by Tim O'Hearn
And Moses said, Thus saith the LORD, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: 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 the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. (Ex 11:4-5)
And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. (Ex 12:29)
The rabbis ask why Moses told Pharaoh that the plague of the death of the firstborn would begin “about midnight.” (Had it been Thelonious Monk, he would have said ‘Round Midnight.) The passage (above) that tells of the event says that God did it at midnight. God knew when he was going to perform the miracle. God invented time, so he has no problem knowing what time it is. Most conclude that God told Moses to say “at midnight” and Moses changed it to “about midnight.” But why would he do that?
Moses had witnessed nine plagues to date, and other miracles besides. In some of those plagues God had even given him time references, either about the beginning or end of the plague. Everything God had told Moses to this point had come true. Did Moses doubt God would perform the miracle when he said he would? Or did Moses trust God, but distrust Pharaoh?
In the late 1980’s a preacher I was listening to made a comment in a sermon about the popularity of the musical, The Phantom of the Opera, which was the most popular Broadway musical of the day. His comment related to something about ghosts, and he emphasized it by mentioning the ghost in that musical. The problem is, as anyone who has read Gaston Leroux’s book or even heard the cast recording of the musical can tell you, there is no ghost in The Phantom of the Opera. The so-called phantom is a real person. The fact that this preacher was making a judgement about a play that he had apparently never seen or heard so colored my thinking that I forgot what the bulk of the sermon was about. The only thing I could have told anybody afterward is that the preacher didn’t know what he was talking about. If he commented on a play without proper research, how could anyone trust anything else he said?
Perhaps Moses knew that this was human nature. Pharaoh would have been looking for anything to discredit Moses and his God at this point. It is one thing to say that a plague will begin or end “about this time tomorrow.” It is a completely different thing to put a specific time on a future event. A day is pretty general, but a specific minute, which would make the miracle even greater, is easier to discredit.
In most houses there are several clocks. Clocks on your computers, clocks on your television or VCR/DVR/Tivo, clocks by your bedside. There may be as many as three clocks in a room, and chances are none of them agree. If something is supposed to happen at midnight, the clocks may read anywhere from five minutes till to five minutes after. Moses could have been afraid that Pharaoh’s clock was off. It was certain that God’s clock would not be. But if God struck the firstborn dead at midnight, and Pharaoh’s clock said it was one minute after, then human nature says Pharaoh would claim that the miracle was late so God must not be as powerful as he claimed. If he had to wait a couple of minutes after his appointed time, by Pharaoh’s clock which must be right, then the slaves would be fools to worship such a God. So Moses qualified God’s timetable by saying “about midnight.”
As we teach God’s word to people we need to keep in mind what Moses knew. When they can’t dispute the word, people will use our actions or our words to discredit the scriptures. They can’t argue with God, so they are likely to shoot the messenger.