Good Question... Was God being evil when He killed all the firstborn in Egypt?

Draft Date: November 23/2003 | Minor update May 8/2009

I got this question a while back and wanted to make an initial reply:

Pharaoh was holding Moses and his people captive, and doing really nasty things to them. God tells Pharaoh to let his people go, but Pharaoh says no. To show Pharaoh that he means business, God retaliates by killing thousands of first born children (and adults that were first borns too I guess). I'll stick to the children though. I'm assuming some first borns were young. Anyway, many of those children had nothing to do with the slavery and atrocities committed by the Egyptian rulers. It's a lot like being put punished for something

someone else does.

My question would be then, why would I want to worship a vengeful God who slaughters innocent children?

As in many of the skeptical questions I get, the conclusion they end up with is often correct in some basic sense (i.e., 'we should not worship a vengeful God who slaughters innocent children'), but the reasoning which leads up to the conclusion doesn't indicate that the conclusion applies to the biblical God. In other words, their ethics are okay, but their exegesis (and sometimes hermeneutic or theology is mistaken).

In this case, the questioner seems merely to have missed a few of the salient facts in the historical situation.

Here is the passage in question:

The promise of the Tenth Plague (Ex 11.4ff):

Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. 5 Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 6 Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. 7 But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. 8 Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.” And in hot anger he left Pharaoh.

The execution of the Plague (Ex 12.29ff):

At midnight the Lord 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 prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead [lit: “a dead male something”]. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. 32 Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”

The first thing lets do is to size this Plague, from a couple of different angles.

  1. Households in which the firstborns were female (approximately 50% of the households in Egypt).

  2. Households in which there are NO surviving male firstborn children (probably another 25% of the households (half of the other 50%), due to high infant mortality rates—especially among first births).

This suggests that only 25% of the households in Egypt at the time would have had firstborn male children who could be victims of the plague.

“It is difficult to assess the size of the average Egyptian family from surviving records. Late Middle Kingdom documents from the town of al-Lahun mention families with between two and six children, but Middle Kingdom stelae often show much larger family groups. A late-Twentieth Dynasty list of households at Dayr al-Madina gives an average of six people per family, but this probably does not include infants, or grown-up children who had left home. The evidence of stelae and tombs from Dayr al-Madina shows that families with eight or ten children surviving into adulthood were not uncommon.” [OT:CANE:377f]

This would imply that 1/5th-1/7th (approximately 16%) of the total child population would have been the eldest (and hence a candidate for being the firstborn), and then half of that (8% of the total child population) being males, and then 1/2 of those being firstborn males (4% of the entire child population), using a 50% infant mortality rate. So, this means that 4 out of every 100 children (unmarried, under 15-20 years of age or so) were possible victims of the plague, while 96 out of that 100 were not.

Can we try to figure out how many children this is? This is tough, but we can try to make a rough cut, based on population estimates of the nation.

Population figures for ancient Egypt are difficult to have any certainty about (in this period—later periods have much more census data available), so let's note the range of estimates:

  1. “ The population of Egypt by 1250 BCE has been estimated at 2.8 million...” [OT:CANE:319]

  2. “Karl Butzer's population estimates of 1.2 million people for the Old Kingdom and 2 million for the Middle Kingdom... Even if we were to allow a population as high as 3 million, which I do not consider unreasonable...” [ACAEC:31]

  3. “In the short term, they were so successful that Egypt's population had risen to more than a million by 2250 B.C.” [HI:AC:106]

Since we are dealing with the New Kingdom, we'll use an average of the 2M and 2.8M (above), giving 2.4M. Let's apply our calculations from above to this number.

If we use 69K for an average/round number, this is slightly less than 3% of the total population. [It should be noted, though, that the plague is specifically targeted against Egyptians, and not non-Egyptians. There was a sizable group of non-Egyptians living in Egypt in the New Kingdom (e.g., merchants, slaves, military, etc), which could easily reduce these figures by 30%. And we should further reduce this by some number of Egyptian households who actually 'came over to' Israel, and became part of the Exodus community at this point.]


Okay, that's our sizing... Now let's look at the backdrop

The questioner is aware that this event was judicial in nature-being a response to some negative actions by Pharaoh. However, he/she seems to believe that the Tenth Plague was correlated with something of (perhaps) much lesser magnitude—the refusal of Pharaoh to let the people go (and perhaps 'doing nasty things' to them).

But the biblical principle of “you reap what you sow”, “you (judges) shall do to the perp what he/she did or intended to do to the victim”, and “the punishment must not exceed the crime” (e.g. “eye for an eye”) would suggest we look elsewhere for the 'cause'. And indeed there is a MUCH more plausible backdrop to this—the earlier infanticide pogrom of that Pharaoh:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

  1. Pharaoh is attempting actual population control, not simple domination. The specific mention of 'lest they increase', means that the initial attempt to reduce Israelite population was by forced labor. This was specifically designed—according to the text—to limit population growth (and/or reduce population numbers). Think about this for a second—how would work reduce fertility or reduce population? Answer: by working the men/women to death (or miscarriage, in some cases). This is not simple execution, but an incredibly torturous means of killing off fertile males and females! This is not contraception—it is the labor-death-camps mentality.... authorized and instigated by the leader of Pharaoh.

  2. When this doesn't work, Pharaoh resorts to infanticide, via the Hebrew midwives. This ploy doesn't work, so he escalates the program.

  3. The final stage is full-court infanticide. All the Egyptians (including slave-girls...) would have been involved in this program. Every Egyptian household would have been legally obligated to kill all male babies of the Hebrews upon birth, by drowning. There is no reason to believe they all did this, of course, but the text does indicate that all the Egyptians hated the Israelites. [It should be noted that Egypt was 'famous' for its anti-Asianic bigotry. One of the most quoted inscriptions of the period starts with “thou vile Asiatic...”]

Now, let's try to size this infanticide pogrom:

  1. First of all, it applies to ALL males, not just firstborns and not just survivors of infancy. It would kill many babies which would have died in the first year of life anyway.

  2. As such, it would target a full 50% of the newborn population, as opposed to the 4% of the Tenth Plague.

  3. That it was at least somewhat successful can be inferred from the evasive tactics deployed by Moses' mom, in an effort to avoid the program. This would suggest a high degree of success of the program.

  4. But we can more precisely estimate the success of this program from its effects on the firstborn males of Israel. If we take literally the biblical figure of 600,000 males-over-twenty who left Egypt, we would expect a firstborn portion of that to be around 200,000 or so (family of 6 kids, 3 females). But, when the firstborns are counted in Num 3.40ff, there are only 22,000 of them. This indicates either one of two things: (1) much higher family sizes; or (2) infanticide numbers close to 180,000. Probably the answer is a mix of these, given the higher fertility given by YHWH and attested to by the text. So, we might accept an infanticide number of between 150k-180k, at a minimum—of firstborn males only.

  5. Estimating the number of non-firstborn male deaths is much more difficult. If we start the process with the ratio of escaped:killed firstborns, we start with something like a 1:7.5 ratio (1 escaped to 7.5 killed, from 22k escaped to 165K killed). Applying this to the non-firstborn male population (over twenty) of 600,000-22,000=578,000, this would yield a high (IMO) number of 578,000 times 7.5 = 4,335,000 killed newborns.

Let's do a quick sanity check on this, to see how close to realism this huge number might be.

So, our sanity check says that the infanticide numbers can easily range from 1.2M to 4.3M (over the 80 year period), without taxing the system at all. If we take the simple midpoint between these numbers—2.75M male infant deaths due to the pogrom—we are very, very conservative, compared to the estimated decimation of the firstborn males.


Okay, we've done the sizing. Just to review:

  1. Innocent Egyptian Infants killed in the Tenth Plague: 69,000

  2. Innocent Hebrew Infants killed in the infanticide program of the Pharaoh (and successors) : 2,750,000.

The ratio of these is basically 1:40, meaning that for every single innocent Egyptian child who died in the Tenth Plague, 40 innocent Hebrew infants had been killed by Pharaoh in the on-going infanticide program. (Remember, there is no evidence that the infanticide program had stopped by the time of the exodus, and the fact that the oppression/labor had continued unabated argues that it had NOT stopped. From all the indications of the text, another 27,000-54,000 Hebrew babies would have been drowned/killed that year, and the next year, and the next year, and on and on... until Pharaoh was stopped.)

Also note that even if my estimates of Egyptian deaths are way too low, and even if my estimates of Hebrew deaths are way too high, these numbers are still so far apart that there will almost be no way to even achieve “parity”, let alone some “culpable inequity” in this judgment. If there is inequity in this deal, it is clearly the Hebrews who bear its brunt—not the Egyptians.

So, if there is ANY reasonableness/justice in the 'reap what you sow', 'judges must visit the intended consequences back upon the head of the perp', or 'the punishment must match, but not exceed, the crime', then this judgment truly was “unfair”--but in the opposite direction posed by the questioner. Pharaoh/Egypt gets off incredibly easy—God could have 'fairly' killed every person living in Egypt at the time (2.4M) and STILL not have reached the 2.75M infanticide number...


Important Note, May 8/2009: We need to be clear about one terminology piece here.

Although the innocents died because of the 'sins of the nation', the innocents were not punished for those sins. The death of these children were not a 'punishment' on them, any more than the (guesstimated) 2.75M Hebrew children's' deaths were 'punishment' on them.

As I have pointed out (and even developed somewhat) numerous times on the Tank [especially in the article on Natural Evil at ], the death of people before old-age might be CONSEQUENCES of someone else's evil deeds, but it would generally be incorrect to say that those deaths were “punishment' for someone else's evil deeds.

When an abusive father kills his child in a fit of rage, the child dies BECAUSE of the SINS of the FATHER, but the child is not being PUNISHED by being killed. When a child dies of an illness caused by neglect of a parent, they die BECAUSE (somewhat, at least) of the SINS of the parent, but their death would not be considered as a PUNISHMENT on the child for the neglect of the parent. It would be a CONSEQUENCE of the sin, but not a ‘punishment’ per se.

The Exodus story involves a corporate or national punishment, and in these cases—including the famines and plagues that later came upon Biblical Israel for their evil—both innocent and guilty suffer. Similarly, when a nation or group is blessed by God for goodness of values and action and direction, both deserving and undeserving benefit.

So, the reader should be clear throughout this article that I am not saying in anyway that the Egyptian children who died in the Plague of the Firstborn were being 'punished' for ANYTHING, in the same way that the death of the Hebrew babies was not a 'punishment' on them for ANYTHING either. When someone dies 'because' of another (e.g. drunken driver, soldier in battle, parent too far away to help), they are almost never being 'punished' for someone else's sins. And this case—as in the cases of famines and plagues and wars in the ANE—is no exception.


So much for the 'equity' aspect of a 'in kind' judgment. Let's surface a couple of theological and ethical issues inherent in this Plague.

Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. 5 Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 6 Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. 7 But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. 8 Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.” And in hot anger he left Pharaoh.” [Ex 11.4ff]

Pharaoh had more 'extraordinary evidence' than probably any other non-Israelite in the world, and yet he did nothing to protect his people. He did not humble himself, to avert the all-too-certain judgment on his own son. He did not compromise after all he had seen...

“Similar kinds of statements, focusing on a morality of reciprocity, are to be found in various cultures. One of the oldest such sayings is attributed to Maeandrus by Herodotus: “I will not myself do that which I account blameworthy in my neighbor” (Hdt.3.142; cf. 7.136: “I will not do that which I blame in you”). Similarly, Thales, when asked how men might live most virtuously and most justly, is reported to have replied: “If we never do ourselves what we blame in others” (Diog. Laert. 1 [Thales].9). An early positive formulation of the principle is found in Isocrates: “You should be such in your dealings with others as you expect me to be in my dealings with you” (Nicoles 61)... A negative formulation tends to predominate, particularly in Eastern cultures, where it is variously found among the Confucians, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians. For example, to Tzu Kung’s question—“Is there any one word that can serve as a principle for the conduct of life?”—Confucius is reputed to have answered: “Perhaps the word ‘reciprocity’; do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you” (Analects 15.23). On the other hand, a later source (16th century) identifies “Treat others as thou wouldst be treated thyself” as a traditional saying.” [ABD, s.v. “The Golden Rule”]

and it is thoroughly embedded in Jewish tradition:

“The Golden Rule (Mt 7:12). “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” has been known as the Golden Rule since the eighteenth century. There are numerous parallels to this saying in Greco-Roman, oriental and Jewish writings. There is a particularly close rabbinic tradition in b. Sabb. 31a: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow creatures.” Although a negative formulation along these lines is much more common than the positive formulation of Matthew 7:12, the latter is found in some Jewish writings (Ep. Arist. 207; T. Naph. 1; 2 Enoch 61:1); hence it is a mistake to claim that the positive form of the Golden Rule is distinctively Christian.” [NT:DictJG, s.v. “Sermon on the Mount/Plain”]

It occurs in Egyptian literature in the old story of Ahiqar and in The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq (both probably after our period, though).

“The Teaching of Ankhsheshonqy (AEL 3: 159–84) was discovered on a long papyrus scroll written in the late 1st century b.c. The beginning of the text and the top lines of all twenty-eight columns are lost. The citation of lines, some in sequence, on two papyri of 2d century b.c. date suggests that the original goes back to the early Ptolemaic period. The maxims are embedded in a narrative framework which recounts Ankhsheshonqy’s imprisonment on a charge of plotting against the pharaoh’s life. This recalls the story of the wise Ahiqar which was current in Egypt not only in a 5th century b.c. Aramaic text from Elephantine, but also in a Demotic version. There are striking parallels between some maxims in the two compositions. The most significant themes concerning the wise man versus the fool and the certainty of retribution, together with two formulations of the Golden Rule.” [ABD, s.v. “Egyptian Literature”]

This would mean that if Pharaoh said it was okay to kill someone else's children, then he was implicitly agreeing (morally) that it was okay to kill his own peoples' children. [If fact, its even stronger than 'agree'. This is what a personal moral code is—an implicit request to the Moral Governor of the Universe to enforce your own morality throughout the 'system'. Pharaoh, as a moral governor himself, essentially 'requests' God's guarantee that he will 'reap what he sows'. This is supposed to be a good thing (i.e., I count on God to do the first half of “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee.”), but in the case of such large-scale atrocity, it is disastrous... Pharaoh has no excuse for his actions nor for the consequences of those actions, nor does he have a leg to stand on, when his people might confront him later with “why did you bring this on us, but doing this to the Israelites first?!” A smart Egyptian would know instinctively that it wasn't “God's fault” that this happened, but that it was “Pharaoh's fault”! (Cf. Exodus 9.10 and 10.7, where Pharaoh's court knows this truth!). [For more of the theoretical foundation of this, see section Two in one of the Personal Letters (pl2003m11d03.html).]

“Sometimes a whole family might be punished for the actions of one member.” [OT:HLAE, p. 94]

It was okay under Egyptian law to do this, so God could 'use' their own law on them—without 'violating their law/ethics'...

What this nets out to is this: God's judgment upon Pharaoh is entirely consistent with the laws/ethics of Pharaoh (maybe even, 'predictable'?). There is no 'unfairness' in visiting his own actions (in some lessor form) 'back upon his head'. This is a consequence of reciprocal morality, was practiced everywhere (in governance circles), and was completely avoidable. Pharaoh has no excuse for bringing this (final) judgment upon his nation.


Pushback: “Maybe its just me, glenn, but this 'do unto others' stuff sounds sorta like God is 'stooping down to Pharaoh's level'. Just because Pharaoh was a cruel, abusive, and merciless oppressor doesn't mean that God should be one! Surely there's a limit as to how far God can go with this 'in kind' stuff?! And surely it's before the killing of innocents?

Good, good question... and I think you're right about God not 'stooping down' to that level. And it's VERY clear that God's judgment was different in MANY and SIGNIFICANT ways from Pharaoh's. Consider:

  1. The Scale of 1:40 ALONE should answer this question—God clearly did NOT do anything on the scale of atrocity that Pharaoh did.

  2. God gave Pharaoh a way out—in fact, 10 ways/chances out; Pharaoh give the Israelites ZERO.

  3. God's action was a one-time event, which stopped the continuing killing by Pharaoh; Pharaoh's program was every day, every year, every decade...

  4. The Egyptians probably died more humanely in their sleep (it was around midnight); the Israelite babies were thrown in the river to drown.

  5. We have noted many, many times on the Tank that malignant actions by people have concrete negative consequences on themselves, their families, their communities, and in a real sense, on God. Furthermore, when judgment is exercised relative to the treacherous, everybody else also suffers (i.e., they are killed/restricted in helping; their families are deprived of an important member—and maybe affected by a negative example; the community is weakened by the loss of a contributor and the grief of having to do punishment; and God is grieved at the failure and the loss...). In a very real sense, it is the parent/leader who inflicts these negative consequences on all—irrespective of the role of judges/punishers in the process. The culpability is NOT assigned to the court, the judge, or the executioner—it is the criminal who 'does this' to his/her own family. It is not the human judge who decrees capital punishment on a serial killer who renders his kids 'fatherless'--it is the criminal himself who abandons the kids in his life of crime... It is Pharaoh who kills these innocents, by failing to protect them by abandoning his foolish, stubborn, and malignant posture.

Now, strictly speaking, God's action was somehow/strangely impartial. When He judged Egypt, he somehow did something 'analogous' to Israel... Compare some of these later passages:

This is a rather complex notion, but what it seems to mean is something like this:

“When I judged Egypt, I actually did it in an impartial way. I exercised my authority as Moral Governor and appropriated the firstborn males of man/beast of BOTH Israel and Egypt for My own possession, to do with as I see fit. All the firstborn of Egypt and Israel thus became MY PROPERTY, to use/deploy/dispose of in accordance with My choices and plans for history. Most of the Egyptian firstborn (which became Mine in this act of 'setting apart' –i.e., “sanctification”) I decided to kill, as a last-ditch effort to stop the folly of the Pharaoh (via a judgment he would finally understand fully), to stop the infanticide and oppression program, and to impress upon the remaining major of Egyptians the truth of the claims of Moses and Israel about Me (for their ultimate good). [Most, if not all, of these children—average age probably around 8 or 9 yo--would have not reached any 'age of accountability', so most/all of these I brought to Myself.] The firstborn of Israel I also took to Myself—I am no respecter of persons—but I decided to deploy/dispose of those in different ways. The Israelite sons I decided to 'sell' instead of 'kill' (i.e., the parents HAD to redeem them with money, and I used the money to support the central teaching and ministry institutions). The Levites who I accepted as substitute/payment for some of these I gave away—to Aaron to support his ministry to my people. The clean animals I decided to slaughter and give back to the Israelites to enjoy as food at a community/family bonding “party” (Deut 15.19), and the unclean animals had to be bought back (supporting the ministry) or killed –just like I did the Egyptian animals. No distinction in status, only differences in disposition. I am wise and good beyond your expectations... and certainly well beyond your personal standands...”

Although this 'setting apart' action has some transcendental character to it (operating beyond our expectations of the situation), to me this seems so radically different in character from Pharaoh's actions and intent as to not fall into the same category at all. No 'stooping' at all, but rather using a means—however unfortunate from one perspective—to finally get through to Pharaoh, and finally stop the killing of newborns (through the infanticide progrom) and the killing of adults (through the deliberate death-labor-program).


So, given the huge disparity in the scale, intent, nature, and effects of these two actions (the Tenth Plague, Pharaoh's death-labor and infanticide programs), and in light of the universal principles of moral governance, delayed judgment, and reciprocal morality, I have to conclude that God was acting well within the bounds of propriety in this action, and indeed, was 'unreasonably' lenient in this judgment on Pharaoh and Egypt. No one likes judgment—especially God!--but this one occurred in a context of warning, ease of avoidance, clarity of purpose, extraordinary evidence, and exceptional delay (80 years+). God used a difficult judgment to stop a much, much larger program of atrocity. How long had His appeals to Pharaoh's and the Egyptians' sense of decency/compassion fallen on deaf/cold hearts???

glenn miller


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