By Charlie Clauss
This past September 11 was the 20th anniversary of the attacks that ended with the twin towers of the World Trade Center lying in ruins, a large hole in the outer ring of the Pentagon, and a crashed aircraft in the fields of Pennsylvania. Most Americans who were old enough on those days will be able to tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
There is nothing new about these kinds of dramatic events. There are examples beyond count, both recent and ancient. Some still living remember Pearl Harbor, not many (if any) remember the Titanic. None now living were alive for the shelling of Ft. Sumter, the Trail of Tears, the Fall of Constantinople, the Battle of Thermopylae. There are many other events for which you were made to memorize the date (1066, anyone?). And there are events outside of Western history we are tragically only now beginning to learn.
We have in this week’s passages what is arguably the most important event of the Old Testament — the Passover. Passover is the central event of the central story of the Exodus. Exodus has been building to this final confrontation between Pharaoh and the God of Israel. Plague has followed plague, each time Pharaoh backing down, only to double down and not let the Israelites go. Finally, God declares he will kill all the first born of Egypt, while the people of Israel will be protected from this fate by the blood of a lamb or goat smeared on their door posts and lintels. Death literally will pass over them.
God shows how foundational this event is to be for them going forward by making this the beginning of their year. They are to annually celebrate this festival. Even today someone may know little about Jewish people, but they will likely have heard of “the Passover.” The whole of the Old Testament makes clear how central this event is. Again and again the phrase, “With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” or something very similar, appears.
A central problem when approaching a passage like this for us in the modern West is that we have rejected this “God of wrath,” a God that sends plagues on a people, kills the first born, and (later in the story) slaughters an army. This God does not fit with the “God is love — God accepts everyone” motif to which we have grown accustomed. But by setting aside a narrative like the Passover, we are in danger of losing the important idea that God is a God of justice and a God of rescue. If the world has treated us well, we think we neither need to have justice served nor ourselves saved. For this reason, it is helpful to let the perspective of oppressed people at the margins give us some insight into these types of passages.
Such a hermeneutic from the margins is not just a new, modern liberal perspective. For example, take Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 CE):
Borrow from the Egyptians vessels of gold and silver; with these take your journey; supply yourself for the road with the goods of strangers, or rather with your own. There is money owing to you, the wages of your bondage and of your brickmaking; be clever on your side too in asking retribution; be an honest robber. You suffered wrong there while you were fighting with the clay (that is, this troublesome and filthy body) and wast building cities foreign and unsafe, whose memorial perishes with a cry. What then? Do you come out for nothing and without wages? But why will you leave to the Egyptians and to the powers of your adversaries that which they have gained by wickedness, and will spend with yet greater wickedness? It does not belong to them: they have ravished it, and have sacrilegiously taken it as plunder from Him who says, The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine, and I give it to whom I will. Yesterday it was theirs, for it was permitted to be so; today the Master takes it and gives it to you. (Oration 45.20)
Gregory argues that the Israelites were wronged in their bondage (oppressed) and the gold and silver they are directed to ask the Egyptians for is in payment for their lost wages (a fourth-century argument for reparations?). By implication, God is acting to right a wrong suffered by his people. This is the God an oppressed people’s perspective helps us to see.
Then consider the problem that arises from the way Pharaoh is asked to let the people go. The phrase “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (10:3b) is used many times. There is no mention of this being permanent instead of a day trip type of excursion. Is Moses (and therefore God) being deceptive? This in some ways echoes the story of Abraham going to Egypt in Genesis 12:10-20. Abraham lies to Pharaoh about Sarah being his wife and instead he says she is his sister. Ink has been spilled to explain this, usually by trying to make Sarah actually Abraham’s sister.
An insight from an oppressed perspective is that there is no need to justify or explain a lie in this case – this is how you survive when you are in the position of less power in a power dynamic situation. And notice in the case of Abraham, he comes out quite well! It is likely that in an honor-shame culture, this “cleverness” by Abraham (and Moses) would be celebrated.
These small insights into how an oppressed people might view these stories help to remind us that Exodus, taken as a whole, is the story of an enslaved people being rescued by God. An oppressed, enslaved people are going to focus on the ideas of justice and freedom. This helps to explain why such stories are so foundational. A people who could not save themselves are rescued by a powerful God. From then on, their identity will be determined by the memory of this redemption. Their ethics will often turn upon this fact (for example Deut. 5:15 links sabbath keeping with their deliverance out of Egypt). The Psalms are chock-full of references to the Exodus.
Academic circles debate about how much the last acts of Jesus “the night he was betrayed” have to do with the Passover. Christians nevertheless have been drawn to see Jesus as enacting a new Passover. The Gospel of John goes to significant lengths to portray Jesus as the antitype of the Passover lamb (e.g., John has Jesus anointed at Bethany the same day that the Passover lambs would be being separated out from the flocks). In the liturgy, echoing 1 Corinthians 5:7, we proclaim “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!”
It is not long before voices are heard complaining that all this talk of sacrifice and blood, is “barbaric,” that God would not do such a thing. The cross stands at the center of the view that Jesus is a new Passover lamb, and if you reject his sacrifice, if you reject his Passover, you are rejecting the core idea that God is at work in this to free us. How much of this is because we cannot see ourselves as an oppressed people?
An enslaved people subsequently freed will view that “moment” (it might actually be a long time, but the act of being freed will take on a “moment” kind of memory) as key. The American holiday of Juneteenth, where the moment celebrated is not when the former slaves in Galveston were freed, but rather when their freedom was announced to them, illustrates this dynamic. We Christians have been told that we were freed, but if we don’t fundamentally believe we needed to be freed, this announcement will be meaningless. This is what Jesus was getting at in Luke 7:36-50. If we don’t believe we need to be freed (that our sin holds us in bondage), we will not love much. If we understand that we very much need forgiveness, when we receive that forgiveness, we will love — a lot.
As we read Exodus, we are reading the foundational story of an oppressed, enslaved people rescued from oppression and slavery. We are invited to consider what kind of God it is that would do this: he is a God of justice and love who will do what it takes to rescue his people. As Christians, we are further invited to remember that this God acted in Jesus in a new Passover to rescue us. And just as that first Passover (re)created a people, so this new Passover recreates us a new people, rescued from the bondage of sin and death.
“Therefore, let us keep the feast.”