Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20.
Deliverance involves both the redeemed and their enemies, and even the community of love needs ways to keep its boundaries.
These readings are about in-groups and their opponents or enemies. About “them” and “us.” They present extreme actions between the in-group and its enemies or deviants. In a world of oppression, deliverance means somebody is going to really hurt – often die. These are serious readings!
Though it is not the season for it, the Torah reading presents the detailed instructions for how to observe the Passover in Israelite homes.
In the narrative line of these selected readings from Exodus, we have leaped over the great scenes of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh with God’s command, “Let my people go!” We have also skipped the complex drama of God’s systematic overpowering of Pharaoh by delivering one plague after another on the people of Egypt, who suffer because of Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance. When, during this ordeal, God occasionally “hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (e.g., 9:12), it means that God gave Pharaoh the courage of his own convictions. Pharaoh is the archetype of every great power that oppresses the people of God, and the conflict between the forces of oppression and the forces of liberation is terribly serious and must be forced to a complete conclusion, even if God has to lend Pharaoh support!
(For a rather long discussion of the Exodus story and the Passover, see below the Special Note on the Exodus Story and Passover.)
The climax of the entire power struggle is on the night of the Passover. All the Israelite firstborn will be saved – by the Passover ritual – and all the Egyptian firstborn will die – a final overwhelming proof of God’s power over the gods of Egypt, and over Pharaoh their earthly agent.
Liberation does not come cheaply. The ones to be liberated prepare in anxiety and darkness, sacrificing the selected and watched-over lamb (or kid) and eating its meat as a group ritual with numerous taboo details. Especially solemn and numinous is the blood ritual. A branch from a hyssop plant is used as a brush, dipped in the basin of lamb’s blood and daubed on the doorposts and lintel of the house. (The full details are in 12:22, not included in the reading.)
This blood framing the doorway of the house is each family’s only security from the “plague” that will pass through at midnight. All around these anxious Israelite slaves Egyptian households are struck with horrifying grief. There is death and agony over the land. As the cosmic powers contend for the destinies of human groups, it is a matter of life and death for all parties involved.
The exodus story is not just joy; there is also human cost and a death to an old order. All of that is symbolized by the blood of the Passover lamb. The death is represented by the blood; the hope and new beginning is represented by the extended family eating the meal on the eve of liberation from slavery.
If the Passover ritual combines the death of the powers of evil with the liberation of the enslaved, the Psalm reading is unabashed triumphalism. It exults in the God who sends the faithful to crusading victory over the peoples and their kings. “Let the high praises of God be in their throats / and two-edged swords in their hands, / to execute vengeance on the nations / … to execute on them the judgment decreed” (verses 6-9, NRSV).
This is the viewpoint of, among others, the Hasmonean – Maccabean – priest-kings as they mobilized a newly-independent Israel to conquer and convert their neighbors, the Edomites and Samaritans, during the second and first centuries BCE (Josephus, Antiquities, book 13). It is the viewpoint of Christian crusaders in the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries CE in the Muslim lands of Palestine, as well as in a number of unfortunate Jewish communities – and even the fellow Christian great city of Constantinople – on the way to the Holy Land.
For chastened Christians of the twentieth-first century, it is impossible that these could be useful words.
Like the portrayal of Passover eve, these are the words of people who have known bitter oppression and yearn to witness a total reversal. Let the oppressors suffer and die as we have suffered and died for so long! That MUST be God’s will!
These are the words of vengeance, and as such best left in silence by those who pray for peace, peace even at the cost of suffering and humiliation – in the way Christians know as that of Jesus.
The Epistle reading continues the “ethical” section of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The first part of this reading urges that the commandment to love one’s neighbor, if fully observed, would fulfill all the commandments of the law. “For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” including the Ten Commandments, several of which are cited. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (verse 10, NRSV).
Paul adds to this that we live in an end-time. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…” (verse 11). While usually Paul enters into no calculations about the end of the age, his counsel for Christian conduct regularly appeals to the short time remaining to the believer. The Christian lives and acts as if the world we have known is no longer our future. We have only a present, in which to live in love for our neighbor, and a hope that is wholly with Christ.
Paul’s reading of Christian hope also places the attitude toward worldly enemies in proper perspective.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution…? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37.)
The followers of Jesus are conquerors, not with two-edged swords, but with the love of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel reading presents one of the special emphases of the Gospel According to Matthew – the assembly of followers that became “the church.” The word “church” is used only in Matthew among the Gospels, and in Matthew only in the blessing on Peter (16:17-20) and here on the internal discipline of “the church.”
The instructions are to keep internal conflicts as contained as possible. When the need for conflict resolution arises, first try one-on-one. If an alleged offending party refuses to come to agreement, try meeting with one or two more, enough to provide witnesses about the matter. If that does not restore harmony, final resort is to the full group – with no clues here as to how that would actually be done, but presumably it would come before what we might call a “congregational meeting.”
There is a final measure that the church can take. “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile [a person of the nations] and a tax collector” (verse 17, NRSV).
Gentle-minded persons have sometimes said that treating someone like a Gentile or tax collector means accepting them, as Jesus did at the beginning. However, that probably does not take seriously what the passage is about. It is, in fact, about maintaining some degree of order and dispute resolution within the larger community. That is why the next words empower the church to “bind” and “loose” things on earth (verse 18). The life of the community of faith eventually requires enough cohesion and mutuality to follow and serve its Lord effectively and harmoniously. Therefore, the decisions of the full congregation about who is in and who is out are ratified in heaven.
But the community – the church – is the body of people to whom the Lord Jesus is present. (“And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age,” the final words of the Gospel, 28:20). And the discussion here concludes with the promise that that presence will continue even without any substantial quorum. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (verse 20).
Even those sent packing by the whole congregation may yet find others with whom they can experience the presence of the risen Lord.
Special Note on the Exodus Story and Passover
The Lectionary Readings omit eight chapters from the Exodus story (Exodus 4-11). Dropping eight chapters of narrative from, say, the book of Numbers may be an acceptable choice to accommodate limits of the Lectionary cycles. But dropping eight chapters from the very heart of the most critical narrative of Israel’s sacred story seems embarrassing.
The reasons for this omission are most likely two: (1) The Plague Narrative could not be included in its entirety, and selecting only one or two plague episodes would give a fragmentary and ragged impression. Besides, the Passover passage (the present Lectionary reading) includes a narrative of the tenth plague. (2) The Plague Narrative, in its most straightforward sense, is not edifying – it does not present God in a favorable light. It shows the Mighty One inflicting deliberate suffering on a people caught at the mercy of its dull-witted and stubborn potentate. It even shows that Mighty One holding up the sagging Pharaoh with his left hand while he pops him again with his right. Undignified, if not downright immoral! Best leave it out of the Lectionary entirely!
Well, here, outside the proper confines of the Lectionary, some points about this historically colossal narrative may be made. This discussion may seem like presenting the Scrooge view of the Exodus, for though the Exodus is a liberation story, when read closely it does not fit liberation theologies of our time very comfortably.
This is for two reasons: (1) The Exodus is only part of a larger story, the completion of which is the conquest of a promised land by a triumphant chosen people. Everywhere through the story, there are clear signs that that promised-land conclusion is the overarching meaning of the liberation from slavery in Egypt.
(2) The Exodus narrative itself makes clear that the defeat of the enslaving power is exclusively God’s doing. Human initiative (read “political action”) utterly fails to achieve liberation; that is what Exodus 5 demonstrates in the structure of the Exodus action. The population who will be redeemed by God’s action is passive during the whole thing. The contest is exclusively a power struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh. This is certainly a major theological statement of the Israelite tradition. The Exodus was God’s doing, an astonishing winning of the prize for which God and Pharaoh were competing.
And the Plague Narrative makes indelibly clear that this is only a power struggle. There is nothing about justice, rights, or morality in the struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh. They share no common framework – no covenant – within which rights or justice could be appealed to. The one and only issue is power. Who is stronger? Who can force the other to give up possession of the Hebrews.
Issues of right and wrong cannot enter the sacred story until Israel has been to Sinai. In Egypt, Israel is only being born, being forced with birth pangs from the womb that used to nourish it but now has become constricting and oppressive. At Sinai Israel will experience his Bar Mitzvah, and from then on matters of morality will be of great importance. The Exodus is a contest of power, not of morality. The character of the narrative makes that clear.
Which brings us to the Plague Narrative. First a word about the structure of action leading to the plague narrative proper. (Exodus 1-13 is a composite narrative, an extended re-telling that uses earlier narrative strands, plus a few non-narrative passages. However, we will talk about what the final narrative has been made into, rather than what it was made out of. We are looking at the structure of the final narrative, not its sources.)
After Israel sank into deep oppression through slave labor and genocide (chapters 1-2), God in heaven made a first movement in response to Israelite laments (2:23-25). That movement led to the call of Moses and Aaron with declaration of Yahweh’s overall plan and instructions for their particular roles (chapters 3-4). They hasten to Egypt and let both the Israelite leaders and Pharaoh know what Yahweh demands. That leads not to an exodus but a worsening of the oppression and reduces everyone, including Moses, to resignation and despair (chapter 5, concluding with Moses’ complaint, “O Lord, …since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.” – 5:22-23, NRSV.)
This signals yet another Divine Turn. A divine speech declares who Yahweh is (in the P strand the name Yahweh is first introduced here) and what he is going to do – take Israel from Egypt and give it the promised land (6:2-9). There is a pause in the flow of action while the narrator recites some genealogical lore about the Levites, and Moses and Aaron in particular (6:14-27, which carries the Levite genealogy two generations past Moses, to Phinehas, a priest of destiny in Numbers 25:6-13).
Finally we are ready for the court contest to begin. The action of the Plague Narrative is very formalized. It is a courtly duel in which two powerful lords declare themselves and then demonstrate their prowess. Typically Yahweh sends Moses (and Aaron) to negotiate with Pharaoh, announcing a “blow” (the general term for “plague,” magepha, used in 9:14) if the Hebrews are not released. The coming of the “blow” shows that Yahweh’s power is greater – that Pharaoh cannot prevent it. Pharaoh tries a number of evasions, the details of which contribute to the steady crescendo in the plague sequence. A subordinate theme is the efforts of the Egyptian magicians to keep pace with the miracles done by Moses and Aaron, and their increasing discomfiture is a touch of comic relief in the narrative progression.
There are ten plagues in the final narrative. The number of plagues, and the terminology for each one, could vary from recitation to recitation, as is seen in Psalm 78:42-52 (probably six plagues, varying terminology) and Psalm 105:27-36 (seven plagues, pretty much Exodus terminology but different order).
The plague episodes are not uniform. Three of them have no audience with Pharaoh at the beginning, but simply launch into instructions to Moses and Aaron to bring on the plagues: these are the third, sixth, and ninth plagues. It seems likely that the base of the present narrative was originally a seven-plague sequence, made up perhaps of what are now the first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh, eight, and tenth plagues.
Except in Psalm 105, the first plague always is turning the water of the Nile into blood (7:14-24). There follow a number of nuisance plagues (frogs, gnats, flies, and belatedly, in the sixth plague, boils). After that Yahweh begins direct assaults on the Egyptian economy: the fifth plague kills livestock (9:1-7), then hail kills both livestock and crops (9:13-35), and then locusts finish off the crops (10:1-20).
Standing in a unique role is the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. This is no ordinary absence of sunlight; it is “a darkness that can be felt” (10:21). First, this plague implies that the contest has gone cosmic, involving the heavenly powers, not just local conditions (though the Israelites somehow still had light that was lacking to the Egyptians, 10:23). Secondly, this plague may be symbolic, since the chief god of Egyptian royalty was Ra, the sun god, giver of light.
Finally, the last plague is always the death of the first-born. This is the first direct assault on human life in the plague sequence. The death of the crown prince and of the heir apparent in every family is the ultimate defeat of the enemies of Yahweh’s people. This plague is always the immediate occasion, in later Israelite religious practice, of the Passover observance, the offerings of the first-born animals and sons by Israelites, and the observance of the Unleavened Bread festival (the release of the new grain crop for human consumption). All of these things were aspects of the spring festival in historic times, running over a two to three week period in March and April.
Setting in Israelite Life. Assuming this overview of the Exodus narrative, let’s speculate on its place and power in historic Israelite life. When would just this kind of narrative have been most cogent to the condition and needs of early Israelites?
We assume that the Passover went back to pre-monarchic times as an Israelite custom. In the later monarchic period, it was remembered as an observance of the age of the judges that had fallen into neglect in the time of the kings. “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah” (II Kings 23:22). The instructions for the Passover in Exodus 12 require permanent houses, with doorposts and lintels, houses that were the numinous boundaries of danger during the critical night. The next morning the Israelites went out of their houses to celebrate the feast of Unleavened Bread, the eating of the new grain crop. (On this see Joshua 5:10-12.)
The setting is unquestionably well-settled agricultural-pastoral communities. This setting corresponds to what we now know of the Iron Age I settlements of hill-country Israel. (See, for example, Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt [Society of Biblical Literature, 2007], Part 3, “The Historical Origins of Collective Israel,” pp. 67-98.) This is the social-economic world in which the Passover narrative would have been important and in which its development and progressive elaboration would have had its early stages.
We may recall that Egypt had been a major power over the Canaanite city-states periodically for more than three centuries before 1200 BCE. Pharaoh had long been a mighty figure off to the south, either threatening or supporting the tranquility of every Canaanite community. Around that date, Pharaoh Merneptah made a substantial raid into Canaan, destroying (he claimed) several cities as well as the people called “Israel” (his victory stele contains the first mention of “Israel” in history). However, the pharaohs were beginning to lose their power in Canaan, and within fifty years after Merneptah they were only a memory, good or bad according to each local community’s past experience.
Now we may project that for Israelites in this period and in this setting, the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative is every petty Canaanite city-state king writ large. In such a context we can see the power that that narrative could have for a lesser developed people living out of the reach of city-state kingdoms that were mainly in the valleys and plains. The Plague Narrative is a long, intricate enjoyment of the increasing embarrassment of the local city king who has pretended to power over the Israelite peasant settlements. The Passover observance, at which the Exodus narrative was recited in some form or another, was the ritual declaration that the people belonged to Yahweh and not to the local Canaanite / Philistine king.
Every Israelite head of household had to observe this ritual (see Exodus 10:8-11, Numbers 9:13, and full instructions in Exodus 12:43-49). This observance, at the spring festival of the year, was each Israelite’s declaration of faith and loyalty to Yahweh, the God who claimed this people and was able to deliver it!