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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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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 hass somehow corrupted and dishonored the one of whom it speaks.

In [their understanding] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah's_Witnesses_beliefs) 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 being.)

Between these two things, I suspect that 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 their understanding of "the LORD" is. From their perspective, it's 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
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    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). Wow...so, where were we? From what I remember about the text is that one referred to as "the Destroyer" killed the first born. Dest=YHVH? – user900 Feb 1 '13 at 3:43
  • @H3br3wHamm3r81 "The Destroyer"? That sounds very Hindu. – 3961 Jan 6 '15 at 21:07
  • @fredsbendtheGrinch: lol :) הַמַּשְׁחִית - the Destroyer. Exo. 12:23. – user900 Jan 6 '15 at 22:39
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    I thought LORD was a placeholder for the tetragrammaton, YHWH/JHVH, which, to Jehovah's Witnesses, is the same as Jehovah? – Joshua May 4 '16 at 0:55
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He was simply expressing the belief that the actual killing was carried out by an angel at Jehovah's command. Either this distinction was important in the context of your conversation or he was being excessively pedantic. His view may have been influenced by a book of Bible stories for children which Jehovah's Witnesses first published in 1978 and which is widely read. In My Book of Bible Stories chapter 32 we read:

Finally, God told his people to sprinkle the blood of a young goat or a young sheep on their doorposts. Then God’s angel passed over Egypt. When the angel saw the blood, he did not kill anyone in that house. But in all the houses where there was no blood on the doorposts, God’s angel killed the firstborn ones of both man and animals. This was the 10th plague.

The view that God struck the firstborn of Egypt by the hand of a judicial executioner has no particular doctrinal significance. For example, it has nothing to do with whether he as the Creator would destroy his creation. A search of their publications back to 1950 reveals a few more places where this assumption is made, but no discussion of it as a controversial issue.

Their assumption that the "destroyer" of Exodus 12 is an angel is simply a reflection of their understanding of how Jehovah acts on Earth and how the writers of the Old Testament accounts describe the role of angels in his acts. For example, in Exodus 14:19--25 the role of an angel is explicit and Moses seems to ascribe his acts from within the pillar of fire and cloud to Jehovah. Angels as destroyers of humans at Jehovah's command are referred to explicitly in a number of other accounts such as 2 Samuel 24 and 2 Kings 19.

So yes, Jehovah's Witnesses definitely believe that Jehovah killed the firstborn of Egypt. That it was Jehovah who plagued Egypt is central to their understanding of the narrative. In their Bible encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures the article Exodus from Egypt begins:

JEHOVAH instructed Moses to appear before Pharaoh and, speaking in Jehovah’s name, to say: “Send my people away.” (Ex 5:1) Pharaoh refused. He did not want to lose a nation of slaves. More than that, Pharaoh did not know, or recognize, Jehovah as the true God. (Ex 5:2) Pharaoh worshiped the gods of Egypt and even considered himself to be a god! Thus the issue was pressed to the fore: Who is the true God? By means of ten plagues Jehovah executed judgment “on all the gods of Egypt,” resulting in Israel’s release and giving evidence that Jehovah is the living and true God.—Ex 12:12.

So your interlocutor would hardly object to the idea of Jehovah killing. But he might be bothered by the idea of Jehovah flying over Egypt visiting each house to personally slay the firstborn. This might seem undignified for the almighty ruler of heaven and earth who has millions of angelic servants at his beck and call.

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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.


EDIT:

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.

So...

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. – 3961 Jan 6 '15 at 22:59
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Here are the relevant passages from Exodus 12 comparing the New King James and the New World Translations 1:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike 5221 (וְהִכֵּיתִ֤י) all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. (v 12)

And I must pass through the land of Egypt on this night and strike every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I shall execute judgments. I am Jehovah. (NWT)

For the LORD will pass through to strike 5062 (לִנְגֹּ֣ף) the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike 5062 (לִנְגֹּֽף) you. (v 23)

Then when Jehovah does pass through to plague the Egyptians and does see the blood upon the upper part of the doorway and upon the two doorposts, Jehovah will certainly pass over the entrance, and he will not allow the ruination to enter into YOUR houses to plague YOU. (NWT)

that you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice of the LORD, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck 5062 (בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ) the Egyptians and delivered our households.’ So the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (v 27)

the YOU must say, 'It is the sacrifice of the passover to Jehovah, who passed over the houses on the sons of Israel in Egypt when he plagued the Egyptians, but he delivered our houses.' (NWT)

And it came to pass at midnight that the LORD struck 5221 (הִכָּ֣ה) all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock. (v 29)

And it came about that at midnight Jehovah struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Phar'oah sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the prison hole, and every firstborn of beast. (NWT)

Note that the NWT translation more accurately reflects the Hebrew text which has two different words [5221-nakah] and [5062-napath] then does the New King James (and virtually all English translations). The NWT renders the two words differently, strike or plague. Here is a summary of the words and where they are found:

5221:
The LORD will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. (12:12)
The LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. (12:29)

5062:
The LORD will pass through to strike/plague the Egyptians… (12:23)
...will not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike/plague. (12:23)
when he struck/plagued the Egyptians. (12:27)

The first thing to note is that while the NWT does not say the LORD (NWT: Jehovah) killed: the plague (NWT) was done by the destroyer (NWT: ruination) as stated in verse 23.

What most fail to consider is that killing the firstborn is a process which involves several steps:

  1. Inspect the doorposts to determine if that house has been marked with blood.
  2. If the door is not marked, select one firstborn to die.
  3. Allow/restrain the destroyer entrance to a house.
  4. The destroyer kills the one person marked to die.
  5. Restrain the destroyer from killing more than one person in a house.

Every house in Egypt will experience a single death. Some houses will have more than one "firstborn" and some will have no "firstborn." For example, suppose a husband and wife were both firstborn and have one child: which is the single firstborn to die? Or suppose neither the husband or wife is a firstborn and they are childless: who is considered the firstborn to die? It is the LORD God who ensures houses that are marked are protected and it is the LORD God who identifies the one person that will die in an unmarked house.

It it the LORD God who went through the land of Egypt and "struck" (5221 - vv 12 & 29) one person in each house. The destroyer was permitted to strike (NWT: plague) the one person whom the LORD had "struck." The reason Pharaoh's son died is that neither Pharaoh nor his wife were a firstborn in their family (something the LORD God understood from the beginning). Pharaoh's son was identified by the LORD as the one to die in Pharaoh's house and the destroyer killed him.

If one is going to use Exodus 12 to place the killing on the LORD, they should cite 12:27 not 12:29. While 12:27 does state it was the LORD who killed the Egyptians, not all translators agree that is the meaning:

then you will say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, when he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck Egypt and delivered our households.’ The people bowed down low to the ground. (NET)

The sense of the passage focuses on the house not the people inside. It is the LORD who passed over and it is the LORD who delivered the houses of the Israelites; it is the LORD who struck the houses of Egypt.


1. New World Translation is from the 1971 Revised C.E.

  • Welcome! We're glad you are here, but this answer would be much stronger if you showed, with sources, that it reflects the views of Jehovah's Witnesses and isn't merely your own analysis. I hope you'll take a minute to review how this site is different from others, and better understand how your answer can be supported. – Nathaniel Oct 14 '16 at 13:13
  • @Nathaniel I removed the footnote if that is what you are referring to. My intent was to answer the question in the way it was asked which brings JW into any answer. I don't believe I am making any statements about the JW beliefs beyond comments about the NWT translation. If I am missing something let me know. – Revelation Lad Oct 14 '16 at 18:31
  • For this answer, it's important that you do make statements about JW beliefs, and back them up, since the question specifically asks for the JW interpretation of this passage. Analyzing the NWT vs. other translations might shed some light on it, but the clearest answer would cite some "official" or recognized JW documents or authors. – Nathaniel Oct 14 '16 at 18:33
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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 '16 at 1:52
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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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