Moses said, "Thus says the LORD, 'About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well."

Could someone tell me how this works? We understand that there is sin, but why the firstborn (have they done something wrong?)

Someone asked me this question and I could not answer it.

  • The Maharal in his book Gevurot Hashem (page 14 here) discusses this subject at length, explaining that any type of firstborn is considered the beginning and foundation of that same entity, and therefore it expresses the entity in its entirety. It's a philosophic idea that should be studied more deeply.
    – Cauthon
    Feb 25, 2016 at 13:14
  • Look back at Exodus 4:22
    – Double AA
    Feb 25, 2016 at 14:40
  • Why do you assume a civilization that espouses genocide of an underclass has innocent members? Feb 29, 2016 at 20:53
  • sefaria.org/…
    – rosends
    Feb 19, 2018 at 15:30

1 Answer 1


As @DoubleAA alluded:

Exodus 4:22-23:

וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה בְּנִ֥י בְכֹרִ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ וָאֹמַ֣ר אֵלֶ֗יךָ שַׁלַּ֤ח אֶת־בְּנִי֙ וְיַֽעַבְדֵ֔נִי וַתְּמָאֵ֖ן לְשַׁלְּח֑וֹ הִנֵּה֙ אָנֹכִ֣י הֹרֵ֔ג אֶת־בִּנְךָ֖ בְּכֹרֶֽךָ׃

And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. ‘Behold, I will slay thy first-born.’

There is a general rule that G-d punishes people midah k'neged midah - "measure for measure".

As to what this comparison means, please see various commentaries, esp. Shnei Luchot Habrit via Sefaria.

  • 1
    Why not hurt the person that is guilty?I still don´t understand that stuff.
    – Aigle
    Feb 25, 2016 at 19:34
  • 1
    @Eagel It's a good question. Keep in mind that nearly all the Egyptians were involved in the crime. Esp. at the beginning, Pharaoh commands all the people to throw all males into the Nile.
    – DanF
    Feb 25, 2016 at 19:38
  • 1
    It is a good question in view of God's instruction to Israel: Deuteronomy 24:16 "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin." 2 Kings 14:1 Then again, man does not see or know everything. Perhaps the sins of Egypt were bound up in the hearts of even the youngest child of Egypt and God knew this.
    – user2411
    Jul 21, 2016 at 14:22
  • 1
    Hi @Sarah - My understanding is that all the Egyptians were in some way involved in the enslavement, so they were all guilty. In that sense, killing the first born would be considered "merciful". I think Pharaoh, himself, was a first born, yet he was allowed to live. Have to check that, though. If true, exception was prob. b/c G-d wanted him to witness the actual leaving of his subjects as well as the miracles at the Sea of Reeds.
    – DanF
    Jul 21, 2016 at 14:29
  • 1
    @Sarah I'll try to do some research on this, and post an answer if I find something. My prev. comment is based on vague recall.
    – DanF
    Jul 21, 2016 at 17:20

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