This passage instituting the Passover resonates both backward into its own history and forward into the Christian understanding of what Jesus accomplished and how we ourselves fit into the big story of God’s purposes for human beings.
Two things to frame my thoughts: “None of us are free, none of us are free, none of us are free if one of us is chained, none of us are free” (sung by Solomon Burke) and the story of Elsa, a lion born in captivity who had to be taught how to live like a lion in the wild. We need to recognize that our being free depends on everyone’s being free, and that we have to learn how to live free.
A review of the context for this passage:
1) The Egyptians attempt to diminish and destroy Hebrews by enslaving them
2) Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all boy babies as they are delivered; the midwives evade the order with their wits
3) Pharaoh orders all his people to throw boy babies in the water
Moses, technically thrown in the water, is rescued by his mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted into Pharaoh’s household
This is called irony.
4) Moses returns to Egypt with the mission of leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and slavery
5) Pharaoh ignores 9 plagues prior to this one—9 experiences of being struck by God’s hand (plague means striking)
6) Moses warns Pharaoh specifically about the deaths of firstborns; Pharaoh ignores him
7) This final striking is for the firstborn males—not even yet an eye for an eye, since Egyptians were supposed to throw all male babies into the Nile
8) The striking is for everyone unwilling to follow the commands of God, so not just ethnic Egyptians (Hebrews 11:28 ”by faith he kept the Passover”—anyone who kept Passover was protected.)
What happens to those willing to profit from others’ enslavement or death?
Let My People Go
Thus saith the Lord bold Moses said,
Let my people go
If not I’ll smite thy firstborn dead
Let my people go
The world is built on the idea that might makes right. Whoever is strongest makes the rules, and the weak obey or suffer or both. However, God’s cosmos is built on an spiritual extension of one of the laws of physics—every action results in an equal and opposite reaction. Thus the systematic oppression of one person or of a people builds up a spiritual and cosmic tension that is fearsome to behold. Abraham Lincoln referred to this in his Second Inaugural Address, given in the middle of the Civil War in this country.
“Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”
It just may be that every act of oppression sets up the energy which will rebound to the hurt of the oppressor, perhaps to the oppressor’s children, since such energy is undiscriminating. Oppression begets violence. And certainly it is accurate to say that both North and South had profited from the blood of slaves, and both paid blood drop for blood drop, if Lincoln is right.
The dead firstborn sons of Egypt provide a graphic picture of who often pays for the sins of the fathers. Those willing to enslave others may lose what they most value
When the LORD your God has cut down before you the nations that you are about to enter and dispossess, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their land, beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out before you! Do not inquire about their Gods, saying, “How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices.” You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. (Jewish Study Bible, quoted throughout)
So much to comment on here with the sacrifice of children. Remember Isaac the firstborn of Sarah, nearly sacrificed but God provided a substitute.
God tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, then provided Isaac’s redemption with a ram. God did not require a child sacrifice, not like fertility gods, or we might call them now prosperity gods.
God does not approve of any person sacrificing another to increase prosperity and protect the future.
Look at all the sacrificed children across the Bible—the Canaanites, who made burnt offerings of their sons and daughters to the god Molech; the Egyptians, who drowned the babies of the Hebrews; Herod, who murdered all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem,. Think of the systematic oppression and sacrifice of children in today’s world. Think about the less systematic abuse that makes it difficult for children to trust God.
How does a person learn to live free?
Have faith and make a break for it.
God asked for a fine lamb to be killed, and a symbolic obedience to be enacted, the blood on the doorposts, followed by the grilled lamb dinner—what an interesting picture of God’s grace—give up something you value to God and get your whole life and your child’s life back and a feast to boot; notice that sacrifice precedes freedom but what God requires is less than the retribution the Egyptians stored up for themselves.
Note also that the Hebrews had to be ready to run the minute the door of opportunity opened.
A freed person must remember.
God tells Moses that the plagues with which he is striking the Egyptians are to be signs for the Hebrew people to rehearse forever the story of how God intervened to set them free from slavery and fulfill his promises to Abraham. Here are some psalms that rehearse the story, including Psalm 136.
Psalm 78:51, 105:36, 135:8, 136:10
To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn, for his mercy endureth forever.
What an troubling juxtaposition of judgment and mercy in this passage. It causes us to think about the fact that God gets to judge, not us, and God gets to decide how to administer justice.
God says to us that vengeance belongs to God; when we are oppressed, we do not retaliate in kind but offload the responsibility to God. Why? Because retaliation turns us into oppressors. Being an oppressor is bad for the soul and bad for the children.
A freed person must trust the character of God.
He’s got the whole world in His hands—the sun and the moon, the brothers and the sisters, the tiny little baby. African-American slaves sang this spiritual, which astonishingly affirms faith the care of Almighty God for them and their beloveds. In the face of contrary circumstantial evidence, they believed in the lovingkindness of God. God cares for every child sacrificed, every Canaanite child, every Egyptian child, every Bethlehem child, every enslaved child, God’s own child. No one is outside the care of God. It is not in God’s character to send these children anywhere but into his eternal love.
A freed person must be not become an enslaver. He or she must be generous to the vulnerable.
God expects the Hebrews to remember God’s intervention and therefore to treat the aliens and strangers settled among the Hebrews graciously.
Deut 10:12-22 And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in his paths, to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it. … Cut away, therefore the thickening around your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme and lord Supreme, the great, the mighty, the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing—You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You must revere the Lord your God; only Him shall you worship, to Him shall you hold fast, and by His name shall you swear. He is your glory and He is your God, who wrought for you those marvelous, awesome deeds that you saw with your own eyes. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. Love, therefore, the Lord your God, and always keep his charge, His laws, His rules, and His commandments.
A freed person has responsibility for others.
The prophet Jeremiah (ch. 31) speaks these words of sorrow: “a bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she cannot be comforted because they are not.”
Matthew 2 tells of another “striking”—Herod’s order to kill all male babies under the age of two, recalling Jeremiah’s words, and the one child who escaped to Egypt—out of Egypt I have called my son. Did Jesus feel it a burden to be the survivor? Did he think how he could make up for being the one saved out of the striking?
It is hard to think that God took from the Egyptians their most valued children. But we know how God feels about children. The incarnate God said, permit the children to come to me, and don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of Heaven is made for such as these. Unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven, God’s kingdom, right here among us. Woe to the one who makes it hard for one of these little ones to trust in God. It would be better for that one to have a stone around his or her neck and be drowned in the ocean. Children are the ultimate weak ones in our world, and God cares infinitely for the weak.
Without God’s intervention in history, the story of redemption does not exist. The story of redemption is a story of sacrifice and sorrow—from the garden of Eden to the hill of Golgotha. It takes enormous energy to break the cycle of oppression and violence, of sin and death.
Jesus the firstborn of Mary, the firstborn among many children, the firstborn from the dead; God gave him up to death to redeem us from sin and death. God sacrificed God’s only begotten son to redeem the world, including us—a sacrifice willingly entered into by Jesus, who is very God of very God—God sacrificed someone beloved and God sacrificed God’s very self to save us.
A freed person recognizes that God sees the world as bigger than “us and them.”
Abraham’s first born was Ishmael the son of an Egyptian mother; Joseph’s sons are half Egyptian. Us and them is just not tidy.
Throughout the time of the Patriarchs, Egypt was the place to go for food when drought happened because the Nile kept water coming almost all the time. That’s how the Hebrews came to Egypt in the first place. However, it became both a place of plenty and of slavery—in fact enslavement to the plenty (in the wilderness, the Hebrews lusted for the varied food of Egypt)—They would sell their souls and their relationship with the Almighty God for the predictability and plenty of Egypt.
God’s story is about hope for all. Isaiah 19 speaks about God’s intentions for Egypt:
First, God will bring Egypt under oppression, until they are trembling and terrified. God will break their pride and their idolatry. “In that day, there shall be an altar to the Lord inside the land of Egypt…so that when the Egyptians cry out to the Lord against oppressors, He will send them a savior and a champion to deliver them. For the Lord will make Himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will acknowledge the Lord in that day…The Lord will first afflict and then heal the Egyptians; when they turn back to the Lord, he will respond to their entreaties and heal them.”
A freed person obeys God’s spirit and does not judge.
God sees those who sold their children, those who sacrificed them in fire, and those who lost them to others’ violence, and God sees the children those parents once were, right back to the beginning. God does indeed have the whole world in his hands. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground but your heavenly Father knows.
And for us today, God carries us as well. God knows when we are willingly complicit in oppressive structures, how we lord it over others in our daily lives, God knows when we struggle against those structures and our own desire to dominate, God knows what we are willing to sacrifice our souls’ best interests for, what we are willing to sacrifice our children to. God knows what we fear.
God also knows when we try to be fair and even merciful, when we try to put others’ interests ahead of our own, when we try to give our children the best we have. God knows we are out of our depth, and God promises us help. This help is most likely to be simple everyday guidance. My 19th century mentor George MacDonald said, “Think of something you ought to do and go to do it, if it be the sweeping of the room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend.” When we are confused about how to live, we can ask God for help, and do what God moves us to do.
God disciplines us to help free us to walk along the path of love. God wants us to be like children who, when disciplined, run into the arms of our father or mother where we can know the love that both corrects and nurtures. Then we can go about our lives as free human beings in obedience to the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth.