Why God spared almost all Egyptians

The majority of first born sons of the Egyptians were spared by the Angel of Death because they or their parents had sided with the oppressed Israelites.

Over the years as plague followed plague, growing numbers of Egyptians were brave enough to tell Pharaoh what he didn’t want to hear.

Starting with the fourth plague, when the lice descend on Egypt and the Egyptian court magicians were powerless to imitate or stop it, they told Pharaoh, “this is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).

Later, during the plague of hail, we are told that Egyptian herdsmen were ordered by those who now believed Moses was a prophet of God, to bring their cattle inside, and those Egyptian cattle were spared (Exodus 9:20).

This foreshadows the opportunity the Egyptians will have to escape the consequences of the tenth plague.

But before the general population has a chance to save themselves we have a dramatic challenge to Pharaoh from his own officials.

When Moses offers his warning, before the eighth plague, Pharaoh’s courtiers say to him: “How long will that man be a snare to us? Let these people go and worship their God. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is being destroyed?” (Exodus 10:7).

Every first born son in their houses was spared.

The tenth plague was by far the most severe of them all, but the entire Egyptian people receive an opportunity to escape its consequences by lending or giving something to a Jewish neighbor as a kind of reparation.

“Let every man request of his neighbor, and every woman request of her neighbor, objects of silver or gold. God gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians”(Exodus 11:2-3)

Now almost all of the Jews Egyptian neighbors were to poor to have even one object made of silver or gold. So why were the Jewish people instructed to request silver and gold from them?

Those Egyptians who sided with and favored the Jews gave them something, even something small, to help them on their journey, and that counted as if it was silver or gold. Why was this request so important?

Was this request for support an extortion demand; or a last chance for the whole Egyptian people to distance themselves from the government policy of oppressing Israel?

When the Egyptian people responded by giving gifts to the Jews, the Torah says “The Lord granted a favorable view of the (Jewish) people in Egyptian eyes, and they recompensed them, and they despoiled the Egyptians.” (12:36) Despoiled? Was it extortion?

No. The Hebrew word natsal, translated in this verse as despoiled, almost always means to save or redeem something or someone.

By giving the Egyptians the opportunity to pay reparations, God gave the Egyptians a way to repent, and redeem themselves, and thus save themselves and their first born sons from death during the tenth plague.

How do we know this? Exodus 12:27 says, “God passed over the Israelite houses in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians” and then adds, v’et bataynu heetsiel “and spared our houses.”

It is more reasonable to translate the same Hebrew verb natsal, in the same way when it is used nine verses later in Exodus 12:36 with the same meaning.

A household that had given anything helpful to a Jew became one of ‘our houses’ and was spared from the tenth plague.

For Egyptians with a conscience, paying reparations was redemptive; for others who refused to help an oppressed people gain freedom, it was despoiling. The Egyptians who were saved, “ bowed the head and worshipped” (Exodus 12:27).

Why are both men and women told to request a gift from their neighbors? So personal animosity between two individuals should not prevent a household from escaping the tenth plague. If the husband refused to give and the wife gave the household was still spared.

How many gave something? No one knows exactly, but probably it was a majority of Egyptians for later the Torah commands us not to hate an Egyptian. (Deuteronomy 23:8)

Why did they give? Some good-hearted Egyptians always favored the Jews. Most didn’t care, but seeing Moses announce each plague were impressed that he was a “great man”. (Exodus 11:3); and decided not to refuse the requested gift since Moses had the Jewish People to make the request.

They were wise to do so for their households also escaped the final plague.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.