Liberation and the Blood of the Lamb -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14A (Exodus 12)
Exodus 12:1-14 Common English Bible (CEB)
12 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month will be the first month; it will be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole Israelite community: On the tenth day of this month they must take a lamb for each household, a lamb per house. 4 If a household is too small for a lamb, it should share one with a neighbor nearby. You should divide the lamb in proportion to the number of people who will be eating it. 5 Your lamb should be a flawless year-old male. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You should keep close watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month. At twilight on that day, the whole assembled Israelite community should slaughter their lambs. 7 They should take some of the blood and smear it on the two doorposts and on the beam over the door of the houses in which they are eating. 8 That same night they should eat the meat roasted over the fire. They should eat it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Don’t eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over fire with its head, legs, and internal organs. 10 Don’t let any of it remain until morning, and burn any of it left over in the morning. 11 This is how you should eat it. You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry. It is the Passover of the Lord. 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. 13 The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
14 “This day will be a day of remembering for you. You will observe it as a festival to the Lord. You will observe it in every generation as a regulation for all time.
One of the central festivals in Judaism is Passover. It is a celebration of God’s liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt. This act of liberation did not come without shedding of blood. Families were commanded to slaughter a lamb, place its blood on the doorposts as a sign to the angel of death to Passover the house, and then they were to eat the feast, dressed for travel. Whatever was left over at the end of the meal was to be destroyed. Then, as a final word of instruction, the people of God are told to observe this festival of remembrance in every generation for all time.
The story is not without its difficulties. We can celebrate liberation, but we need to at least attend to the death of the oldest child among both humans and animals. Yes, Pharaoh ordered the death of the first born of Israel, but is this the appropriate response? I think we too often neglect to consider this part of the story. It raises uncomfortable questions about the nature of God. Liberation is great, but there are costs that need to be considered. Now, it is true that the intervening chapters between the call of Moses in Exodus 3 and the giving of the Passover instructions involve a series of encounters with Pharaoh, who stubbornly resists letting the people of Israel go. Moses had provided several seemingly miraculous demonstrations of God’s power, but Pharaoh wouldn’t budge. So, maybe this is the last straw! Perhaps there is nowhere else to go. Before the last plague arrives, the one that will convince Pharaoh to let the people go, Moses is provided with a set of liturgical guidelines, a feast that will mark the time moment of liberation in perpetuity.
This festival has served as a primal story of Israel’s existence. It serves to remind the people that God hears the cries of the oppressed and will deliver and redeem. Barbara Lundblad writes that “Exodus is a story of reversals, of slaves, set free and the powerful thrown down. This story has sustained Jewish people through pogroms and holocaust. This story became the freedom song of African American slaves in America” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 382]. Lundblad, reminds us, however, of the shadow side of the story. The one I just pointed out. She asks a good question: “Can there be freedom for some without destroying others?” (p. 382). It does seem as if every act of liberation does involve destruction or displacement for others. What do we make of this? The text itself doesn’t give an answer, and we may have to leave it at that. Liberation is not without its difficulties and complications, which raise questions for us. At the same time, the point is that God is a liberating God. We are called to worship God, to celebrate God’s activity on our behalf. Thus, we have before us this festival.
As we contemplate this festival and its meaning for us, Walter Brueggemann invites us to consider how this text speaks to worship. He writes that the “verses provide opportunity to reflect on the cruciality of worship for the maintenance of the identity of a historical community and on the importance of doing worship rightly” [“Exodus,” in NIB, 1:778]. Worship provides opportunities to continually tell the stories that define our identity, connecting us to our primal past. He also suggests that we avoid the temptation to over-explain. He notes that “much Christian worship is either excessively doctrinal and rational or excessively moralistic and didactic. In either case, it is excessively self-conscious. Worship entails a willing suspension of disbelief, a reentering of a definitional memory, and a readiness to submit to the memory as identity-bestowing for parents and children.” [1:778]. Not all the elements need to be explained or understood to be experienced. For the Passover, there is a rite that carries the story. It involves the slaughter of a lamb, the painting of the doorposts with blood, and a feast of roasted lamb, which is undertaken with one’s shoes on and in a hurry. Be prepared to move, wherever God will lead.
For Christianity, the passion narrative is built, at least in part, on the Passover narrative. In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples gather in the upper room to celebrate the Passover meal, at which time Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper, offering the wine as a sign of the blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:17-29). While Passover had nothing to do with the sins of Israel, it does speak of liberation, and the cross is itself understood in that context. In John’s Passion narrative, the connection of Jesus to the Passover Lamb is even more explicit. He is crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover, the day when the Passover lambs are sacrificed in preparation for the feast (John 19:14-30). Thus, for John, Jesus is the Passover Lamb, through whom liberation takes place. It is his blood placed on the doorposts as a sign to the angel of death.
The good news, the gospel, is that God is a liberating God, and in our worship we are invited to continually retell the story of how God acts to liberate.