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The Death of Pharaoh's Firstborn: A One Plague Exodus

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David Frankel

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The Death of Pharaoh's Firstborn: A One Plague Exodus

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The Death of Pharaoh's Firstborn: A One Plague Exodus

After commissioning Moses at the burning bush, God commissions Moses again in Midian, and then again on his way to Egypt. In this third commission, God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me, yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your firstborn son” (Exod 4:22-23). How does this narrative fit into the exodus story?

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The Death of Pharaoh's Firstborn: A One Plague Exodus

Death of the Pharaoh’s Firstborn Son, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1872. Rijksmuseum

Does God First Speak to Moses in Midian or at the Bush?

God speaks to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:1-4:17) and sends him to Egypt to speak with Pharaoh and free the Israelites:

שמות ג:י וְעַתָּה לְכָה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְהוֹצֵא אֶת עַמִּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Exod 3:10 Come, I am sending you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.

Following this commission, Moses returns to his father-in-law and lets him know that he plans on returning to Egypt (4:18):

שמות ד:יח וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וַיָּשָׁב אֶל יֶתֶר חֹתְנוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֵלְכָה נָּא וְאָשׁוּבָה אֶל אַחַי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרַיִם וְאֶרְאֶה הַעוֹדָם חַיִּים וַיֹּאמֶר יִתְרוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה לֵךְ לְשָׁלוֹם.
Exod 4:18 Moses went back to his father-in-law Jether and said to him, “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”

Moses mentions nothing about the commission. Instead, God again speaks to Moses and commands him to go to Egypt (4:19):

שמות ד:יט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְיָן לֵךְ שֻׁב מִצְרָיִם כִּי מֵתוּ כָּל הָאֲנָשִׁים הַמְבַקְשִׁים אֶת נַפְשֶׁךָ.
Exod 4:19 YHWH said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.”

It is quite strange for God to tell Moses to return to Egypt after he has already been instructed to do so at the burning bush and even told his father-in-law of his return! Abraham ibn Ezra is so bothered by this that he invokes the ultimate rabbinic escape clause (long commentary, ad loc.):

אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. הכי פירושו: וכבר אמר
The narrative order of the Torah differs from the chronological order of events (lit. “there is no earlier and later in the Torah”).[1] This is the meaning [of the phrase “and he said to Moses” here]: “He had already said…”

According to ibn Ezra, this was the first revelation and the second was at the burning bush, but, as already noted by the Ramban (ad loc.), this is not a logical reading of the text.[2]

The Midian Commission: An Independent Tradition

It is hard to escape the sense that verse 19, in its original context, represented the first time that God told Moses to return to Egypt. Thus, it reflects a parallel or alternative tradition to God commissioning Moses at the burning bush on the Mountain of God.[3] At the burning bush, Moses made multiple arguments to God about why he cannot go to Egypt and fulfill God’s mission, but he never mentions the most obvious reason why he shouldn’t return to Egypt – the issue raised here – that he was wanted for murder! This further suggests that Exod 4:19 is independent of the burning bush tradition. 

The independent character of this tradition is also indicated by the unexpected formulation, “for all the men that seek your life have died.” In the previous narrative, it was specifically Pharaoh who sought to kill Moses (2:15). Moreover, Pharaoh’s death is recorded earlier (2:23), before the account of the burning bush.[4] In order to connect the revelation in v. 19 with the death of Pharaoh recorded in 2:23, the LXX repeats the information here again (Exod 4:19, LXX):

After those many days, the King of Egypt died. And the Lord said to Moses in Madian…[5]

God Speaks to Moses on His Way Back to Egypt

The text continues with Moses taking his wife and sons and setting out for Egypt (4:20).[6]

שמות ד:כ וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת בָּנָיו וַיַּרְכִּבֵם עַל הַחֲמֹר וַיָּשָׁב אַרְצָה מִצְרָיִם…
Exod 4:20 So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt…[7]

At this point, God once again addresses Moses with the following (Exod 4:21-23):

שמות ד:כא וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּלֶכְתְּךָ לָשׁוּב מִצְרַיְמָה רְאֵה כָּל הַמֹּפְתִים אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בְיָדֶךָ וַעֲשִׂיתָם לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי אֲחַזֵּק אֶת לִבּוֹ וְלֹא יְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעָם.
Exod 4:21 And YHWH said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put into your hand. I, however, will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.
ד:כב וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל. ד:כג וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ שַׁלַּח אֶת בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי וַתְּמָאֵן לְשַׁלְּחוֹ הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג אֶת בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ.
4:22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says YHWH: Israel is My first-born son. 4:23 I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your firstborn son.'”

These three verses disrupt the theme of the journey spoken of in verse 20 and what follows in verses 24-26, which relates the famous story of the “bloody bridegroom,” which picks up on the theme of Moses travelling to Egypt with his wife that began in verse 20:[8]

שמות ד:כד וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ בַּמָּלוֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ יְ-הוָה וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ…
Exod 4:24 And it was that at a night encampment on the way, YHWH encountered him and sought to kill him…

This verse uses an undefined pronoun as the object of the verbs “encountered him and sought to kill him” – but who is the him? If we read the verse immediately after v. 20, as opposed to after vv. 21-23, the referent is clear, since Moses is the subject of v. 20. 

In contrast, the ostensible continuity between the threat of the divine killing of Pharaoh’s firstborn (v.23), and the divine attempt to kill Moses (v.24), is quite disjunctive. Thus, verses 21-23, which we have referred to above as the third commission of Moses, were originally unconnected to the verses before or after it, which represent a separate tradition dealing with Moses’ travels with his family.

The Presentation of the 10th Plague

Peeling Verse 21 off Verses 22-23

In my “Taking Control of the Story: God Hardens Pharaoh’s Heart,” I suggested that the idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart from the very outset was introduced into the Exodus text by a late Priestly editor. This, together with the reference to the plagues as “marvels” (מופתים) that God was already planning on performing in Egypt, a Priestly conception,[9] indicates that most of verse 21 is Priestly (cf. 7:3; 11:9-10) and redactional. On the other hand, verses 22-23 reflect the style of the non-Priestly writer (see appendix for a chart).[10]

4:22-23 Versus 11:4-8

Despite the overlap in style with the bulk of the non-Priestly plague account, in content, vv. 22-23 are in serious tension with its description of the tenth plague. In 4:22-23, God tells Moses to warn Pharaoh that Israel is YHWH’s firstborn and he will kill Pharaoh’s firstborn if Pharaoh doesn’t let the Israelites go. But when Moses introduces the plague of the death of the firstborn in chapter 11, his words are totally different:

שמות יא:ד וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה כַּחֲצֹת הַלַּיְלָה אֲנִי יוֹצֵא בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם.יא:ה וּמֵת כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכוֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאוֹ עַד בְּכוֹר הַשִּׁפְחָה אֲשֶׁר אַחַר הָרֵחָיִם וְכֹל בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה. יא:ו וְהָיְתָה צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר כָּמֹהוּ לֹא נִהְיָתָה וְכָמֹהוּ לֹא תֹסִף…יא:ח וְיָרְדוּ כָל עֲבָדֶיךָ אֵלֶּה אֵלַי וְהִשְׁתַּֽחֲווּ לִי לֵאמֹר צֵא אַתָּה וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בְּרַגְלֶיךָ וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן אֵצֵא
Exod 11:4 Moses said, “Thus says YHWH: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians, 11:5 and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. 11:6 And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again… 11:8 Then all these courtiers of yours shall come down to me and bow low to me, saying, ‘Depart, you and all the people who follow you!’ After that I will depart.”

Moses says nothing here about Israel being YHWH’s firstborn and the punishment being a quid pro quo. Indeed, we never again hear the rationale for the plague of the firstborn given in ch. 4, that Israel is God’s firstborn son so that anyone sabotaging the son’s obligation to serve God deserves to lose his own son.

In addition, the scope of the plague is entirely different. In chapter 11, the threat is to kill all the firstborns of all the Egyptians including even the animals;[11] and this is indeed what happens in the next chapter. In chapter 4, however, the threat is against Pharaoh’s firstborn alone.

Eliding the Differences

Previous interpreters have struggled variously to resolve these difficulties.

SP – Adding to Moses’ Speech

The Samaritan Pentateuch solves the problem of Moses never delivering the speech by creating an expanded text in which Moses does, in fact, deliver the speech, which, in the SP, appears just before Exodus 11:4:

ויאמר משה אל פרעה כה אמר י-הוה בני בכרי ישראל ואמר אליך שלח את בני ויעבדני ותמאן לשלחו הנה י-הוה הורג את בנך בכורך.
Moses said to Pharaoh: “Thus said the Lord: ‘Israel is my firstborn son, so I say to you, “Let My son go that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now YHWH will slay your first-born son.’”

Thus, according to SP, Moses did indeed relate the words of Exodus 4:22-23 as a preamble to the message in 11:4-8. But this is almost certainly a harmonizing supplement; the SP is well known for its late usage of this kind of harmonizing conflation of texts.[12]

“Your” Collective Son(s)

Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann attempts to solve the problem that the threat makes it sound as if only Pharaoh’s son will be targeted and not all the firstborn sons of all Egyptians by arguing that even though Pharaoh is being addressed in the singular, it should be understood in the plural:

את בנך בכרך – במשמעות שם קיבוצי, כלומר כל בכורי מצרים.
Your firstborn son – in a collective sense, meaning all the firstborn of Egypt.

This suggestion, however, is a forced attempt to make this verse cohere with the description of the plague in chapter 11. 

God Threatens to Kill Moses’ Firstborn

A radical approach suggested by some interpreters is to suggest that this was not meant to be said to Pharaoh, but that God is saying it to Moses, i.e., that God is threatening to kill Moses’ firstborn son if he doesn’t fulfill God’s mission. Ibn Ezra quotes them and criticizes them in his short commentary:

ועורים אמרו: כי שב בנך למשה בענין המילה… וחלילה חלילה, ואלו הנקראים: אוילים מדרך פשעם.
The blind ones say that [the word] “your son” refers to Moses and relates to what occurred with the circumcision…. God forbid! Such people are meant by the verse (Ps 107:17): “They were fools who suffered for their sinful way.”[13]

The “blind ones” as ibn Ezra calls them, are noting the fact that immediately after this warning about “I will kill your firstborn son,” God actually tries to kill Moses’ firstborn son:

וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ בַּמָּלוֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ יְ-הוָה וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ.
At a night encampment on the way, YHWH encountered him and sought to kill him.[14]

According to this interpretation, Moses was to tell Pharaoh that Israel was God’s firstborn son and nothing more. Additionally, God told Moses (=ואמר אליך) that Moses was to let Israel go free, even threatening to kill his (Moses’) firstborn son if he refused to assist God in this project. This divine threat was then followed by the story of the bloody bridegroom, which, following this reading, told of how God indeed sought to kill Moses’ firstborn son.

Shadal

Among more recent commentators, Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865) adopted a variation of this view:

על כן אמר לו ה׳ כדבר הזה, למען יבין כי גם הוא אם לא יעשה שליחותו באופן שיהיה סבה לעכוב יציאת ישראל ממצרים, גם הוא כך יהיה ענשו, שיהרוג ה׳ את בנו בכורו, וכן היה כי בהיותם במלון.
The reason God said this to him is so that he would understand that if he does not fulfill his mission is such a way as to be the cause for Israel’s exodus from Egypt being delayed, the same punishment will happen to him, that God will kill his firstborn son, and this is what happened when they arrived at the encampment.

Shadal argues that by bringing his family along, Moses was endangering the mission and this is why God went to kill his firstborn son, as he had threatened to do.

This interpretation is problematic. Verse 23 sounds as if it is being said to Pharaoh (“send my people forth,” “if you refuse”), not to Moses; it doesn’t say, “make sure you tell Pharaoh to send forth my son” or “if you refuse to help get my son released.”[15] Moreover, it would make no sense at all to tell Pharaoh “Israel is God’s firstborn son” without following this up with a demand. Finally, the person about to be killed in the bloody bridegroom story seems to be Moses himself and not his son. In short, though this reading offers a very creative solution, it is impossible to consider as peshat.

The Earliest Tradition of the Plague

In his biblical commentary, Mikra Kepeshuto (The Bible According to Its Simple Meaning), Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) writes (Exod 4:22):

הדברים האלה עיקר הפרשה הזו וקודמים בזמן לכלה. ועל פי הדברים האלה מכת בכורות המכה האחת שהכה ה’ במצרים, ואם כן לא רבו המכות והיו לעשר מכות כי אם ברבות הימים.
These words are the main part of the chapter and earlier then all of it. According to these words, the plague of the firstborn is the only plague that God struck in Egypt. If so, the plagues did not multiply and become ten until later.[16]

Ehrlich suggests that our little text is the most ancient text in the chapter, and that an early form of the exodus story simply had God threatening and then carrying out the plague of the firstborn as his only attack against the Egyptians. This story was the kernel from which the much longer and more elaborate plague story sprouted. I agree with Ehrlich but would like to take the point a little farther.

Only the Plague of the Firstborn

Certain biblical texts seem to imply that the plague of the firstborn was the only plague. This is implied, for example, in Exodus 13:

שמות יג:טו וַיְהִי כִּי הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה לְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ וַיַּהֲרֹג יְ-הֹוָה כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכֹר אָדָם וְעַד בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה עַל כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַי-הוָה כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים וְכָל בְּכוֹר בָּנַי אֶפְדֶּה.
Exod 13:15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, YHWH slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both man and beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to YHWH every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every first-born among my sons.

This text suggests that killing the firstborn of all the Egyptians is the one plague God sent. But this is not what God says he will do in his message to Moses in 4:22-23, which references only the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn and says nothing about the death of the firstborn of other Egyptians.[17] Thus there seems to be a difference in how the death of the firstborn is pictured between the message to Moses text in 4:22-23 on one hand (only Pharaoh’s firstborn son) and the plague of the firstborn narrative in chs. 11-12 and the explanation for the sacrifice of firstborn animals in 13:15 on the other (all Egyptian firstborn sons).

As biblical traditions tend to expand as opposed to contract, we may conjecture the following developmental trajectory:

  1. Death of Pharaoh’s firstborn as the only plague (Exod 4:22-23).
  2. Death of all the Egyptians’ firstborn as the only plague (Exod 13:14-16).
  3. Death of the Egyptians’ firstborn as the last of many plagues (Exod 11:1).

This development explains why Moses does not introduce the plague of the firstborn in Exod 11, which assumes that all the Egyptian firstborn will be killed, with the message in 4:22-23. The threat of ch. 4 is specifically against Pharaoh’s firstborn, and these verses belong to a different tradition of the plague of all the firstborn son found in 11:1 and 13:14-16.

Heightening the Miraculous

The expansion upon the death of the firstborn concept from only Pharaoh to all the firstborn sons (and animals) of Egypt, was intended to heighten and intensify the miraculous character of the event. The tradition about Pharaoh’s firstborn son dying contains nothing overtly miraculous. Other than Moses’ accurate foretelling, it cannot be considered a “marvel-plague.” It is unlike, e.g., turning the water of the Nile into blood or the simultaneous death of all the firstborn males of Egypt.

The process of heightening the miraculous character of the plagues of Egypt is found elsewhere in the plague narratives:

  • The development of the plague of blood (Exod 7), in which an older story about dead fishing poisoning the water, becomes a story about the water turning to blood.[18]
  • The plague of hail (Exod 9:13-35) becomes hail burning with fire (v. 24).
  • The splitting of the Sea (Exod 14) amplifies an older account about wind blowing the sea back.[19]

A Stub from an Older Narrative: Can it be attached?

The early tradition of the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn son alone makes eminent sense in terms of divine retribution: Since it is Pharaoh alone who decides whether or not to let the Israelites go, he is the one who should be punished. But it is difficult to know where this tradition of a very limited death of the firstborn fit within that larger narrative.

In spite of this difficulty, I would like to offer two possible contexts for the tradition of Exodus 4:22-23.

1. God’s Missing Instructions in Midian

We noted above that 4:19 records an independent account of Moses’ return from Midian unrelated to the Burning Bush pericope, in which YHWH informs Moses that he can return to Egypt because those who wanted to kill him have died. But this verse on its own is a stub, since it has God telling Moses that he can return to Egypt but it does not describe God giving Moses any instructions, which is something we would expect to hear in a revelation story. We also noted that that v. 20, in which Moses and his family travel to Egypt, originally connected directly to the story of God’s attack on Moses in vv. 24-26.

This allows for the possibility that vv. 21-23 may have originally followed v. 19, and that they contain the “missing” instructions:[20]

שמות ד:יט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְיָן לֵךְ שֻׁב מִצְרָיִם כִּי מֵתוּ כָּל הָאֲנָשִׁים הַמְבַקְשִׁים אֶת נַפְשֶׁךָ. // ד:כב וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל….
Exod 4:19 YHWH said to Moses in Midian, “Return to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead. // 4:22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says YHWH: Israel is My first-born son…”[21]

Evidence that vv. 21-23 (in their unredacted form) originally followed v. 19 can be seen from the Wiederaufnahme (resumptive repetition) in 21a “as you return to Egypt” (בְּלֶכְתְּךָ לָשׁוּב מִצְרַיְמָה) that repeats “return to Egypt” (שֻׁב מִצְרָיִם) in v. 19.[22] This not only connects the two verses literarily, but the need to repeat the mention of Moses’ return demonstrates that a redactor was trying to maintain the connection between the verses despite the addition of an interrupting verse, namely, v. 20, which describes Moses and his family riding back to Egypt.

2. God’s Mighty Hand

Alternatively, “the death of Pharaohs firstborn son” may have originally followed Exodus 6:1. In Exodus 5, Moses requests from Pharaoh that the people be allowed to go on a pilgrimage. Pharaoh rebuffs him with the assertion that he never has heard of YHWH. Pharaoh then intensifies the people’s labor and the Israelite leaders express their anger with Moses and Aaron. Verses 22-23, followed by 6:1 read:

שמות ה:כב וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְ-הוָה וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּנִי. ה:כג וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל פַּרְעֹה לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ הֵרַע לָעָם הַזֶּה וְהַצֵּל לֹא הִצַּלְתָּ אֶת עַמֶּךָ. ו:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עַתָּה תִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה יְשַׁלְּחֵם וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ.
Exod 5:22 So Moses returned to YHWH and said, “Lord, why have You brought trouble on this people? Why is it You have sent me? 5:23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.” 6:1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh. For with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.”

The non-priestly text breaks here, and 6:2 begins the alternative, Priestly version of Moses’ call.[23] In classical source-critical analysis, this non-Priestly text finds its continuation in the non-Priestly version of the blood plague (Exodus 7:14-18),[24] which is certainly possible. Nevertheless, a number of elements in 6:1 imply that it may not continue naturally into the “standard” plagues account:

“Now You Shall See” – God informs Moses that he will do something to Pharaoh “now” and that that will cause Pharaoh to drive the Israelites out with a strong hand. The exodus seems to be rather imminent, “now.” One hardly gets the impression that a long series of plagues will ensue, with Pharaoh continually making his heart heavy, before it actually occurs.[25]

“What I will do to Pharaoh” – If the verse is picturing God bringing plagues upon the Egyptians, why describe it as something God will do to Pharaoh, as if he is going to be the only person directly affected.

Pharaoh’s “Mighty Hand” – Nowhere in the “standard” plague narrative do we find any echo of the idea that Pharaoh expelled the Israelites with a “mighty hand.”[26] This phrase is always applied to God alone.[27] Again, one gets the impression that we are dealing here with material that diverges from the formulations and conceptions of the standard plague narrative.

Might we then assume that God, at this very point, instructed Moses to warn Pharaoh that if he continues to refuse God’s demand God would kill his firstborn son, and that this plague then led to Pharaoh’s strong-handed expulsion of the Israelites?[28] If so, we must posit that the Priestly redactor of verse 21 (see above) moved this pericope earlier, and presented it as a revelation in Midian or the wilderness and not, as it now seems to be presented,[29] in Egypt.[30]    

PostScript: A Tradition with no Plagues

Although we cannot be sure of the original context of Exod 4:22-23, it reflects a tradition in which there was no long plague narrative, or even a widespread plague of the firstborn, but only the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn.

We have noted at least three texts that may have been part of this tradition:

  1. The laconic divine commission of Moses at Midian rather than the detailed one at the Mountain of God (4:19);
  2. The death of the firstborn of Pharaoh rather than of all the Egyptians (4:22-23);
  3. The divine assault against Pharaoh as immediately effective rather than as prolonged and protracted (6:1).

Whether these traditions were all once part of a single narrative is unclear, but they all tend to point to a single idea, that the tradition of the ten plagues against all of Egypt is the end product of a long developmental process which began with an exodus story without plagues, but only a punishment to Pharaoh.[31]

Appendix

Language Conventions in 4:22-23 and the Non-Priestly Plague Account

A) Then you shall say to Pharaoh: “Thus says YHWH…”; וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה.

5:1, ויאמרו אל פרעה, כה אמר ה’…;
7:16-17, ואמרת אליו… כה אמר ה’;
7:26, ואמרת אליו, כה אמר ה’;
8:16, ואמרת אליו, כה אמר ה’;
9:1, ואמרת אליו, כה אמר ה’;
9:13, ואמרת אליו כה אמר ה’;
10:3, ויאמרו אליו, כה אמר ה’;
11:4, ויאמר משה, כה אמר ה’.

B) Let My son go, that he may worship Me; שַׁלַּח אֶת בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי.

5:1, שלח את עמי ויחגו לי במדבר;
7:15, שלח את עמי ויעבדני במדבר;
7:26, שלח את עמי ויעבדני;
8:16, שלח את עמי ויעבדני;
9:1, שלח את עמי ויעבדני;
9:13, שלח את עמי ויעבדני;
10:3, שלח עמי ויעבדני.

C) Yet you refuse to let him go; וַתְּמָאֵן לְשַׁלְּחוֹ.

7:15, והנה לא שמעת עד כה;
7:27, ואם מאן אתה לשלח;
8:17,כי אם אינך משלח את עמי ;
9:2, כי אם מאן אתה לשלח;
9:17, עודך מסתולל בעמי לבלתי שלחם;
10:4, כי אם מאן אתה לשלח את עמי.

D) Now I will slay your first-born son; הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג אֶת בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ.

7:17, הנה אנכי מכה;
7:27, הנה אנכי נגף;
8:17, הנני משליח בך ובעבדיך…;
9:3, הנה יד ה’ הויה במקנך;
9:18, הנני ממטיר כעת מחר…;
10:4, הנני מביא מחר ארבה…;
11:4-5, אני יוצא בתוך מצרים ומת…

Published

January 6, 2018

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Last Updated

September 19, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.