Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Exodus 11:1-9, 12:21-39

1Then the LORD said to Moses, "I will send just one more disaster on Pharaoh and the land of Egypt. After that, Pharaoh will let you go. In fact, he will be so anxious to get rid of you that he will practically force you to leave the country. 2Tell all the Israelite men and women to ask their Egyptian neighbors for articles of silver and gold."
 3(Now the LORD had caused the Egyptians to look favorably on the people of Israel, and Moses was considered a very great man in the land of Egypt. He was respected by Pharaoh's officials and the Egyptian people alike.)
 4So Moses announced to Pharaoh, "This is what the LORD says: About midnight I will pass through Egypt. 5All the firstborn sons will die in every family in Egypt, from the oldest son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the oldest son of his lowliest slave. Even the firstborn of the animals will die. 6Then a loud wail will be heard throughout the land of Egypt; there has never been such wailing before, and there never will be again. 7But among the Israelites it will be so peaceful that not even a dog will bark. Then you will know that the LORD makes a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites. 8All the officials of Egypt will come running to me, bowing low. `Please leave!' they will beg. `Hurry! And take all your followers with you.' Only then will I go!" Then, burning with anger, Moses left Pharaoh's presence.
 9Now the LORD had told Moses, "Pharaoh will not listen to you. But this will give me the opportunity to do even more mighty miracles in the land of Egypt" . . . 
 21Then Moses called for the leaders of Israel and said, "Tell each of your families to slaughter the lamb they have set apart for the Passover. 22Drain each lamb's blood into a basin. Then take a cluster of hyssop branches and dip it into the lamb's blood. Strike the hyssop against the top and sides of the doorframe, staining it with the blood. And remember, no one is allowed to leave the house until morning. 23For the LORD will pass through the land and strike down the Egyptians. But when he sees the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe, the LORD will pass over your home. He will not permit the Destroyer to enter and strike down your firstborn.
 24"Remember, these instructions are permanent and must be observed by you and your descendants forever. 25When you arrive in the land the LORD has promised to give you, you will continue to celebrate this festival. 26Then your children will ask, `What does all this mean? What is this ceremony about?' 27And you will reply, `It is the celebration of the LORD's Passover, for he passed over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt. And though he killed the Egyptians, he spared our families and did not destroy us.'" Then all the people bowed their heads and worshiped.
 28So the people of Israel did just as the LORD had commanded through Moses and Aaron. 29And at midnight the LORD killed all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn son of the captive in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. 30Pharaoh and his officials and all the people of Egypt woke up during the night, and loud wailing was heard throughout the land of Egypt. There was not a single house where someone had not died.
 31Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron during the night. "Leave us!" he cried. "Go away, all of you! Go and serve the LORD as you have requested. 32Take your flocks and herds, and be gone. Go, but give me a blessing as you leave." 33All the Egyptians urged the people of Israel to get out of the land as quickly as possible, for they thought, "We will all die!"
 34The Israelites took with them their bread dough made without yeast. They wrapped their kneading bowls in their spare clothing and carried them on their shoulders. 35And the people of Israel did as Moses had instructed and asked the Egyptians for clothing and articles of silver and gold. 36The LORD caused the Egyptians to look favorably on the Israelites, and they gave the Israelites whatever they asked for. So, like a victorious army, they plundered the Egyptians!
 37That night the people of Israel left Rameses and started for Succoth. There were about 600,000 men, plus all the women and children. And they were all traveling on foot. 38Many people who were not Israelites went with them, along with the many flocks and herds. 39Whenever they stopped to eat, they baked bread from the yeastless dough they had brought from Egypt. It was made without yeast because the people were rushed out of Egypt and had no time to wait for bread to rise.

Points of Interest:
• Once again, we’ve skipped a couple of plagues: locusts and darkness. Both times Pharaoh promises to let the people go but reneges when the plague is gone.

• ‘Moses was considered a very great man in the land of Egypt’—a far cry from, ‘Who am I to speak to Pharaoh?’ Even among the Egyptians, Moses has gained respect through this contest with Pharaoh.

• ‘All the firstborn sons will die in every family in Egypt’—this is a sobering moment. It nearly brings tears to my eyes to read it, and I can’t help but ask, ‘Lord, wasn’t there some other way?’ Although I confess that I certainly don’t completely understand God’s reasons for doing this, there are a few observations that help me get some handle on what is happening here. This passage powerfully portrays the fact that a willful decision to ignore God—and even more so a decision to actively work against God—has serious consequences; it can well be a matter of life and death. God wants to make it absolutely clear that it is very good to have him as a friend and very bad to be his enemy; he’s willing to go to shocking lengths to demonstrate that fact. In a way, God seems to be directly confronting a strongly held fundamental human assumption. We tend to think that saving life is the very highest priority; God communicates here that matters of relationship with him take precedence over life and death. He doesn’t take the situation to this level easily or flippantly, though. This is reserved as a last desperate measure.
Having taken this step, God actually shows himself to be more merciful than the pharaohs. The previous Pharaoh tried to kill all the Hebrew boys in order to keep the Hebrews in slavery. God sends death only on the firstborn. It’s certainly a strong enough statement: it affects every family, and it strikes down the person who was supposed to be the future leader of that family.
The hero’s journey also gives us some perspective on this awful moment in the story. Terrible as it is, this confrontation with death is actually a universal element of the hero story. This fact might not be immediately apparent to us because it is frequently either metaphorical or simulated: in a romantic comedy, the death is usually the death of the relationship, when the couple temporarily splits up; in the sports genre, like Rocky for instance, the hero is down on the mat or behind by an impossible score; in an action flick—James Bond comes to mind—the enemy has the hero in his sights, and he is about to pull the trigger. It might not be too much of an over-statement to say that every good story involves the hero facing her darkest moment; almost always that dark moment involves death, near death, or the semblance of death.
This face-off with death usually happens during a big show-down with the enemy. Sometimes at that moment, it is revealed that there is an even more sinister influence behind the person who we’ve assumed all along is our main enemy; the hero defeats her apparent enemy, only to find herself at the mercy of her true enemy. Such an unmasking of the real enemy happens here at the Passover. All along, we’ve assumed Pharaoh is the enemy. When it gets to the final moment, we see that the true enemy is death itself.
Perhaps this is what the hero’s journey—and in fact life itself—is actually about. To state something that is both incredibly morbid and incredibly obvious at the same time, we will all someday face the moment of death. Maybe, the hero’s journey is all about preparing for that moment well. In this passage, God shows his people that one key to victory at that moment is relying on him. He has the power to rescue them from death, taking them through the ordeal to the other side.

• ‘Only then will I go!’—Moses is predicting a complete reversal of roles. At first, Moses was practically begging (unsuccessfully) for permission to leave. By the end of the night, Pharaoh will be begging him to go.

• ‘when he sees the blood’—the Israelites are saved from death, but not bloodlessly. It takes the sacrifice of a lamb. Jesus later identifies himself profoundly with this Passover lamb. The Last Supper is a Passover meal, and at that meal Jesus identifies the wine they are drinking as his blood, shed for the ransom of many. Jesus’ trial and the beginning of his punishment happen during the night when the rescue from the Destroyer is commemorated. The sour wine Jesus is given on the cross is handed to him on a hyssop branch, the same branch used to sprinkle the blood here. Whatever we feel about the death of the firstborn of Egypt, we see in Jesus that God is not callously removed from the situation. He sacrifices his own firstborn to rescue his people from death. Jesus, as the Passover lamb, is our provision for escape. He is also our example: like a true hero, he faces death and overcomes it.
The Passover and Jesus’ death—a new and better Passover—are unsettling, frightening, and yet profound and awe-inspiring examples of the idea of ‘myth become fact,’ which Dave mentions in his User’s Manual.

• ‘but give me a blessing as you leave’—Pharaoh may be asking for special favor, but my guess is that he just wants some assurance that the madness will stop and life will return to normal if he does let the Israelites go. He doesn’t want Moses to leave any terrible plagues behind when he departs.

• ‘There were about 600,000 men’—there’s a great deal of debate about the accuracy of this number. Some translators suggest that the phrase actually means, ‘600 troops’ (Bible Background Commentary 88), meaning 600 squadrons of men, probably of quite a bit less than 1000 people each. Regardless of the exact number, the writer of Exodus has made clear that the Israelites are very numerous and that this is a total evacuation. It does not escape the author’s attention that such a very large number of people would be difficult to organize and feed in the middle of the desert; in fact, it becomes a major element of the story.

• ‘Many people who were not Israelites went with them’—we’re not exactly sure who these people are. It seems most likely that they are other immigrant slave laborers, but the story at least opens up the possibility that some Egyptians might have joined them too. God has made it clear that he is trying to reveal himself to the Egyptians through Moses’ mighty deeds; and in the past couple of passages, we’ve seen some Egyptians respond positively to Moses and to God’s words. It’s pretty clear that these non-Israelites are quickly welcomed and incorporated into the community. Before the plague of flies, God says, ‘I will make a clear distinction between your people and my people.’ We see here that God is not describing a strict, exclusionary racist policy. ‘Your people’ and ‘my people’ does not necessarily mean Egyptians and Israelites, although it is generally the case. People have the freedom to choose whether they will belong to God or Pharaoh. About those who choose to join God’s people, God tells Moses, ‘They will be treated just as if they had been born among you’ (Exodus 12:48).

• ‘because the people were rushed out of Egypt’—these people have been kept captive for so long. Now, the Egyptians can’t wait one more second for them to leave. The Egyptians treat them like dinner guests who’ve outstayed their welcome, practically putting their coats on and shoving them out the door.

Taking it home:
For you: In this passage, we encounter the unsettling notion that the hero’s journey ultimately leads to death. Perhaps this explains our ambivalence about the hero’s journey, which is a story we love to hear about a life we’re afraid to live. We spend much of our life—either consciously or unconsciously—trying to avoid the topic of death. The hero’s journey places its inevitability right in our faces. It also inspires in us hope that, despite all appearances, we can in the end conquer death. How does it change your perspective on the hero’s journey, and on your own life itself, to think that it might be all about us preparing for that showdown well?

For your six: The true enemy of your six is death. Pray against their enemy, and ask God to provide for them a way to escape death.

For our church: Many people who were not raised as Israelites ended up joining them on this journey. That’s an exciting picture for our church, because one of the major dreams God has given us is that we would be a church filled with people who wouldn’t consider themselves church people. Pray that many, many new people would join us in our journey of faith.