Comments and Observations
If you assign the average high school student to read the unabridged version of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick and then ask the student about it, the odds are good that the first thing he or she will talk about will not be the story. At its core Moby Dick tells an intriguing tale of obsession and adventure on the high seas, including even a climactic battle between Captain Ahab and the mysterious white whale. But when I’ve heard people talk about their experience in reading this book, I’ve often heard mostly loud laments about how Melville told the story. People complain that close to a whole chapter (or so it seemed) was consumed by a description of the ship’s mast. The mast! The big pole that held up the sails. Why couldn’t Melville have dispatched that entire subject by writing no more than, “Behind the captain, the ship’s towering and impressive mast soared into the sky.” Period. End of sentence. End of mast!
But that’s not how things go in Moby Dick, and it has driven many a reader to distraction over the years. Conceivably, however, a person could have a similar reaction to Exodus 11-12. Narratively speaking, things get a little tiresome here. You wouldn’t expect that to happen at this climactic juncture in the narrative. Things in Egypt are coming to a head. The most terrible of all plagues is about to happen and the result will be a glorious exodus from slavery for a people who had been held in bondage for over four centuries. You expect this to be a gripping narrative told straight out. That’s what we do when we tell this story in Sunday school.
That’s what Cecil B. DeMille did when making his famous movie. And in 2014 another big movie is coming out directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and starring as Moses Christian Bale—yes, that Christian Bale who played Batman. One suspects that Ridley Scott’s movie won’t slow down for all these details, either. When you’ve got good drama, you want simply to savor it, run with it, light it up with the special effects and CGI. (By the way: the trailer for the new movie makes it clear that this will be Gladiator meets Ben Hur meets Batman meets . . . let’s just say I doubt it will bear much resemblance to Exodus!)
However, if you’ve never read these chapters in their entirety, you should try it sometime. What will immediately strike you is how this incredible portion of the Exodus story gets all-but buried beneath a welter of liturgical details and instructions. I went through and did some counting. In Exodus 11-12 there are 23 verses devoted to telling the actual story of the tenth plague and the subsequent release from Egypt.
But nowhere in those 23 verses is this story told straight out and without interruption. Because weaving in and out of those 23 verses are a whopping 52 verses of Passover instructions. The verses devoted to instruction outnumber the verses that tell the story by better than 2:1. Chapter 11 gives us pretty much a straight narrative. But then Exodus 12:1-28 is all instruction. Then we get a brief interlude of story again before chapter 12 concludes with another nine verses recapitulating the Passover restrictions, rules, and regulations with still more to come in the first 16 verses of chapter 13.
History, it seems, is encased by religious practice. Life imitates liturgy and liturgy imitates life. The two are mutually informing and shaping.
Most modern scholars believe that as many as three or four distinct versions of this story were eventually cobbled together by some editor into the form we more or less have now. If the Exodus story sometimes seems like a patchwork, that’s because it is a patchwork, an edited-together version of one story told by several voices. But as we have also noted before, even if that documentary hypothesis is true, nevertheless there was a final version of Exodus composed by someone. And that person, unless he was very careless, surely was aware of, and in control of, the final form this took. So I suspect that the final author or redactor of Exodus composed chapters 11-12 the way he did for a reason.
The events reported here represent a new beginning for Israel. At one time or another we have all had central and shaping events happen in our lives. You get married, you have your first child, you receive a promotion that secures your income for the rest of your life and maybe sets you on a path toward even some fame and notoriety. These are seminal turning points, things you’ll never forget, events that even when you near the end of your life you will still be able to claim as key components that made you who you are. But even so, none of those events caused you to do something as radical as to tear up all the calendars in your house so that you could invent a whole new system of time-keeping with that day–the day of your child’s birth or your wedding day or the date on which you got that vital promotion at work–that day would become New Year’s Day for you from then on.
Yet that is exactly what Yahweh tells Moses would be true for Israel. At the beginning of chapter 12 God tells Moses to create a brand new calendar with that day and that month being the equivalent of January. In other words, God is doing an act of new creation. In some way God at least sees what is happening to Israel as re-making the world. History is going to start over right here and right now. That’s why the events themselves are so encumbered with instructions on how best to remember the events forever. True, had there been no tenth plague and exodus, there would be nothing to commemorate but because of the world-renewing nature of those events, the proper remembrance of what happened will in future times be every bit as important as the events themselves.
Let us never underestimate the power of memory. Let us never underestimate how God himself may use memory to make us part of something that otherwise could very well remain outside of us. To this day, when observing the Passover, the Jews do not say, “We remember this night how God led those people long ago out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.” Instead they let memory hook them into the divine narrative by saying, “We remember this night how God led us out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.”
By the act of remembrance, we become something we would not otherwise be. We become that people. That story becomes our story.
When we remember the sacred story, when we connect ourselves to that narrative, we become part of the very act of new creation that God accomplished on also that day. But in Exodus 11-12, the key is not just that we remember but also what we remember. And to put it bluntly, what the people of Israel remembered and what we remember is awful, brutal, and ugly.
In the Harry Potter stories some of the books in the library are enchanted such that if you open one book, the air is immediately filled with a piercing scream even as the pages themselves morph into the shape of a face whose mouth is wide open in its full-throated screaming. If the pages of the Bible were able to come alive like that in keeping with whatever the narrative was about, then upon opening the Bible to Exodus 12 you could expect to hear the air filled with the cries of mournful Egyptians even as the pages themselves might drip blood all over the place.
Because make no mistake: these chapters run red with blood. They cry out with sorrow. Even the text of Exodus takes no delight in reporting these terrible deaths. Even for the Israelites the way to ward off this plague came through the shedding of blood as innocent lambs are slain and their blood is then gruesomely splattered on doorposts. There was finally no free and easy pass given to anyone. If you lived, it was because a lamb died.
But out of the throes of all that bloody death the people moved forward toward new life. The Passover is a traveler’s meal, eaten with your coat already on your back, your best walking shoes on your feet, and your bags packed. You ate the herbs, lamb, and unleavened bread with one hand while holding your walking stick in the other hand–today that would be like eating with your car keys already in hand. This was a meal for people on the way out of death, through death, and into life.
The situation the Israelites left behind in Egypt was not pretty. It was the end of a war, and war is always ugly. Pharaoh had declared war on Yahweh back in Exodus 5 when he asked the sneering question, “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him?” Ever since then God had been fighting chaos with chaos in the various plagues. Now the ultimate chaos of death has taken a terrible toll. As the Israelites go, they are lavished with gifts but the original Hebrew here and there uses language reminiscent of despoiling someone of goods the way victorious soldiers may do after a war. If this has been Yahweh’s long war with Pharaoh, then it is not surprising to see the battle end with the spoils going to the victors.
But even the victors were never to forget the death that bought their life. They were to keep taking a lamb home every year and keep slaughtering it to remember. They continued to identify themselves with the deaths in Egypt long ago as a reminder of the grace of God that alone secures life in the midst of a world where the innocent still suffer, still die, and where God’s long battle with evil, though perhaps now winding down, is nevertheless continuing until that day when death itself will be the final enemy to go down into utter defeat.
Our vocation every day is to remember the sacred story and take our place within it. We are to remember that life is not what you read in the newspaper and life is not even what you tell your spouse in the evening about how things went at work that day. Life’s true meaning is to be found in liturgy, in the reminder that as important as the events of your life may be, the meaning of those events, the meaning they take on when you remember that the Lord God is with you, is the key to knowing the most precious truth there is: God loves you and is with you forever.
Someone once asked the famous black preacher James Cone, “Why is it that sermons in black churches are so long!?” Cone replied that all week long, six days a week, society tells black people they are of less value than white folks. “Come Sunday,” Cone said, “we have to preach a little longer because it takes a while to talk people back into remembering who they really are as children of God!” Maybe we all need regular reminders of that. It’s too easy most days to forget. That’s why the central call at the heart of the gospel is our Lord saying to each one of us, “Remember.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 10, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14 Commentary