Exodus Part Two: Passover
We know that feeling, the dawning realisation that so many of our choices thoughts and actions are coloured by our past, tinted by a life lived in the muddy reality of human relationship, human brokenness. Human inhumanity.
They knew this feeling well, these people. They had lived in this place for countless days, countless years, countless tears mingling with sweat and blood. For generations power had bent them down, ground them down, down to dust. They were slaves. They were the children of slaves. Freedom was a foreign thing.
But they were not just slaves. A wisp-thin flicker of hope lingered in the embers of their memory. They knew that God had made their forefathers a promise…something… a faint whisper of a blessing and a purpose, a presence and a promise. A lingering understanding that God intended good for them. Somehow. Their story wasn’t done yet.
But they were in chains and with every clank and grind their chains spoke loudly of hopelessness. Of abandonment.
Who am I? I am who my scars say I am. Is there another way to be?
Humans will never know true freedom until all chains are completely broken. There can be no treaty with enslavement, no peace pact with bondage. No amnesty, no negotiation. Only abolition.
‘Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’” Exodus 5:1
‘Let My people go, so that…’ God wasn’t just fighting for their freedom from oppression. He was fighting for their freedom for connection. With Him. Because that is where true freedom is found. God is in the business of breaking chains, every bond that binds us, every scar that numbs us, every barrier between us and Him. Because unless we are free and alive in our relationship with Him, we cannot be ourselves, whole, and we cannot fulfil our calling to bless this whole world for Him, with Him, in Him. The Exodus wasn’t just an exodus, it was an arrival. At a new genesis, a new beginning with God.
God wrestles with us, wrestles in us, wrestles for us to restore us to ourselves. God wrestles with Egypt’s domination to restore Israel’s relationship with Himself and through this to restore the humanity of both. To reveal Himself to both.
But slavery doesn’t relinquish it’s prey easily. It was always going to be a fight. And the battle usually gets worse before it gets better.
‘Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”…
‘…That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.” Exodus 5:2, 6-9
“…so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”-so they have no strength to fight my version of the truth. Power defines it’s own ‘truth’ and wields it against all who might challenge it. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the false ‘truth’ of power.
Freedom and wholeness are blessings hard fought for. If you haven’t had to fight for them you probably don’t possess them. Pharaoh increases the speed of Israel’s treadmill, so they cannot being to live in the truth, so they cannot conceive of true freedom and cannot hear God’s voice calling them into it.
‘Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” Exodus 5:22-23
Moses is still at the beginning of this journey, he doesn’t know God as he will in the end. This is not just a whim to God, not an idle game or a toss of the dice. It’s personal.
‘Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”
God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself fully known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.’ Exodus 6:1-5
He has heard, He has remembered, He is moving, He is acting. God had given His word to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And He will, one way or another fulfil it. Not because their descendants earned it or deserved to receive it, but because His heart is always faithful to His word. Covenant faithfulness.
“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.’” Exodus 6:6-8
The whole story of history is God finding ways to be faithful to His promises to faithless human beings. Because faithfulness is who He is. Deep, unwavering commitment, an ocean of steadfast love. Covenant faithfulness. All through history YHWH’s great creative problem solving act of love has been to work with all our torn and broken threads and find new ways to be faithful to us with them.
Covenant faithfulness means that the God of all the spinning universe ties Himself to the fate of faulty human beings, binds Himself to the broken beating hearts of humankind, and in so doing, nails Himself to a cross. This is who He is. Faithful.
This is not a past time for God. It’s personal. In just eight verses (Exodus 6:1-8) God speaks with active personal pronouns twenty four times. A swell is rising out of the silence. The waiting years of sweat and blood and tears are over. God’s intentions, His good plans for His people are about to crash on Egypts shores like a tsunami.
In Scripture, the first thing we see God doing is creating. In ancient Hebrew the word used in the book of Genesis for ‘create’ is bara, which is less to do with creating something out of nothing, and more to do with ordering, designing and assigning purposes, functions and destinies to something. God had designed and ordered a good world out of a state of chaos. But this good world after one turn around a forbidden tree and countless turns around a fiery sun had fallen back into chaos. The chaos of human hearts estranged from a loving, healing, humanising God.
The book of Exodus now describes the chaos of one people dominating another, a deconstructed humanity, a human people in chains, enslaved by another human people bound in dehumanising sin, neither alive in their Imago Dei humanity. Neither free.
Things needed re-creating, re-designing and re-ordering for flourishing and life to spring forth.
So God begins as He did in the beginning. With His word. Genesis chapter one describes God creating this whole flourishing world, simply with “God said…” and worlds rushed into being, “Let there be…“ and it was so. Life tumbled forth in glorious eager obedience to God’s word. And all of God’s creative work then crescendos in this one whispered moment, when God creates humankind, revealing His motivation for creating everything else. We exist to glorify God. Creation exists because God created us, loves us and wants to bless us.
So Exodus describes God now, with His word commissioning all the natural world, creatures and climate alike, in a call to arms, to join His conspiracy of re-humanising these people, restoring them from enslavement. Created life tumbles forth once more in glorious eager obedience to God’s word, “Let…my people go”.
There were seven days of creation (six creation days and one day of rest). Here in the Exodus story there are seven times that God says ‘Let my people Go so they may worship me’. This is not a creation project, but a re-creation project, a restoration project. A redemption. In Biblical thought seven is symbolic of completion and wholeness, and that is exactly what God is working to re-create.
God partners with His creation to bring Pharaoh to his knees, so the Egyptian people too may eventually find blessing. In freeing Israel, God will also, through Israel, eventually free Egypt. And one day, long into the future, Egypt will become not a place of domination and enslavement, but a haven and a refuge for the infant God Himself, ironically fleeing from the hand of domination and power in Israel (Matthew 2:13-18).
However, here in Exodus it is not just a wrestle with Egypt, but also a great tussle between the will of darkness and the will of God. Staffs become snakes. The Nile flows with blood (a message to Pharaoh that his program of infanticide in the Nile has not gone unnoticed) (7:17-18). Frogs rise out of the Nile swamping Egypt (8:1). Dust becomes gnats, filling the air (8:16). Flies fill the spaces left by the gnats (8:21). A plague destroys all of Egypt’s live stock (9:1-3) and an outbreak of boils plague the Egyptian people and their animals (9:9). A thundering hailstorm hurls ice like bricks pounding, crashing, crushing life (9:22-26), followed by surging locusts devouring what remained (10:3-5).
Even after all this turmoil, still Pharaoh held his clenched-fist grip on Israel’s freedom. Every time Pharaoh repented, God removed the plague, and every time He did, Pharaoh stubbornly refused Israel their freedom.
God then sent darkness, as dark as the spirit of slavery, as dark as Pharaohs stubborn heart, as dark as evil itself, ‘darkness that can be felt’. The darkness that can be felt when we look around at a world without God at the centre. Tangible darkness. Like a weight pressing down. Like God allowing us to feel the absence of Him, like a reversal of His first creative word ‘Let there be light’ and a thick rushing of dark and pitch into the space where that light once dwelt. A reversal first initiated when humanity reached passed God for the knowledge of good and evil. Now we know. Darkness. That can be felt.
‘Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.’ Exodus 10:21-23
This tangible skin-flinching darkness enveloped the light all over Egypt for three days (10:23). But still Pharaoh’s clenched-fist gripped the throat of Israel’s freedom
Seven times God says to Pharaoh through Moses ‘Let my people go so they may worship me’ and nine plagues later Pharaoh is still immoveable.
But God, in the long tread of time, always wins. There is never really an argument between the light and the dark. Only a defeat. The dark may be tangible, but the light is unquenchable. Humanity may have reached for the knowledge of good and evil, but we were created for the knowledge of the glory of God. We were created to glorify God, along with everything else in all creation. ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (Habakkuk 2:14)
From the very beginning of this battle Pharaoh had stated he had no knowledge of God, (Exodus 5:2), but by the end of it, he finds this knowledge, acutely uncomfortable as it is, and he will bring God glory. Though not under pleasant circumstances for him.
And that is clearly God’s intention; To be known (7:5,16-17). To be seen (9:16). To be God (9:16).
‘Then the Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.
For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth’. Exodus 9:13-16
And in this one statement God reveals Himself: Patient. He didn’t have to negotiate, wrestle or wait on Pharaoh. He could have enacted His will in any moment annihilating Egypt altogether (verse 15). But He chose the wrestling journey and the opportunity for Pharaoh to repent rather than a swift retaliation for all that Pharaoh had done. God chose, not just to be powerful, but to be known. Pharaoh was bringing glory to God, even as he stood in defiance of Him. And through this wrestle, God was becoming known to Pharaoh, to Egypt, to Israel, to Moses and to all the earth.
And the story of this wrestle still reveals His glory, His character, His love for the vulnerable, His longing to be known. The story of this wrestle becomes a story we all find ourselves in eventually, in every hard fought freedom story of our lives. The freedom story of God’s patient wrestle to release us into true freedom, the story of light drawing battle lines against darkness, the story of a God who longs to be known, the story of a God who longs to re-humanise, restore and redeem His people. All of us.
After nine opportunities for Pharaoh to learn and grow and change, God finally prepares to measure out for Egypt the infliction they had dealt out on the Hebrews. The loss of their first born sons.
‘So Moses said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.’ Exodus 11:4-6
And as Israel stands here in the eye of this storm, the silent prelude to God’s final redeeming stroke, God whispers to Moses His way of seeing all of this. This battle has been a birthing process, the violent throws of a new life being born, a fledgling nation leaving a darkened womb out into a brand new day. A new beginning. Another re-newed creation story. A redeemed Creation, a redeemed people. A new beginning.
‘The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’ Exodus 12:1-2
This redemption story of Israel is to become the beginning of their new calendar, their new year. A new beginning knit into the budding, flourishing weeks of spring, declaring God’s heart ‘the past is gone, the new is here. New life begins now. Live here with Me now in the present, in My presence, in the hope for your future that life in Me unfolds’.
Passover (the feast God now institutes to commemorate this moment) declares this new beginning, this birth-day of a people through labouring pain, into new life. But it will be a new life purchased with a new life; A lamb.
“Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household….
… Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast…
…This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.’ Exodus 12:3, 6-8, 11
“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.’ Exodus 12:12-13
This new feast, Passover, was to become the capital letter punctuating Israel’s cultural life ever after. Passover, this moment in time, this kairos moment, wasn’t just an act, it was a declaration, it was a revelation, it was the God of all the universe drawing a line in the sand, a line in time saying…
..Who are you? You are mine. You are who I know you to be, though you don’t believe this yet. You are not who your scars say you are. I’m showing you another way. Another way to be:
This story was to be retold, relived, remembered through Israel’s whole wrestling history. So that it becomes part of them. Free. In YHWH. Redeemed. By God Himself.
‘“This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance…’ Exodus 12:14
‘ …“Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.’ Exodus 12:17
‘“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped.’ Exodus 12: 24-27
Because God who created hearts and souls knows intimately how hearts and souls are re-created and restored. It’s not what happened to us, but the story we tell ourselves about what happened to us that decides whether our life will be bound in trauma riddled memory or freed to fly.
God knew He didn’t just need to free this people from the chains of an old story, He needed to free them into the life of a new story. The story of Himself with them. And this story was to form them and reform them, reshaping their identities as beloved, redeemed, restored, renewed, re-created children of God. His first born son. His plan to bless this whole spinning world.
Their doorway to freedom (the doorway they would soon walk through for the last time) was a doorway marked by blood. Just like a newborn passes through pain and sweat and blood and water, Israel’s new life began through a doorway of blood and (soon to follow) water. As all new life does.
The blood of the lamb on the door posts declared their lives redeemed, their souls safe. They’d been bought at a price, a lamb dying to seal their path to life.
And they were to remember this; this doorway, this moment, this blood covering their way to freedom, becoming their way to freedom. They were to remember this. Re-enact this. Re-live this. Every year. At Passover.
But why? Why this in particular? Why not remember the crossing of the red sea, the turning of the Nile to blood, the mighty plagues of hail and darkness and creation moved to render their freedom? Why does God choose to focus in on this one act?
‘The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.’ Exodus 12:12-13
‘The blood will be a sign for you…’ Every year from then onwards spiralling through every springtime in Hebrew history, the passover will be reenacted, remembered and re-celebrated. A sign pointing backwards to this moment when God redeemed Israel.
That night God didn’t need a sign at all to differentiate between Israel and Egypt in sending the last plague (death). He had already done so as they had dwelt untouched by all the previous plagues. And He didn’t need to use the death of a lamb as that sign, He could have used anything, a herb hung up, a word painted or a symbol engraved over the doorway. But God chose a lamb. Slain. He chose the blood. Over the doorway. And He chose to say ‘The blood will be a sign for you’.
This sign was for Israel. Not for the angel of death. The blood was on the doorway so they would forever remember that their freedom was bought by God. At a cost. The cost of a life.
‘The blood will be a sign for you’; A sign pointing backwards, to Abraham and God’s provision of a sheep sacrificed in place of Isaac. A sign pointing to this moment when Israel is redeemed from Egypt. And a sign pointing forwards, to another moment in time when they will be redeemed once more, along with every other human being.
Like water rings spreading outwards, like a recurring story reverberating through time: A lamb to redeem their ancestor, Isaac…
“God himself will provide the lamb…” Genesis 22:8
A lamb to redeemed their nation…
‘The blood will be a sign for you.’ Exodus 12:12
A lamb to redeem the world…
‘…the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.’ Revelation 13:8
A first lamb slain for one child, the second lambs slain for all Israel’s children, and the third lamb slain for all children everywhere, before the creation of the world. Because every story of Scripture is the larger story of God. The God who comes. Into Israels’ story. Into our human story. The God who made all the spinning stars weaves Himself into this one storyline thread, a thread that began before time and will end after it. He entwines Himself into Israel’s history, He ‘in-narrates’ into Israel’s story so that one day He will also incarnate into their family line. God in leather sandals.
God was working healing and redemption on many levels at once, past present and future, redeeming and renewing a people, while also setting the stage for the story of His great redemption plan for all people everywhere. And a new sign will be give to them..
‘The blood will be a sign for you..’ Exodus 12:12
‘This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Luke 2:8-14
A lamb will be wrapped in swaddling clothes as sacrificial lambs without blemish were, and laid in a manger as sacrificial lambs were.
God this day, millennia before, was doing a work of redemption and restoration immediately for His people, Israel. But, just as He rehearsed and revealed His plans in Abraham’s life with the sheep sacrificed in place of Isaac, He here too is revealing a larger plan to all Israel, though no-one could comprehend it but Himself. He is writing into history His plan to redeem the world. The course He has set. The journey He will take. The long walk He has been on since the creation of the world.
And So this new day, this first day of Israel’s brand new month, brand new year begins. In the darkest watch of the night God ends the slavery of His people, by taking back the breath of Egypts first born sons.
‘At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well.’ Exodus 12:29
‘During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested.’ Exodus 12:31
Even before the spreading rays of dawn touch the people of Israel’s skin they are woken by their call to freedom. And Israel walks through the doorway marked by the blood of a lamb into their first day of freedom and the first day of their brand new year.
Who are you? You are mine. You are who I know you to be, though you don’t believe this yet. You are not who your scars say you are. There is another way to be.
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary Old Testament, Zondervan, 2001
Goldingay, John ‘Exodus and Leviticus For Everyone’, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010
Photo Credit: The first Two Pictures of lambs are taken by Simeon Evenhuis