Commentary on Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
The Passover story in Exodus 12 is a story of a new beginning.
Of course there are other beginnings in the Bible such as creation (Genesis 1), new life after the flood (Genesis 8), or God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 12). But this chapter stands out as the place where Yhwh tells Moses and Aaron that the event and circumstances that they are about to go through will be remembered for generations to come as a perpetual beginning celebrated every year in ritual and story (Exodus 12:1-2, 24-27).
The power of telling a story—especially a story of beginnings—can bind people together with a sense of identity, self-determination, and purpose. In the Bible, Pharaoh is the first person to shape their ethnic narrative by calling the Israelites “a people” (ʾam in Hebrew) distinct from Egyptians, inherently threatening, and deserving of severe oppression including slavery and genocide (Exodus 1:8-11, 16, 22).
In contrast to Pharaoh’s narrative of what makes an Israelite, readers arrive at a new beginning story in Exodus 12. Here Yhwh calls forward a different story to distinguish these people—or as God calls them for the first time “the whole congregation of Israel” (Exodus 12:3). They are “the congregation of Israel,” whose identity will be shaped by their relationship with their God. And every year, from this time onward, will begin with the memory of the moment when that relationship was inaugurated by God liberating them from slavery.
In their ancient context, the power of telling and re-telling this story was a way for the Israelites to differentiate themselves from their close neighbors in Egypt. People groups tend to establish their ethnic identity by contrast with those whom they are closest to in other regards. Israelites lived just north of this African kingdom and their cultural memory includes Egyptian names (Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, and so on) and Egyptian practices like circumcision. But the impact of recounting this story goes far beyond its utility for ancient people drawing a line between “us” and “them.”
This story of God creating freedom for the Israelites has been inspirational for people across time. In the Hebrew Bible itself, writers continually harken back to God’s liberating work in Exodus as admonition against unfaithfulness or a reason for confidence that God will save them again (see also Psalms 77:1-15; 78:51-52; 105:36-38; Isaiah 11:10-16; Jeremiah 16:14-15; 32:20-21; Amos 9:7). Over millennia, our Jewish siblings have celebrated the Passover Seder as both a stable root in which to ground their sense of identity and also a malleable ceremony with the potential to speak to the diverse experiences of the entire Jewish diaspora. The Jewish writers of our synoptic Gospels narrate “The Last Supper” as a Passover meal with a new liturgy that expresses the significance of Jesus’ death (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:1-23). And oppressed people of diverse backgrounds continue to affirm that this story speaks of God’s character as a liberator.
Our desire to recognize God as the liberator in this text should not silence all the difficult questions that God’s violence raises.
Does the firstborn of all Egyptians deserve death for the enslavement of the Israelites? One answer by scholars is to point out a theology in our Bible that the lives of all firstborn (or possibly other children) are owed to God. Legal texts like Exodus 13:1 and 22:29-30 and narratives like Genesis 22, Exodus 4:24-26, and Judges 11 seem to treat this morbid expectation as normal. Even prophetic texts that adamantly reject the idea that God wants child sacrifice (like Jeremiah 7:30-31, 19:5-6, and Ezekiel 20:25-26) simultaneously demonstrate that some Israelites did think God legitimately desires such human sacrifices.1 Other scholars emphasize that the God of the biblical text in Exodus is not primarily concerned with justice as much as partisan support for the particular people who (not by coincidence) wrote this story.2 Such scholarly explanations might make sense of the ancient world that produced our Bible, but they are unlikely to assuage our discomfort with the ethics of divine violence in this text.
Another approach to this question involves reflection on the contemporary implications of God killing all Egyptian firstborns. Exodus 12 can be read as indicting everyone with some modicum of privilege (whether sitting on a throne or in a dungeon) in a society that fails to overturn ethnic oppression (see Exodus 11:5; 12:29). Or this narrative of liberation can be read as emphasizing the massive sacrifice that the powerful must make to balance the scales of justice. Hopefully, this line of thinking generates introspection that stimulates radical transformation.
Thinking about the divine violence in this chapter can also lead to deep reflection on humanizing those suffering people who are grouped together as villains in the story. Remember, it was an Egyptian woman—the daughter of Pharaoh himself—who had pity on the baby Moses when she heard his crying (Exodus 2:6). Knowing that the baby was a Hebrew and that her father had decreed his slaughter (Exodus 1:22), this Egyptian woman decided to choose mercy and life in direct defiance against the power of the throne. Now her father is long dead (Exodus 4:19). Is this Egyptian daughter who saved and mothered Moses among the firstborns God kills on the night of Passover? Or is she another voice in the “loud cry in Egypt” as she laments the death of her sibling or her niece or one of her children whom she raised with Moses (Exodus 12:30)?
As much as Exodus 12 is a story of freedom from slavery, it is also a story about death. Exodus 12:26-27 enjoins the Israelites to use the Passover as a teaching moment, a way to enculturate inquisitive children. While we teach children (and adults) to strive for and celebrate God the liberator, I believe that contemplating difficult questions from this story also generates thoughtful and compassionate Christians.
- Heath D. Dewrell, Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbraus, 2017); Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
- Jon Levenson, “Liberation Theology and the Exodus,” in Jews, Christians, and the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, ed. Alice Ogden Bellis and Kaminsky, Joel S. (Atlanta: SBL, 2000), 215–30.