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Passover and the ExodusExodus 12 brings us to the summation of the plagues of Egypt. It demonstrates both God’s ultimate mercy toward His people and His righteous judgment against His enemies. The importance of what happened this night cannot be understated. Indeed, God tells Moses and Aaron: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2). In other words, so important was this time that it would become the primary month of the calendar.
So what happened that night? First, there was the command:
Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their father’s houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb (Exodus 12:3-4).Inside this command, God provides for those who are poor, not just for the wealthy, in allowing neighbors to pool their resources together. Furthermore, in verse 14 we read: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statue forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” Since this is an ongoing command, to be done the tenth day of the first month every year, this provision was necessary lest too much of a financial burden be placed on anyone such that they would become bankrupted by it.
The financial hardship this could cause becomes even more noticeable in the next verse: “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old” (Exodus 12:5). God permits the use of either a lamb or a goat (see the rest of verse 5), but because there can be no blemish in the animal this constituted the prime animals of the flock. Thus, not only is this a yearly expense, but it is the expense out of the best animals, meaning it would constitute a genuine sacrifice on the part of the Hebrew people.
And what are they to do with this animal?
Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn (Exodus 12:7-10).So the perfect animal was to be slaughtered and the flesh consumed completely, with anything left over destroyed in fire. This meant that by the end of the night, nothing would be left of the animal except for the blood that was placed on the doorposts and lintel. But why should it be this way? We see a hint at it in the next few verses:
In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:11-13).The sacrifices of the sheep or the goat therefore provides two different things. First, the manner of how the meal was eaten would represent the fact that Israel had to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. They were about to be freed and were not going to tarry in the land of enslavement.
But beyond that, the fact that after the entire animal was consumed the only thing left behind was the blood marking the doorway helps to indicate to us that the blood was the most important part of the sacrifice. It did not save someone who ate the rest of the sheep or goat but did not apply the blood. Furthermore, having the rest of the sheep available would have been of no use to save someone. So the only thing that mattered was whether or not the blood was covering what it was supposed to be covering. If it was, God would pass over the house and not destroy it. If it was missing, however, then the plague would befall the one inside the house.
After receiving a few more regulations for how the meal is to be made, Moses passes the information on to the elders of Israel in verse 21. The people of Israel do as the LORD commanded, and we read:
At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the LORD, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!” (Exodus 12:29-32).The man with most power in the world at the time had been crushed. Despite how hard his heart has become, even that can no longer resist against God’s judgment, and he orders Israel to leave.
It might interest you that because all the firstborn males died this night, Pharaoh could not have been the firstborn son of his father. In fact, assuming Pharaoh’s father had been Pharaoh before him, it is possible Pharaoh came to the throne by usurping his brother (although given the historical times, it could have been a natural death in the family too). In either case, it’s speculation at this point, so while I do find it interesting, we will move on.
God had promised that when Israel left Egypt she would plunder the Egyptians, and now we see that fulfilled.
The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians (Exodus 12:33-36).And thus God delivered on His very last promise to Israel. As we read in verse 40, this took place 430 years after Joseph had told his father Jacob to come to Israel. And as Israel left, we read: “It was a night of watching by the LORD, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the LORD by the people of Israel throughout their generations.”
As the chapter ends, we get our final instructions regarding the Passover. First, we are told that no foreigner may eat of it. Every slave who was circumcised, however, had to participate. This shows us that we cannot think of these slaves in the same way to Southern slavery during the American Civil War, as Hebrew slaves had more legal rights than the foreign alien living in Israel did. Lest it be unclear, verse 45 repeats, “No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it” while verse 47 says “All the congregation of Israel shall keep it.” Thus, slaves owned by Israelites were considered members of the house of Israel. This makes more sense when we realize that slavery in Israel was closer to indentured servitude than to our concept of slavery today. After all, the Hebrews had just fled a captivity more like the chattel slavery of the American South and for that reason alone it would be unlikely that they would be treating others in a manner they had just escaped.
Secondly, we read that if there is a “stranger” who travels with them and wants to keep the Passover, if he and all the males are circumcised then they would be permitted to eat of it too, and he would be treated “as a native of the land” (Verse 48). Furthermore, “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (verse 49). Therefore, this Passover meal was not strictly limited solely to those who are Israeli by birth, but could be extended to anyone who wanted to partake of it and was circumcised.
It is important that the role of circumcision not be overlooked. Circumcision was, after all, the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. Thus, in taking on circumcision, the foreigner is becoming just as much a part of Israel as those who are naturally born in Israel, and as such must be treated the same way under the law. Once a member of the covenant, the former stranger now partakes in the same celebration of the deliverance from Egypt, and so while God had chosen Isaac and not Ishmael, as well as Jacob and not Esau, He still provided means by which those who were not part of Israel could become part of Israel so that, as He promised Abraham, all nations would be blessed.
Here, even before the people depart the borders of Israel, we already know that God will deliver any who wished to join to the covenant. Every house that had the blood from the sacrificial lamb was spared. No house missing that blood was spared. The blood of the sacrifice was only effective to those it was applied to. It did not serve to save anyone outside of the house where the blood had been applied. Yet at the same time, it fully saved everyone it was applied to. This Passover, therefore, demonstrates a very limited, yet completely efficacious atonement. The blood is not applied universally, but particularly, and it therefore does not save universally but rather particularly. And this is the pattern that we are commanded to remember and commemorate, everyone who is part of the covenant God made to Abraham, even if we were not originally born into that covenant.
We should also examine the role that the firstborn plays here. It was the firstborn who were killed if the atoning blood was missing from the doorposts and lintel. Exodus 13:1-2 also informs us: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.’” (This can be a bit puzzling since God previously chose Jacob instead of Esau, despite Jacob being the second-born child.)
In any case, these themes will all play important roles as we continue, but if we limit ourselves to the perspective of our hypothetical time traveler who does not have future revelation, we grasp only a little of the importance. Still, the repeated emphasis on remembering the day, the consecration of the firstborn to the LORD, and the exodus of the people are anchors that give us an insight into God’s character at this point. While His timing may seem slow, He does do as He promises. He said He would harden Pharaoh until His power was demonstrated, and He did just that. He said He would free His people from their bondage to Pharaoh, and He does just that.
But even now that He has done what He said He would do, God does not abandon His people to their fate. Instead, we read:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle (Exodus 13:17-18).Even after all that God had done for His people, He knew that their faith was weak. The Philistines were a great warrior tribe at the time, and if the Israelites passed through their lands it would necessitate war. Since they had only just been released from slavery, this would have been bad for Israel, unaccustomed to battle and used to servitude. Therefore “the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21). And in that manner, God led them away from the Philistines so that they ended up learning how to engage in warfare as they left Egypt instead of running in terror at the first opposition.
But there was another reason God did this. He had Israel camp by the Red Sea, saying: “For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.”
So God’s two-fold purpose was not just to avoid the Philistines but also because God was going to make Pharaoh think that the Hebrews were lost without any guide. Despite being led by the cloud and the pillar of fire, it looked to all outside observers like they had no aim or purpose in their travels. Sure enough, the gambit worked. Pharaoh pursued Israel in his chariot, taking his army with him: “And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly” (Exodus 14:8).
Even after having seen the miracles God had worked through Moses, we read that when the Israelites saw Pharaoh nearing, “they feared greatly” and “cried out to the LORD” (verse 10). They even went so far as to say, “it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (verse 12). So despite the many miracles, the people of Israel still harbored great doubts about God. Some of this is understandable as they had grown up slaves to the Egyptians and had known no other way. Nonetheless, it can be difficult for us to look back at the text and empathize with them, and this despite the fact that if we are honest with ourselves we often have our own doubts toward God despite what He has clearly done for us!
In response to the fear of the people, we read:
And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14).These word are quite reassuring. And I can’t help but think back to Moses’s original fear to preach to Pharaoh, and his timidity being so strong that Aaron was forced to become his mouthpiece. Perhaps that gave him the grounds by which he could more fully understand the fear the Israelites felt at this time. God’s response seems surprisingly dismissive in comparison to Moses’s tact: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward’” (verse 15).
The angel of God then moved behind the Hebrews, as did the pillar of cloud. Thus, God presented a buffer between the Egyptian army and the Israelites. Moses then stretched out his hand toward the Red Sea, “and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind”. This allowed the Hebrews to cross the sea on dry ground. But we read: “The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen” (verse 23). The Egyptians panicked at the sight of the pillar of fire and the cloud from God, and God clogged their chariot wheels (verse 25). Then, lest they escape, God commanded Moses to stretch his hand back over the waters, “and the sea returned to its normal course” (verse 27).
The conclusion of the chapter tells us: “Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses” (verse 30-31).