Commentary on Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8
These two passages give us the first narrative account of the Passover, the moment when God calls upon Israel to remember, and to ritualize the remembrance of, the central event in Israel’s corporate story with God: God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt.1
The episode is, of course, that which is recalled every year in the celebration of the Jewish Passover. And the story has profound meaning for Christians both because it reveals that delivering people from oppression is a core feature of God’s character (though, to be sure, God is already a saving God in Genesis), and because of its connections to understandings of the death of Jesus in the New Testament (namely Jesus as the Passover lamb).
Many volumes have been written on the Passover account in Exodus, so only a few observations can be made here. It is noteworthy how the ethics widely pervasive in the rest of the Old Testament are also found here: if a family cannot afford to provide a lamb for the Passover, it is the responsibility of a better-off neighboring family to share what they have. The idea that “households join together” and that the lamb shall be divided proportionally to the number of persons present (Exodus 12:4) reflects the deep biblical conviction that the good of the community as a whole must and should be intentionally cultivated. The emphasis in the Bible is on the responsibilities of members to the community’s welfare, not, in general, on the rights of particular individuals.
In accordance with the Exodus narrative, in which the people are fleeing from the forces of Pharaoh, the people are to eat what they can that night and not have any leftovers (Exodus 12:8-10). Whatever is left the next morning must be burned. Ellen Davis has argued that Egypt’s economy is based on hierarchical oppression in which an abundance of food is produced on the backs of the poor but is enjoyed almost exclusively by the very rich. By contrast the economy of the wilderness (here inaugurated at the Exodus) teaches Israel to trust in God as deliverer and provider of food teaches Israel. They must leave hoarding and scarcity behind, both as a practice and as a mentality, if they are to embrace faith in this God who delivers them.
Many are troubled by the divine violence at the center of the Exodus story. Pharaoh is violent in his oppression, but why does God have to respond with violence? This is not an exclusively modern concern. The slaughter of the firstborn troubled early readers as well. A passage in the Talmud 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 (Megilla 10b). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes that we may rejoice in the triumph of justice and the defeat of evil in the world, while also identifying with the suffering of the victims.
Egypt is often perceived as the quintessential enemy in the Hebrew Bible. Most famously, God delivers Israel from the enslaving power of Egypt in the Exodus, an event dramatized repeatedly in the many Hollywood versions of the Exodus story. Later, in the prophetic books, Egypt appears as one of the nations coming under God’s judgment in the “Oracles Against Nations” (e.g., Jeremiah, Ezekiel).
First, there are other depictions of Egypt in the Hebrew Bible that serve to balance this negative image. One example appears in Genesis 16 and 21, Hagar is an Egyptian, enslaved by Hebrews (Abraham and Sarah), whom God aids (in the end) in her efforts to escape from slavery. God makes promises to this Egyptian woman, promises that parallel those made to Abraham (Genesis 12:2; 16:10; 21:18). This story, in which the roles of slave/enslaved are reversed, and in which God is the deliverer of the Egyptian Hagar and her progeny, serves as a caution on seeing Egypt as the eternally evil other in the Exodus narrative that so soon follows.
Second, it is worth pondering the dynamics of the “othering” of Egypt in texts like Exodus and Ezekiel 29-32 (Ezekiel spends a disordinate amount of time excoriating Egypt compared to other nations). 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. It is worth asking whether we in our own imaginative world also turn those with whom we share certain characteristics into an “Other” in order to put distance between us and them.
One of the most important elements in the story occurs in Exodus 13:8: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” Telling the story in every generation — that God delivers those who suffer from oppression, that God works for the flourishing of the world — is a central task for those who trust in God. The Bible itself puts forth the idea that the testimony of those who have experienced the benefits of God’s saving power is vital and necessary for God’s work in the world to go forward. If we do not tell God’s story, other stories will rush to fill the vacuum, and many of them do not lead to flourishing. Believers in every time and place participate in what the Jewish tradition describes as the ongoing repair of the world (tikkun olam).
- Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 2, 2016.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord God of grace and liberty,
On the night of the Passover the sacrificed lamb became a sign of freedom and you freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In Jesus, you sacrificed your son as a gift, thereby freeing all humanity from sin and death. Help us live into this new life, teaching us to serve you in faithfulness as you have served us. To you we offer our gratefulness in the name of the one who turned slavery into new life, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Here I am, Lord, Daniel L. Schutte (Augsburg Fortress, Publisher)