Passing Over

My church has been going through a sermon series on the book of Exodus. The preaching has been excellent as a whole. One of my favorite moments came when one of the preaching pastors looked at the confrontation between Moses/Aaron and Pharaoh where Aaron’s staff became a snake that swallowed up the snakes made by the magicians. It was a challenge directed at Pharaoh’s own authority–look at the headdress the Pharaohs wore with the serpents on them. It was fantastic to hear about the gospel of Jesus Messiah challenged the very things we believe to be authoritative, including ourselves. Piercing and penetrating, well researched and made the text come alive in a new way.

Today, the sermon series has come to the Passover in Exodus 12. The Ten Plagues as a whole were skipped, but individual themes were pulled from them that occurred in other parts of the narrative before the plagues. My church is a conservative evangelical church, closely aligned with the Neo-Calvinistic movement. So when the series came to the Passover the preaching pastor today (my church has two primary preaching pastors and others rotate in) they expounded the event to expound their idea of the gospel.

As I listened to the sermon, I thought it was a great exposition of how Jesus undercuts the performance-based mentality the cultural west has developed. As the preacher pointed out, western people are so bent on having things go a certain way that they even try to die of the right disease/condition and have the right people come to their funeral. It was a great rebuff of a works-based, moral self-help, self-righteous attempt at approaching life. If we perform right in life, good things will happen to us in death. It was fantastic.

My problem came in the text selected to expound this idea. It doesn’t ring true with the Passover narrative and everything Exodus has been saying up to this point in the book. Let me explain. The text for the sermon came from Exodus 12:1-14, focusing on 12:12-14:

12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. (NIV2011)

In the sermon, it was pointed out that in the previous plagues Israel was spared the suffering. The plague of darkness encompassed all of Egypt except the land of Goshen, where the Hebrews lived. Thus, when the plague of the death of the first born was spoken of, no distinction was made between Egypt and the Hebrews. All were under the wrath of the coming Destroyer (Exodus 12:23). We are to conclude that both Hebrew and Egyptian, Jew and Gentile, were under God’s wrath for their sins. Therefore, the Passover lamb was to absorb the wrath of God and serve as a substitute obedience/righteousness before God (Exodus 12:5 says the lamb is to be without defect, which is theological interpreted to mean Jesus never sinned). The lamb was looked to as an act of faith by the Hebrew people.

My problem is that this doesn’t fit thematically with what has been going on in the book of Exodus up to this point–or even the rest of the book. If you look at the text I specifically quoted from, or read the link to the passage provided, you’ll note that at no point in the text is Israel indicted for disobedience. Rather, the passage says that Yahweh (the LORD) is going to pass judgment upon the gods of Egypt. It’s the climax of divine confrontation and warfare.

In point of fact, the whole book of Exodus is about this divine visitation upon Egypt for her enslavement of the Hebrew people. God’s plagues were attacks upon the gods that Egypt worshiped. In Exodus 4:21-23 God says that because Pharaoh didn’t let Israel–God’s firstborn son–go free, Egypt’s firstborn must die. The last of the Ten Plagues isn’t punishment for Israel’s sins, it’s God’s judgment upon Egypt. In Exodus 7:1-5 Yahweh says that the signs and wonders are manifestations of his hand being laid against Egypt, including all of the Ten Plagues. It’s a battle between Yahweh and Egypt.

The whole book is about Yahweh rescuing Israel from her slavery to Egypt and establishing her as his people. The book doesn’t look at sins as an individual thing while the nation is in slavery. Pharaoh is indicted for his sin in the book, and he is judged. But he is also the foil for the nation. Pharaoh and “Egypt” are the same thing just as the King and “Israel” are the same thing. In and through Pharaoh Egypt is being obstinate. Him being hardened is a symbolic act of Egypt being hardened. It’s Egypt being judged for refusing to let Israel go and worship her god.

As the preacher also argued, the Hebrews weren’t being singled out like they had been in previous plagues. In this plague the slaves were as susceptible to the destroyer as the Egyptians were and had to put the blood on the door to escape the coming wrath. But I don’t think that’s the case. Only the Hebrews are given the instructions about the blood of the lamb to escape the destroyer. So in the morning, only the firstborn of the Hebrew slaves were still alive. The blood of the lamb marked them out as the people of Yahweh, and Yahweh as the victor over the Egyptian gods.

In an article entitled, “The Feast of Cover-Over,”evangelical scholar Meredith Kline argues that the idea behind the Hebrew term translated “passover” is a bird protecting her nest and chicks. He writes,

In the light of our findings concerning the verb päsah, the picture in Exodus 12 is not one of God’s passing over his people but of his coming to them and abiding with them through the dark night of judgment on Egypt. Like a hovering bird spreading its protective wings over its young, the Lord covered the Israelite houses, keeping watch over them. He was their gatekeeper, their guardian against the entrance of the angel of death.

The role of the lamb isn’t to absorb God’s wrath against Israel’s sins but to protect from God’s wrath against Egypt. It’s God coming to his people covering the Hebrews like an “avian shield” (see Kline).  It’s not a penal substitute, as the sermon this morning argued. It doesn’t fit the text thematically or lexically.

Sometimes I think that if an English teacher asked for a preacher to write a paper on Exodus 12 and the passover event, developing the themes of the passage from within the context of the book, they’d get an F on the paper because they would develop the text on themes alien to the Exodus book. Sure it preaches well, but it doesn’t resonate with the text. And the theme of liberation from sin is a powerful theme that needs preaching today as much as the themes of penal substitution to cut the legs out from under legalism and merit theology.

The text of Exodus provides powerful ammunition for hurting people to hear the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus died at Passover and manipulated the Passover meal (possibly, there wasn’t a mention of the eating of the lamb and Jesus’ death is at the moment the Passover lamb was slaughtered) because this event in Israel’s history is the primary thematic lens for his work–though not exclusively. Preachers, why not let the text pour out its riches instead of divorcing those riches for a preferred system of theology? Trust the Spirit to work through the Scriptures. See what happens when you just develop the text. I bet you’ll be amazed.

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~ by hankimler on November 17, 2013.

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