, I had always assumed that first born son always referred to a child. I am probably not the only person to make this assumption, which I now realise was incorrect. Hands up if you thought the same. So this is for everyone who was under the same misapprehension that I was.

The clue that I made a mistake is in the precise wording of Exodus 11, Verse 5 (NIV UK). It says “Every firstborn son in Egypt will die” I might have read the words before but had not properly understood them. It does not say every Egyptian first born son. It does not say first born child and it does not say first born in a household. it says “Every firstborn son”.

We tend to automatically think of “son” as child but it is not always so. A first born son can be a fully grown man. Some families would include three, or possibly even four generations. If each generation had a son, that might be four deaths in the family not just one, as I had previously supposed.

It is possible to be a grand father or even a great grandfather and still be the first born son to your own parent, albeit that parent has already died. Potentially, taking the words of the bible literally, the number of deaths might have been greater than many of us had assumed until now.

At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn
of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was
in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. – Exodus 12: 29

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