Commentary on Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
The Israelites’ escape from Egypt is a well-known story.
Commentaries on the book of Exodus often place the exodus story within the literary unity of Exodus 12:1-15:21. The headings given to this section frequently vary from “Out of Egypt” and “Escape from Egypt” to “Escape from Pharaoh,” in reference to the Israelites’ escape from oppression at the hands of Pharaoh in Egypt. While each of these headings correctly infers breaking free from Pharaoh’s control, it also suggests the freedom to become a new people with a new God. This literary unity is not only about the departure from Egypt, but also the Passover, God’s act of setting Israel free.
“Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land”
God commissioned Moses and Aaron to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. However, there are two competing narratives concerning the nature of Israel’s departure from Egypt. On one hand is the version made popular by the Negro spiritual “Go Down Moses.” In this account, God tells Moses that God has seen the oppression of the Israelites and commands Moses to go to Pharaoh to say, “bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10; 6:10 New Revised Standard Version).
On the other hand, God tells Moses to approach the king of Egypt and say that the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has requested that they be released to go on a three-day journey in the wilderness to sacrifice to their deity (Exodus 3:18; 9:13; see also 4:21-23). The two different accounts for the purpose and length of the people’s departure from Egypt, coupled with the change in title for Egypt’s ruler and the names for God’s people, suggest a composite nature of the narrative.
“When Israel was in Egypt land”
Pharaoh denies Moses and Aaron’s request to let the Israelites go. God uses Pharaoh’s obstinacy to cause a number of plagues to befall Pharaoh and the Egyptians as a show of God’s power. Exodus 12:1 interrupts the execution of the final plague, the death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 11:4-5) until Exodus 12:29-36, to introduce the instructions for the Passover feast. God commands Moses and Aaron to tell the people to prepare for the Passover, (Hebrew pesach), the conclusion of which will signal an end their oppression at the hand of Pharaoh.
However, before they can go free the Israelites must negotiate a space of liminality — the not yet; the betwixt and between. Liminality is the space that ritual participants occupy, where they no longer hold the status of their former selves in their community, but they have not yet crossed the threshold into the status of their new selves. In Exodus 12:1-14 the rite of passage begins with the Israelites’ status as slaves to Pharaoh (their old identity), advances to a period of preparation for the next stage (liminality), and concludes with crossing over into a new status as the people of God (their new identity). However, they are still in the land of Egypt on the verge of departure, so freedom is still only a future hope. The occasion is fraught with danger and uncertainty, but also possibility.
God commands Moses and Aaron to instruct the people regarding the preparations for the Passover (Exodus 12:1-4) and the future celebration of the festival (Exodus 12:14 [15-20]). First, the Passover will commence with the institution of a new calendar: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2). Each month in the Jewish calendar is marked by the new moon. The word month (chodesh) in Hebrew is literally “new moon.”
Next, God tells them that on the tenth of the month each family is to take a lamb or kid goat large enough to feed an entire household. However, if the household is too small to consume an entire lamb, then it is to join its nearest neighbor to consume the meat together (12:3–4). Nothing shall be wasted. Although the partaking of the lamb occurs in each household, it has a larger communal aspect as the entire congregation of Israel takes part.
“Let my people go”
On the fourteenth day of the month the people are to gird their loins, put their sandals on their feet, and take their staff in their hands, for they are to eat the meat hurriedly (Exodus 12:11). The expression to “gird one’s loins” likely sounds foreign to modern ears. However, children’s picture Bibles often portray ancient Israelites in flowing, ankle-length tunics with a waistband or belt. Underneath they wore a girdle or loin-covering, a cloth to cover the sexual organs. The length of the tunics didn’t allow for quick movement or strenuous labor. Therefore, they would take the bottom of the tunic and tuck it between their legs like a pair of shorts, tying the extra fabric around the waist in a knot or tucking it into the waist belt. By girding their loins, they would be prepared to leave in haste.
God explains that the meal is the Passover of the Lord because God would pass over the land of Egypt on the night of the fifteenth day of the month, striking down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human and animal, whose house did not have the blood of the slaughtered animal on its door frame (Exodus 12:7, 12). The blood was a sign to the people of God’s deliverance of Israel, not for God to recognize which house to spare from judgment.
While the story of the two independent traditions of the plagues and the Passover function to separate the Israelites as God’s people from the Egyptians and other peoples in the land, many may find the violence done to the non-Israelites hard to accept. Nevertheless, Passover is a festival celebrated by the Jewish people in remembrance of God’s deliverance of their ancestors from bondage in Egypt, a past event with ongoing future significance.