Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Exodus Story and the Passover

                              The Exodus Story and the Passover

                                                      (Originally written in 2008 as a Special Note for Biblical Words; 
                                                                             moderately revised for this posting.)

The Revised 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 Israel’s sacred story seems embarrassing. 

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. 

This is 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 slavery in Egypt. 

(2) The 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 Exodus 5 demonstrates in the structure of the Exodus action.  The population who will be redeemed by God’s action is passive during the whole thing.  The contest is exclusively a power struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.  This is certainly a major theological statement of the Israelite tradition.  The Exodus was God’s doing, an astonishing winning of the prize for which God and Pharaoh were competing. 

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. 

Issues of right and wrong cannot enter the sacred story until Israel has been to Sinai.  In Egypt, Israel is only being born, being forced with birth pangs from the womb that used to nourish it but now has become constricting and oppressive.  At Sinai Israel will experience his Bar Mitzvah, will become responsible for keeping the Law.  From then on matters of justice and morality will be of great importance.  The Exodus is a contest of power, not of justice.  The character of the narrative makes that clear. 

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). 

Not the Red Sea.  The Masoretes, who gave us the present form of the Hebrew Bible, made a major break in the text at Exodus 13:16.  The departure from Egypt has been narrated, including the Israelites receiving the Egyptians’ jewelry, taking along their own livestock, and accompanied by a “mixed multitude” (12:33-39).  Their long stay in Egypt is then summarized: 

The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years.  At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.  That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.  That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations (Exodus 12:40-42, NRSV). 

This summary was before Israel had even started to the Red Sea. 

On the other hand, the Masoretes put no break at all after the Red Sea incident.  Exodus 15:22 simply follows Miriam’s song about the Sea, carrying on the wilderness story without heading or break.  The Red Sea episode is not the end of the Exodus; it is the beginning of the Wilderness.  At Exodus 13:17 a new set of circumstances begins, and topics and themes that will recur from there to Deuteronomy appear.  First, the way through the wilderness is introduced (13:17-18, the Israelites “prepared for battle”).  The pillar of fire and cloud leading the way is introduced (13:21-22).  Unlike the context in Exodus 7-12, the language and strategy here is of battle; here Yahweh will win a battle, not a court contest!  Finally, most characteristic of the Wilderness stories is Israel’s complaint about the exodus:  “Was it because there were not graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11).  This complaint (“murmuring”) will appear again and again in the wilderness, all the way to Numbers 21. 

The Red Sea episode is NOT a part of the Exodus Narrative; it is the beginning of the Wilderness theme, balanced at the end of the wilderness by the crossing of the Jordan River in Joshua 3-4.  (See Psalm 114:3-4! and Micah 6:4-5.)  (In post-Biblical times, of course, the Passover Seders could not resist including the “victory” of the Red Sea in the Passover story sung about at the Seder!) 

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 Egypt and let both the Israelite leaders and Pharaoh know what Yahweh demands.  That leads not to an exodus but a worsening of the oppression and reduces everyone, including Moses, to resignation and despair (chapter 5).  At that point, Moses complains, “O Lord, …since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people” (5:22-23, NRSV).  (So much for direct political action.)

This 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 Numbers 25:6-13). 

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, eight, and tenth plagues. 

Except in Psalm 105, the first plague always is turning the water of the Nile into blood (7:14-24).  There follow a number of nuisance plagues (frogs, gnats, flies, and belatedly, in the sixth plague, boils).  After that Yahweh begins direct assaults on the Egyptian economy:  the fifth plague kills livestock (9:1-7), then hail kills both livestock and crops (9:13-35), and then locusts finish off the crops (10:1-20). 

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” (10:21).  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, 10:23).  Secondly, this plague may be symbolic, since the chief god of Egyptian royalty was Ra, the sun god, giver of light. 

Finally, the 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 Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. 

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? 

We assume 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 Israel, or during the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah” (II Kings 23:22).  The instructions for the Passover in Exodus 12 require permanent houses, with doorposts and lintels, houses that were the numinous boundaries of danger during the critical night.  The next morning the Israelites went out of their houses to celebrate the feast of Unleavened Bread, the eating of the new grain crop.  (On this see Joshua 5:10-12.) 

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 Israel (around 1200 to 1050 BCE).  (See, for example, Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt [Society of Biblical Literature, 2007], Part 3, “The Historical Origins of Collective Israel,” pp. 67-98.) This is the social-economic world in which the Passover narrative would have been important and in which its development and progressive elaboration would have had its early stages. 

We may recall that Egypt had been a major power over the Canaanite city-states periodically for more than three centuries before 1200 BCE.  Pharaoh had long been a mighty figure off to the south, either threatening or supporting the tranquility of every Canaanite community.  Around that date, Pharaoh Merneptah made a substantial raid into Canaan, destroying (he claimed) several cities as well as the people called “Israel” (his victory stele contains the first mention of “Israel” in history).  However, the pharaohs were beginning to lose their power in Canaan, and within fifty years after Merneptah they were only a memory, good or bad according to each local community’s past experience. 

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; 12:43-49, and Numbers 9:13).  The full instructions for the observance are given in Exodus 12:1-28. 

Section from "Blood of the Paschal Lamb Applied to Doorpost," Mosaic, 
Saint Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, Columbus, OH.  Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

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! 

The 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 Israel as a covenant people of Yahweh! 

 

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