After enduring a year of unimaginable, relentless plagues, in the middle of the night, her precious son—her firstborn—fell dead before her eyes. She collapsed next to him, held his limp body in her arms, and wailed unconsolably. Her heart wrenched in utter devastation, anguish, rage, and confusion.
Some said they suffered these plagues over an obstinate struggle between gods: the God of their slaves and Pharaoh. But why did it take her innocent child?
Reading through the account of the ten plagues got me thinking about this scene: an ordinary Egyptian mother on the night of the final plague. The Scriptures say that no Egyptian house was left unscathed by the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:30). As a new mother myself, I read this story from this new perspective, and my heart ached for her. I wanted to know more of her story.
My mother is an Egyptologist, and I went to her for more insight. Her book The God of Egypt examines the biblical account of Exodus through the eye of Egyptian history. She has extensive knowledge about ancient Egyptian history and culture, and she was able to lend some context that made that night even more impactful for me.
First, she explained to me a bit about what an ordinary Egyptian woman was like.
“It wasn’t like how you might think,” she told me. Ancient Egyptian culture frowned on polygamy (except for royalty), and Egyptian women enjoyed some power in their households and in society. (I mean, most of us are familiar with Hatshepsut, who was one of the first female political leaders in the ancient world.)
For most ancient Egyptian women, the main priority was to make sure their family was prepared for the afterlife. “Many women had a business on the side or worked beside their husbands, saving money to buy a copy of the Book of the Dead, which cost about a year’s wages.” The Book of the Dead contained spells and incantations touted to protect souls in the afterlife.
Women also purchased expensive amulets to protect their children, and they probably also had a house shrine and/or a tattoo dedicated to their most venerated gods.
“The firstborn was especially cherished [see Psalm 105:36]. They got extra portions of food to make them grow healthy and strong, training in the family business, and the lion’s share of any inheritance.”
When I heard this description, it made me think about mothers in the United States today. According to the US Department of Labor, in 2017, 40% of families in the US had mothers (with children under 18) as primary or equal income earners for the household. And in 2018, 71% of women in the US workforce were mothers. Egyptian mothers were highly concerned about protecting their families, and US mothers are too. Mothers with most faith backgrounds desire their children to have a rewarding afterlife. So in reality, ancient Egyptian mothers are quite relatable.
But then came that heart-rending night.
It was and is well-known that the plagues were a direct attack against the Egyptian gods, but my mom believes the plagues were also targeted to their religious festivals (90-94). We know that the tenth plague happened at Passover, on a full moon, following the Vernal Equinox, which means it corresponds to the ancient Egyptian Festival of the Beautiful Valley (or “Nefer,” meaning “beautiful,” which also meant “vitality” or “completion” in ancient Egyptian).
As my mom puts it, this was their happiest festival of the year. “In the communion of the living and the dead, during the Valley Festival, Egyptians believed that graves in the necropolis became ‘houses of the joy of the heart.’ A prayer from the Festival of the Beautiful Valley ended in a [blessing, especially for the firstborns]: ‘May [the gods] grant a long life and vital old age.’ … [I]n an instant, all the houses of the ‘joy of the heart’ [became] houses of a ‘great cry’ as hopes for long life and vitality were snuffed” (94).
In the middle of celebrating her child’s life and future, everything crumbled at the feet of the common Egyptian mother.
On that terrible night, Israelites who obeyed God were protected; in fact, the Passover became a yearly reminder of how God saved their firstborns from the plague and subsequently delivered them from slavery. And for future believers, we understand this horrible night as part of God’s plan to deliver the entire world from slavery to sin. But for her–that unknowing mother, clinging to her still-warm child–how must she have felt?
Realistically, we can see that answer today.
When unbelieving people are faced with intense tragedy, they often curse the apparent evil that God has caused in their lives. An abiding question of doubters is: “If there is a God, why is there suffering?” It often causes them to turn their back on God.
Now, in the face of COVID-19, many are angry with God and question His intentions; observing the “beautiful valley” of spring, we also confront the stark reminder of death.
Those of us who follow God know Him as the Creator–who is also, sometimes, the Destroyer. Yet Joseph told us that even things intended for evil, God can use for good (Genesis 50:20). Job said that whether blessings are given or taken away, we must choose to bless the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).
Devastating moments in the Bible were often difficult parts of a holy plan, and we trust that the same is true now. The Lord conveyed to Paul that His grace is sufficient, and we are strengthened in hard times because of His care (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Peter urges us to go through “the fiery ordeal” and give God glory (1 Peter 4:12-13).
But in those tough moments, even strong faith can waver. So what of those who do not know God?
For the Egyptian mother, there was hope on the horizon. God had a plan, as He always does. According to The God of Egypt, if Amenhotep II was the pharaoh during the Exodus (which much of the book gives compelling evidence for), then Thutmose IV was the pharaoh after the exodus.
And with Thutmose IV’s reign came “the dawning of religious reform” (121). He seemed torn to honor the traditional Egyptian gods and comfort the Egyptian people; but on the heels of devastation, he also seemed convicted to give glory to another, singular God (121-2).
“He built a new type of temple,” my mom told me, “it was called ‘the place of the ear.’ It was an open-air temple with no roof or walls—just a hall of pillars, where ordinary Egyptians could come and pray to a god directly, and they believed their prayers could be heard. Traditional temples were off limits to regular Egyptians; only royalty or priests could enter. Ancient Egyptian people had no access whatsoever to their religious icons. Thutmose IV was nudging them toward an understanding of direct access to a god, without the need to pay a priest for magic access. The God of Moses was accessed directly and impacted directly. Why couldn’t He also directly hear and impact you? This was a new way of thinking in Egypt.”
Many times, when I’m sharing the Gospel with someone (especially someone from another culture, who thinks that Christianity is worship of a Western God), I hear them say things like, “But what does Jesus have to do with me? He lived so long ago in a culture that I’m not a part of.” The Egyptians felt the same way. And more than that–they viewed God as the enemy or as the attacker.
But realistically, God was their God too. He wanted to show them that He had power–and it worked.
Subsequent leaders in Egypt seemed to fear God and encouraged the people to follow suit. Though it’s likely that the Egyptian mother on the night of the tenth plague did not live long enough to see the climax of religious reform in Egypt, the next generation of mothers did.
Countless generations later, on the other side of the globe, this mother sees the hand of God over the Beautiful Valley and over the heart of a grieving Egyptian mother.