Are You Ready?
A meditation on Exodus 12: 1 – 14
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church September 10, 2017
Anyone else traumatized by going to the dentist? I confess I have a dread of dental check-ups. Even though I have had some very good dentists through the years. I am even now putting off an appointment. My fear is rooted in two things: pain and, well, pain.
I tend to avoid pain.
My fear was complicated by the fact that my grandfather was my dentist, and, frankly, he was a little frightening. He was uber religious (not a bad thing to be) and racist (a terrible thing to be), and believed the Bible fully supported his prejudice. He would ask me to recite the 23rd Psalm while sticking sharp, pointy things in my mouth. I do feel somewhat justified in my fear of dentists, and, on the flip side, equally amazed that I love the Bible.
There were two good things about going to the dentist: my grandmother, who was all hugs and sweetness, and gave us Cokes in glass bottles after we had our teeth cleaned (!), and Highlights for Children. Highlights, a magazine for children, whose tag line is “fun with a purpose,” was in every waiting room, including my grandfather’s. So while my brother played with mercury (yes, mercury – given to him by his grandfather), I did the puzzles – “hidden pictures” and “spot the difference” could sometimes be anxiety producing on their own – where is that stupid baseball glove hidden in the jungle scene??) But I liked the “dot to dot” pages. There was something comforting about knowing what the image was going to be before you ever began. It was solvable. You follow one number to the next, and the answer is revealed.
If only scripture were that simple. It’s not. In fact some scriptures seem to be battling other ones. The array of scriptures we heard today does this. There is not a clear path from one to the next. How do we connect these dots that don’t appear to be on the same page?
Romans 13: 8
Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other.
Psalm 149: 6
Let the high praises of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, to get revenge against the nations and punishment on the peoples, binding their rulers in chains and their officials in iron shackles, achieving the justice written against them.
Exodus 12: 12
I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.
Connect those dots and I believe what emerges is not a line drawing of a puppy or kitten, but a startling abstract image which we are challenged to decipher.
What an array of concepts: Love as the only obligation. The use of “only” being the ironic word in that phrase, since we know that love requires so much of us, demanding us to be the kind of people that it is beyond our capacity to be without God’s help.
The Psalm drags us away from this obligation of love and into a world of revenge. Is vengeance something for which we pray? Are we really supposed to be revenge seekers? There are those who preach that. There are churches that embrace that. Pursuing and laboring for justice do not equate with revenge, but our world often conflates those two things.
And there are those who take events, such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes as God’s judgement. One pastor went so far as to say that “the path of Hurricane Irma would be altered by God if the Supreme Court quickly made abortion and gay marriage illegal, ‘before Irma does her damage.’”[i] May God guard our hearts from such prejudicial thinking.
Which brings us to our Hebrew Bible passage in which we hear God give the people instruction for a sacred meal, the first Passover. It is a time of transition for God’s people. They are standing on the edge of freedom, and God invites them into a ritual within which they may remember and celebrate the moment when the chains of slavery were broken. It is an inclusive sacrament. There is to be food for everyone, and no one is to be forgotten. They will eat at twilight, just as the day becomes evening. As the light changes, so will their lives.
Embedded disturbingly in these instructions we hear God say: “I’ll strike down every eldest child in the land of Egypt.” And our pencil slides off the page again, as it did when we heard the Psalm, because we don’t know how to connect that dot. If the oppressed become the oppressors, if the tormented become the tormentors, is anyone truly saved?
The God of love, the God who instructs us to love, to be reconciled with one another, is also the destroyer of innocent children?? How can this be? Rabbi Daniel Brenner, inspired by the solemn questions raised by a member of his congregation at her bat mitzvah, has written an excellent blot post entitled: Does Passover Celebrate the Death of Innocent Egyptians? He reminds us all that:
…during the Seder there is a tradition to express sadness at the demise of the Egyptians. The joy of the celebration is diminished at every seder by recalling the impact of each plague on ordinary Egyptians. As every plague is read, a drop of wine is removed from the cup, and at the mention of the final plague —the death of the Egyptian firstborn — our joy is diminished doubly as we remove two drops of wine from our cups.[ii]
Believing that two drops of wine do not begin to symbolize the vast ocean of grief experienced by the Egyptian community, Brenner proceeded to do research. How have rabbis through the centuries come to terms with this portrayal of a God capable of infanticide?
Turning to midrashic tradition, Brenner discovered two interesting interpretations that take the blame off of God’s shoulders. In one story, the firstborn go to their fathers and plead with them to let the Hebrew people go. The fathers shock their sons by choosing the slaughter of their sons over the release of the slaves. Undeterred, the firstborn then go to Pharaoh. They plead their cause to Pharaoh, who not only turns a deaf ear, but also threatens the protestors. In despair, the firstborn kill their fathers, are convicted of murder, and are executed by Pharaoh.
A second variation involves an enraged and grieving Pharaoh who executes the advisors who counseled him to stand against Moses and Moses’ God rather than setting the people free. Leslie Sheppard shared a third explanation which I had not previously heard. (Source?) In this account, the Hebrew people are the ones who carry out the slaughter of the firstborn Egyptian sons and livestock, in effect taking on the role of the angel of death and carrying out what they believe to be God’s justice.
In the midst of all this chaos and vengeance, Brenner encourages us to hold on to two stories of hope. The first is the story of those brave Egyptian youth, who had the conviction to confront not only Pharaoh, but their own fathers. They had the courage to suggest that their might be a better way, a different way than their parents had imagined. This belief cost them their lives.
The second example is the story of Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescued the infant Moses from certain death. In midrash tradition, she is called Bat Yah, “daughter of God,” and it is said that she journeyed with the Hebrew people into the wilderness, becoming one of them. Imagine the world she left behind, for the world which she chose to inhabit: from palace to wilderness, from luxury to scarcity.
So here’s where we connect the dots: the Egyptian sons, and Pharaoh’s daughter. Children of those who proclaimed vengeance, but who pursued a different path. And then we pick up our pencils and connect their courageous voices to the voice of Jesus, who took even bolder stances, even more loving sacrifices. In whatever enslavements you have known, where is the voice that suggested a different way? How might it guide you forward?
Each time we gather at God’s table, we are invited to listen for that voice. We are empowered to use our voices to proclaim justice rather than vengeance, empowered to choose love’s obligation over hate’s temptation. We are invited to remember how God allowed God’s own precious son to take the world’s hate upon himself, and yet repay that hate with mercy, repay that hate with compassion, repay that hate with redemption.
What a mysterious God we serve, a God who takes up a pencil and connects all those dots of our brokenness, hate and fear, and finds a way to create something beautiful from it all.
Thanks be to God, the breaker of chains, the granter of freedom, the author of mercy. Amen and amen.
Just for fun:
Goofus and Galant