Have you ever wondered why God asked the children of Israel to paint blood on the lintel and two doorposts of the door to their houses prior to the tenth plague (Exod. 12:7)? Sure, you answer, it was to serve as a sign for the angel of death to pass over their houses (Exod. 12:13).
That’s true. But why the doorposts? Since no one is kept out of a dwelling by doorposts, why not paint something like a big cross on the door itself?
Egyptian archaeology provides an answer; one that can teach us a powerful lesson about salvation by faith alone.
A corrupted nation
One source describes the Israelites as a people who “kept themselves a distinct race, having nothing in common with the Egyptians in customs or religion”1 and thus retained knowledge of the Lord. This distinctiveness changed quickly after the death of Joseph and, by the time of the burning bush, Moses had fretted over the “blindness, ignorance, and unbelief of his people, many of whom were almost destitute of a knowledge of God.”2
Also, according to the biblical record, by the time of the Exodus, the Israelites were no longer nomadic but were dwelling in houses (Exod.12:22), an Egyptian custom that they had adopted. In short, the Israelites were becoming very much like the Egyptians. This point is important for understanding what follows.
State of the dead
The Egyptians believed in an eternal afterlife, and their building practices (that the Israelites adopted) reflected this belief. Egyptians built their dwellings—from the lowly slave houses to the luxurious palaces— with the same building material, mud brick. Because this present life was temporary, they used temporary building materials for their homes; in contrast, they built their temples and tombs out of stone, reflective of an eternal afterlife. Any building that was to be used for the afterlife (temples and tombs) had to be made out of a material that would last forever.
The only exception to this architectural rule was the doorposts and lintels of their mud-brick homes. These were made out of stone. This construction reflected their belief in what constituted a human being. Egyptians believed in five parts of the human being.3 If any of these parts ceased to exist, the person would cease to exist forever.
The physical body was one part and this is why mummification was important. The body had to survive death if the person in the afterlife was to survive. The shadow was another. They believed that the shadow demonstrated reality and was a very real part of a person’s being. Another part was the ka or “life force.” Christians call the force that gives us life “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). The fourth part of a person was the ba or “character traits.” The last part of humanity in Egyptian thinking was the name.
What is in a name?
We must not underestimate the importance of names. To the ancient Egyptian, the name was a very real part of a person. Therefore, any modern visitor to Egypt will find examples of names having been chiseled off the remaining statuary. Hatshepsut, for example, lived just prior to the Exodus and ruled Egypt for about 20 years after death cut her husband’s reign short. Sometime after her death, however, Hatshepsut’s name was scratched off many monuments, a clear effort to erase her from the afterlife.
This rationale appears in the writings of Moses, who was trained in the Egyptian way of life. When depicting the Exodus, he never mentions the name of Pharaoh, but deliberately gives the names of the two Hebrew midwives who were loyal to God (Exod. 1:15). They would live in the real afterlife, and so their names mattered; Pharaoh, who had rejected God (Exod. 5:2), would not. His name was, therefore, not important and could be forgotten in history.
To combat the potential loss of their names, royalty and nobility built great stone monuments with their names etched in as many places as possible. The less wealthy, of course, could not afford to do this. Instead, their houses, although primarily mud brick, were constructed with stone doorposts and lintels. On these were inscribed the name of the one who lived inside. Even if the house was destroyed, the chance of the name existing through the survival of the stone was very good.
And they were right—at least on their name surviving over time. As more and more of these doorposts and lintels are excavated, the names of their ancient owners remain intact. Egyptologists excavating the Delta region of Egypt (the northern marshland where the Israelites were dwelling) have discovered many of these early New Kingdom doorposts and lintels (dating to the time period of the Exodus).4 The Delta region is very damp, so little besides stone has remained.
Names covered in blood
When the Hebrews immigrated to Egypt, they lived in tents. However, over time they learned how to construct houses (probably as part of the labor they did as slaves) and used that knowledge to build their own more permanent structures, probably no differently than the Egyptians built theirs. When Moses returned to Egypt, he found his people living in houses, not tents. They had much to unlearn, and the plagues were going to be part of that learning process.
The children of Israel had to learn of God’s superiority over the gods of Egypt, to which they had been exposed for four generations. God slowly taught them to trust Him, but after nine plagues, He had one more object lesson to teach.
When God required the Israelites to paint the blood they collected from the Passover lamb on the doorposts and lintels, He was asking them to cover their names with the blood of the lamb. By doing this, they were taught the rudiments of salvation. Their names on stone did not ensure life in the hereafter; only the blood of the Lamb could do that. In fact, at least one member of their family would not survive the night without it.
We, of course, have to learn the same lesson. It matters where our name is written. “And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fi re” (Rev. 20:15, NKJV). This book is also called, “the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev. 21:27). To have our names written in that book is not hard; we simply need to accept the Lamb’s blood, which takes the place of our own.
Of course, there is more to our walk with God than this, but it all starts here. The Israelites began their Exodus out of Egypt by putting the blood of the Passover lamb over their names, and then began their journey following God. It is the same for us. Our path may be long and hard, but we can avoid destruction the same way the Israelites avoided destruction— by beginning our journey with our names covered with the blood of the Lamb.
1 Ellen G. White, The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets: As Illustrated in the Lives of Holy Men of Old (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1958), 242.
2 Ibid., 252.
3 For an informative essay on this topic, see James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 79–81.
4 For some examples of these, see Labib Habachi, Tell El-Dab’a I: Tell El-Dab’a and Qantir the Site and Its Connection With Avaris and Piramesse (Vienna: Verlag der österreichischen