(This is a brief examination of two ancient biblical events in history for the purpose of gaining understanding. It is NOT an advocacy for such a practice involving human sacrifice by anyone today, but it is look at human sacrifice, by God himself, in a way Israel never understood and rejected. gt)
Recently, I found myself reading various articles (see links at end of article) by both Jews and Christians on a particular Jewish perspective. The perspectives in these articles were drawn on as much on the Torah as from the New Testament. (NT) I am not one to take offense at slights and accusations on the faith that is in Christ Jesus as it sometimes seems in the Torah on these matters. Notably, some appear, at least to this Christian, as a reconstructive, retroactive interpretation with no other objective than to resist and counter the message of the sacrifice of Jesus as recorded by the NT writers. This objective from Jews is understandable as we will see later.
The purpose of this brief article is to bring a focus to bear on the death, or sacrifice, of Egypt’s firstborn as the tenth and final plague which God brought on Pharaoh.
Specifically, it is an effort to tune to the dialog between the sacrifice of 1) Isaac at Moriah, 2) the firstborn of Pharaoh (Egypt) and 3) Jesus with the primary focus being on Egypt’s firstborn as it is, more than the sacrifice of Isaac or Jesus, an undeniable reality closely and graphically related to Israel’s history in the Torah. Whether or not these sacrifices are believed as having been fulfilled, embraced or rejected; all three involve human sacrifice.
I would like to develop the purpose of this article on the sacrifice event of Egypt’s firstborn which is strategically positioned in Israel’s history, but also in the chronological, natural order spectrum of 1) firstborn, 2) sacrifice and 3) resurrection. It is a sacrifice which is fully capable of speaking (without philosophical or lofty speculation) much like the blood of Abel and prophets speaks to the injustice of their own death, to the reality of human sacrifice as wrought by God. There’s no intent or need to speculate or to cast Abel in this discussion on human sacrifice. His death was a selfish murder by his brother, Cain.
The objective of this article is that Jews might step back from what is to them a cacophony on the sacrifice of Jesus and talk of adoration and worship of him. Instead, as a prelude to faith in Jesus which can come through understanding, it is hoped their attention will focus for a truer understanding on the initial death of the firstborn of Egypt in the Torah.
obedient willful sacrifice of self
God created humans. It is a simple and profound truth. Some humans may accept it. Others may reject that statement. We all remain human. We react either as witting or unwitting witnesses and participants to our interactions with humans. We are the ones who do what humans do to each other, for each other, and – towards God.
The truth that humans misunderstand each other is equally true of humans with respect to God. Some devote themselves so totally to God that their lives are a sacrifice to him. It is their obedient willful sacrifice of self. Then, there are those whose understanding of sacrifice is to offer up another, in their place, to God. Certainly, history does not and cannot conceal or ignore the idolatry of civilizations which practiced human sacrifice.
the sacrifice of Isaac
The sacrifice of Isaac holds great significance for Israel. Seemingly, Israel’s embrace of that sacrifice is in proportion to Israel’s rejection of the mere thought that God would give such a command, hence, much of the speculation which has developed over the centuries. Whatever ancient Israel’s understanding and interpretation of that sacrifice might be it is the more recent sacrifice of Jesus, as declared by the gospel writers, which creates and raises an undeniable tension up against that sacrifice in the Torah. The unspoken reality is the need to secure and strengthen the Jewish interpretation away from that tension. Hence, what I call, the reconstructive retroactive interpretation, which reflects a collective effort to diffuse or diminish the sacrifice of Jesus while simultaneously seeking to infuse and extrapolate meaning and significance from the sacrifice of Isaac. Yet, neither the sacrifice at Moriah nor the sacrifice (or, punishment) at Egypt, the latter which is the focus of this article, were ever intended to be replicated in Israel. Certainly, this is just as true among Christians, too.
elements of a sacrifice
There are elements, in no particular order, common to the sacrifice of a Moriah and Egypt. 1) They are costly, not because of their quantity, but because of the value of human life. 2) They are full of purpose that transcended the moment of the sacrifice. 3) They are declared openly before they occurred. 4) The promise, or benefit, of those sacrifices is received by those designated by God. 5) They are specific as to who was to be sacrificed. These same elements are evident in those sacrifices offered by the Levites to the Lord. Similarly, they are evident in the sacrifice of Jesus.
a more ancient sacrifice than Jesus
Yet, as eager and ready as is the Jew to speak about, to and against the sacrifice of Jesus it is the older human sacrifice at Egypt, besides the sacrifice of Isaac in Israel’s history; which remains no less a puzzle for Israel than the sacrifice of Jesus. The Bible records these significant human sacrifices at two different locations of Moriah and Egypt. Yes, there are at least two other sacrifices neither of which were condoned by God. One is representative of a people who fell away from God. (2 Kings 3:27, see also, Jeremiah 19) The other of an individual who, no less apostate, ignorantly uttered his own rashness which resulted in the sacrifice of his own daughter. (Judges 11:31)
It was the human sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn through which Israel obtained her deliverance, from Egyptian slavery after nine prior plagues, finally. I anticipate someone might wonder if this sacrifice was not essentially God exacting his vengeance on Egypt by effectively, to put it in human terms, murdering Egypt’s firstborn? And, isn’t it a stretch to ennoble the death of Egypt’s firstborn as a sacrifice when they were not offered up to God, but they were struck down by God himself? Is there a precedent of evil-for-good model to which Israel can look and draw as concerns the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn?
Yes, there is a model. It is Joseph. Clearly, Joseph had reflected not only on what his brothers had done to him, but he sought to understand the greater purpose God had in mind for him and for Israel. Joseph summarized the whole experience to his brothers: You did it for evil, but God intended it for good. (Genesis 50:20) Joseph examined, framed and articulated his past experience radically as a true, meaningful, significant blessing for Joseph and Israel.
When God struck/sacrificed Egypt’s firstborn it was, as is the sacrifice of all firstborn unto the Lord, a pleasing and an acceptable aroma to the Lord. It was not just to humble Pharoah for his evil stubbornness, his pogrom on the Israelites’ firstborn or his defiance against the patient warning of God through nine plagues. It would compel Israel to examine again the meaning and significance of Abraham’s human sacrifice of Isaac which had become a theological speculation piece during four hundred years of slavery. Pharoah’s pogrom against Israel’s firstborn was under stealth and cunning, but God declared his intent and deliberate purpose to sacrifice Egypt’s firstborn openly and clearly for Pharoah, his court and all Egypt. The specific human (and animal) sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn by the Lord and for the Lord was not without the appreciable value of all life much less human life. The promise was the expected result: Pharoah would let Israel go into the wilderness where they could go and worship the Lord.
Yet, here is what is unconvincing about the Jewish dismissal of the sacrifice of Jesus on the basis, or pretext, which Jews state constitutes adoration of a man, as Jews perceive Jesus, in clear violation of the Torah’s prohibition:
the human sacrifice of Moriah and Egypt
Nonetheless, the two instances of human sacrifice at Moriah and Egypt were deliberate and full of purpose. The purpose of those sacrifices was made clear after they were accomplished for all to see and to understand. But, the idea strikes appall. It nauseates. Our minds reel and will not allow it to settle into our conscience. Yet, there are images, some faint, some in bold archetype in these two sacrifices in the Bible. We can no more walk away from these with an intellectual loftiness about Isaac or Egypt’s sacrifices than plug in to the narrative our vicarious devotion to God on the backs of those sacrificed without responding to what God did through their sacrifice.
a principal reason for rejection
This is the principal reason why the claims of the faith in Jesus by the saints in Christ, a Jew according to the flesh, are lost to the Jews in the flesh in their rejection to the sacrifice of Jesus, historically. This is not a slam on the Jews, the Torah or Judaism, but rather a desire for them as well as Christians to understand more fully their respective mutual heritage and the claims associated with those claims.
This is the reason reverence and worship of Jesus, for the Jew, is idolatry and is an abomination unto the Lord for the Jew.
But, is it possible the Torah, so revered by Jews as well as Christians, speaks a message which they have overlooked, forgotten, rejected or dismissed altogether? It is the Torah which introduced the Bible reader to Abraham, a man who believed God. The Torah states God counted Abraham’s belief as righteousness for Abraham. Although Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Abraham as a man of great faith it appears his story became nothing more than a wonderful story to be retold in Israel while casting the significance of the sacrifice event as prophecy and solace for Israel’s future persecutions and sufferings. Yes, there have been centuries of scholarly study by Jews on the sacrifice of Isaac, but those studies and the interpretations of the scripture among Jews seem to have produced nothing more than a diluted, watered down sacrifice of a human into a devotional message for Israel. Similarly, Christians view the sacrifice of Isaac as a powerful demonstration of Abraham’s faith, but Abraham’s righteousness is seen as something beyond human comprehension or attainability. I believe one reason for such a theology to be embraced among Jews is because anything more on the significance and meaning of the sacrifice of Isaac would only raise the tension concerning the sacrifice of Jesus..
This is the much touted, and true, claim (Deuteronomy 6, the Shema) of Jews: God stated clearly and without room for doubt or need to explore for significance or meaning quite simply, because
This tout is zealously, but mistakenly, pushed over against the obedience of the saints in Christ in the form of a charge that the message of the New Testament is confused and convoluted in its embrace of idolatry of a man who directs worship away from God.
Broadly speaking, though not comprehensively, these are three prominent Jewish views on the sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham and reflected in the articles.
- Abraham misunderstood God, his hand was never stopped by the angel of the Lord and Isaac was sacrificed. Isaac did not return with Abraham from Moriah.
- The sacrifice of Isaac is a portend of the persecution and suffering of Israel and her deliverance by the hand of God.
- The sacrifice of Isaac was to renounce pagan concepts of God along with human sacrifice.
Still, there is a wide chasm in the history between Abraham and Israel: It is Egypt. What do Egypt and Abraham share in common in Israel's history? It is, in one word, sacrifice. Chronologically, a sacrifice event itself also falls between firstborn and resurrection events. Simply stated, there can be no resurrection without first having the lifeless form of one who has been born into this world. Israel has a deep awareness, practice and familiarity associated with the firstborn as the one who received the father's blessing which among other things includes the inheritance of the father's worldly possessions. Israel also has an equally profound awareness, practice and familiarity associated with the sacrifice of the firstborn animal to be offered up to God. The firstborn male child was to be dedicated to the Lord, but it was the Levites whom God took as his own possession in perpetuity in place of Israel’s firstborn.
These were not animal sacrifices. They were human lives offered to God and taken by God. The sacrifices of these firstborn is more than a story of personal devotion (regarding Isaac) and divine power. (regarding Egypt) Was there a lesson for Israel in these sacrifices of the firstborn? Other than some emotional anxiety why are these viewed as they are for the most part by Israel? Noticeably absent in most of the articles sourced for this article is any mention of the sacrifice of the firstborn man and animal in Egypt. This is not to say these sacrifices are trifled in Israel, but as a matter of history they (the sacrifice of Isaac, particularly) are a matter for intellectual, scholarly study and source of prophetic solace in times of suffering and persecution for Israel. These sacrifices, if examined, solely on the idea of virtual human sacrifice involving Isaac and the actual human sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn appear, taken at face value as absurd and an abomination unto God, but then, the wisdom and ways of God are not as those of man. (Isaiah 55:8)
There’s an inseparableness between belief and obedience on the part of Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac. Similarly inseparable, as became defined by the law of Moses for Israel, is the firstborn from sacrifice and these from the ultimate hope of the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked.
Abraham was an old man and past the age of fathering offspring. Yet, it was in his old age that God not only promised him a son, but delivered Abraham his firstborn son, Isaac. Then, what does God do? He calls on Abraham to offer up his firstborn son. It is powerfully striking that in the English version of the scriptures the word love appears for the first time in the scriptures in this passage.
He said, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go into the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” Genesis 22:2
Was God merely out to make a fool of Abraham by taking him to the brink of human sacrifice; the epitome of idolatry against God? Every indication from the scriptures of what happened that day at Moriah is that Isaac was delivered and returned to his father Abraham.
Egypt was not so fortunate as to be delivered from the last plague which God sent on that people. Only after the angel of the Lord struck and took as a sacrifice unto the Lord the firstborn human and animal in all of Egypt was Israel delivered and set free. Yes, there were many animals taken along with that sacrifice, but the enormity of that human sacrifice, not just the numbers, but that EVEN A SINGLE human life should be taken before Israel could be set free!
The sacrifice of Isaac was not as by coercion as some might see it. Isaac was not a naïve child. He was familiar with his father's custom of offering sacrifice to the Lord. When it came time Isaac was as obedient as was his father and he consented to being bound on the woodpile made ready for his own sacrifice. Lest anyone think in the hindsight aftermath of his deliverance that Isaac was full of life and not as good as dead; they deceive themselves.
Egypt’s firstborn may not have been as perfectly ready and willing to be sacrificed as was Isaac. Yet, it seems quite plausible that just as the Egyptians learned with the pronouncement of each of the subsequent nine plagues that they heard and learned from Pharoah’s court of the latest and final coming plague on their firstborn. The awe seems as inconceivable as it is unimaginable: The firstborn of Egypt has been openly and specifically declared as the target of the next coming plague from God on Egypt to ensure Israel’s deliverance.
Jesus, the firstborn of Joseph and Mary, no less repeatedly, openly and specifically himself as the ransom for the sins of those who put their trust on him.
The vision of the valley of dry bone in Ezekiel introduced to Israel the concept that the Creator of life can give life to what long ago returned to dust. The plausibility of this resurrection far exceeds the speculation given to a literal resurrection of Isaac. Although the NT portrays Isaac as having been resurrected from the dead it makes clear the meaning (Hebrews 11:19) is figuratively. Just as significant the context of this pre-Torah, pre-Ezekiel passage attributes to Abraham the belief that God is able to raise the dead.
There was no less of a collective belief, even if unwittingly, in the resurrection by Israel following the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn: Israel was delivered from slavery and death to live their lives in worship to God.
Effectively, what the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn signifies is the patent reminder that God, the Creator of life can and does take up life, not only at the end of one’s ripe old age, but when and how he openly and clearly declares he will do so. Do not mistakenly equate this statement concerning what God can do with the glib, "God can do anything." While that terse statement is true; my statement concerns two, notwithstanding their respective interpretations, sacrifice events with a third (Jesus) sacrifice to be accounted for on the basis of the first two. The ostensible revulsion to human sacrifice as a Jewish interpretative response to the sacrifice of Isaac seems rather misplaced if not unconvincing when applied to the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn, and - Jesus.
Although none of these three sacrifices are recorded in the Torah and the New Testament as something for believers to replicate they are all clearly the unashamed, unapologetic work of God. The reason Israel’s claim of revulsion to human sacrifice is unconvincing is because when this same reaction is applied to the sacrifice event at Egypt it does not hold up. The reason it does not hold up is because the fluctuation between virtual/literal sacrifice of Isaac is no match for the actual, historical sacrifice event in Egypt. Similarly and without surprise, all efforts to apply the same scrutiny do not hold up when applied to the sacrifice of Jesus.
The sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn in the Torah poses a challenge to the Jewish interpretation of the Isaac sacrifice event at Moriah as much as the sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary. Even the mistaken infusion of the literal resurrection of Isaac speaks to the true hope of the inseparableness of the firstborn from sacrifice without which there can be no resurrection.
Rabbi David C Levy
Rabbin Suzanne Singer
R. Louis Jacobs
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard