Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14
It can be hard to let go of the things, places, relationships, and systems that enslave us.
In the desert, God’s people wanted so badly to get back to the thing they knew. It didn’t matter that it was an awful, deadly thing that stole their freedom and future. They wanted so badly to get back to the Nile, to the meat and savory vegetables (Exodus 16:3; Numbers 11:5), to the predictable powerlessness, that God had to send them through a wilderness maze to ensure they could never find their way back to slavery in Egypt (Exodus 13:18).
This week’s passage is about freedom from slavery, new beginning, and leaving behind. It is about life and death. It teaches us how to get ready to move fast.
The repetitive, ritualistic language of verse 2 focuses on the month, the year, and the marking of time. And it tells God’s people: this time is for you. The month is measured by the visible cycles of the waxing and waning moon. The year progresses according to the alternations of night and day, labor and rest, and seasons of rain and dryness, planting, and harvest.
Later in Exodus, the reader finds commandments for festivals of first fruits and harvest. These festivals anticipate a future in the land that God has promised. To arrive at that future, the people must first leave the past. They must leave Egypt. The month of their departure marks the beginning of their future and freedom. And so the whole calendar must now find a new fixed point of origin and orientation. Henceforth, for God’s people all of time originates in, is oriented to, and commemorates each year their release from slavery. Time for God’s people is forevermore freedom-time.
To prepare to preach this radical reorienting of time, we might first take a look at our wrists, in our pockets and bags, on our walls, on these screens that soak up so much of our time. How much of our lives, individually and collectively, are populated and regulated by clocks and calendars? “What do you like to do in your free time?” asks a well-intentioned new acquaintance. We scoff, not without some smug pride: “free time? What’s that?” What calendar are we using? What is its origin and orientation?
God knows the system of death for what it is. Brick-quotas (Exodus 5:7-18), beaten backs (2:11), bitter lives (1:13), murdered babies (1:22): God sees the suffering and hears the cries of God’s people (3:7).
The people must let go of this past together. The third verse emphasizes the unity of the congregation of Israel at the same time that it commands action that every member will undertake (12:3; cf. 12:6). The language at the verse’s conclusion is again repetitive and ritualistic, now emphasizing the inclusion of every household (12:3). In the following verse, we learn how the smallest households will join together and support one another in the hard work of letting go (12:4).
The lamb’s slaughter takes place at twilight, literally “between the evenings” (12:7). It is the hour of transition between day and night, a time of ending and beginning. The lamb’s blood upon the doorposts of the Israelites’ houses similarly marks transition. These houses are not their permanent dwellings. They provide short-term protection. But their most important feature is the doorway, site of entry and exit. The life-blood of the lamb marks that exit, protecting, hallowing, and preparing their departure from slavery in Egypt.
The meal itself is also symbolic. They will eat bitter herbs (12:8), a sensory reminder of bereavement and suffering to be tasted, chewed, swallowed, and digested. The flat bread (12:8), made without yeast, is a bread of haste and readiness. The instructions for cooking the lamb are specific (12:9). Neither raw nor boiled: the waters of Egypt have been a source of death. The Israelites will leave them behind. Instead they shall cook their meal in the fire, reminder of the fire of God’s presence in the burning bush, and foreshadowing of the fire that will lead them through the wilderness to new life.
When they eat of the lamb, they shall leave nothing over (12:10) — there will be no waiting, no holding back, no returning.
As for the people, they shall eat with their “loins girded”, sandals on feet, staff in hand, and in haste (12:11). The expression “loins girded” rings empty for us — we know it refers to preparation, but the language is archaic, no longer our own. One scholar has defined the dual form motnayim, which NRSV translates “loins”, as “the strong musculature linking the upper part of the body with the lower.”1
As such it provides a symbol for the unity of the whole person, of intention and action. It is also the body’s strong core (Nahum 2:1; Job 40:16). To “gird” is to bind or wrap, in this case for support. Picture a weight-lifting belt, a runner’s compression shorts, or sports tape. Runners know that a strong core translates into stability, speed, and endurance.
In 1 Kings 18:16, Elijah “girds his loins” and as a result outruns Ahab. Muscles supported, shoes laced, equipment in hand: the Israelites eat this meal quickly, ready to run from death to life. Moreover, with a staff in one hand, a hasty meal in the other, it becomes impossible to hold on to anything else.
The economy of death is addicting. We pick up what we were supposed to let go. We keep resetting our clocks to the quotas of Egypt. When day is done, we take off our shoes, put down the staff, dawdle by the door. Celebrate the festival and preach the word that will help God’s people let go of slavery, enter freedom-time, and journey together into new life.
1 Moshe Held, “Studies in Comparative Semitic Lexicography,” in Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger on His Seventy-fifth Birthday (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 395-06, p. 405.