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In Exodus 12, the Israelites were instructed to put blood on their doors, to protect them from the death of the firstborn that the Egyptians would suffer.

In most of Exodus 12, it sounds as though the Lord himself is the one who would pass through the land and strike the Egyptians, but "pass over" the Israelites. However in Exodus 12:23 many translations say that God would not permit "the destroyer" to enter and strike their firstborn, if the Israelites put blood on their doors. Some translations such as NLT say "the death angel". Often Christian teaching refers to the "death angel" in that incident.

The main questions are:

  • Was there really a "death angel" in that incident, or was the Lord himself striking the Egyptians?
  • Should Exodus 12:23 be translated "destroyer" or "death angel", or alternatively would it be better translated "destruction"?
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3 Answers 3

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In Exo. 12:12-13, it is written,

12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt. I am Yahveh. 13 And the blood shall be your sign upon the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, then I will [וּפָסַחְתִּי] over you, and the destroyer’s plague shall not be among you when I smite the land of Egypt.

יב וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים אֲנִי יַהְוֶה יג וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת עַל הַבָּתִּים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם שָׁם וְרָאִיתִי אֶת הַדָּם וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית בְּהַכֹּתִי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

The narrative is a bit complex; however, the general idea is as follows. The Israelites sacrifice the Pesach offering.1 The blood of this Pesach offering is caught in a basin, and a bunch of hyssop is used to apply the blood to the lintel and two side-posts of the Israelite homes.2 Yahveh via Moses tells the Israelites that the blood applied to their door-posts in the specified manner will be “your sign” [לָכֶם לְאֹת].3 Yahveh sees this sign and does not allow the destroyer [מַשְׁחִית] to come unto their houses to plague the Israelites.4 The destroyer [הַמַשְׁחִית] is an entity that is to plague [לִנְגֹּף]5 with a plague [נֶגֶף]6 every firstborn in Egypt where Yahveh does not see the sign of the blood upon the door-posts. In fact, the plague is referred to as “the destroyer’s plague” [נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית].7

Footnotes

        1 Exo. 12:28 cf. Exo. 12:6, 12:21
        2 Exo. 12:28 cf. Exo. 12:7, 12:22
        3 Exo. 12:23 cf. Exo. 12:13
        4 Exo. 12:23 cf. Exo. 12:13
        5 Exo. 12:23
        6 Exo. 12:13
        7 Exo. 12:13. Granted, Carl Friedrich Keil (p. 19) commented, “...there is no article with למשׁחית.” He understands נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית as meaning “plague to destroy.” However, the article would be indicated by a dagesh (small dot) within the מ, like so מּ, and such [Masoretic] vowel pointing would not have been part of the original manuscript.

Since it is written that Yahveh Himself will “pass through” (note: this is the verb עָבַר avar) the land of Egypt and smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, but this is actually accomplished via “the destroyer” which plagues the firstborn of Egypt with a plague, we can reasonably conclude that the destroyer is Yahveh’s agent of destruction. Yonatan ben Uzziel suspects as much, as he interpreted the Hebrew into Aramaic as מלאכא מחבלא (“the destroying angel”) in his targum.8

Footnotes

        8 Targum of Yonatan ben Uzziel, Exo. 12:23

Therefore, we have Yahveh and Yahveh’s destroyer. These are two separate entities. The latter is Yahveh’s agent which executes judgment upon Egypt and plagues the firstborn with the plague of death. A similar entity encountered in 1 Chr. 21:15 is referred to as “the destroying9 angel” [לַמַּלְאָךְ הַמַּשְׁחִית] and executes judgment and destruction at God’s behest.

Footnotes

        9 or “destroyer”

Meredith G. Kline wrote,10

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Footnotes

        10 Kline, p. 499

With that being said, it’s a bit easier to understand what is occurring during the final plague. As the destroyer is passing through Egypt, it is plaguing the firstborns with the plague of death, thus killing them. However, the destroyer is impeded from entering the houses of the Israelites only because Yahveh Himself sees the sign of the blood on their door-posts. When Yahveh sees this sign, He does not “pass over” the Israelites’ houses. If Yahveh were to simply pass over their houses, it would not impede the destroyer who could enter the houses after Yahveh passed over. (Therefore, the verb פָּסַח pasach does not really mean “pass over” when translated into English.) Yahveh, upon seeing the sign of the blood upon the door-posts, then covers (or hovers over, protects) these houses. When Yahveh covers the houses of the Israelites, the destroyer is not allowed to come unto the houses to plague the Israelites. Yahveh Himself is providing divine protection over these houses until all the firstborns of Egypt without divine protection have been plagued and killed by the destroyer.


References

Keil, Carl Friedrich. Commentary on the Old Testament. 1900. Reprint. Trans. Martin, James. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Kline, Meredith G. “The Feast of Cover-Over.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 37/4 (1994): 497–510.

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Background

‘For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. (Exodus 12:12 NJKV)
ועברתי בארץ־מצרים בלילה הזה והכיתי כל־בכור בארץ מצרים מאדם ועד־בהמה ובכל־אלהי מצרים אעשה שפטים אני יהוה

For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. (Exodus 12:23)
ועבר יהוה לנגף את־מצרים וראה את־הדם על־המשקוף ועל שתי המזוזת ופסח יהוה על־הפתח ולא יתן המשחית לבא אל־בתיכם לנגף

When the LORD speaks to Moses, He states He will "strike" all the first born in the land of Egypt. The word translated "strike" is נָכָה. When Moses explains what is going to take place, the word used which is translated as strike is נָגַף.

The event of the Passover must be understood as one in which there are two different types of strikes which take place; it must also take into account a home which does experience death:

And it came to pass at midnight that the LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock. So Pharaoh rose in the night, he, all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead. (Exodus 12:29-30)

A house filled with people might contain several who could be called firstborn. Beyond the obvious first born child, one or more of the adults may have been a firstborn in their family. In other words, those who will die during the night must first be identified.

The killing of the firstborn described in Exodus requires these steps:

  1. Determine who is a firstborn and at risk.
  2. Determine if a house will be passed over or entered.
  3. Restrain the destroyer from entering a marked house.
  4. Restrain the destroyer from killing all who are not firstborn.

Conclusion
Exodus 12:23 must be understood by identifying what the LORD does at each step:

  1. The LORD identifies all firstborn: ‘For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. (Exodus 12:12)
  2. The LORD determines if the house is to be passed over: Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:13)
  3. The LORD restrains the destroyer from entering a marked house: For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. (Exodus 12:23)
  4. The LORD restrains the destroyer from bringing death to any who are not firstborn

The statement that the LORD will strike the firstborn means He will identify the firstborn, just as striking the land of Egypt means He identified that part of the earth which would be affected that night. Then during the night, the LORD restrains and prevents the destroyer from (1) going to any part of the earth other than Egypt (2) entering a house marked with blood (3) killing anyone in a house who the LORD did not mark.

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"I, and not an Angel" reads the Pesach (Passover) Hagaddah, quoting Shmoth (Exodus) 12.12: For the L-RD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the L-RD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you."

Shmoth (Exodus) 12.13 reads: "And the blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses where you will be, and I will see the blood and skip over you, and there will be no plague to destroy [you] when I smite the [people of the] land of Egypt."

The Torah's use of the word "Ani" ("I") makes the act of smiting the firstborn of the Egyptians a personal act.

As in Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 45:7, we see that Hashem is the creator of everything, as the text says, “bringing forth light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil, I am G-D who does all these things.” In the Jewish bible, everything is under the jurisdiction of G-D and under His power – all forces, even evil forces. Everything comes from G-D, He created everything, good and evil. That being the case, Satan is not a rival of G-D, he is a messenger of G-D and unable to do anything outside of G-D’s will.

Moreover, in Iyov (Job) 1.21 we see that everything is ultimately attributed to HaShem: Iyov 1.21 "And he said; naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither; the L-RD gave, and the L-RD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the L-RD. 22 For all this Job sinned not, nor ascribed aught unseemly to G-D."

Note the text says, "the L-RD gave, and the L-RD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the L-RD."

JPS 1917 Translation

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