The Exodus Story and the Passover
written in 2008 as a Special Note for Biblical Words; moderately
revised for this posting.)
Common Lectionary Readings for this part of Year A omit eight chapters from the
Exodus story (Exodus 4-11). These
chapters include everything from the call of Moses to Passover night. They include the central part of the struggle
for the deliverance of the “Hebrew” slaves.
Dropping eight chapters of narrative from, say, the book of Numbers may
be an acceptable choice to accommodate limits of the Lectionary cycles. But dropping eight chapters from the very
heart of the most critical narrative of
The reasons for this omission are likely two:
(1) Because of its length, the Plague Narrative (chapters 7-11) could not be included in its entirety, and selecting only one or two plague episodes would give a fragmentary and ragged impression. Besides, the Passover passage (the Lectionary reading for the 14th Sunday) does include a brief report of the tenth plague.
(2) The Plague Narrative, in its most straightforward sense, is not edifying. It does not present God in a favorable light. It shows the Mighty One inflicting deliberate suffering on a people caught at the mercy of its dull-witted and stubborn potentate. It even shows that Mighty One holding up the sagging Pharaoh with his left hand while he pops him again with his right. Undignified, if not downright immoral! Best leave it out of the Lectionary entirely!
Well, here, outside the proper confines of the Lectionary, some points about this historically colossal narrative may be made. This discussion may seem like presenting the Scrooge view of the Exodus, for though the Exodus is a liberation story, when read closely it does not fit liberation theologies of our time very comfortably.
for two reasons: (1) The Exodus is only
part of a larger story, the completion of which is the conquest of a promised
land by a triumphant chosen people.
Everywhere through the story, there are clear signs that that
promised-land conclusion is the overarching meaning of the liberation from
Exodus narrative itself makes clear that the defeat of the enslaving power is exclusively
God’s doing. Human initiative (read
“political action”) utterly fails to achieve liberation; that is what
And the Plague Narrative makes indelibly clear that this is only a power struggle. There is nothing about justice, rights, or morality in the struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh. They share no common framework – no covenant – within which rights or justice could be appealed to. The one and only issue is power. Who is stronger? Who can force the other to give up possession of the Hebrews.
right and wrong cannot enter the sacred story until
The Structure of the Plague Narrative.
First a couple of preliminaries about the larger narrative that includes the plague sequence.
The final unity. Exodus 1-13:16 is a composite narrative, an extended re-telling that interweaves earlier narrative strands. Though the narrative is composite, the focus here is on the final composition. We are listening to what the narrative has been made into, rather than what it was made out of. We are looking at the structure of the final story, not its sources. (At the end, there are also a few non-narrative passages, instructions for every Israelite to observe the Passover, keep the Unleavened Bread festival, and devote or redeem the firstborn of livestock and family – all the standard spring festival actions, 12:43-49; 13:3-16).
that the Israelites had lived in
summary was before
other hand, the Masoretes put no break at all after the
The Larger Narrative. After Israel
sank into deep oppression through slave labor and genocide (chapters 1-2), God
in heaven made a first movement in response to Israelite laments
(2:23-25). That movement led to the call
of Moses and Aaron with declaration of Yahweh’s overall plan and instructions
for their particular roles (chapters 3-4).
They hasten to
signals yet another Divine Turn. A divine speech declares who Yahweh is (in
the P strand the name Yahweh is first introduced here) and what he is going to
do – take Israel from Egypt and give it the promised land (6:2-9). Then there is a pause in the flow of action while the narrator recites
some genealogical lore about the Levites, and Moses and Aaron in particular
(6:14-27, which carries the Levite genealogy two generations past Moses, to
Phinehas, a priest of destiny in
Finally we are ready for the court contest to begin.
The action of the Plague Narrative is very formalized. It is a courtly duel in which too powerful lords declare themselves and then demonstrate their prowess. Typically Yahweh sends Moses (and Aaron) to negotiate with Pharaoh, announcing a “blow” if the Hebrews are not released. The coming of the “blow” shows that Yahweh’s power is greater – that Pharaoh cannot prevent it. Pharaoh tries a number of evasions, the details of which contribute to the steady crescendo in the plague sequence. A subordinate theme is the efforts of the Egyptian magicians to keep pace with the miracles done by Moses and Aaron, and their increasing discomfiture is a touch of comic relief in the narrative progression.
There are ten plagues in the final narrative. The number of plagues, and the terminology for each one, could vary from recitation to recitation, as is seen in Psalm 78:42-52 (probably six plagues, varying terminology) and Psalm 105:27-36 (seven plagues, pretty much Exodus terminology but different order).
The plague episodes are not uniform. Three of them have no audience with Pharaoh at the beginning, but simply launch into instructions to Moses and Aaron to bring on the plagues: these are the third, sixth, and ninth plagues. It seems likely that the base of the present narrative was originally a seven-plague sequence, made up of what are now the first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and tenth plagues.
Psalm 105, the first plague always is turning the water of the
Standing in a unique role is the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. This is no ordinary absence of sunlight; it is “a darkness that can be felt” (). First, this plague implies that the contest has gone cosmic, involving the heavenly powers, not just local conditions (though the Israelites somehow still had light that was lacking to the Egyptians, ). Secondly, this plague may be symbolic, since the chief god of Egyptian royalty was Ra, the sun god, giver of light.
last plague is always the death of the
first-born. This is the first direct
assault on human life in the plague sequence.
While the Israelites are sheltered in their homes, protected from “the
Destroyer” by the sacrificial blood on the doorposts, the first-born of all the
Egyptians – and especially of Pharaoh – are killed by the numinous power
passing through the land, house by house! The death of the crown prince and of
the heir apparent in every family is the ultimate defeat of the enemies of
Yahweh’s people. This plague is the
climactic event of
In later Israelite religious practice, this sequence of events (which began on the tenth day of the month, Exodus 12:3) was the occasion of (1) the Passover observance, (2) the offerings of the first-born animals and sons by Israelites, and (3) the observance of the Unleavened Bread festival (the release of the new grain crop for human consumption). All of these things were aspects of the spring festival in historic times, running over a nearly two-week period in March and April.
Its Setting in Israelite Life.
Assuming this overview of the Exodus narrative, we may speculate on its place and power in historic Israelite life. When would reciting just this kind of narrative have been most cogent to the condition and needs of early Israelites?
that the Passover went back to pre-monarchic times as an Israelite custom. In the later monarchic period, it was remembered
as an observance of the age of the judges, an observance that had fallen into
neglect in the time of the kings. “No
such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged
The instructions for the
setting is unquestionably well-settled agricultural-pastoral communities. This setting corresponds to what we now know
of the Iron Age I settlements of hill-country
Now we may project that for Israelites in this period and in this setting, the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative is every petty Canaanite city-state king writ large. In such a context we can see the power that that narrative could have for a lesser developed people living out of the reach of city-state kingdoms that were mainly in the valleys and plains. The Plague Narrative is a long, intricate enjoyment of the increasing embarrassment of the local city king who has pretended to power over the Israelite peasant settlements.
The Passover observance was required of every Israelite head of household (see Exodus 10:8-11; -49, and Numbers ). The full instructions for the observance are given in Exodus 12:1-28.
At the first new moon in the spring (Nisan in the later calendar), each family began to prepare for the observance. Ten days after the new moon, they selected a year-old lamb or kid for each house, and on the fourteenth day after the new moon (at full moon), sacrificed the animal, using its blood to protect the doorway of their house, and eating that animal in an atmosphere of danger and haste. The bread eaten with that meal must be the first produce of the new grain crop, not yet mixed with the leavened dough of the past year’s crops. At morning, they went out of the house (no doubt rejoicing), and began the ceremonies of the seven-day Unleavened Bread festival.
Keeping this observance was every Israelite’s commitment to Yahweh, the mighty Lord who could keep them safe from the local city-king who coveted their servitude!
compelling power and purpose of the Exodus narrative, as we hear it, was to
cement Israelite allegiance to the Lord of the tribal coalition that resisted
the city-state kings surrounding their
highland regions. On this understanding,
the Exodus narrative, pretty literally, created and continually re-created