Immediately prior to Moses’ descent to Egypt to address Pharaoh for the first time, we read the following:
“And Moses took his wife and his sons and rode them on the donkey and returned towards the land of Egypt, and Moses took the staff of God in his hand. And God said to Moses, ‘When you go to return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I have placed in your hand and do them before Pharaoh, and I will harden his heart and he will not send the people’. And you will say to Pharaoh, ‘So says God, ‘Israel is My firstborn’. And I say to you, ‘send My people and they will serve Me, and if you refuse to send, behold, I will kill your firstborn sons’.” (Exod. 4:20-23)
We wonder what God’s message is here, “Israel is My firstborn”. What does this mean, and what is the objective in Moses telling this to Pharaoh? Another central question is why God saw it necessary to plague the Egyptians by killing their firstborns. What is the reason for this plague? It is difficult to understand this seemingly “tit for tat” response: since the Egyptians abused the Jews (God’s “firstborn”) so God kills ‘their’ firstborns? It smacks if an incomprehensible sense of justice. For God’s firstborn Jews, are only “firstborns” in a metaphoric sense, while God is attacking the very real firstborns of the Egyptians.
What is also interesting is that there is no mention here of the intervening nine plagues. In this warning, God outlines His response to Pharaoh’s refusal, with the Plague of Firstborns – jumping to the last plague with no mention of all He planned to do prior to that final blow. Why then is the Plague of the Firstborns the only plague mentioned here, if God was going to also plague Egypt with nine others? To compound this question, we notice the Torah’s prescribed response to our sons, that we only mention this Plague of Firstborns:
“And it will be when your son asks you tomorrow saying, ‘What is this?’ and you shall say to him, ‘With a mighty hand God took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery…And it was when Pharaoh hardened his heart from sending us, that God killed the firstborns of the land of Egypt from the firstborn of man until the firstborn of beast, therefore, I sacrifice to God all male firstborn [animals], and all firstborn sons I redeem’. And it shall be a sign on your hand and frontlets between your eyes that with a mighty hand God took us out of Egypt.” (Exod. 13:14-16)
It is clear that there is a special significance of the Plague of Firstborns: this plague alone is included in our address to our children. Additionally, of the Tefillin’s four sections, two sections deal with the firstborn. The significance of firstborns is also evident in the Torah command of redeeming our firstborn sons. So we see that this is a theme in Torah, and not a one-time occurrence.
We also wonder at the reason why God killed not only the firstborn humans, but also the animals. (ibid, 11:5, 12:12) We must note that in this latter verse 12:12, God includes therein that He will not only kill the firstborns from man to beast, but also the Egyptian gods:
“And I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will smite all firstborns in the land of Egypt – from man to beast – and in all the gods of Egypt I will do justice, I am God.”
What is the connection between killing firstborns and God’s act of defaming the god’s of Egypt (the idols) that God joins these two themes in one single verse?
Ibn Ezra: Wrong Prioritization
Ibn Ezra states: “The reason behind ‘My firstborn son’- this is the nation which their forefathers served Me in the beginning, and I have mercy on them, as a father has mercy over his son who serves him. And you (Egypt) desire to take them as eternal slaves?! Therefore, I will kill your firstborn sons.” (Exod. 4:22) Ibn Ezra points to the core issue: the Egyptians did not recognize the Jews as observing the proper life for man. This is expressed in their enslavement of this people. Ibn Ezra is elaborating on God’s sentiment that He will kill the firstborns. For some just reason, God must kill the Egyptian firstborns as the correct response. But what is correct about this response? As we mentioned, it seems tit for tat, with no apparent relationship between a metaphoric firstborn Jewish nation, and the real, Egyptian firstborn sons. What is correlative between a metaphor and a reality? But in fact, God does go so far as to engage the very institution of firstborns, recognized by the Egyptians. Let me explain.
To threaten anyone, the object of a threat must target something of value. To “threaten”, means to make one feel he will lose something valued. God is thereby teaching us that the Egyptians cared quite a bit for their firstborns. But why did they? Is there anything in the Torah’s verses, which may teach us about this value placed on their firstborns?
We notice that God did not only threaten the human sons, but God also said He will kill firstborn animals. We also noticed, this was stated in a single Torah verse together with God’s plan to destroy the Egyptian idols. There must be a relationship between firstborn sons, firstborn animals, and idolatry. What is it?
Firstborn’s Preeminence: Egypt’s Idolatry
I believe this flaw of the Egyptian culture was the overestimation of anything firstborn – even beasts. For some reason, they imagined a firstborn to possess a superadded quality, which all other living beings were denied. The proof that this value was unreal, and was manufactured from their imagination is their overt expression that firstborn beasts too possessed preeminence. With that, their idolatrous emotions are exposed: they equated man to animal.
God’s very response of destroying firstborn beasts, addresses the precise flaw: God addresses that which is corrupt, i.e., their notion that “firstborns are of elevated status”, and animals share prominence with man. The very equation the Egyptians made between animals to man, in that even firstborn beasts were celebrated, was idolatrous in nature. God underlines this idolatrous current by joining to the firstborns, His plan to abolish the idols…and in the very same verse. God equated the preeminence placed on firstborns with idols. “Idolatry” is not limited to idol worship, nor is it limited to man’s approach to a deity - but to any expression not based in reality, and projected from man’s fantasy. Therefore, idolatry will include acts such as tossing pennies to a well for success; assuming black cats cause bad “luck”; believing that ‘luck’ exists; that Hebrew prayer books will protect our cars; that Mezuzas protect us; that keys in Challas are protective; or that red bendels affect reality. All these and unfortunately more acts are idolatrous.
Regarding Egypt’s idolatry in this case, reality bears no evidence of greatness in that which leaves the womb first. The Egyptians’ only imagined there to be some greatness in firstborns. Living life based on imagination is idolatrous in nature. Death played a major role in Egyptian culture (pyramids are their eternal resting places) so life too - as the other pole of this highlighted spectrum - shared their primary focus. That which was first in receiving life from a parent was imagined to be special. We see a close tie between the fear of mortality, and the elevated status Egypt placed on firstborns. Thus, life and death were central focus in Egypt.  And he who was firstborn, they felt, possessed a greater distinction in that his “life” was even more prized.
Now we understand from where came this firstborn status. We also understand why God would seek to remove a wrong idea maintained by the Egyptians. But why was God going to kill the firstborns, in response to their enslavement of the Jews? For this, we refer back to the original quote, “Israel is My firstborn’. And I say to you, ‘send My people and they will serve Me, and if you refuse to send, behold, I will kill your firstborn sons’.” If firstborns in truth possessed no real difference in status, why does God call Israel HIS firstborn? I believe this had to be, as God wished to talk “in their language”. God wished to express to the Egyptian culture who was truly the prized personality. And since this designation was the firstborns in Egyptian culture, God used their jargon, calling Israel the real firstborn of nations.
God wished to correct the Egyptians’ opinion of who is truly the most celebrated individual, or who would truly be called a “firstborn” metaphorically in God’s eyes. Ibn Ezra assists us here. As he stated, God was reprimanding the Egyptians for having enslaved the people whose forefathers worshipped God. These righteous people, God said, are the true “firstborns” or the people who live life properly. But at this point, Egypt maintained that even a firstborn animal was more celebrated than a Jew, so much, that the Jew could be enslaved, while a firstborn animal was free. This is intolerable in God’s system: he who follows God is the most celebrated individual. And to point this out to Egypt, to dispel this foolish notion that a firstborn carries any significance, God warned the Egyptians to recognize the Hebraic, monotheistic life and free these Hebrews to practice, or suffer the consequence of realizing how little import your firstborns are…they will be killed.
This is God’s ultimatum to Pharaoh: “Recognize whose life is truly valued most, or you will loose your purpose for living. Projecting fantasy onto reality, assuming firstborns – even animals – possess greater status, while Abraham’s descendants are imprisoned, is a worthless life, and My destruction of your firstborns will teach this to you Pharaoh”. This is the sense of God’s message. We may also answer why God killed any firstborn Jew who did not kill the Paschal lamb: this lack of adherence to God, displays a stronger bond to Egypt, than to God. Hence, these Jews also partook of the idolatrous way of life, and did not deserve salvation. In fact, Rashi teaches that four fifths of the Jewish population was destroyed in Egypt.
Why was God’s initial warning to Pharaoh bereft of any mention of the other nine plagues? Why does our response to our children’s question on Passover include the statement, “And it was when Pharaoh hardened his heart from sending us, that God killed the firstborns of the land of Egypt from the firstborn of man until the firstborn of beast”? Sforno answers. (Exod 4:22) Sforno says that only the Plague of Firstborns was intended as a “punishment” while all others were intended to display God’s control of the Earth. Only the Plague of Firstborns was an act of “measure for measure” says Sforno. Therefore, it makes sense why God tells Moses upon his initial address to Pharaoh to say, “Let the Jews go, or your firstborns will be killed.” Herein is an act of punishment, not so with regards to the other plagues. (It makes sense , that God will threaten Pharaoh with that, intended as punishment) And when we answer our children on Passover, we remind them of how God punished the Egyptians. Perhaps this is to also instill in them an appreciation that God defends us, and saved us. The central theme of Passover is that God is our Savior.
From our study, we learn that the Exodus has an additional facet: God’s deliverance of the Jew from under the hands of those who valued firstborn animals over intelligent man, was a lesson in “who is the most celebrated personality”: it is not he who projects imagined status onto senseless beasts, but he who adheres to the reasoned lifestyle. He who adheres to Abraham’s model follows God’s choicest lifestyle – extricating himself as did Abraham, from idolatry with reason alone, and finding God.
Ultimately, the Plague of Firstborns teaches us that a reasoned life is God’s desire, and he, who lacks reason, and projects imagination onto reality, is against God.
 History shows that the Egyptians painted idealized scenes from daily life on the walls of their pyramid tombs which included agricultural work, tending cattle and fishing, artisans at their work, including gold workers and boat-builders, and domestic scenes of banquets with musicians, dancers and guests. The scenes in the tomb represented the hoped for after-life, in which there were fertile fields and harmony and happiness at home. Representing it in the tomb was thought to ‘ensure’ an ideal existence in the next world: the tomb-owner would continue after death the occupations of this life. Therefore, everything required was packed in the tomb, along with the corpse. Writing materials were often supplied along with clothing, wigs, hairdressing supplies and assorted tools, depending on the occupation of the deceased. Often, model tools rather than full size ones, would be placed in the tomb; models were cheaper and took up less space and in the after-life would be magically transformed into the real thing.