The story moves on quickly from last week’s reading. After Moses’ numerous objections to his calling, he finally returns to Egypt with his brother Aaron (Exod 4:18-31). Predictably, Pharaoh rejects the delegation’s request for leniency for the Israelites, and their lot only gets worse (Exodus 5). After further revelations by Yahweh to Moses and Aaron (ch. 6) the real struggle is engaged. While it is expressed in terms of Moses’ contest with the Egyptian priests and the subsequent plagues on the land (chs. 7-11), the real contest is between Yahweh and Pharaoh: to see who has power, and whether those powers that offer life and release (3:7-12; 6:1-8) will overcome those that captivate and oppress (5:4-21).
Moses plays Yahweh’s role in this contest between deities (7:1). But there is more going on in this story than this. It is also a struggle for the hearts of the Israelites and their allegiance, even in the most difficult times. Moses asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites go for a short period to worship the God of Israel (5:1). Pharaoh was too smart for this simple ruse but the request has another layer. Behind the whole Exodus story lies a perennial question for Israel: will they indeed worship the God who would give them life, or will they be so overwhelmed by the powers which oppress, that their broken spirits are not able to respond (6:9)?
This is the context for the reading today and explains why, deep in the heart of the exodus story, we find embedded a bit of Israel’s ancient liturgy. Passover (Pesach), arising probably from an old agricultural festival, has become a sign of the people’s liberation. For those willing to push further into Exodus, they will find that the interplay of liturgy and liberation is a central theme of the story.
The story of the Passover night starts in Exodus 11 with Yahweh declaring he will pass through the land and the first born of every house (both human and animal) will die. Only the Israelites will be spared. This will be the last of a series of plagues upon the Egyptians. The description of Passover in Exodus 12 probably comes from a later period when the festival was well established – another description is in Deut 16:1-8. The description in Exodus 12 seems to have arisen from a mixture of at least three rituals: the lamb with the blood, the massot (unleavened bread), and the offering of the firstborn. The details in 12:1-14 might seem quite foreign to the ears of modern Christian worshippers. While they may be intriguing, they are probably not so enlightening when it comes to preaching from this text. But that is not to say the text has nothing to say in our context.
First, we note that this account of Passover is focussed on the family situation. Celebration is centred on a meal within each household. This is the basis for the modern Jewish tradition. It stands in contrast to the more public occasion envisaged in Deuteronomy 16. The Exodus version reminds us that God’s deliverance of this people is something that penetrates to the very heart of each one. It is not something to be celebrated only on the grand occasion, but becomes the foundation for the life of every family, and every individual. In other words, one’s faith, and the action of God behind that faith, is never just a matter of public display and ritual. These things are also to be celebrated in the more private and personal areas of life. The worship of God begins in the home.
Secondly, the Passover ritual described is set in the ancient context of the Exodus story. As it reads, it is an instruction from the Lord to Moses and Aaron, which, of course, was passed on to the people (see vv. 21-28). It is ostensibly an instruction for a memorial for later times, so that this night of deliverance will never be forgotten. However, it is more than that. The Passover ritual, which as noted above is probably a description of a later festival, is embedded in the ancient story, as if it were part of the events of long ago. As each successive generation of Israelites celebrates the Passover, it is as if they are re-enacting it in all its detail. The ancient event looks forward to a future time through establishing this memorial. And each later remembrance is a participation in the ancient event of redemption and liberation. Later Israelites celebrate the redemption of long ago, but they are also called to enter into that redemption in an active and personal way. There is a similar interplay of memory and participation in the Christian Eucharist, or celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Thirdly, and briefly, the description in Exodus 12 implies that later Israelites should eat the Passover meal, ‘dressed for the occasion’ – in loincloth and sandals, and with travelling staff. This is not just a matter of play-acting. What it is really getting at is the question of each Israelite’s readiness to participate – in mind, body, and spirit – in the liberation God offers (discipleship we might call it).
Preaching from this text could go in a number of directions. There is the close link between worship and the events of our redemption – how each is a participation in the other and how worship is itself a ‘yes’ to the God who wishes life and liberation for all creation, and a ‘no’ to those powers which would seek to break the spirit for life. There is something to be said on how we remember and what remembrance means when it comes to celebrating in worship the founding events of our faith. There is the invitation to make those events ‘our own’, so to speak, to be nourished in our faith journey by remembering them and to think of them as ‘our story’ too and not just that of our forebears in faith. There is also the invitation to see whether our faith and worship does indeed delve into the private and personal areas of life.
Of course, the Passover is not a Christian celebration. Understanding it might help us, however, in our celebration of the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
For more information on Pesach in Jewish tradition, go to the Jewish Encyclopedia: www.jewishencyclopedia.com and search for ‘Passover’.
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