Pharaoh is trapped.
Moses and Aaron went staff-in-hand to the god-man of Egypt
and said what the Lord told them to say: that the Lord claimed Israel as God’s own, and demanded they be set free to worship in the wilderness.
But Moses already knows, we already know, that Pharaoh’s heart will be hardened, that this is the beginning of a contest between Pharaoh and the Lord over the
brick-making, enslaved people.
And that is the beginning of the war of signs against
Pharaoh’s heart and against his people.
The life-vein of Egypt, the river, undrinkable and polluted with blood.
Frogs swarming into beds and filling up bread-bowls.
Gnats in the wet eyes of Egyptian cows. Flies.
A plague in the herds.
They threw soot from the brick kilns,
and it became a burning rash on everything it touched.
Then cutting hail. Devouring, housing-filling locusts.
Three days of impenetrable night.
All the natural world collapsing into chaotic disarray,
around the fundamental disorder of a enslaving kingdom in God’s creation.
When he was littler, my son would say “tell me a Moses story!” And I’d tell him some piece of the Exodus from the burning bush to the plagues to the crossing of the Red Sea. I never knew how to tell him about the last sign, and I didn’t—
I hardly know now, honestly.
The last sign–the Lord passing over the land in the middle of the night, and beneath the destroyer a wail of grief that woke all Egypt.
Almost all the while these horrors are accumulating
Pharaoh is wavering, stunned and frightened by what’s happening.
He agrees in part again and again, but can’t go through
with releasing the people.
In the end, Moses tells Pharaoh exactly what’s going to happen—that from Pharaoh’s lap to the slave-girl who sits behind the millstones, all the firstborn of all Egypt will die. There is no reason left to doubt—
and Pharaoh is silent.
Or, the telling draws silence over something incomprehensible but entirely familiar to us: Pharaoh either passively carried by the inertia of his previous resolve, or, accepting the death of Egypt’s own firstborn like a sacrifice against surrendering.
An ancient Rabbinic commentary
looking inside the silence of the story
imagines the firstborn of Egypt coming before their fathers,
terrified and incredulous that it has come to this,
and demanding that Israel be let go to save their lives.
And their fathers refuse,
as if this were a horrifying reverse image
of the story of Abraham and Isaac on the altar,
and when the angel of the Lord showed the ram in the thicket,
Abraham would not be stopped.[a]
There’s a kind of terrible symmetry to the Exodus here.
The Egyptians became like all slave-masters,
who couldn’t sleep at night wondering
what their brick-making people were doing, or planning to do.
And that fear completed their forgetting that the Hebrew people, were people. Slavery is a re-imagination of human life that reduces its value to the work stored up in your muscle and bone.
And that will be used up, stripped out, turned into bricks.
Ultimately their masters forget that the sons of Israel were people so completely that it was imaginable to throw their sons into the Nile as population control.
And when the LORD instructs Moses what he will say before Pharaoh, the thinking of Israel’s God is made plain: Egypt will refuse change until there is divine recompense for what has been done to Israel and the whole system, gods and all, that hungered for and devoured the people, is shattered.
And if we look across the chaos of history,
that is what the liberation of peoples looks like.
It is not gentle.
That is what the radical breakage of systems that enslave and abuse looks like. And it should take our breath away.
All this is the background against which the instructions to the people are given, the piece of the Exodus story we hear today.
The night of liberation is dark, and the people are given a liturgy to mark it.
Choose a lamb, every household, and slaughter it.
Paint its blood on the doorposts of the house.
Prepare it in pure haste, roast its body whole over fire.
Bake bread as fast as you can. Eat it with bitter herbs,
ready to stand and go with sandals on your feet. Sandals like free people wear.
They are given a liturgy as a perpetual ordinance:
every year, they are to eat the way they did that night
as slaves in Egypt.
And in the law they’ll be given as a nation,
its a refrain: remember that you were slaves,
remember that you were slaves once in Egypt.
Remember. Slaughter the lamb and eat it,
because it will be hard to remember
that the Lord keeps covenants forever;
that the Lord hears the cries of the abused, of abused creation;
that the Lord has made and keeps a world which is shaped like justice.
All our gospel accounts seem to tell us
that Jesus understood himself
and his mission in light of the passover story.
He seems to have chosen the passover in Jerusalem,
with all its expectation, its present hope of liberation,
as the moment to proclaim God’s kingdom
in a way that provoked a crisis with the authorities.
And we have this meal. A last meal with his disciples
which is, in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, a celebration of the passover meal.
There would have been no mistaking what he was talking about at the table.
This bread is my body. This is my blood. Blood separated from body.
He’s describing what will happen to him as a sacrifice.
A few decades later, Paul will write to the Corinthian church
that “Christ our passover lamb has been sacrificed for us.”
He’s remembering that night in Egypt as God’s saving, liberating act.
And he’s recognizing that God has acted as deliverer again, to free Jews and Gentiles from enslavement to sin–enslavement to what made Pharaoh, Pharaoh. What can make us Pharaoh.
But this time, the Son of God has been, himself, the lamb
and something new has come.
If Jesus is our passover lamb, then the passover that has delivered us was Christ choosing to accept all the violence of liberation against himself.
God has chosen to break open freedom for us
without the destroyer in the night,
a way in our hearts
for us to become free of history.
The image is a copy by Nina de Garis Davies of the original in the Tomb of Rekhmire at Thebes, painted ca. 1479–1425 B.C.
a. The significance of the firstborn in Exodus does seem to resonate with Genesis 22. However, I owe feeling the connection between the Binding of Isaac and the midrash on the death of the Egyptian firstborn, to the poet Wilfred Owen, killed in France in 1918, who imagined the destruction of young men during the First World War as Abraham’s refusal to be stopped. See: “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”