Lessons from Passover
When it comes to the time of Passover we Christians naturally focus on the events of Holy Week and as a result miss much of the important lessons that are embedded in the story of Passover itself. Passover is a time of recalling Israel’s emancipation from Egyptian bondage. Thanks to Hollywood there is a lot of things we are certain about in the Exodus story and the reality is that some of it isn’t there. On the other hand there’s a great deal within the narrative that we’ve passed over as unimportant. This little story is a primer on what today we call Christian Social Ethics.
Let’s hear the story of Passover from Exodus Chapter 12.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
That Pharaoh was violent in his oppression goes without question, but why does God have to respond with violence? It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The Midrash teaches that initially when God sought to bring the plagues on Egypt, he intended to begin witht he plague of the first born. One argument for that is Egypt operated on a strick policy of primogeniture, just like Israel. The loss of the first born would completely disrupt Egyptian social structure.
The slaughter of the firstborn has always troubled us. It isn’t an an anonymous angel of death that executes judgment on firstborn in the Passover, it is God. There is a passage in the Talmud which recounts God rebuking the angels in heaven because they wanted to sing hymns of praise while the Egyptians, who are also God’s creatures, perish in the sea. Old Testament professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Seminary, and an Egyptian himself, Safwat Marzouk, has shown in his work on Ezekiel, that the way ancient Israel thinks about Egypt is powerfully shaped by Israel’s own identity struggles. In a way, Israel sees itself in Egypt, and sees in Egypt the possibility of its own assimilation to surrounding cultures. In order to put distance between itself and a nation that seems disturbingly similar, Israel turns Egypt into a monster, a monstrous “Other” that must be demonized.
Though Egypt is the quintessential enemy through out the Hebrew Bible there are other depictions of Egypt that serve to balance this negative image. One example is the story of Hagar. She is an Egyptian, enslaved by Hebrews (Abraham and Sarah). God aids her escape from slavery just like the Israelites are freed from Pharaoh. God makes promises to this Egyptian woman, promises that parallel those made to Abraham. This story, in which the roles are reversed, and in which God is the deliverer of the Egyptian Hagar and her progeny, tells us a great deal about God and God’s never ceasing concern for the oppression of others. In our text for today we learn that should a family be unable to afford a lamb for the Passover, it is the responsibility of a better-off neighbor family to share what they have. The idea that “households join together” and that the lamb shall be divided equally among the persons partaking reflects the deep biblical conviction that the good of the the whole community must and should be intentionally cultivated. The ethical emphasis in the Bible is on the responsibilities of members to the community’s welfare, not, in general, on the rights of an individual.
When in college one of the campus jobs I had to help with tuition was in the library stacks which primarily consisted of piles of old magazines that had been collected or contributed long before I was born. From those old magazines I learned how we, as a nation, dehumanized the Japanese. It still bothers me. It is worth asking whether we turn those with whom we share certain characteristics into an “Other” in order to put distance between us and them. Another example of that is how similar are the views of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists about the role of women and issues of gender. Both believe they are right and everyone else will surely burn in hell. They both want to force their views on others and each of these groups, if they had their way, would have theocratic governments based on their religions. And yet they demonize each other.
The biggest challenge faced by Moses and Aaron was human inertia. The majority of the Israelites, living in Egyptian bondage had no interest in following Moses off into the desert. They embraced the proverbial maxim “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” If you remember the story, even after they were in the wilderness, when things got rough, they were all too eager to return to Egypt, if they would receive them back. The plagues suffered by Egyptians fell equally on them. The fish die off when the river turned to blood effected them; the plague of frogs which while the Israelites found abhorrent – was more a plague on them than their oppressors. For the Egyptians frog legs were a delicacy. They weren’t immune from the stinging insects and wild animals. The illness in the livestock impacted them directly as did boils and fiery hail. Locust consumed their food and they too had to live in darkness. And that last plague visited on the Egyptians, the slaughter of the first born, wasn’t just for the Egyptians, it was for all the residents of Egypt including them. A good question is why the Egyptians didn’t take precautions prescribed by Moses? The only protection for the first born was blood painted on lentil and doorposts, but not just any blood. It had to be the blood of a year old ram or goat.
Like the cow is considered sacred in India so the lamb was in ancient Egypt. Recall from the text we just read that the Israelites were to select a lamb on the tenth of the month to be slaughtered on the evening of the 14th. If you’ve ever thought about the zodiac, Aries, the ram, was the astrological sign for the month in which the Passover occurred and the 15th day is the apex of a lunar month. On the evening of the full-moon of its very own month and at the heights of its presumed powers the Israelites slaughtered the ram-god of the Egyptians enmass and the Egyptians were powerless to prevent it. By selecting the sheep or ram four days in advance the Jews flaunted their intentions. It was so blatant that some of the Jews expressed concern that they might be stoned for committing such an abomination. And then, while the smell of roast lamb permeated the air they smeared the life blood of this animal sacred to their neighbors on their door posts and lintel. After that, staying in Egypt was no longer a choice for the Hebrew children.
The role played by the blood of innumerable slain lambs on the door posts and lintels was a sign to the Lord to “pass over” the house and in so doing safe guard the first born who resided there. There is no accusation of guilt, no sin attached to being a first born that needed to be covered by sacrificial blood. The voice of those who see in the Passover Lamb a likeness to Jesus, bolstered by John the Baptist’s declaration “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” have to admit that it just doesn’t fit. It might come as a shock but in this story God treats goats and sheep alike. Despite sacred writings repeatedly telling us that God does not want our sacrifices we human beings can’t get it through our heads. The blood on the door post and lintel was a sign that those in the household had forsworn the gods of Egypt. It wasn’t a sacrificial animal, it was supper, a last supper in Egypt for sure.
They were to eat their roasted lamb while being fully dressed, loins girded, sandals on feet with staff in hand and they were eat quickly and there were to be no leftovers. And whatever was left the next morning was to be burned which meant no sack lunches for the journey. Duke’s Old Testament scholar, Ellen Davis, says that Egypt’s economy was based on a trickle down theory, what she described as hierarchical oppression. An abundance of food is produced on the backs of the poor but is enjoyed almost exclusively by the very rich. The economy of the wilderness which they would soon experience in the wilderness required that Israel had to trust God as deliverer and provider. This can’t be disconnected from the need to trust God as the Israelites slaughtered and roasted sacred lambs in the land of Pharaoh. As a practice and as a mentality they would be required to abandon the practices of hoarding and scarcity that had marked their lives in captivity and learn to embrace faith in this God of abundance.
Our passage ends with this: This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. That gets reinforced in the next chapter. There it says “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” It continues to be a central task for those who trust in God to re-tell this story in every generation — God delivers those who suffer from oppression, that God works for the flourishing of the whole of creation — The testimony of those who have experienced the benefits of God’s saving power is vital and necessary for God’s work to go forward in the world.