By Dr. Jim Mead. Professor of religion at Northwestern college.
After the horrific mass shooting late last Sunday in Las Vegas, it’s profoundly difficult to read any biblical passage about death, especially on the scale implied by the Passover narrative of Exodus 11-13. To make matters worse, that account takes great care to emphasize that God was the immediate cause of this event—“Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt” (Exod. 11:4)—and that the “firstborn in the land of Egypt” included every status and rank in the land (11:5), thereby eliminating a scenario in which all victims were over 90 and died of old age. Indeed, I am not overstating the case when I claim that many people use this very story as a rationale for disbelieving in the God of the Bible. Their reasons are sincere and significant, and believers should venture a respectful conversation about the justice of God even when we know that finite creatures such as ourselves can never fathom his workings within human history.
How do Christians begin such a conversation? We shouldn’t try so much to explain why God allows innocent people in general to die as to explore why at the exodus from Egypt God chose this particular “plague” as the final and decisive action that moved Pharaoh to “drive [Israel] away” (11:1). I suggest that we eliminate one approach to this question before proceeding with other kinds of arguments.
First, we should reject any approach that excises the Passover from our theology. It is a great temptation to dismiss the Passover as more of a Jewish story. That is a dangerous proposal on more than one level. For one thing, the Passover is also a Christian story, dominant in our Old Testament and persistent in the New (see below). Even more importantly, however, we also do well to remember that our Jewish friends have their own claim to Passover, for it is the constitutive moment in their tradition when they truly became a nation of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. Mindful of Christianity’s ecumenical ties to Judaism, we simply cannot disparage the foundation of their faith. Not so long ago they lost millions at the hands of an ideological movement that would have permanently wiped Judaism from the face of the earth.
Second, we should set the Passover in the context of the entire Old Testament, both its narrative arc and its theological message. Even a passing glance at the prophetic and historical books reveals the same sad history of death and destruction for the people of Israel themselves. Although the nations who enslaved, conquered, and destroyed Israel were punished, by far the overriding impression of all the books from Leviticus to Malachi is that the Lord was even harder on his own people. Time and again, God held Israel to higher standards of justice and covenant faithfulness than those he used to judge other nations. The prophet Jeremiah identified the idolatry and injustice of his own time and issued this verdict on behalf of God to his own people:
“Yet in spite of all these things 35 you say, “I am innocent; surely his anger has turned from me.” Now I am bringing you to judgment for saying, “I have not sinned” (Jer. 2:34-35).
Third, the Passover itself was embedded with imagery that placed Israel under God’s judgment. In Exodus 12-13, it’s easy to see how the book has woven together two strands of “origin stories” both of which carry an ominous threat for Israel: the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover meal. The tradition about not making bread with leaven (or yeast) started with the idea that Israel’s departure from Egypt was so hurried that they could not wait for the dough to rise. In time, however, eating leavened bread during that festival meant someone was “cut off from Israel” (Exod. 12:15). Likewise, we sometimes forget that the Hebrew slaves would have lost their own firstborn without a lamb’s blood on their doorframes (Exod. 12:7, 13). God was not operating with a double-standard here. Indeed, God demonstrated the one standard of justice by threatening Moses’ life on his return to Egypt (Exod. 4:24-26).
Fourth, like the other plagues, the Passover was the last in a long series of warnings to Pharaoh. As I discussed in last week’s blog, Pharaoh himself was responsible for letting the plagues continue. Some Egyptologists suggest that pharaohs were thought to have a quasi-divine status. At the very least, artifacts and paintings on their tombs show that Egyptians believed that their pharaoh had the “power and ability to sustain and promote the prosperity of the people under his dominion” (Joel LeMon, “Egypt and the Egyptians,” in The World around the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 2016, p. 194). In historical and religious terms, this last plague with its terrible consequences was necessary to demonstrate to the Egyptians that their leader could not protect them against the Hebrews’ God. And in moral terms, it echoed Pharaoh’s unjust killing of Hebrew children with which the book of Exodus began (1:22).
Finally, the Passover forms at least part of the genesis of Christianity’s theology of the cross. As we know from all four gospels, Jesus transformed the Passover meal into the perpetual, sacramental remembrance we know as the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’ death was not only for his own people, the Jews, but for the entire world (1 John 4:2). He humbly and perfectly lived and died not only as the perfect representative of Israel but also as “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Christ, therefore, is “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7). This rich and weighty theology becomes even more awe-inspiring when we go further back in Israel’s story, to its first ancestor. Although God tested Abraham, he did not require him to offer up “his son, his only son” (Gen. 22:16); rather it was God himself “who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Rom 8:32). As with most aspects of the Christian faith, it is the mystery of the Incarnate God willingly experiencing our suffering and compassionately taking responsibility for his creation that helps us accept his justice and affirm his goodness.