Passover is a marvelous holiday, celebrating and illustrating a lot about the relationship between the believer and God, and a marvelous example of the mercy God shows us.
A few days ago, a friend forwarded me a transcript of a “discussion” he’d had with someone else. The third person – we’ll call him “C,” since I’m “A,” and my friend is “B” – was trying to insult the idea of God, saying that God was asking for human help to figure out which babies to murder.
My friend didn’t really answer the challenge as posed, instead pointing out at length that C wasn’t actually asking anything, but was instead trying to score some cheap points at the mere cost of only his dignity and intellect. I understood that response, but I do rather wish B had answered C’s question.
So I’m going to try to substitute for B, since he’s too lazy to actually expound on it himself.
The Passover (פֶּסַח, pesach) is described in Exodus 12:29-32, with the relevant preparation beginning at Exodus 12:1-13. The preparation was, put incompletely, to mark the doorpost with the blood of a lamb (along with a number of other things, relevant but secondary for the purpose here). When the angel of death (or, if you like, “the destroyer” as the ESV writes it, or “the one who ruins” from the Hebrew) went to each house, it saw the blood on the lintel and passed over that home. The Egyptians didn’t do this, and thus the tenth plague (the loss of the firstborn) was such that there was not a house where someone had not died (Exodus 12:30).
The criticism offered by C was simple: why did the angel need human help in deciding to who slay and who to preserve? Doesn’t that imply a limit to the power of God? And if God is limited in power, doesn’t that strike against the possibility of there being a God in the first place?
However, C’s missing some important ideas.
There are three things I’d like to consider, the first of which was implied by B, and the last of which was actually observed directly by B, days later, and the middle of which is actually pretty important, too, but it’s mine. They are:
- The loss of the innocents
- The irony of atheistic criticism of Biblical events based on Biblical history
Power (or, the involvement in one’s own defense)
So let’s dive in. First, did the ruiner need the Hebrews’ involvement? The answer is no and yes.
The answer is “no” in that the destroyer was acting as the messenger for God (thus, “an angel” is one rendering.) Did God know who the Hebrews were? One presumes so, since He communicated with them and selected them specifically. If that’s the case, surely God could select them based on His will and knowledge… but He chose not to, because the Hebrews were expected to participate.
There’s an old joke that seems faintly relevant:
A man’s house was threatened by a great storm. When the flooding began, rescuers sent a truck, and he rejected rescue, saying that God would rescue him. Then when the floodwaters entered his home, he went to the roof, where a helicopter offered to pick him up; he said no, saying that God would rescue him. When his roof was covered, a boat tried to pick him out of the water, and he said no, saying that he had faith in God to rescue him. He then drowned. Meeting God at last, he protested, saying “Why didn’t You rescue me?,” to which God replied, “What do you mean? I sent a truck, I sent a helicopter, I sent a boat…”
The man in that joke was refusing his own power in his situation. He had to choose to accept rescue, but instead chose to be passive… and died. Thankfully it’s only a joke, but it’s pretty illustrative… and accurate, within that point.
After all, the covenant between the Hebrews and God was exactly that: a covenant. It was entered into, actively, by both participants. Even the Sh’ma (starting at Deuteronomy 6:4) is worded as involving an act by the Hebrews; the first words are “Hear, O Israel,” and Israel – the Hebrews – were expected to listen, to hear — not passively, but to hear, to understand, to commit, to act. Passively hearing wasn’t enough; hearing meant identifying with what was heard, grokking it, not just noting it.
So the passover was not just God sending a message to the Egyptians, but also a message to the Hebrews: they were expected to sacrifice something too. They were expected to act. They were expected to participate.
It wasn’t God needing their help in identifying who and who not to punish – it was God expecting them to be involved, personally and directly.
The Loss of the Innocents
There are a lot of explanations regarding the loss of the firstborn Egyptians; some amount to what might be considered foolish chatter.
An example of foolish chatter: some rabbis claimed that multiple children died in many households, because the children of that household were all the firstborn of one of their parents – thus implying rampant adultery, a sign of the pestilence of Egyptian culture. Maybe it’s true – I don’t know, but the Torah doesn’t address that aspect of the culture, and I find that particular accusation distasteful, and I think many other rabbis did as well. It feels petty to take the loss of innocents to that level.
Less foolish is the idea that the Egyptians were receiving what they had demanded themselves; Moshe’s birth is documented as taking place after Pharaoh demanded that all male Hebrew children were to be put to death at birth. The death of the Egyptian firstborn, by that light, seems like a just illustration: “May you who valued the Hebrew children so little suffer the pain you wished inflicted upon others.” That’s not likely to be much of a comfort to the actual children involved, but it seems just when looked at through the eyes of a corporate culture (i.e., culture considered as a whole and not as a set of individuals.)
In retrospect, I think Judaism is a little saddened by the loss of the innocent Egyptians – better that the Hebrews had been let go to worship God in the wilderness for a few days than have the loss of all of that life. (After all, that was what Moshe asked for, for the Hebrews to be allowed to worship God — not their freedom! Their freedom ensued when the Egyptians refused to allow them to worship God at all.)
In retrospect, C’s accusation is amusing.
This is a fellow whose archetype is likely to claim that even Christ did not historically exist; the stories in Genesis are myth, the histories in the Old Testament are lies. However, this doesn’t prevent such people from blaming the Israelites for the horrors being lied about.
I don’t quite understand that. After all, that’s like reading Jack and the Beanstalk, and proceeding to prosecute Jack for the death of the giant… if the story’s not real, then the things recorded in it can’t be relied upon in order to form a negative opinion (after all, any atrocities would be considered as something like “let me tell you about the time that my team won the game!”)
If the stories are real, then you have to consider whether the context of the stories are real, too… in which case the events have to be considered as artifacts of their time and place, much like one would have to wonder whether the loss of the Egyptian firstborn wasn’t justified in any way.
Of course, that kind of consideration is often beyond the capabilities of those who are merely intending to snipe at the Bible.
More’s the pity for that – I think those discussions would be worth having.