Exodus 11-12: Exiting Egypt in Reverse
In this passage the Israelites are finally going to make it out of Egypt (Exodus 11 and 12). Yahweh strikes dead all the firstborn of the Egyptians, from Pharaoh’s firstborn son down to the lowest servant’s firstborn and even the prisoner’s firstborn. There is weeping and wailing in Egypt like never before. In the middle of the night Pharaoh summons Moses and orders him and all the Israelites and all their livestock to get out of Egypt. This time they actually leave, and as they depart the Egyptians give them all their silver and gold.
With this tenth mighty act of judgment several reversals or contrasts occur. Listing them will help provide a feel for just how pervasive reversal and contrast is in this plague.
(1) Yahweh announces that after this plague Pharaoh will indeed let the people go. Up to this point Yahweh has said that Pharaoh would not let the people go, even when Pharaoh had at times said he would. (Yahweh’s word is always the word that matters, the word that makes true.)
(2) Pharaoh is going to let the Israelites go completely: men, women, children, and livestock. To this point Pharaoh either granted no release or a conditional release, for example, men without women and children. Now Pharaoh has reversed himself, or been reversed, ordering them to all go and go with everything.
(3) Yahweh makes the Egyptians favorably disposed towards the Israelites, so that the Egyptians give their gold and silver to the Israelites as they leave. The reversal here goes back to 1:12 where it is reported that the Egyptians “came to dread the Israelites.” Yahweh has moved the Egyptian people from dreading to favoring the Israelites.
(4) With this plague Yahweh says, “I will go throughout Egypt.” This is more of a development than a reversal, but in the previous plagues Yahweh worked through the outstretched hand or staff of Moses. Yahweh’s typical command to Moses was, “Stretch out your hand.” Moses need not lift a hand this time. Yahweh will personally come and go throughout Egypt.
(5) Every firstborn son in Egypt, from high to low, will die in this plague. This reversal goes back to 1:22, where Pharaoh orders that all Hebrew baby boys be drowned in the Nile. Now the Egyptians are the one’s grieving over the death of children.
(6) The Egyptian’s loud, unprecedented wailing is also a reversal. In 2:23 the Israelites are groaning and crying out to Yahweh in the midst of their oppression. The Egyptians cry now.
(7) While death strikes the Egyptians and a horrible cry is sounded, there is silence among the Israelites. The Israelites had been living under the harsh, abrasive commands of the Egyptian slave masters. Now, not even a dog barks at them.
(8) Yahweh tells Moses, “This month [the month of their exodus] is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” This exodus event is so significant that it is a time defining event, a birth event, a time reordering event. I do not know how Israel kept time before, or what calendar they were on (likely a Pharaoh day-planner), but now they are to live by an exodus calendar.
(9) There is a reversal in terms of who Israel belongs to: they are no longer Pharaoh’s slave labor force. They belong to Yahweh, their Redeemer and the God of their fathers.
(10) There is a reversal in the distinction of being an Israelite. Under Pharaoh it was seemingly a curse to be an Israelite, but now it is a good day to be an Israelite.
(11) Yahweh has reversed the status of Egypt’s gods. With all of the mighty acts Yahweh has brought judgment on all the gods of Egypt, demonstrating that Yahweh alone is God.
(12) Yahweh has reversed Pharaoh’s ignorant judgment of Yahweh. Back in 5:2, the first time Moses went before Pharaoh and said, “Thus says Yahweh...” Pharaoh responded, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go!” Well, now Pharaoh knows. Yahweh is the One Who Is, in heaven, on earth, and even in Egypt. Pharaoh is not. Yahweh Is. Yahweh determines reality. Yahweh is all powerful. Yahweh’s word makes true. Nature answers to Yahweh. Israel belongs to Yahweh. Yahweh’s Is is so imposing upon Pharaoh that Pharaoh cannot even govern his own heart independently of Yahweh’s hardening will.
(13) Probably the biggest reversal, though not specifically stated, is that the Israelites become believers in and knowers of Yahweh - or at least Moses does. The Israelites come to know, even if only momentarily, that Yahweh is the One Who Is, and that Pharaoh has no longer a claim to the throne of the universe, not even in Egypt.
I hope reading this list of reversals and contrasts has at least made one thing clear: Yahweh is the God of reversals. Yahweh can bring about unimaginable reversals because Yahweh is the One Who Is, the One whose Word determines what will Be, the One whose Is is always Is-ing. If you are in need of a reversal, cry it out to Yahweh. Yahweh is the One who reverses bondage, liberating people to worship/serve Him.
One thing above all else that Israel learned from this experience was that God is the God of newness, the God who hears the cries of oppressed slaves, the God who comes into the domain of the oppressor and brings freedom and newness. Israel would always remember that “once we were Pharaoh’s slaves, but God brought us out” (Deut 6:21).
Paul uses this event as a metaphor in Romans (6:17-20) to talk about the freedom from slavery to sin that God brings in Jesus. He can make that move, not just as literary license, but because in the exodus we learn something about the nature of God. God is the ultimate liberator, not just from physical oppressors but from the bondage of sin and unrighteousness in which humans entangle themselves.
Our greatest bondage is not to Egyptians, literally or metaphorically. Rather, sin, guilt, and shame are the chains that enslave us most, the inability to do right and to be right, and the self-condemnation that comes with it. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Do you see the reversal? Whereas in dealing with Pharaoh God put to death the firstborn of Egypt, now, in dealing with all of humanity, God allows the death of His own firstborn, God’s only born son, Christ Jesus. God reverses the judgment of humanity and and takes it to himself in the person of His Son.
When I have been done wrong and I get revenge, what am I doing? I am pouring out judgment upon the wrong doer. When I have been done wrong and I forgive, what am I doing? I am pouring the judgment out upon myself. We tend to think more in terms of forgiveness as letting go of judgment. But I’m not sure that is quite right when we take seriously that we have been wronged. Wrongness hurts and it must be dealt with. Wrongness must be judged as wrong. To forgive is to judge wrong as wrong, and then to absorb this wrong within oneself as opposed to being absorbed by the wrong (bitterness) or absorbed by returning the wrong to the offender (revenge).
What I’m trying to say is that God liberates all humanity from sin and guilt through the death of Christ, His only begotten Son, on the cross. It is the greatest reversal of all. God in Christ bears our sin and guilt, bears our judgment, takes to himself our shame, takes it all upon Himself, that we might be liberated and reconciled unto God.
Again, whatever reversal you are in need of, cry out to God. God’s very nature is to work the reversals of injustice, of sin, of shame. He has already worked the greatest reversal in Christ. Surely God can manage yours. What’s more, you will probably discover that God is already at work, bringing your reversal about.