“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?” – Martin Luther King Jr.
God promises that after nine devastating plagues, still “one more thing” is coming to the Egyptians. All the first born sons of Egypt will die in the middle of the night. Of all the plagues, this one seems the most gratuitous and vindictive.
Anyone who is familiar with the Exodus story is disturbed by the 10th plague. I struggled with this for a long time too. But now, I think I have an approach.
There is an unspoken theme that runs through the Book of Genesis. It is assumed that first born sons are superior and then every story in the book subverts that message by giving preference to a non-first born. Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Ephraim, and even Moses are all non-first borns. It seems that the Torah is trying to say something about birth order and the thing it’s saying is that first borns are not special. It says that a lot of ways and a lot of times.
Religions in Ancient Egypt revolved around death and the afterlife. They were obsessed with it. The priests who performed the burial rites were the first born sons of the deceased. I think that the first borns in Egypt were more than just oldest brothers. The first borns were the religious leaders of Egypt. The Pharaoh was the chief first born and functioned as a deity. All the other first born sons were his minions. Biblical Judaism rejected the notion that first borns were preferred and part of the deprogramming of the Israelites was through the stories of Genesis that deemphasize the specialness of the first born.
A religious leader has many roles. It’s fair to say that one role of the religious leader is to protect the disadvantaged and protest injustice. The first borns of Egypt failed in that role. They allowed an entire nation to be enslaved. Religious leaders cannot stand by while innocent human beings are suffering at the hands of a sociopathic despot. It’s likely that they would have failed had they tried to plead with the Pharaoh to free the Israelites. But the first born priests should have done something, at least tried to do something. Just demonstrate that the plight of Israelites is disconcerting. They did not. That was their failure.
For this moral failing, the first borns were punished in the 10th plague. They were allotted the maximum amount of time to get it right – they had 9 plagues worth of warning – but they did not get the message. The 10th plague destroyed the first born priests of Egypt and destroyed the idea that first borns should be preferred for religious leadership.
Real religious leadership is not just harsh religious instruction and admonishment for religious failings. Real religious leadership lovingly teaches by example, carefully admonishes only to prevent real harm to others, and makes an effort to reduce the suffering of others.
This weekend is the perfect time to remember this fundamental of religious leadership as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and the religious leaders who marched with him.