Exodus 12: Six Facets of the Passover

1. The Right Time
We often speak of the right time for something to happen. We do this when from an earthly perspective ‘things’ make sense and come together neatly. Sometimes this can, of course, be God acting providentially. Sometimes, however, we must face that fact that God’s understanding of the right time might differ from ours. Typically, we err on the side of impatience and quick fixes. We also are prone to want to forget that we can learn through hardship, difficulty and pain.

I imagine that is how the descendants of Abraham that lived under Egyptian oppression would have felt. Perhaps questioning, not only God’s timing, but questioning him full stop—“Where is the God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”.

For individuals in desperate situations God’s timing can seem incomprehensible. We need to face this reality with honesty as well as trust.

The Bible is clear that from God’s perspective the Passover, and the whole Exodus, take place at the right time. It would appear that the formation of God’s people required the suffering of slavery and oppression as well as the redemption and liberation of Passover and parted-sea. This whole narrative is presented as part of a plan. A plan prefigured in the patriarchal narratives and their preoccupation with firstborn sons, sacrificial lambs and Egypt. A plan which prefigures the sequel of Jesus’ last Passover meal and his death as firstborn and Lamb of God.

Such claims require faith. In the midst of turmoil Moses needed trust and faith. As Hebrews tell us:

By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.     Hebrews 11:28

There are times when we need the same level of faith as we face the worst that life in a broken creation can throw at us. Redemption and liberation in all their richness are a two-stage process. They happen here and now most certainly. But our deliverance is made complete only in the age to come. As we peer through a glass darkly, trust is required. Whatever the appearance of things to us—in God’s timing all things make sense.

There are times when trust is relatively easy. There are times when it takes all our effort and courage. When trust in God comes easily we would do well to be disciplined in walk with God, so that we have the wisdom, discipline, strength and trust to lean on him in the tough times.

2. The Right Space
God not only acts at the right time, but also in the right space. God is a God who works and acts in specific places. This rather obvious claim—that God is Yahweh and Jesus was a Jew—challenges people in our culture who do not believe in God. For many people the God they don’t believe in is an abstract being far removed from this earth. Our Christian claim is far more surprising. Whilst the question of the existence of an abstract god can be addressed by reason, many of the most important claims about the God of Moses rely on revelation.

We don’t know why God chose the lifetime of Moses to work out his plan. We don’t know why God chose Abraham as the Father of his people. We don’t know why God sent his son to live, die and be resurrected in a nation under Roman rule. But the Bible tells us so.

When we are obedient to God, we are in the right space. The right space is not, however, always a place of straightforward blessing.
Israel as a nation where in the right place in the events of Passover and the escape from Egypt. They were also in the right space when in slavery, as God was forming and preparing them as a people.

We can put ourselves in the wrong space as we make bad choices. But when bad things happen to us it is not necessarily a consequence of bad choices or sin—the Book of Job killed that damaging theology. Trusting God in the midst of challenge and adversity is the sign we are mature followers of Jesus; such challenges are of course the way that God disciplines and matures us. Even in the secular world of self-help the truth of learning through challenge and failure is recognised.

Time and again in the story of the exodus the people of God must decide, in the midst of trial and turmoil, who will they trust? Time and again in the story of our little lives we have to decide, who will we trust?

Exodus 12 6th May 2018

3. Yahweh’s Power
The central act by God at the Passover—the death of the firstborn of every family—is a dramatic act of power. It is also terrifying on just about every level. To modern sensibilities the Passover narrative is a text of terror and there are of course interpretive strategies that address this challenge in different ways—with diverse degrees of success and conviction. This is not the place to rehearse these.

Some theologians use a special phrase to refer to events like the Passover in First Testament: Magnalia Dei, or The Mighty Acts of God. The events described in the Passover and wider exodus story are at the top of the scale of power. The other plagues, whilst acts of power in their own right have merely been a foretaste of this event. Each plague ridiculed an Egyptian god. The tenth and final one shows Yahweh rather than Osiris as the god of death. It can also be seen as an answer to the horror of Pharaoh’s dealings with new-borns at the opening of Exodus. Yahweh’s tenth plague is a terrible reply.

The Second Testament provides fresh insight into God’s power. God, as glorious creator, is still of course a God of raw power. But in Christ we see that in God’s mercy he does not deal with earthly power by just trumping it. He subverts the very meaning of power in the cross—in the frailty and weakness of Jesus’ body, broken for us, we see God’s power displayed in a new upside-down light. Cross and Resurrection together complete the re-evaluation of God’s power—Paul’s letters reflect on this at length (for example see 1 Corinthians 1).

The Mighty Acts of God in Passover are a foretaste of the New Testament’s Passover Lamb, Jesus. Who would have thought that a single lamb would one day enable members of every tribe and nation to be saved at the same time as redefining power? We would do well to understand that in this age God’s power is made known firstly in meekness and secondly in majesty. The biblical hope is one in which for God’s plan to be completed, a day is coming when majesty will once more be centre stage.

4. A New Reality
The Passover marks a new reality. Once they were not a people—now the descendants of the Patriarchs are the people of God. Once we were not a people—in Christ the new Passover Lamb we were made the people of God.

The Passover is the turning point of the story of how the Israelites escape captivity in Egypt. Such a decisive act of power by their God is what was needed to initiate their departure. A grieving hard-hearted pharaoh will now let God’s people go.

This new reality looks back—Yahweh’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob make a decisive step towards completion. The Passover also echoes the ram that substituted for Abraham’s firstborn.

This new reality looks forward—he foundations of the New Exodus are laid. The many lambs of Passover pre-empt the one lamb at Calvary. The death of so many firstborn precedes the death of the Yahweh’s firstborn.

5. Calling to Mind
We need to remember—to call to mind—God’s faithfulness in creating and redeeming a people. As frail human beings we are too slow to remember God’s acts and his grace. One minute we are thanking and praising God, the next we have forgotten.

Throughout Scripture there are exhortations to remember—to call to mind—who God is and his Mighty Acts redemption and salvation. Scripture is many things, including testimony. We have a First Testament, or testimony. We have a Second Testament, or testimony. The act of reading the smallest part of Scripture is an act of remembering—calling to mind—the living God. As daily bread it is vital nourishment.

The testimony of the Bible should not of course be only an individual practice. It has a special vitality as gathered communities remember together. This is especially the case in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as we remember the one Passover Lamb.

6. Every Soul
The story of good news started very specifically with promises made to one man named Abraham. But the good news that was founded then is for every soul.

The story became richer with promises made to one nation. But the good news that was emerging is for very soul.

The story finished with one man’s death and resurrection. The Good News that the one man was both God-man and Passover Lamb. And that he was God’s firstborn son—firstborn because he is the first of many children, for the good news is for every soul.

Exodus: Apollos Old Testament Commentary

Exodus: Apollos Old Testament Commentary, Desmond Alexander, London: Apollos, 2017. xxpp. 764pp. hb, £39.99, ISBN 978-1-78359-434-4 / $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8308-2502-8

IVP kindly supplied a copy of this book for review. For those unfamiliar with the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series, its stated aim is to combine rigorous academic commentary with interpretation for the contemporary evangelical church. In this specific volume ahead of the commentary proper, is a 32 page introduction to the Book of Exodus. The opening section on ‘the exodus story’ (pp.1–4) provides a helpful and insightful statement of the theological purpose of the Book of Exodus. For Alexander, Exodus 15:17 is an especially important verse. He understands it as crystallising the idea that the exodus of the people of God from Egypt is a preparation of Israel at one mountain (Sinai) in anticipation of dwelling with God before another (Zion) in the Promised Land. Alexander helpfully stresses the breadth of the nature of salvation portrayed in Exodus. He outlines its motifs of redemption from slavery, purification, ransom from death and sanctification. Three short sections orientate Exodus within (i) its literary context, i.e. Genesis to Kings, (ii) the rest of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, (iii) the New Testament. The differences of opinion as to the structure of the book are usefully outlined and the author concludes that chapter 18 (Jethro’s visit to Moses) is a ‘hinge’ between chapters 1–17 (Israel’s escape from captivity) and 19–40 (Israel’s covenants with Yahweh).

A large section of the Introduction is concerned with the relationship between the Book of Exodus and history. Alexander outlines the archaeological evidence for an exodus of people from Egypt with regard to its correspondence with the Book of Exodus. Alexander does not advocate a definite date for the events described in Exodus, pointing to the lack of evidence, especially with regard to the conquest of Canaan. Some readers, even those of an Evangelical stance, might feel that Alexander has been too accepting of even the finest details of the account of Exodus—his approach is not especially sympathetic too approaches that privilege literary form over historicity.  Alexander appears to favour an early date for the events described in the book of Exodus but he recognises that certainty is not possible based on the limits of both text and archaeology. The Introduction concludes with a postponement of any decision about the route of the Exodus until the commentary proper and some comments on the text of the book.

I found navigating the main body of the commentary frustrating at times as the major section headings and occasional excurses are not listed in the contents page. Each of the smaller textual units is examined in five sections:

  • Translation: Alexander’s own translation of the verses is presented. This translation is fluent and engaging.
  • Notes on the text: The rationale behind the choice of key words and phrases made in the translation is presented and important textual variants are discussed. All of the Hebrew is transliterated and important matters of grammar explained at length.
  • Form and structure: The textual unit is explored at length. Here Alexander is especially helpful in justifying the reason for the identification of the specific verses as a unit and the relationship of the unit to other parts of Exodus. A key strength is the thorough exploration of intertextual relationships of the unit with the rest of Scripture, especially the Book of Genesis.
  • Comment: It is here that the passage in unfolded in detail in a verse-by-verse manner. The focus remains tightly upon the passage in its original context.
  • Explanation: In this section, Alexander helps the reader start the interpretive journey from ‘then’ to ‘now’. It is here that the passage is engaged with theologically and Alexander puts the passage into New Testament perspective. This step is helpful for the preacher and is the most distinctive feature of this commentary (and indeed the series) compared to some other full-length technical commentaries. This reader found these sections to be helpful ‘points of departure’.

In its entirety this commentary makes two theses as to how the Book of Exodus should be handled. The first thesis is methodological and is, perhaps surprisingly, not made readily apparent in the Introduction. The second is theological and central to Alexander’s understanding of the whole book. In turn these two theses are:

  1. The enterprise of source criticism in its documentary and fragmentary forms has been rather unfruitful. This is not because Alexander rules out complex textual development per se, but rather classic source criticism has not found anything like scholarly consensus. Indeed, time-and-again Alexander shows that literary units are just that, units, and programmatic efforts to dissect them are sterile exercises which are unwarranted. The commentary would have been a lot shorter without the consideration of the possibilities afforded by source critical approaches and some more conservative readers might have welcomed their omission. However, these sections taken together provide a thoroughgoing challenge to anyone pursuing the source critical approach for understanding the Pentateuch.
  2. At the outset (pp.1–2) points out the role of Mount Sinai in Exodus as a preparation for living with Mount Zion in the, to quote Alexander, the ‘land flowing with milk and syrup’. This approach is both nuanced and compelling.

To conclude, the identification of these two theses makes this commentary not only a very good technical commentary on the Book of Exodus but ensures it makes specific methodological and theological contributions to the scholarship on what is a pivotal text of the Hebrew Bible. In summary, anyone wanting a rigorous and thoroughgoing examination of Exodus from a stance of Christian faith will find what they need in this latest addition to the Apollos Commentary series.

 

 

Y is for YHWH

When devout Jews read the word YHWH (or YHVH) in the biblical texts they read the word as Adonai. In doing this they are showing a reticence to use the divine name. The word Yahweh is one way of rendering the four letters YHWH, or YHVH, known as the Tetragrammaton. The reticence to vocalise the divine name has left some uncertainty as to how to pronounce YHWH when vowels are added. Hence the uncertainty about whether we should use Jehovah or Yahweh. Pronunciation depends on how vowels are added. The latter results if the vowels associated with Adonai, translated Lord, are used as in some manuscripts. As is evident by now to readers of this blog, I prefer the rendering Yahweh.

Although the name Yahweh is ‘revealed’ by God in the book of Exodus the name is used before this point in the biblical story. In Exodus 3:13‒15, Moses encounters a burning bush which is not consumed by fire. The story is full of imagery typical of a theophany, or divine encounter. In the narrative, God reveals himself as Yahweh.  Because, as we have seen, the necessary vowels for vocalisation are not present the name might mean a range of things. These include: ‘he is’; ‘he becomes’; ‘he will be’; ‘he causes to be’; etc. Semantically this can sound very profound but also rather abstract. It is therefore important to note that the burning bush account indicates that Yahweh is anything but remote. The story makes it clear that Yahweh’s presence and his relationship with Israel are central to the story that is being presented:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am [YHWH] has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13‒15 (NRSV)

The name Yahweh has immensely important implications for the Bible story and also for our understanding of the psalms. What we find in this name is the idea of a special relationship between God and Israel. Yahweh is the God of Israel; the nation of Israel are the people of Yahweh. This is a startling claim and raises profound issues for interfaith dialogue and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity with their rival truth claims. Questions are raised as to how we go from a special revelation, to a single people, to a universal religion open to all. This challenging issue is sometimes termed the scandal of particularity.

It has been suggested that the longer name (technically an appellation), Yahweh Sebaoth is the solemn cultic name of the God of Israel.  This is based on the use of the appellation in Psalm 24 which can be seen as a special psalm used in an enthronement ceremony of Israel’s God:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts [i.e. Yahweh Sebaoth],

    he is the King of glory. Selah

Psalm 24:9‒10 (NRSV)

Given that the Hebrew Bible so clearly presents Yahweh as the revealed name of God and that he has other appellations too, why are people of faith today reticent to name him? Most Christians will call Yahweh, God for much of the time. It is certainly not due to the sense of fear and awe that made scribes omit the vowels from the divine name.

 

M is for Moses

My first recollection of anything connected to the Hebrew Bible is watching the film The Ten Commandments. This was the 1956 version of the film although I was watching it around twenty years after its release. The director, Cecil B. DeMille, made two films with this name. The first film was a silent one released in 1923. Despite some commonality these two films are actually rather different to each other. The first film presented a relatively short account of the Exodus story in which, as its title suggests, the Ten Commandments are central. The narrative in which Moses is central is a prelude to a longer story concerning two brothers. The two brothers choose different paths in life. One chooses to live a life consistent with the Ten Commandments. The other brother pursues a life in which he breaks every commandment. The outcome comes as little surprise—Danny’s disdain for the commandments means that his sins eventually catch up with him, after a life of decadence.

The 1956 version is often termed a remake but it is a very different film. The newer film is wholly concerned with the life of Moses. This story is covered at length with the film having an epic running of time of 3 hours and 40 minutes, if the original intermission is included. Much of the later parts of the film are a straightforward, even faithful account of the life of Moses. The opening hour of the film fills in a lot of ‘the blanks’. From a cinematic point of view this is quite understandable. Modern sensibilities expect a film to be about the main protagonist, and not the titular Ten Commandments. Readers of the life of Moses in Exodus realise, because of the gaps in the story, that this is more than a story about Moses. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, silence often surrounds the questions we want to ask. This is arguably driven by a deliberate literary device rather than any authorial lack of information. The additions to DeMille’s film, to be fair make for a number of intriguing plot developments. The biggest departure concerns Moses falling for Nefretiri, who as a princess is expected to marry the next Pharaoh. The film also portrays Moses as a General. He defeats the Ethiopian army and the country then agrees an alliance with Egypt.

How would Cecil B. DeMille feel I wonder if he knew that in his effort to bring a key element of the biblical canon to life he had made other elements of the story achieve canonical status? The childhood of Moses is again a key feature of DreamWorks’ 1998 Prince of Egypt. Moses’ military prowess is central to Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings. By 2014 something has changed with regard to the basic commitment to the story however. Cecil B. DeMille wanted to celebrate the Ten Commandments, not only as a story but as a tenet of faith. Scott and presumably his studio are keen to explain the miraculous in terms of implausible coincidence. All this said, all of these retellings are in a sense legitimated by the original—the narrative terseness of the Hebrew Bible invites retelling—retelling is central to the very purpose of this story:

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” 

Exodus 12:24‒7