Saturday, April 9, 2011

An Ordinance Forever (Exodus 11 - 12)

Moses Announces the Death of the First Born from Cecil B. Demille's 1923 silent epic "The Ten Commandments"

PRAYER BEFORE STUDYING SCRIPTURE: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created and You shall renew the face of the earth.

Obviously, my “Lenten Bible Study” is going to take a lot longer than Lent to complete. Oh, well, I can think of a lot worse things that I could be doing with my time other than studying Sacred Scripture.

The Passover of the Lord

Now the God of Israel brings his ultimate judgment down upon the Egyptians and their pagan gods. Each of the first born children of the Egyptians and their animals must die.

“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12: 12 - 13).

Pharoah Yul Brenner mourns the death of his first born son.

Professor Davis comments: “At midnight Jehovah would pass through the land of Egypt and His judgment would bring about the death of all firstborn in the land including animals as well as human beings (v. 5). This judgment was appropriate in the light of what we now know about oriental societies. The firstborn was not only an heir of a double portion of the father’s inheritance, but represented special qualities of life and strength (cf. Gen. 49:3). In Egypt, the firstborn was the one who would succeed his father on the throne.” (John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt: Studies in Exodus, p. 141).

The Southern Baptist Broadman Bible Commentary says this: “The death of the firstborn was of unusual significance, not only because of the extent of the disaster but because the firstborn symbolically stood for the entire offspring.” Broadman Bible Commentary, Revised Volume I, p. 347).

Professor Davis raises the issue of what this killing of children says about the character of God. Davis engages in what I think is a slippery slope by arguing that anything that God does is moral on the basis that God is God: “ . . . anything God does is right on the a priori grounds that He is God.” (Davis, p. 143). This is a slippery slope argument. If we believe in absolute Truth, Truth is Truth. In other words, if the killing of children is wrong then it is always wrong and since God is Love, how can we reconcile this act with a loving God who is also absolute truth?

The Broadman Bible Commentary says this: “One should face realistically the moral problem raised by the assertion that the Lord smote all the firstborn. The total witness of the biblical revelation concerning the nature and character of God suggests that while God may utilize fatal epidemics, or other catastrophes in nature, he hardly goes about slaying children. . . . One should read the passage from the theological and cultural perspective of the writer in order for the passage to speak its message: Yahweh, covenant God of Israel, is sovereign Lord - smiting even the heir of the divinized pharaoh.” (Broadman Bible Commentary, Revised Volume I, p. 348 - 349).

Becoming interested in this issue, I also consulted Jewish sources. According to Jewish Rabbi Jonathan Sacks this ethical dilemma is resolved by considering it an example of retributive justice. “By first ordering the midwives to kill all male Israelite babies, and then, when that failed, by commanding, “Every boy who is born must be cast into the Nile: (Exodus 1:22), Pharaoh had turned what should have been symbols of life (the Nile, which fed Egyptian agriculture, and midwives) into agents of death. The river that turned to blood, and the Heket-like frogs that infested the land, were not afflictions as such, but rather coded communications, as if to say to the Egyptians: reality has an ethical structure. See what it feels like when the gods you turned against the Israelites turn on you. If used for evil ends, the powers of nature will turn against man, so that what he does will be done to him in turn. There is justice in history. . . . Whereas the first two plagues were symbolic representations of the Egyptian murder of Israelite children, the tenth plague was the enactment of retributive justice, as if heaven was saying to the Egyptians: You committed, or supported, or passively accepted the murder of innocent children. There is only one way you will ever realize the wrong you did, namely, if you yourself suffer what you did to others.” (Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible: Exodus: The Book of Redemption, Maggid Books, 2010, p. 73 - 74).

The Lamb of God

The Navarre Bible Commentary, being Catholic and Progressive and Hip, downplays the literal aspects of the biblical narrative and stresses that the Passover story “is a kind of catechetical - liturgical text.” Navarre Bible, Pentateuch, p. 286. The sacrificial lamb must be without blemish (Exodus 12:5) because it is to be offered to God.

“The rules laid down for the Passover are evocative of very ancient nomadic desert rites, where there was no priest or temple or altar. When the Israelites has settled in Palestine, the Passover continued to be celebrated at home, always retaining the features of a sacrifice, a family meal and, very especially, a memorial of the deliverance the Lord brought about on that night.” (Navarre, p. 287).

The Navarre Bible Commentary quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church in stressing the relationship of the Passover to the Eucharist and the role of Christ as the Passover Lamb for all time: Our Lord chose the context of the Passover Supper to institute the Eucharist: “By celebrating the Last Supper with his apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning. Jesus’ passing over to his Father by his death and Resurrection, the new Passover, is anticipated in the Supper and celebrated in the Eucharist, which fulfills the Jewish Passover and anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the kingdom.” (CCC 1340).” (Navarre, P. 287).

Professor Davis also links the Passover Lamb with the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ:
“After the lamb was slain the Israelites were to take the blood of that lamb and to strike it on the doorpost of their houses . . . The act of slaying the lamb and sprinkling the blood on the door, which represented the entry and the protection of the house, had great significance. It immediately pointed out the great price of redemption and symbolically it pointed toward the death of Jesus Christ . . .” (Davis p. 147).

Continuing his theme of the ten plagues as God’s judgment on the gods of Egypt, Professor Davis says: “The death cry which was heard throughout Egypt was not only a wail that bemoaned the loss of a son or precious animals, but also the incapability of the many god of Egypt to respond and protect them from such tragedy.” (Davis, p. 149).

The Feast of Unleavened Bread

The Passover is so important that the Israelites will reckon time from its happening. The Bible commands the Israelites that “This month shall be for you the beginning of months . . .” (Exodus 12: 2).

The use of unleavened bread at the Passover meal has great spiritual significance:

“Unleavened bread was, and still is among the Bedouin, the norm in the desert. When the people eventually settled down in the promised land, the idea was kept that fermentation of any kind implied some impurity; which was why in the offering of sacrifices (cf. Lev. 2:11; 6:10) and even more so in the passover meal, only unleavened bread was used. Jesus availed himself of this notion when he advised his disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (Mk 8:15), that is, of their evil dispositions. In the Latin rite the Church uses unleavened bread in the Eucharist, to imitate Jesus, who celebrated the Last Supper with this type of bread.” (Navarre, p. 289 - 290).

“Leaven, of course, is understood to be a symbol of corruption and that which was evil. . . .” (Davis, p. 150).

The instructions for the Passover show that Judaism was a religion based upon Sacred Tradition:

“And when you come to the land which the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’S passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.’ And the people bowed and worshiped.” (Exodus 12: 25 - 27)

"The children’s question about the meaning of the rite (v. 26) shows the importance that oral transmission of Tradition always had. Successive generations will learn the profound meaning of the Passover not from written documents but by word of mouth from their elders.” (Navarre, p. 290).

Being a low-church Evangelical who does not believe in sacred tradition or liturgical worship, Professor Davis takes this opportunity to re-open the Protestant Reformation and take a swipe at Catholics and other Christians who engage in sacramental worship: “The Church of Jesus Christ has long been plagued with those who have maintained the performance of certain rites, but the spiritual significance and symbolism of such rites have long since been lost and in most cases do not reflect personal experience.” (Davis, p. 152).

The Angel of Death

It is always best to let the Bible speak for itself:

“At midnight the LORD smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where one was not dead. And he summoned Moses and Aaron by night, and said, “Rise up, go forth among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the LORD as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also.” (Exodus 12: 29 - 32).

Of Pharaoh’s change of heart Professor Davis comments: “The heart of Pharaoh and the will of Pharaoh had been broken. His spirit now changed from that of arrogance and resistance to grave concern . . . he simply stated that the children of Israel should leave. . . . His concern for his own welfare is expressed in the last phrase of verse 32, “Bless me also,” a most amazing request in the light of Pharaoh’s assumed divinity. The God whose existence and power he had questioned in earlier times (5:2) he now asks to bless him.” (Davis, p. 152 - 153).

The Despoiling of the Egyptians

“The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked of the Egyptians jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing; and the LORD had given the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they despoiled the Egyptians.” (Exodus 12: 35 - 36).

The Broadman Bible Commentary gives this explanation of the despoiling of the Egyptians:
“The purpose in asking their neighbors for valuable possessions was to profit at the expense of the Egyptians. Such action was viewed as an example of the superior “wisdom” of the Hebrews. The despoiling of the Egyptians was probably a source of delight to Israelites for centuries.” Broadman Bible Commentary, Revised Volume I, p. 347).

Six Hundred Thousand Men?

The Bible says that the Israelites numbered “about 600,000 men on foot, besides women and children.” (Exodus 12: 37).

There is a great deal of debate about whether or not we are to take these figures literally. Professor Davis, being a Fundamentalist Evangelical Preacher takes the number absolutely literally. The Navarre Bible Commentary, being Catholic and Progressive and Hip, takes the number to be symbolic: “The figure of 600,000 is an idealized one . . . for it would imply a total population of three million people, women and children included. Maybe for the hagiographer’s contemporaries this figure had a significance which escapes us today; or perhaps it is just a way of indicating that there were very many people - part of the epic style of the account, to highlight the power of God.” (Navarre, p. 292).

Christ Our Passover

The Passover meal forshadows the Eucharist and the sacrifice of the unblemished lamb foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the Cross. St. John uses the requirement that the sacrificial lamb’s bones are not to broken to show that the Passover lamb is a figure of Christ sacrificed on the cross. John 19: 36 (1 Cor. 5:7) (Navarre, p. 294).

“Christian liturgy celebrates the Lord’s resurrection with a solemn vigil, commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites, the redemption of Christians, and Christ’s victory over death - three stages in God’s intervention to save souls; as the Church sings: ‘This is the night when first you saved our fathers; you freed the people of Israel from their slavery. [. . .] This is the night when Christians everywhere (are) washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement. [. . .] This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.” (Roman Missal, Exultet).” (Navarre, p. 293).

PRAYER AFTER STUDYING SCRIPTURE: O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

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