When the angel of the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush, he presents himself as a deliverer. He has seen the suffering of his people, and he has come down to snatch them from Pharaoh’s grasp and lead them to the Promised Land. Now, in Exodus 12, the angel perhaps appears again when the last of ten plagues descends on the Egyptians.
Hardened in heart, despite judgments involving such unsavory elements as blood, frogs, lice, hail, and darkness, Pharaoh stands defiantly as Moses announces the final feat that proves the power of the one true God over the magic arts of Pharaoh’s priests. But by morning, the death of every unprotected firstborn male breaks the tyrant’s will and forces him to let the Israelites go.
Passover is the oldest continuous feast in recorded history. Even today, the observance is celebrated in Jewish homes around the world. But in a sense, there is only one Passover. It took place in Egypt 3,500 years ago, when the Lord passed over the homes of believing Hebrews who sacrificed a spotless lamb and sprinkled its blood on their doorposts, sparing the loss of their firstborn males.
In the same way, there is only one occasion when the Messiah’s body is pierced and his blood poured out for our sins. To memorialize his coming death, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper during the feast of Passover. Just as faithful Jews have observed the Passover for thirty-five centuries, Christians have observed the memorial meal of the Lord’s Supper for two thousand years. That’s why the apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians, “For Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).
But is Jesus actually in Egypt on the night of the first Passover?
Our point of reference is Exodus 12:21-23, where Moses instructs the elders of Israel:
Go, select an animal from the flock according to your families, and slaughter the Passover animal. Take a cluster of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and brush the lintel and the two doorposts with some of the blood in the basin. None of you may go out the door of his house until morning. When the LORD passes through to strike Egypt and sees the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, he will pass over the door and not let the destroyer enter your houses to strike you (emphasis added).
Who, exactly, is the destroyer? As we explore this question, we should begin with a clear understanding that Passover is a work of Yahweh alone. No one assists him. In Exodus 11, the Lord says to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt …” (v. 1).
Moses, in turn, tells Pharaoh: “This is what the LORD says: About midnight I will go throughout Egypt, and every firstborn male in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the servant girl who is at the grindstones, as well as every firstborn of the livestock (11:4-5).
Moses further quotes Yahweh to Pharaoh: “But against all the Israelites, whether people or animals, not even a dog will snarl, so that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (11:7).
After an angry Moses leaves Pharaoh’s presence, Yahweh assures him of a divine purpose in the encounters with Egypt’s stiff-necked leader: “Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt” (11:9). Finally, we are told “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (11:10).
In Exodus 12, as Yahweh delivers instructions for Passover, he makes it clear he is the one bringing judgment on Egypt, as well as deliverance to the Israelites. He tells Moses and Aaron:
I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both people and animals. I am the LORD; I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. The blood on the houses where you are staying will be a distinguishing mark for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.Exod. 12:12-13
When the Lord adds instructions for the Feast of Unleavened Bread – a seven-day observance tied to Passover – he says, “You are to observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread because on this very day I brought your military divisions out of the land of Egypt” (12:17).
As Moses speaks to the elders, he stresses the work of Yahweh alone, who is about to pass through the land to strike Egypt (12:23), while passing over the Israelites’ homes (12:27). The record of Passover night continues the message of God acting alone. He strikes every firstborn male in Egypt (12:29), gives the Israelites favor with the Egyptians (12:36), and brings the Israelites out of Egypt (12:42, 51). That’s why it’s called “the LORD’s Passover” (12:48).
Afterward, Yahweh commands the consecration of every firstborn male. This includes the Israelites and their domestic animals. Moses reminds the people that “the LORD brought you out of here by the strength of his hand” (13:3; see also vv. 8-9, 14). Moses further notes, “When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of humans and the firstborn of livestock … the LORD brought us out of Egypt by the strength of his hand” (13:15-16).
Who, or what, is the destroyer?
All of this documentation points to Yahweh acting alone, and it is challenged in only one place. In Exodus 12:23 there is a single mention of “the destroyer.” Who, or what, is the destroyer: an angel dispatched to execute judgment? A theophany? A Christophany? Satan? A demon? An insidious plague? Perhaps there are clues elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Let’s begin in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. King David orders a census, for which he is punished. The Lord sends a plague that kills seventy thousand Israelites. The one delivering the plague is a destroying angel, “the angel of the LORD.” The angel is about to destroy Jerusalem when the Lord relents and tells the angel, “Enough, withdraw your hand now!” (1 Chron. 21:15).
David sees “the angel of the LORD” standing between heaven and earth with a drawn sword and his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. David and the elders fall facedown. David buys the threshing floor of Ornan and there offers burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord, who answers him with fire from heaven. David is afraid to go up to Gibeon, where the tabernacle and the altar are set up, because he is “terrified of the sword of the LORD’s angel” (1 Chron. 21:30).
The image of “the angel of the LORD” wielding a sword is seen elsewhere in Scripture. This angel confronts Balaam, the rogue prophet for hire (Num. 22:23, 31). He appears to Joshua as commander of the LORD’s army (Josh. 5:13-15). And he lights up the sky in the last days as the returning “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” a sharp sword protruding from his mouth (Rev. 19:11-16).
Last, we should note a reference to “the destroyer” in Hebrews 11: “By faith he [Moses] instituted the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch the Israelites” (Heb. 11:28).
What does all this tell us about “the destroyer” of Exodus 12:23? While by no means certain, it appears the destroyer is the angel of the Lord. Note that King David falls facedown at the sight of the angel and cries out to God to stay his hand (1 Chron. 21:16-17). Immediately after this, the angel of the Lord orders Gad to tell David to set up an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. What follows is telling: “David went up at Gad’s command spoken in the name of the LORD” (1 Chron. 21:19). The “angel of the LORD” gives the command to Gad, but Gad presents the command “in the name of the LORD.” That is, the Lord and the angel of the Lord are distinguished, yet both are revered as God.
The destroying role of the angel of the Lord is further implied in 2 Kings 19:35-36 and Isaiah 37:36-37 as we see the angel of the Lord kill 185,000 Assyrians in a single night. While the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, and his troops are plowing methodically through Judah and have encamped around Jerusalem, all seems hopeless for the Israelites. But King Hezekiah petitions the Lord, who provides an answer through the prophet Isaiah:
Therefore, this is what the LORD says about the king of Assyria: he will not enter this city, shoot an arrow here, come before it with a shield, or build up a siege ramp against it. He will go back the way he came, and he will not enter this city. This is the LORD’s declaration. I will defend this city and rescue it for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.2 Kings 19:32-34
The angel of the Lord ends the siege that very night and sends Sennacherib packing. The king returns to Assyria where his sons assassinate him (2 Kings 19:37).
So, there seems to be supporting evidence elsewhere in the Old Testament that the destroyer of Exodus 12 is the angel of the Lord. However, this is not an exclusive descriptor. We should mention that the term destroyer is used many times in Scripture, and in many different ways. For example, Samson is depicted as the destroyer of the Philistines’ land (Judg. 16:24). Evil King Ahab calls the prophet Elijah the one who ruins Israel (1 Kings 18:17). The king of Babylon – perhaps also a reference to Satan – is the destroyer of nations (Isa. 14:12). God vows to repay the Israelites for years of damage destroying locusts have wrought (Joel 2:25). And in Revelation 9:11, the king of the demonic creatures that carry out the fifth trumpet judgment is called Abaddon (Hebrew for Destruction) and Apollyon (Greek for Destroyer).
This final reference to a demonic king could possibly be applied to the destroyer of Exodus 12. After all, while Satan and demons are in perpetual rebellion against God, he is sovereign over them. He may permit them to cause suffering among his people – within limits – as in the story of Job (Job 1-2). Or he may send them to accomplish his divine purposes (1 Sam. 16:14-16; 1 Kings 22:19-23; Mark 5:1-20).
The judge of all
We should briefly address the issue of Jesus – if he is, indeed, the destroying angel – engaging in such widespread slaughter. First, he kills the firstborn males of man and beast in Egypt on the evening of Passover. Next, he destroys seventy thousand Israelites because of King David’s sin. Then, he causes 185,000 Assyrians to bite the dust in their sleep.
Isn’t this the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)? Isn’t this Israel’s king who rides humbly on a donkey (Zech. 9:9; Matt. 21:1-7)? And isn’t this the Suffering Servant who lays down his life for his sheep (Isa. 53:3-9; John 10:11)? Yes, of course, all this is true. The one who could have called twelve legions of angels to deliver him from death offers himself up for our sins without resistance (Matt. 26:53). He even rebukes Peter for taking up a sword in the Savior’s defense (John 18:10-11). How can this gentle Savior also be the one who takes up arms against his enemies?
We must remember that Jesus is the judge of all (John 5:22). He has ultimate authority over all creation – and ultimate responsibility to protect its goodness. His holiness demands justice. And no one is innocent – not the Egyptians, the Israelites, or the Assyrians. This is the same Jesus whose robe is dipped in blood and from whose mouth protrudes a sword for striking the nations (Rev. 19:13-15); who separates the sheep from the goats, sending the goats into outer darkness (Matt. 25:31-46); and who asks the religious elite of the first century how they can escape being condemned to hell (Matt. 23:33).
These vignettes of Jesus illustrate that divine love and judgment are compatible – even essential to the nature of a holy God. He is simultaneously just and merciful, vengeful and forgiving, the author of everlasting life and the one who tells unrepentant rebels on the last day, “Depart from me, you lawbreakers!” (Matt. 7:23).
There is a day of reckoning for all people. Though perhaps many of the Egyptians, Israelites, and Assyrians who perished at the hands of God were of kinder disposition than others, they all died together. Yet, on the last day, they are resurrected and judged individually before the same God who cut short their lives on earth. There, he sets things right. A God who is truly good must hate evil – and do something about it.
Next: The Presence in the Pillar
This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.