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What was so special about the firstborn of Egypt that God decided to kill them, to bring judgement on Pharaoh and Egypt for their sins against the Israelites? Why not just kill anybody who supported the Pharaoh's pro-Israelite slavery policies?

Did the firstborn hold a privileged status, possibly the ones who made the most profit from Israelite slave labour? Or did they represent the prototypical sinner (firstborns have massively negative reputations before the events of Exodus, e.g. Cain, Ishamel, Esau, maybe Canaan as a firstborn grandson of Noah or Moab/Ammon as the firstborn of each of Lot's daughters).

  • I'm not sure whether the practice was picked up by the Egyptians but Abraham's family was big on giving birthrights to their firstborn. And they're (ethnically/biologically) Mesopotamians, living in Canaan. – AngelusVastator May 11 at 3:42
  • The firstborn is the eldest, and therefore usually also the strongest physically. We know that Pharaoh undertook military action against the Israelites for attempting to flee Egypt (Exodus 14:9). – Lucian May 19 at 15:22
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The symbolism of the death of the firstborn is explained at the very beginning as corresponding to Israel being God's firstborn son. Pharaoh refused to release God's firstborn son, therefore Pharaoh's punishment is that he loses his firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23, NRSV):

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.”

The punishment must have been symbolic, not aimed against the firstborn as a social group, because it also affected the firstborn of captives and animals (Exodus 12:29).

The idea of punishing someone corresponding to the way he sinned is mentioned often in poetry (Hosea 4:6, Obadiah 1:15, Habakkuk 2:8, Psalms 137:8, Lamentations 1:22). This is the concept invoked here.

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    Perfect! It's interesting how creative God can be in His punishments. The Pharaoh disrespected what God valued the most so thus, God disrespected what the Pharaoh valued the most. – AngelusVastator May 10 at 10:17
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In addition to Israel being God's firstborn, and also the wages of sin being death and Jesus being both firstborn that dies due to (our) sin, and the lamb's blood smeared over the household (God's household) so that we are passed over.

In answer to your other question...

Did the firstborn hold a privileged status?

...the answer is YES, in all caps and bolded.

Through most of history, in most of the world, firstborns were given preferential treatment. The firstborn has greater authority within the family, and a much larger inheritance, if not the entirety of the inheritance (though small inheritance gifts might be given younger sons). The firstborn is seen as the continuation of the family line, and as much aid is given them as possible in the hope that one day the family may become powerful/successful/secure.

This idea is called Primogeniture, and is a huge deal in many cultures, ancient and modern.

Children are the "social security" of families, and special emphasis is usually put on the firstborn son as the hope and security of the family. Not just greater privilege, but also greater responsibility. For example, it was Jesus' responsibility, as the firstborn of Mary and Joseph, to care for them in their old age. This is why Jesus' last act was to ensure His mother was taken care of, as was His responsibility as the primogenitor (John 19:26-27). Jesus' brothers also came to take authority from Him, thinking Him mad and thus unfit to lead the family (Mark 3:21).

In Ancient Egypt, by law, firstborns where given double-portions of inheritance, and became the head of that family's household, and inherited governmental offices - think European ranks of Lords and Dukes being inherited. (Oddly, inheritance of the rank of Pharaoh works uniquely differently). This may seem quaint to modern Westerners, but the importance of family lineages and households are a big freaking deal. Many families today go without, sacrificing for their children's future. Primogeniture is one of the key ways that used to (and still does) occur.

It's a big deal in ancient (and sometimes modern) Judaism too. (See also Deuteronomy 21:15-17, demanding that you can't play favoritism and overlook one wife's firstborn in favor of another's).

This is why is was a huge deal for Esau, the firstborn, to sell his birthright to Jacob, who was the second. And also why God made a point of saying, Jacob He loved, but Esau He hated - because birthrights and social ranks aren't of value to God, rather the posture of the heart.

Same with King David, God looked past Jesse's many other sons, and looked to the youngest (David) to anoint and make king, because God was interested in David's heart (calling him, "a man after My own heart"), as David regularly worshiped God in the fields as a young shepherd. (King David also seemingly went against Deut 21:15-17, by making Solomon (firstborn of his favorite wife, Bathsheba) king instead of his many other children by other wives).

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The firstborn of the Egyptians belonged to their gods. Just like Israel is the firstborn of God and the firstborn among them. By killing the firstborns of the Egyptians, God executed judgement against the gods of Egypt.

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