As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
From Death to Life
A modern Passover meal doesn’t copy the outline in our lesson from Exodus today. People don’t eat in their travelling clothes, standing and gulping their food, and there’s certainly no blood smeared on doorposts or lintels.
The modern celebration was re-imagined centuries ago and incorporated a Greek meal tradition where people could gather, recline, and contemplate
the meaning and significance of the meal itself. There were a variety of symbols brought into the celebration to remind every one of significant parts of the holiday and its importance.
What we see in our scripture lesson is stark: it is bloody, literally. It is urgent, it is hurried, rushed. It brings to mind exactly what was going on: people fleeing from an abusive situation, leaving behind everything they couldn’t carry, to dash out the door to safety; even the questionable safety of an unknown journey through dangerous circumstances. You’ve got to run because you don’t know if you’ll ever get the chance again.
It took ten plagues to beat the king of Egypt into submission; to decide to let God’s people go. And the passing over of the angel of death was the way to spare the Hebrews the effects of the final plague; the universal killing of the first-born.
This is a horror: people and animals dying. I know of people who think we should abandon the Hebrew scriptures because of stories like this that depict God being so callous with innocent life.
But the symbolism that we find here is important. If you are really worried about God doing this, it might comfort you to know that most scholars question whether this literally happened.
The oldest book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, mentions the “diseases of Egypt” as something the Israelites suffered; not as plagues. Psalms 78 and 105 list only 7 or 8 plagues, in differing orders.
Seven is a divine number, eight is nothing special and 10, the final number, is symbolic of human order. So the final version, in Exodus, makes it symbolically clear that this is an attack on the government of Egypt.
The king and his people didn’t like having the Hebrews living there. They fussed about them taking over with their high birth rate. They confined them to certain neighbourhoods and made them do the jobs no Egyptian wanted. But they couldn’t afford to have them leave, either. There was indeed a pharaoh of that day who had an ambitious infrastructure program, building a new city and a new temple for a new monotheistic religion, to overcome the power of the Egyptian priests. And the Hebrews were the forced labour.
It’s not hard to recognize the demagoguery at work here. The political agendas and the fear-mongering, the excuses to abuse ethnically different people and squeeze them dry.
We should also recognize the reality of the refugees here, fleeing from a country where their lives are intolerable into the unknown, in hopes they will be able to live in freedom.
The only thing missing in the modern context is the word “slavery,” and that’s because we claim we’ve eliminated it instead of creating economic systems that do exactly the same thing.
There’s more symbolism in this lesson: killing the first-born was an attack on the very vitality of Egypt itself. First born children, especially boys, were often understood to possess an extra portion of the vitality, the life-force, of the parents. They were rewarded with a double inheritance in Israel and had similar benefits in many middle-Eastern cultures. There’s a good chance that many of the men in charge (since it was typically men put in charge then) of the government, the priesthood, the army itself were first-born, given the chance since childhood to boss around their siblings.
This shouldn’t surprise us: we still produce articles and books talking about the effects of birth-order on a child’s development. It’s an idea that is deeply ingrained in us. So imagine the psychological effect of an entire nation waking up and finding their first-born children dead, and their neighbours’ and the next street over and the next village.
Sure! Let the slaves go! Keeping them has just cost us our favourite children. Good riddance!
This whole lesson is a reminder of how messy real life is, how something as profound as freeing a whole nation can be a blood-stained process.
The Hebrews smeared blood on the door posts and the lintel, they ate their food while standing, ready to flee. And when the word came, out the door they went, carrying all they could, fleeing the land of oppression, and now the land of death, to seek out a risky new life where they would be free.
What’s incredible is that after a time, before they could get too far on foot, Pharaoh realized how much labour he was losing and sent his army out to capture them again. Despite this deadly plague, this epidemic of deaths of eldest children, economics won out in the mind of the King. No change in human nature there.
Our history of freeing enslaved people in more modern times still has echoes of the injustices we’ve allowed to continue. Even while proclaiming how progressive we are, there’d be no energy for Black Lives Matter protests if we really had learned the lesson Pharaoh failed to learn, which is to stop trying to squeeze people dry while explaining how generous we are to them.
Slavery was built on death and blood; the more subtle replacements we have developed are too; as we are reminded whenever we hear of people dying in overcrowded clothing sweat-shops with inadequate exits; or we are reminded that our immigrant population faces a higher rate of COVID infection because they end up doing the front-line care jobs in extra risky settings.
When we live lives as protected and prosperous as we have here since the second world war, we have the luxury of forgetting the blood, the cost. We can try not to see that some of our prosperity still comes with oppression of people, often (but not always) far away.
And our image of a loving, life-giving God will be hollow if we don’t share that path from death to life with everyone.
I’ve never been enslaved. I’ve never had to flee an abusive situation with just the clothes on my back, neither at home nor in my homeland. Growing up in Canada has been wonderful. I can’t relate to this out of my own experience but the image of this meal as narrated in Exodus gives me a glimpse of what it must have been like, and what it is still like, for people who are trapped, and bled dry; who live in our modern situations of blood and death.
This passage reminds us of what people have known for centuries: that things like freedom, respect, dignity and even the chance to live can demand a cost, a high cost.
In this passage, God is calling us to never forget. And if we take this to heart then we will work to ensure that we never become the oppressors; and that we work to lift people out of our modern versions of slavery.