A few months ago, as my class and I were discussing the 10 plagues God sent to force the pharaoh to give the Israelites their freedom, the topic of the Angel of Death came up. This same discussion ended up finding its way into my inbox this morning from a friend of mine who is trying to decide if Catholicism is right for him.
The tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborns, was a punishment doled out specifically by the Angel of Death. My class had a really hard time wrapping their heads around the image of the angel pictured in the book. He was wielding a sickle (much like the one pictured), and left a trail of death and lamentation in his wake. Not one of the kids could believe that God would intentionally "murder" children like that.
I had to reel them back in for a bit. I explained that God never "murders" anyone. The picture they saw wasn't a recreation of that night... it was an artist's choice of symbols and images to tell a story. In the book, we saw a mighty angel holding a sickle. Around him were crying mothers and lifeless children. The artist chose these things for a reason.
First, the Angel of Death didn't bring God's punishment to the firstborns... punishment was meant for those left behind who would feel the pain on an emotional level (considering that months of physical punishment did nothing to deter them).
This angel carried a sickle to symbolize the "harvesting" of souls. The sickle is an agricultural tool that is specifically used to remove the most desirable parts of grain. In ancient Egypt, that's exactly what the firstborns would have been considered. The souls that this angel harvested (firstborns) were the most desirable and respected family members in Egyptian times. The fact that God demanded that the souls makes the punishment that much more severe.
Finally, the crumpled, broken parents who clutched the lifeless bodies of their children were meant to evoke strong emotions - the artist wanted to REALLY hit home how devastating this plague was in its emotional severity, so he used young children to symbolize all firstborns.
Firstborn didn't just mean babies. It didn't just mean toddlers. Firstborn meant everyone from child straight on through adult. It meant everything from calf to chicken to donkey. God harvested the most revered of Egyptian lives for Himself as proof that He was God over all - even the best protected. He controlled Life and Death (not just over base nature and animals, but over humanity as well - something Pharaoh never accepted as true until this final plague).
However, my class was still having a really tough time reconciling God taking these innocent lives with their image of a pure, holy, and loving Being. This is very understandable considering we, as humans, many times see death as a horrible, evil thing (especially when it is the death of an innocent... someone who did nothing to cause or solicit an untimely end).
One student asked me, "Do you think they [the firstborns] were scared?"
I paused for a second, because I realized then that my poor class had in their minds this image of a massive weapon-wielding warrior with wings blazing a trail through Egypt slaughtering unsuspecting children. Their collective looks of horror and disbelief challenged me to break down the Angel of Death for them a bit... into one who looked a little more like this:
The Angel of Death wasn't running around slashing throats. In fact, I doubt the people who were chosen to die that night even felt pain. Though I never thought about it before, when she asked me that, I immediately pictured one of those children, soundly sleeping, engulfed in a brilliant light. The Angel of Death was present, and he showed this tiny soul something of Heaven. He gently said, "Come, little one. God is calling you home." He reached out his angelic hand and without thought or hesitation, the soul - immeasurably joyous and willing - leapt from its body and consented to be carried along to meet the Source of such radiating, all-encompassing Love.
Instead of punishment or pain, these souls were met with joy and love... comfort and beauty. The Angel of Death is not this menacing monstrosity that humans should fear. Instead, he is the herald of our Heavenly welcome - the one tasked with the joy of bringing us home after our earthly sojourn.
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