Another Easter has come and gone, and like the several Easters prior to this one, I participated in an ancient tradition that was new to me.
This year the small group of which I am a part celebrated the Passover Seder. It was not entirely unfamiliar to me, and going into it, I thought I would have a good idea of what to expect. I’ve read about this tradition before, heard about it from friends, and am familiar with kosher requirements.
However, as our group’s leader began reading Exodus 12, I had a reaction that I did not expect. Here is the excerpt that evoked my reaction:
… It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
17You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance.
23For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. 24You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. 25When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. 26And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ 27you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’“ And the people bowed down and worshiped. 28The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.
29At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.
35The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, 36and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.
For most of my life, I’ve read this passage from the perspective of the ancient Hebrews, those who were justly liberated from slavery and oppression, those who children were spared from the wrath of the Lord and lived to tell about it, those who rejoiced as a result of all this and continue to rejoice year after year after year.
But this year, I decided to think about it from a different perspective, from the perspective of the oppressors, from the perspective of the father whose innocent first-born child was slaughtered, from the perspective of those who were plundered in the name of the Lord.
What a horrific story.
The question I can’t shake is: “How does Jesus redefine the way I read stories like this?”
So for example, how does Jesus’ command to love our enemies illumine the way the Israelites treated the Egyptians?
It definitely means we don’t plunder them in the name of God. That much I’m sure about.
But, maybe it also means that Passover is a time of both rejoicing and mourning. On the one hand, we can rejoice in the liberation of the slaves and in the theological truth that God delivered and continues to deliver people from oppression. But on the other hand, aren’t we compelled to mourn the death of the innocent? Isn’t it fair to question how a just God could kill those innocent children? And isn’t it fair to question what type of people would celebrate such a slaughter?
In other words, is it possible that Israel got it wrong?
I know I have before.
As I think about the ways in which Jesus redefines everything that came before him, it helps me to remember something important about the Old Testament in particular. So many of the stories we have are simply the stories themselves. Often, there is very little critical reflection on the events or characters. For example, this story simply says that Israel plundered the Egyptians. It didn’t tell us whether that is right or wrong.
And I would argue that’s part of the point.
We can learn so much from our spiritual ancestors — from both their successes and their failures. And we can learn from the discerning process. Was Israel wrong to plunder the Egyptians? I think so, without question, and I think that because Jesus commands us to interact with our own enemies in a radically different way. In other words, I’m inclined to think that Israel got it wrong, and we can learn a lot from that.
What do you think?