Passover: Liberation and Violence Bruce G. Epperly
The Bible is one of the epic pieces of spiritual literature, precisely because it isn’t “spiritual.” The Bible is completely embodied, earthy, and political. It is not about escape from this world or the priority over soul over body. It’s about the ambiguities of history, embodiment, conflict, and challenge. People experience God within the uncertainties of history, not by avoiding the real struggles of birthing, infertility, family life, economics, and governance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Exodus stories, the liberation of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage.
As the story goes, the Egyptian rulers have grown suspicious of the growing power and population of the Israelites. They begin a process of genocide and slavery, killing male children at birth and impressing the Israelites into hard labor. According to scripture, God hears the cries of the Israelites and responds by choosing an unlikely leader, Moses, to call upon the Egyptian leader, the Pharaoh, to “let God’s people go.” Pharaoh remains hard-hearted, and even increases the burdens on the Israelites. In response, God sends nine plagues: water into blood, frogs, gnats, flies, death of livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. God brings havoc upon the land, killing human and beast alike. Still, Pharaoh is unrelenting.
God sends one more plague upon the Egyptians. A spirit of death will come over the earth, killing all the Egyptian first-born children. To protect their own children, the Israelites are told to kill a lamb, place its blood on the doorpost, and then enjoy a family supper. From now on, the Jewish people will celebrate Passover in remembrance of their experience of freedom from captivity. Then and now, the people will celebrate God’s liberation. The Passover is a contemporary reality for the Jewish people: once we were in bondage, but then God heard our prayer, and liberated us from our oppressors.
The Passover and exodus – or liberation - from Egypt has been seen as a model of God’s movements in history, especially among those who are experiencing political and economic oppression. The story suggests a number of things about God’s relationship with humanity: 1) God hears the cries of the vulnerable and oppressed, 2) God experiences and responds to human need, 3) God has a bias toward liberation and appears to take sides, favoring the oppressed over the oppressor. God is involved in history, shaped and shaping the historical process with an aim toward justice and freedom.
Yet, there are challenges with this passage just as there are with the Jewish victory in the battle of Jericho where the victors, following God’s command, killed every man, woman, and child of the defeated city. While we can appreciate God’s role as liberator of the children of Israel, the liberation from Egypt, like the battle of Jericho, is ruthless and violent. It raises a number of important theological questions: What are we to say about God’s love for the vulnerable – does this also include the Egyptian babies? Did God ignore the cries of the Egyptian parents, many of whom had nothing to do with the exploitation of the Hebrews? Does God prefer certain people, or ethnic groups, over others?
While we must recognize the importance of the Passover to the Jewish people and to people seeking liberation, we must also challenge images of God that glorify violence and imply that God’s primary mode of action is unilateral and coercive. Such images have historically inspired coercive and violent actions by both oppressors and oppressed, both of whom may assume that they are God’s chosen ones. As an alternative, can we affirm that God has a bias toward Shalom, toward justice and equity, while also affirming that God is at work in those we presume to be our political and economic opponents? An omnipresent God must be present in some redemptive way among both oppressors and oppressed, seeking the wellbeing of all people and not just a select few. This should not be construed as an argument for the status quo, but an invitation to transformation that includes all persons.
As the Egyptian plagues suggest, injustice has consequences. The same implies to consumerism and its impact on global climate and animal life. Still, God seeks wholeness and reconciliation amid our imperfections and injustices. The quest for wholeness may involve rectifying injustices and changing the balance of power and this process may be painful, but through it all, God’s aim is at healing the earth and this includes everyone, in and out, oppressed and oppressor.