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Two Jehovah's Witnesses were here yesterday, and we talked for a while about religion. We mentioned briefly God's killing of all the first born in Egypt in Exodus 12:29, whereupon one of the Witnesses said that it wasn't God who killed them. Not having a Bible close by, I just said I must misremember, and we started talking about something else.

Now, upon rereading Exodus 12:29 I think it's pretty clear that "the Lord" killed the first born. Is there some alternative interpretation of this, that this Lord is entirely separate from God? I'm confused, because the Witnesses otherwise seemed to have great knowledge of the Bible. What am I missing?

Who do Jehovah Witnesses believe killed the first-borns in Exodus 12?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Jehovah's Witness have a particular affinity for "Jehovah" as the proper name of God. One of the issues they often point out is that "the LORD," which translates the Tetragrammaton YHVH, is a Jewish superstition that has has somehow corrupted and dishonored the one of whom it speaks.

In their understanding of the Godhood (which is assuredly non-Chalcedonian, and non-Trinitarian), YHVH is a very different character from the more mainstream perspective. In their understanding, God is a force, albeit an approachable one, rather than a person. (Note: In this perspective, Jesus as the son of God is not God, but rather a god or godlike thing.)

Between these two things, I suspect the issue of disagreement was less one of "what actually happened," than of one of terminology - or perhaps the nature of God in this instance. The Biblical narrative (which many JW's reject as being corrupt, preferring instead their own NWT) indicates that Jehovah (whom Trinitarians view as God the Father) was in fact the one doing it. Exodus 11 states:

And Moses went on to say: “This is what Jehovah has said, ‘About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, (New World Translation)

Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt" (NET Bible)

The question then, is what there understanding of "the LORD" is. From their perspective, its not God - that is Jehovah. From a Chalcedonian perspective, however, it is a distinction without a difference.

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Just to be clear, I am not a JW, and may be mischaracterizing them - but I don't believe that to be the case. I welcome a JW correction here. Also, I would hope that votes would be based on how well I represent the JW position - not whether or not you agree with it. Personally, I disagree with the understanding, but I prefer to be faithful to an accurate understanding of their world view. – Affable Geek Jan 31 '13 at 13:59
They do believe the word "LORD" found in the KJV and some other English translations is God. They simply understand that "LORD" isn't the correct transliteration of the Tetragrammaton. Thus, they prefer what they believe to be an actual transliteration, that being Jehovah based on the nekkudot found in the Masoretic text (which many scholars debate as being inaccurate for the Tetragrammaton itself as a result of the Jewish tendency to avoid chillul ha-Shem)., where were we? From what I remember about the text is that one referred to as "the Destroyer" killed the first born. Dest=YHVH? – Simply a Christian Feb 1 '13 at 3:43
@H3br3wHamm3r81 "The Destroyer"? That sounds very Hindu. – fredsbend Jan 6 '15 at 21:07
@fredsbendtheGrinch: lol :) הַמַּשְׁחִית - the Destroyer. Exo. 12:23. – Simply a Christian Jan 6 '15 at 22:39
I thought LORD was a placeholder for the tetragrammaton, YHWH/JHVH, which, to Jehovah's Witnesses, is the same as Jehovah? – Joshua May 4 at 0:55

Jehovah did kill the firstborn of Egypt, the witness you spoke with must've misunderstood your questions. JW for 24 years.

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I have been around a few JWs in my life, and I can confirm that JW's do indeed believe that Jehovah (God) killed the firstborn of Egypt. It is written that way in their preferred translation, the New World Translation (NWT)... which, by the way, is a pretty decent translation, that at least makes an honest attempt to translate the best available texts correctly. It's not perfect, and its almost literal (at times) translation leads to some perplexing passages.

JWs dislike the use of the phrase "The Lord" and "God" as they perceive them to be ambiguous. They don't believe in the Trinity, although they do believe that Jesus is second only to Jehovah (God). They use "Jehovah" as the name of the Supreme Being (God), which is technically quite accurate. There is really nothing magical about the word "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" (which are the same word, when translating ancient Hebrew). It's consonants only, and it literally translates as "Y or J, H, V or W, H". So... you can pick from YHWH (Yahweh), JHVH (Jehovah), YHVH, or JHWH. Everybody is just taking their best guess on that choice. It would be nice to know how everyone pronounced God's name when Moses freed the slaves, but I don't think it's gonna happen.

At any rate, the Hebrew word denoted by those 4 letters means (depending on which scholar you ask): "I Am" or "I Shall Be" or "I Shall Prove to Be."

I've read and made my very best effort to translate the oldest texts that I have access to, and compare them. In those texts, it appears that Moses is the first person recorded to have asked God, basically, "What is your name?" The texts seem to indicate that God was either taken aback by that question, or simply had no way to answer it in a way that humans could understand. So God answered, "I am." That's the best he could do without just giving a ridiculous answer like "Bob."

It's worth noting that Moses is the only person in the pre-Jesus texts of the Abrahamic religions that ever "talked back" to God or questioned God, and got away with it. The indication in those texts is that God respected Moses when he challenged God, because Moses had valid points and presented them in a shrewd manner. Personally, I think that Moses is the only pure human (in other words, not including Jesus, Mohammed, or other humans perceived as "divine")... Moses is the only pure human in the Abrahamic scriptures that God ever found to be worthy of his conversation.

Abraham, David, Solomon... They all had their virtues... But, without trying to sound sacrilegious, Moses is the ONLY human who ever threw the "bulls**t flag" at God, and made God think about it.

A little off-topic, but still relevant, I think. I apologize for the ramble.


I just realized that I never answered the original question.

Of course, as with any answer regarding any religious questions, these are my opinions and interpretations based on the information available to me.


Did God kill the firstborn of Egypt?

It depends upon who is answering the question. As mentioned, the NWT, the JW's preferred translation -- and many other translations -- state quite clearly that God did kill them. However, the definitive answer is a little harder to come by and depends upon which texts you consider valid and who is doing the translating.

Many Abrahamic texts indicate an "insulation" between God and killing. In many belief systems, God -- the Creator -- does not kill that which he has created. Depending on the beliefs of a certain religion, this could indicate that God is capable of error, by creating something that was a "mistake" and now must be destroyed. Obviously, the concept of a God who makes mistakes does not "fly" in many religions. Another philosophy is that God could never kill a living thing. His purpose is to create, and killing anything, directly, would make that purpose meaningless.

It is this second philosophy that leads to a theory proposed by many religions.

In some texts, God employs an "Angel of Death", "Destroying Angel", or "Destroyer." It is usually presumed that this Angel is a very high-ranking angel that reports directly to God, and is the ONLY Angel tasked with the killing of God's creation. The Destroyer is always depicted as having NO free will. The concept is that God could not bear for anyone to have to kill by choice. This does not mean, however, that the Destroyer does not feel or have independent thought. It just means that he must execute the law completely and literally, and obey all of God's commands. In many (not all) texts, it does not appear that the Destroyer is responsible for death by old age, random occurrences, or by people killing other people.

At any rate, before I write a Novel here, many religions argue that the Destroyer, commanded by God, took the lives in Egypt that night. In our human justice system, we might say that that makes God "just as guilty" as if he had done the killing himself. But in the context of many religious belief systems, that is not exactly the case.

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"I just realized that I never answered the original question." Oh, good I was just about to downvote. I recommend trimming any extra stuff out or put it at the very end. – fredsbend Jan 6 '15 at 22:59

The text in the new world translation clearly answers yes! From Exodus chapter 12:

29 Then at midnight, Jehovah struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt,+ from the firstborn of Pharʹaoh who was sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the prison,* and every firstborn of the animals.+ 30 Pharʹaoh got up that night along with all his servants and all the other Egyptians, and there was a great outcry among the Egyptians, because there was not a house where someone was not dead.+

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An interpretation I have heard, and see merit in, observes that the text in Exodus 12:23 contains 2 actors, i.e., the "Lord" Who is distinct from a mysterious character referred to as the "destroyer." The Lord clearly is responsible for the decree to take the lives of the firstborn who are not protected by the blood. However, the Lord's personal role seems to be to preserve lives, to shield the homes of those covered by the blood of the Peshach lamb. The actual taking of lives is left to the "destroyer." This is consistent with the Lord's personal involvement in securing our salvation on the cross. Our God prefers to be intimately involved with His people, and is not a distant deity who prefers to deal with his people through subordinates.

Exodus 12:23 - (NASB) "For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you."

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Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Thanks also for offering a thoughtful answer. The question itself is, unfortunately, a bit iffy for this site, since it's a matter of opinion and interpretation, which isn't really what this site is about. See: How we are different than other sites. Meanwhile, I hope you'll stick around and browse some of the other questions and answers here. – Lee Woofenden May 3 at 1:52

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