If you and I are alike, you approach the story of the Passover a little hesitantly. You’re all in favor, and celebrate the Exodus as the absolute pinnacle and climax of Jewish history before Jesus, but get very uncomfortable when you remember that Pharaoh isn’t the only murderer in the story, and that his genocide of the Hebrew babies before Moses was born was not the only large scale death of children to see here. The Lectionary tries to clean up this difficult history a bit, prescribing that the reading for September 10 be based more on the institution of the festival than the death of Egyptian children. People around the online Christian world explain the story in different ways, and you begin to see the following reasons for the Passover showing up in different ways, articulated differently, but basically saying one of just a few things:
Didn’t the Egyptians deserve it?
This line of thinking simply dismisses the question as asking too much of the Text, being irreverent to its authority in our lives. If the Bible is truly our rule for practice, this line of thinking reasons, then we shouldn’t ask it such loaded and accusatory questions. God was well aware of what He was doing, and the Egyptians weren’t the children of God anyway, so stop being a bleeding heart liberal and submit to the Text. After all, Pharaoh had ordered Hebrew babies to be killed forty years earlier, and the slave holding cruel Egyptians weren’t exactly saints worthy of a savior, right?
I find this reasoning a bit ridiculous. I refuse to believe reading our sacred stories would require us to check our morals at the door.
This was a long time ago…
Many would argue that because this story happened so very long ago, in a world so incredibly dissimilar to our own, we can’t make a moral judgment here. To a group of oppressed slaves, this seemed like the only way out of their situation, after all, the other 9 plagues hadn’t yet dissuaded the evil Pharaoh from his cruel and oppressive ways.
I understand this line of thinking a bit more. It’s attempting to understand the context a bit more and wrestle with the question honestly. But I still feel it let’s God (or the Spirit of God) get away with murder.
This story isn’t true and it was simply the way Israel formed their historical and cultural identity.
If you’ve taken a serious Old Testament class before, this is a tempting explanation. After all, every forming culture needs a history, and this one allows the Jews to basically have a holy war they didn’t have to fight. If you claim it didn’t happen, and it’s not from God, you can sleep a lot easier.
Call me a Fundamentalist, but even if this story never happened, I want to deal with the moral implications of this story as if it is true. Even if it didn’t happen, the Jews felt this represented their God and have celebrated it for millennia, to this very day.
So where does this leave us?
Quite frankly, this leaves us just as confused as ever. I don’t have a perfect nice, neat answer to this story. But let me offer just a few points I do have.
The Bible grows increasingly wary of Holy War
Yes. It does seem as if the Spirit of God kills a lot of people in this story, but as we see the progressive revelation of God unfold in the Scriptures, killing and death are blamed on God less and less. If you don’t believe me, reacquaint yourself with the book of Joshua, and watch how the writer, even in that one book, claims less and less of the deaths in God’s name, and associates them more and more with politics. Yes, at the time when Israel left their oppressors they were probably mad enough to call the death of Egyptians “God ordained”, but keep reading friends. They don’t stay that way forever. God continues to reveal more and more of God-self to the world as time goes on, and it changes people for the better.
The cross is inseparably bound to Passover
Over a thousand years after this story, Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s firstborn, does not get passed over during the celebration of this ancient feast. This time, all killing, all death, all evil Pharaohs, all oppression is defeated, with one Passover lamb. The people of Egypt don’t have to cry anymore. They are welcome at the Passover feast now. Everyone is welcome at the Passover feast now. Even our oppressors. Even the oppressed. Even the people you don’t like. The unleavened bread and wine isn’t limited to the people now that knew where to put the blood – it covers us all… and that’s really, really good news.
So, at the end of the day, no, I don’t have a great theological treatise on the Passover. It’s disturbing. It should be disturbing. Don’t explain it away or let the question die easily. But. At the end of the day, may we also celebrate that this will never need to happen again. We don’t have to kill our enemies. We just have to invite them to our table.