Exodus 11:5
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.
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(5) All the firstborn . . . shall die.—The Heb. word translated firstborn is applied only to males; and thus the announcement was that in every family the eldest son should be cut off. In Egypt, as in most other countries, the law of primogeniture prevailed—the eldest son was the hope, stay, and support of the household, his father’s companion, his mother’s joy, the object of his brothers’ and sisters’ reverence. The firstborn of the Pharaoh bore the title of erpa suten sa, or “hereditary crown prince,” and succeeded his father, unless he died or was formally set aside during his father’s lifetime. Among the nobles, estates were inherited, and sometimes titles descended to the firstborn. No greater affliction can be conceived, short of the general destruction of the people, than the sudden death in every family of him round whom the highest interests and fondest hopes clustered.

The maidservant that is behind the mill marks the lowest grade in the social scale, as the king that sits upon his throne marks the highest. All alike were to suffer. In every family there was to be one dead (Exodus 12:30).

All the firstborn of beasts.—The aggravation of the calamity by its extension to beasts is very remarkable, and is probably to be connected with the Egyptian animal-worship. At all times there were in Egypt four animals regarded as actual incarnations of deity, and the objects of profound veneration. Three of these were bulls, while one was a white cow. It is not unlikely that all were required to be “firstborns;” in which case the whole of Egypt would have been plunged into a religious mourning on account of their deaths, in addition to the domestic mourning that must have prevailed in each house. The deaths of other sacred animals, and of many pet animals in houses, would have increased the general consternation.

Exodus 11:5. The death of the firstborn had been threatened, Exodus 4:23, but is last executed, and less judgments are tried; which, if they had done the work, would have prevented this. See how slow God is to wrath, and how willing to be met in the way of his judgments, and to have his anger turned away! That sitteth upon his throne: the maidservant behind the mill — The poor captive slave, employed in the hardest labour. It was the custom then, as it is with the Arabs at present, to grind their corn with hand-mills, turned by their women-servants, who, for that purpose, stood behind the mill.11:4-10 The death of all the first-born in Egypt at once: this plague had been the first threatened, but is last executed. See how slow God is to wrath. The plague is foretold, the time is fixed; all their first-born should sleep the sleep of death, not silently, but so as to rouse the families at midnight. The prince was not too high to be reached by it, nor the slaves at the mill too low to be noticed. While angels slew the Egyptians, not so much as a dog should bark at any of the children of Israel. It is an earnest of the difference there shall be in the great day, between God's people and his enemies. Did men know what a difference God puts, and will put to eternity, between those that serve him and those that serve him not, religion would not seem to them an indifferent thing; nor would they act in it with so much carelessness as they do. When Moses had thus delivered his message, he went out from Pharaoh in great anger at his obstinacy; though he was the meekest of the men of the earth. The Scripture has foretold the unbelief of many who hear the gospel, that it might not be a surprise or stumbling-block to us, Ro 10:16. Let us never think the worse of the gospel of Christ for the slights men put upon it. Pharaoh was hardened, yet he was compelled to abate his stern and haughty demands, till the Israelites got full freedom. In like manner the people of God will find that every struggle against their spiritual adversary, made in the might of Jesus Christ, every attempt to overcome him by the blood of the Lamb, and every desire to attain increasing likeness and love to that Lamb, will be rewarded by increasing freedom from the enemy of souls.Two points are to be noticed:

1. The extent of the visitation: the whole land suffers in the persons of its firstborn, not merely for the guilt of the sovereign, but for the actual participation of the people in the crime of infanticide Exodus 1:22.

2. The limitation: Pharaoh's command had been to slay ALL the male children of the Israelites, but only one child in each Egyptian family was to die. If Tothmosis II was the Pharaoh, the visitation fell with special severity on his family. He left no son, but was succeeded by his widow.

The mill - This consisted of two circular stones, one fixed in the ground, the other turned by a handle. The work of grinding was extremely laborious, and performed by women of the lowest rank.

Firstborn of beasts - This visitation has a special force in reference to the worship of beasts, which was universal in Egypt; each district having its own sacred animal, adored as a manifestation or representative of the local tutelary deity.

5. And all the first-born in the land … shall die—The time, the suddenness, the dreadful severity of this coming calamity, and the peculiar description of victims, among both men and beasts, on whom it was to fall, would all contribute to aggravate its character.

the maid-servant that is behind the mill—The grinding of the meal for daily use in every household is commonly done by female slaves and is considered the lowest employment. Two portable millstones are used for the purpose, of which the uppermost is turned by a small wooden handle, and during the operation the maid sits behind the mill.

That sitteth upon his throne; either now actually ruling with his father, as Solomon did even whilst David lived, 1 Kings 1:34; or, more probably, he that is to sit, the present time for the future, he whose right this is by the custom of Egypt, and by the law of nations.

The first-born of the maid-servant; the poor captive slave that was in the prison, as it is Exodus 12:29, and there did grind at the mill. In those times and places they had divers mills, which were not turned about by wind or water, as ours are, but by the hands of their servants, who for that purpose stood behind the mill, and so with hard labour turned it about. See Judges 16:21 Isaiah 47:1,2 La 5:13. And all the firstborn in the land of Eygpt shall die,.... By the destroying angel inflicting a disease upon them, as Josephus says (q), very probably the pestilence; however, it was sudden and immediate death, and which was universal, reaching to all the firstborn that were in the families of the Egyptians in all parts of the kingdom:

from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne: this periphrasis, "that sitteth upon his throne", either belongs to Pharaoh, and is a description of him who now sat upon the throne of Egypt; and the Septuagint version leaves out the pronoun "his"; and so it is the same as if it had been said the firstborn of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; or else, to the firstborn, and describes him who either already sat upon the throne with his father, as was sometimes the case, that the firstborn was taken a partner in the throne, in the lifetime of his father; or who was the presumptive heir of the crown, and should succeed him, and so the Targum of Jonathan,"who shall or is to sit upon the throne of his kingdom:"

even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; or "behind the two mills" (r), or "two millstones"; for it was the custom then, as with the Arabs now, as Doctor Shaw relates (s), to grind their corn with hand mills, which were two stones laid on one another, and in the uppermost was a handle, with which it was turned about by women, between whom the two stones were placed, and so they might be said to be behind them; though the phrase used does not necessarily suppose that they sat behind the mill, for it may as well be rendered "by" or "near the mill" (t): this is not to be understood of the firstborn, as behind the mill, or at it, and grinding, as Aben Ezra interpret's it, but of the maidservant; it being the business of such in early times to turn these mills, and grind corn, as it is now in Arabia, as the above traveller relates; and so it was in Judea, in the times of Christ, Matthew 24:41 and Homer (u), in his times, speaks of women grinding at the mill; see Gill on Matthew 24:41, the design of these expressions is to show that none would escape this calamity threatened, neither the king nor his nobles, nor any of his subjects, high and low, rich and poor, bond and free: and all the firstborn of beasts: such as had escaped the plagues of the murrain and boils: this is added, not because they were such as were worshipped as gods, as Jarchi observes, but to increase their misery and aggravate their punishment, these being their property and substance, and became scarce and valuable, through the preceding plagues of the murrain, boils, and hail, which destroyed many of their cattle.

(q) Antiqu. l. 2. c. 14. sect. 6. (r) "post molas", Pagninus, Montanus, Vatablus, Junius & Tremellius, Piscator; "after the mill stones", Ainsworth. (s) Travels, p. 231. Ed. 2.((t) , Sept. "ad molam", V. L. "apud molas", Noldius, p. 11. No. 75. (u) , &c. Homer. Odyss. 7. l. 109.

And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind {b} the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.

(b) From the highest to the lowest.

5. the mill] The Heb. word is a dual, properly, no doubt, the two mill-stones (though the root-meaning of rçḥaim is not known). The reference is to the hand-mill, consisting of two circular stones, 18 inches or two feet in diameter, the lower one being fixed on the ground, while the upper one is turned round by a woman—or sometimes (cf. Matthew 24:41) by two women—kneeling or sitting beside it. The mill is fed by grain being poured in through an opening in the centre of the upper stone. The hand-mill is still in daily use in practically every household in an Eastern village. In the houses of the rich, the work of the mill fell to the female slaves; cf. Isaiah 47:2 where the command to ‘take the mill-stones and grind meal’ is a prophecy of impending slavery. Captives were also sometimes compelled to do the same work (Judges 14:21, Lamentations 5:13).

of cattle] comp. on Exodus 9:6; Exodus 9:19.Verse 5. - All the first-born. The law of primogeniture prevailed in Egypt, as among most of the nations of antiquity. The monarchy (under the New Empire, at any rate) was hereditary, and the eldest son was known as erpa suten sa, or "hereditary Crown Prince." Estates descended to the eldest son, and in many cases high dignities also. No severer blow could have been sent on the nation, if it were not to be annihilated, than the less in each house of the hope of the family - the parents' stay, the other children's guardian and protector. Who sitteth. "Sitteth" refers to "Pharaoh," not to "first-born." The meaning is, "from the first-born of the king who occupies the throne to the first-born of the humblest slave or servant. This last is represented by the handmaid who is behind the mill; since grinding at a mill was regarded as one of the severest and most irksome forms of labour. The work was commonly assigned to captives (Isaiah 47:1, 2; Judges 16:21). It was done by either one or two persons sitting, and consisted in rotating rapidly the upper millstone upon the lower by means of a handle. All the first-born of beasts. Not the first-born of cattle only, but of all beasts. The Egyptians had pet animals in most houses, dogs, apes, monkeys, perhaps cats and ichneumons. Most temples had sacred animals, and in most districts of Egypt, some beasts were regarded as sacred, and might not be killed, their death being viewed as a calamity. The loss of so many animals would consequently be felt by the Egyptians as a sensible aggravation of the infliction. It would wound them both in their domestic and in their religious sensibilities. At this demand, Pharaoh, with the hardness suspended over him by God, fell into such wrath, that he sent Moses away, and threatened him with death, if he ever appeared in his presence again. "See my face," as in Genesis 43:3. Moses answered, "Thou hast spoken rightly." For as God had already told him that the last blow would be followed by the immediate release of the people, there was no further necessity for him to appear before Pharaoh.
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