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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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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

Since it is written that Yahveh Himself will “pass through” (note: this is the verb עָבַר) 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

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.

Meredith G. Kline wrote,10

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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 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 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.

Footnotes

1 Exo. 12:28 cp. Exo. 12:6, 12:21

2 Exo. 12:28 cp. Exo. 12:7, 12:22

3 Exo. 12:23 cp. Exo. 12:13

4 Exo. 12:23 cp. 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.

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

9 or "destroyer"

10 p. 499

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During the night of the Passover each house in Egypt not marked with blood was a house in which a single death occurred:

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)1

Since the Israelites were in houses marked by blood, they were “passed over.” As a result, the issue of identifying the firstborn was never experienced or recorded.

Suppose those living in the house included parents, children and grandchildren. Who would be the single person to die? What if a house contained a childless husband and wife? What if a house did not contain any “firstborn” or contained more than one "firstborn"? In some houses which were not marked there would be a valid question over selecting the one person that would die. A fundamental problem in having a single “firstborn” in every unmarked house die is identifying that one person.

Therefore, the killing of the firstborn described in Exodus requires four separate steps:

  1. Determine if the house is correctly marked with blood.
  2. If unmarked determine which one person in the house will die.
  3. Prevent the destroyer from entering a marked house.
  4. Kill one person in an unmarked house.

The solution to the apparent conflict in Exodus 12:23 is found by identifying who is responsible for each step:

  1. The LORD determines if the house is marked: 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)
  2. The LORD identifies which one person will die in a house not marked: ‘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)
  3. The LORD prevents the Destroying angel 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 Destroyer brings the plague that kills one person: Exodus 12:23

The statement that the LORD will strike the firstborn does not mean the LORD will kill the firstborn. It means the LORD will identify the one person in an unmarked house which the Destroyer will kill. That is, the "striking" of the firstborn is a marking or a sign, just as "striking" the land of Egypt:

‘For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike (וְהִכֵּיתִ֤י) 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. 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 (בְּהַכֹּתִ֖י) the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:12-13)


1. All Scripture from the New King James translation.

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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."

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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