Monday, March 03, 2008

Further Reflections on Divine Slaughter: Exodus 12-15

At least within the Judeo-Christian tradition, we often attach a great degree of spiritual significance to food. The later Mosaic law prescribed a variety of different feasts symbolizing different parts of the law; in Esther, another feast memorializes a Jewish revolt against foreign oppression. In theory, Christians share bread and wine when they meet in memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus (among some Protestants this has since been loosened to once every few meetings; among virtually all Western Christians, the “sharing” now includes only a bite-sized chunk of bread and a small sip to drink). In North America, we even have a meal that seems to celebrate little more than merely having food to eat – and it goes by the vague name “Thanksgiving.” Food gives us sustenance, and apparently offers an opportunity to “remember” times when God gave us sustenance in the past. In point of fact, we’re not “remembering” so much as “imagining,” since, even if these events actually happened, none of us were present at them, and thus we have no memories to recall. Jews and Christians aren’t the only ones – Islam, to name just one very close example, also incorporates notions of a ritual meal. The religious experience occurs despite our lack of memories.

The slaughter of the Egyptians in Exodus is an intriguing case of a ritual meal not just occurring, but being consciously constructed. Notice the elements of ritual which are carefully and systematically laid over the slaughter by God over chapters 12 and 13. It is the “Passover” – so named because God’s murdering angels, while they roam through Egypt, literally “pass over” the Jewish houses and move on to find some vulnerable Egyptians. It is to be a new beginning for the Israelites – also literally, as God declares that the night of the Passover will mark the first month of the Jewish year. In the future, it will be “a festival to the Lord – a lasting ordinance.” The Jews will symbolically shield themselves from God’s wrath through the blood of sacrificed lambs, prepare themselves by eating unleavened bread, then eat, after twilight. The Passover meal itself is quite specifically described: select only as much meat as the people present are able to eat, roast it with bitter herbs, then eat “in haste,” fully dressed for travel and carrying a staff. Later, God provides some further restrictions intended to unite the Jewish community and exclude those who were not “passed over” so: no foreigners or uncircumcised slaves may eat, no Israelite may refuse to partake, and foreigners gain the right to participate through the earlier ritual of circumcision. The discussion of the Passover closes with what could well be described as a Jewish, Old Testament analog of later Christian creeds:

“With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.” And it will like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.”

In chapter 12, the Egyptians agreed to let the Israelites leave – indeed, Pharaoh urgently called Moses and Aaron to say, “Leave my people… Take your flocks and herds, and go.” The Bible records God reasoning that his people should not be led directly to their future home in Israel, since this would mean fighting their way through the Philistines: “if they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” This is the justification given for leading them towards the Red Sea. However, with the benefit of having witnessed the carnage unleashed on Egypt in the preceding chapters, the reader is not unjustified in suspecting that God has additional, ulterior motives in the race to the Red Sea.

God’s double intent – first to liberate the Israelites, but second to punish the Egyptians – is made manifest in his next command to Moses, telling the Israelites to turn back and camp near the sea. This, God informed Moses, would cause the pharaoh to think the Israelites were lost and confused. Once again, God promised, he would “Harden Pharaoh’s heart” toward the Israelites, and this time, “I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.”

This tactical maneuver was not simply to elude pursuit. The next sentences reveal that Pharoah and his officials “changed their minds” after letting the Israelites go, presumably as a result of some more divine heart-hardening. The army is dispatched after the Israelites, since “we have let the Israelites go and lost their services.” The terrified Israelites, seeing the new pursuit, “cried out to the Lord” via Moses. Their leader explained that they must have faith before the onslaught, and they would receive their deliverance: “do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” God responds to the rousing speech by ordering Moses to part the sea with a gesture, letting the Israelites cross on dry land. Probably somewhat foolishly, the Egyptian forces give chase and, as their foe reaches the other side, the waters close over the Pharaoh and his army. And thus the Egyptian forces leave history, though in truth I’m not sure they were ever there, outside of the Biblical account of these events.

Two themes emerge from these events. The first is a foreshadowing of the petulant faithlessness of the Israelite masses, something that will become prevalent, indeed pervasive, in later books of the Old Testament. Under Moses’s guidance, these people have watched as the entire country of Egypt was submerged under multiple natural disasters, before a sizeable chunk of the Egyptian male population was suddenly and simultaneously murdered. Now, however, they see the Egyptian army pursuing them and turn against Moses once again: “was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?... It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.” Moses reassures them and evidently they are satisfied. Later, they all sing about the Lord’s victory; Moses leads the men, and his sister Miriam leads the women. Even God’s chosen people – I would say especially God’s chosen people, except that most of the non-Israelites thus far have displayed no more intelligence or foresight – are depicted as a foolish, faithless rabble in need of firm, paternal leadership.

The second theme – which relates to the first – is that as the people of Israel are in need of firm human leadership (now provided by Moses and to a lesser extent Aaron), they are also in need of a firm divine warrior. The God of early Exodus is an enraged fighter; he frees the people of Israel not simply for their liberation but to prove his own might in demolishing the land of Egypt. This God is establishing for future generations of Israelites his qualifications to be their god, and these qualifications are his ability to destroy large numbers of people and their possessions. It is a stunning and significant portrayal of the divine which seemingly bears only a peripheral resemblance to the God of later Christian experience.