Thursday, April 18, 2013
In Search Of Truth, Exodus 12:1-7
Whenever I see passages like this in the Bible for the first time, my mind immediately begins screaming "Why? Why in the world would God have people do this? Why this particular activity in all these specific ways?" It seems so arbitrarily weird at a glance. Which is why I like to go further than that initial glance to make sense, and understand the purpose, of what is going on in a passage like this.
Given the details of the Passover tradition, it is possible it was adapted from a near East nomadic tradition intended to protect against demonic attack and ensure the fertility of the herd. If this is the case, it serves as an example (circumcision being another significant one) of Yahweh taking cultural ideas already familiar to people and adapting them, injecting new meaning and purpose into them.
This month, called Abib and later Nisan, was during the beginning of spring in the Near East. As nature began its new cycle of life and birth, Israel would remember this as their new beginning as a nation, led by the God who had chosen them as his special people.
Yahweh chose the 10th day of this month to observe this ritual in the future, possibly to remember its connection to the 10th plague against Egypt that served as its context.
Sheep and goats were vital to the Near East economy, providing both food and warmth. Giving one up was a significant sacrifice. That said, it was still intended to be eaten as part of a meal, and males were less valuable than females, so it was not a crippling sacrifice.
Additionally, the lamb was not simply burned and thrown away, but eaten by the household, serving as one part of a sensory experience with rich symbolic meaning.
A year-old sheep would have just survived the period of life with the highest rate of mortality, ready to become a productive part of the flock. It was at this time, when it had the greatest potential to offer, that it was to be sacrificed.
The timing of the 14th day would place this feast each year afterward on the evening of the first full moon of the Israelite year. This added a strong visual image to the event, in addition to engaging the senses of taste and smell.
Some of our most powerful memories are those that engage multiple senses at once. If you think about Christmas, a number of sensory memories may come to mind, or certain sensory experiences may trigger memories of Christmas. Music, certain foods or smells, or temperature can all trigger thoughts of Christmas for me.
This is a bit of speculation, but I think Yahweh uses symbolic activities containing multi-sensory elements in order to help us remember something he has told us about himself.
Growing up, I heard this story and thought of the blood on the doorposts as being a sort of "ward" against the plague on the firstborn of Egypt. Or at least a sign that pointed God's angel of death in the other direction. In fact, pagan religions of this time period painted their doors red to ward off demons. But here it was Yahweh himself who guarded each Israelite home from the plague sent as judgment on Egypt. This is revealed with a closer look at the Hebrew and an understanding of the role of blood here.
The typical use of the word "passover" here doesn't completely convey the Hebrew word "pecach", which includes not only the idea of "passing over" but the idea of "sparing" and "guarding". We see this additional aspect of the word come out more in verse 23, "the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. " As well as in Isaiah 31:5,"Like birds hovering, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it; he will spare(pecach) and rescue it."
So Yahweh was not simply passing by the Israelite homes. He was himself standing guard over them. But to do this, a problem had to be dealt with first.
Remember for a moment that God is perfect, and try to contain in your mind what that means. (You can't do it, but try anyway.) When we remember that he is not like us, and raise the moral standard to the highest ideal, perfection itself, we can recognize that it is morally wrong for someone who is absolutely perfect and all-powerful to see something less than perfect and be content for it to remain that way.
If God spent time being cozy with people who are selfish and cruel, and didn't say anything about their behavior, didn't do anything to make them better, he himself would be uncaring and unjust.
Of course, throughout history God HAS associated himself with selfish and cruel people, because he loves us and respects the free will he gave us. So a solution had to be found that would keep free will intact, but also deal with the problem of evil and the way it necessarily separates us from an unfathomably perfect God.
That's where sacrifice and blood comes in. Animal sacrifice never had any true ability to deal with human evil (Isaiah 1:11, Hebrews 10:4). But it served as a reminder that the problem of evil exists and needs to be dealt with, compensated for, in order for God and humanity to be together. The blood on the doors served as humble recognition of the human need to be purified through some kind of sacrificial payment in order for Yahweh's presence to be with the Israelites. (Hebrews 9:22,"Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.") The blood did not protect Israel. It served as the red carpet, rolled out in recognition of Israel's true and ultimate protector, and our need for him.
Modern pop-spirituality and classic fantasy magic have at least one thing in common, and that's self-empowerment. Even in fantasy in which magic-users worship a god or gods of some kind, it is almost always the case that they have control over harnessing the power of their god, provided they have the right spell components, use the right incantation, or believe strongly enough. In modern pop-spirituality, God is who or what we believe he is and our highest goal is some kind of awakening, empowering or actualization of self. We might give lip service to "God" in some way, but pop-spirituality is actually a very self-focused philosophy where the greatest power lies within the individual. Perhaps the individual is even "part of God". So in a non-sensical, cartoon logic, we pull ourselves upward, anchored by nothing but ourselves.
The God of the Bible stands in clear contrast to models in both pop-spirituality and classic fantasy. The Bible is not a spellbook with power to defeat evil if quoted passionately enough. The symbolic activities God has given his people to take part in throughout history are not "skills" that God teaches that in themselves have any power. It is God himself, a person, Yahweh, who is our source of strength, our guardian and our hope.