Well, a lot has happened again since the reading from Exodus 3 last week. The conversation between God and Moses at the burning bush continues for a while and Moses goes back to his father-in-law to ask if he and his family can leave and go back to Egypt. There’s an unusual incident on the way, mentioned in chapter 4 verse 24 where God apparently tries to kill Moses, but Moses is saved thanks to Zipporah’s actions.
Well, a lot has happened again since the reading from Exodus 3 last week. The conversation between God and Moses at the burning bush continues for a while and Moses goes back to his father-in-law to ask if he and his family can leave and go back to Egypt. There’s an unusual incident on the way, mentioned in Exodus 4:24 where God apparently tries to kill Moses, but Moses is saved thanks to Zipporah’s actions. Aaron comes out to meet Moses, they work out their plan of action and they go to Pharaoh. Over the next few chapters Moses and Aaron return to Pharaoh several times. Different miracles are performed, several times Pharaoh seems to agree to let the Israelites go but then changes his mind and a series of so-called plagues beset the land of Egypt. God is expecting this, and tells Moses that Pharaoh’s resistance is necessary so that God can do even more astounding things. In fact, at the end of Exodus 11 it is the LORD who is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. So at the beginning of Exodus 12 we’re reaching the climax of this part of the story. This part of the chapter focuses on God’s instructions for Moses to give the Israelites. Later on in the chapter we see Moses tell the Israelites what God would have them do, they obey, and finally they make their way out of Egypt.
So this passage provides the instructions for the keeping of the Passover festival. In ancient times and on into the present day, the Passover was and is a time of great celebration for God’s liberating and redeeming activity. It may be likened to Easter for Christians in terms of its significance and importance. But the text here does not indicate joy and celebration, but rather gravity and seriousness. The Passover event takes place in the context of the great suffering of the Israelites in slavery, and it is accompanied by the death of all the firstborn of Egypt. And more than that, the liberation from slavery leads on to new challenges and overwhelming experiences in the wilderness over the next decades. So the mood in this passage is sombre, and as readers we can’t help but have mixed feelings, recognising Yahweh’s power and justice but also feeling distress and discomfort at the cost in human life.
We can’t ignore the terror contained in this passage. And we can’t ignore the questions it raises either. What kind of God would achieve any purpose (even ultimately justifiable and for the good of an enslaved people) by bringing about the deaths of so many, presumably including many who were not old enough to bear responsibility for the oppression for which their nation is being judged? Surely God loves the Egyptians too?
It’s hard to answer these questions which leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling. One way in which we might think of them is to say that the passage comes from a time when people (including the people of Israel) were used to thinking about supernatural activity in more warlike terms than we do now. In other words, we might say that while the Passover passages are accurate in showing God’s liberating activity in Israel’s life, they also reflect the mindset of the world in which their authors lived and wrote. Another way to think about these questions is to recognise that ancient Israel considered evil in personal rather than abstract terms. The only way they could understand God combatting evil was if God brought judgement and punishment to those who were part of evil communities.
But these still don’t solve the problem of the image of Yahweh as the bringer of death. The only way we can move beyond this is to admit that this portrayal is only partial, and like any fragmented image, is distorted. We can try to understand why the biblical writers saw God as they did, but in the light of the other insights the Bible contains into the nature of God we also need to deny the
image of Yahweh as the killer of the innocent. For example, Jonah unwillingly testifies to God who loves all people passionately, even the oppressors who “deserve” judgement. And in Isaiah 42:6-7 we get the image of God who redeems God’s people in order to enlighten the captors into God’s ways and not to destroy them. And in the New Testament, Jesus shows the love of God even for those who crucified him.
One of the mistakes in identifying God as the destroyer of the wicked, or worse, the killer of innocent people who happen to be related to the wicked, is that it can easily lead to a nation or group of people thinking that this is a way to do God’s work for God. With the kind of weapons of mass destruction that exist today we must be more aware than ever of the danger of thinking like this.
So while we need to deny the image of God as destroyer in this passage, there are things that also need to be affirmed. These are also based on other biblical texts that shape our reading of this passage. The most significant image of God to affirm here is that of God as Redeemer. The symbolism of the slaughtered lamb is important as it gives greater significance to the New Testament image of Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Here we see that God intends to save the Israelites in a physical way (by freeing them from slavery and leading them out of Egypt), and God also intends to redeem the special relationship that binds them to God and God to them. In Exodus 12:12 we can see that the struggle is not just against the Egyptian people and government, but also against the Egyptian gods. So God liberates the Israelites from the power that wants to stand in God’s place, and this also resonates with the picture we get in Isaiah (for example Isaiah 44:9-20) which celebrates the liberation of Israel from false worship and a bringing back to the worship of God. In every story of liberation and release, what’s important is not just what we’re set free from, but also what we are liberated into. Here it’s away from subjugation to Egypt and its gods, and into a new relationship with the God who loves them.
For further reflection…