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So I reread how the death of the Egyptian firstborn was the final and most severe/tragic plague that God inflicted upon Egypt and I have a few questions:

  1. Were all the Egyptian firstborn affected? Did some Egyptians listen to the Israelites who painted lamb blood on their doorposts?

  2. Did the firstborn only include firstborn males? What if there was an Egyptian family who had a firstborn child that was female? Would she be killed by the destroyer?

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    I think your question might be voted to close because you have asked more than one question. Site rules require one question at a time.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 24, 2019 at 12:59

1 Answer 1

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Were some Egyptians saved? We can speculate, but that's all since no such exemption is mentioned. On the contrary, Exodus 12:30 tells us there was loud wailing throughout Egypt,

כִּי־אֵין בַּיִת אֲשֶׁר אֵין־שָׁם מֵת
for there was no house in which there was no one dead.

Of course, the OT often uses language about total destruction hyperbolically, such as when Canaanite tribes are said to be utterly annihilated but members of those ethnic groups turn up later on. Hence there's room for survivors if you read this as hyperbole, as many commentators do, whether in terms of rhetorical style or for technical reasons like "not every house might have had a firstborn". But since the Bible is silent on this point, that's as far as we can go.


Were female firstborns spared? The Hebrew word is בְּכוֹר bekhór, derived from a verb בכר b-k-r "to bear new fruit" both figuratively and metaphorically. Technically, this noun is indeed masculine, and contrasts with a feminine variant, בְּכִירָה bekhirá. However, that in itself doesn't tell us enough, because when Hebrew wants to speak of a group, it defaults to the masculine form in most cases. Used of an individual, we would expect to see the distinction, but in the form "every X", it's reasonable to expect only the masculine variant.

One question we can ask is whether bekhór has not only masculine grammatical gender, but also masculine semantic content. To see the difference, consider the proverb "Every man has his price": it's grammatically masculine but it's understood to be true of women, too. Whereas "Every male has his price" is both grammatically and semantically masculine. Which kind is bekhór ? 1

At least one commentary claims that it's inherently male. For example, Ellicott (1905) says:

All the firstborn. — The Hebrew word used applies only to males.

He actually uses this to rule out a literal reading of "every house" specifically because in some houses the firstborn might be female. On the other side, Matthew Poole (1685) writes this:

All the first-born, both of man and beast, whether male or female. ... I conceive they are all included, because all such were really first-born, and did first open their mother’s womb

That last part refers to b-k-r, which in Strong's concordance is indeed linked with an underlying metaphor of "bursting the womb".

Another approach might be to ask why firstborns were significant in ancient times. The reason is understood to be that this determines birthright and inheritance. This fact could support a male-only reading, since inheritance was a male-centred institution. For example, Zelopehad's daughters had to ask Moses for special treatment since their father had no male heir (Numbers 27:3-4). Note however that God settled the matter by decreeing that daughers can inherit if there are no male heirs (Numbers 27:5-11). If we're applying the inheritance argument for the Egyptian firstborns, could this "next in line" rule apply? According to Salomon's comment below, the midrash (ancient commentary) held that it did.

A third angle might be to look at the story structure. In Exodus 1:15-16 we have the template for this event in Pharaoh's instructions to the midwives:

When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.

Applying a narrative analysis, we might say that the final stroke is the mirror of the first. Pharaoh killed the sons of Israel; God killed the sons of Egypt. In support of this reading we might point to the Exodus being construed a contest between Pharaoh and God, e.g. with the Egyptians magicians mimicking the plagues. Against this reading we might note that killing all human sons is not the same event as killing every human or animal firstborn. Similarly inconclusive.

If there's a good Hebrew scholar who can give better insights into that first approach (grammatical/semantic nature of bekhór), I think it might be fruitful, no pun intended.


1 One more illustration: If I say "All lions roar," the word "lion" doesn't distinguish by sex. But if I say "Lions roar, but lionesses don't," I construe "lion" as exclusively masculine. That's one paradigm. Now consider the case of "deer", "stag", and "doe". The word "stag" is inherently masculine, and if I want the neutral meaning I use "deer". The question is: Does bekhór work like "lion" or like "stag"?

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    The Midrash suggests that Ex. 12:30 means “firstborn by any definition”: if not a male, then a female firstborn; if the firstborn was already dead, then the eldest living child; etc. Feb 24, 2019 at 15:52

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