In this exegetical interpretation, Erwin Cabucos attempts to capture God’s sacred recognition of the dignity of each human person against the evils of poverty such as the experience of refugees and asylum seekers.
The Passover is significant to Jewish and Christian religions because it concretizes the ritual, mythical and doctrinal dimensions of their religion. It highlights the nature of their deity as the one who is involved in the events of his people. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Passover is the one that sheds importance to current situation, and that is, the Passover account reminds believers that the one, true God favours the poor and the vulnerable. The story of the Passover in the Hebrew and Christian religions emphasizes the importance of recognizing the dignity of each person to be liberated from injustices and poverty such as the experience of the refugees and asylum seekers.
God liberates the deprived
The Passover narrative is located in the book of Exodus chapter 12, verses 1 to 14, and it tells the story of God instructing Moses and Aaron how to conduct the ritual of marking their exit from the bondage in Egypt. It contains specific actions, schedule of activities, materials to prepare, attire to be worn, and people to participate for the event. The date is set: God instructs the two brothers to relay to people to mark the beginning month of the year to be the month they should immortalize to his liberating act for them (v2). The act is described: they should choose a whole, unblemished and young lamb or goat to be eaten roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs on the 14th day (v5). The attire is also clearly instructed: their loins girded, their sandals worn, their staff held in their hands. The venue will be at their houses which doors and lintels will be smeared with blood of the lamb or goat they slaughtered (v7). The anticipated occurrence: God will destroy the first-born children in Egypt except the Hebrews because God will pass over their houses marked by the presence of the blood (v13). These elements prove the strong connection of God with the people. Such involvement in the most specific details suggests his close attachment and concern with the people who have been denied freedom and justice. The predominant theme of the narrative is that God will be with them throughout the whole exercise. The experience of leaving and moving to another location or place can be a daunting human experience, having to adjust again to new environment, cope with new threats and challenges and form new acquaintances and comforts with settlers and the environments. The protagonist in the story, God, somehow addresses this sense of journey-anxiety by closely involving into the course of their activity right from the beginning.
Furthermore, underpinning the strong connection that is made apparent in the plot of the story is the message that this is an auspicious occasion and that the people have been very important to God. This is the beginning of their departure and hence this should be significantly marked, as it is clearly stated: “…throughout your generations, you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance,” (v14). This occasion becomes an underpinning event of their covenant with God: he loves them and they will abide by his providence. Notable in the story is the unwavering wish of God to redeem his people from the deprivation of freedom and justice.
Furthermore, the dichotomy of good and evil is apparent in the plot of the Passover: God prevailing good, liberating people from the evil of slavery that is harbored and purported by the Egyptians. Although in the actual story there is no specific battle that occurs, but the following texts reveal God’s divine warrior-like quality in order to show his covenant with his people, thus claiming as he who freed them from the house of slavery in Egypt. (Craghan, 1998, p. 398). The contrast of treatment between the two groups of characters is evident in this quote: “…I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (v13). Thus the slave characters – the Hebrews who are about to embark on a journey of redemption is placed in the realm of goodness and compassion of the divine, and the proponents of the slavery or the doer of the bondage are kept in the world that is contrary to the sense of the morally good. In the end, as seen in the following chapter, the good God prevails over the wickedness of the oppressors.
The tone of urgency in the narrative is sympathetic to the experience of the slave characters. They must eat their bread hurriedly and use unleavened bread to ensure the food’s longevity in the course of the journey towards the Promised Land. They are to wear sandals, holding their staff and have their loins girded (v11) – all referring to the quick departure they have to make. Such care and concern from the protagonist of the story – God the divine planner and savior of people. The message of the instruction was to benefit the subjects – the slaves who were to be freed from the desperate state to a land of flowing milk and honey. There is therefore a sense of direction that is assumed here: from a troubled land to a safe land, from a land where idols are worshipped to a land where the true God is glorified. The imagery of the closed door smeared with blood adds to the sense of goodbye and the sense of shutting down former life to make way for new life where freedom and love abound.
The apparent seriousness of the event is also intensified by the use of blood, a representation of life. This symbol becomes the motif in the narrative of salvation. It is being used to save the Israelites from death. Indeed, blood is the life-giving material; such truth underpins the theological doctrine of the Eucharist in the Catholic faith, which will be discussed later. The use of blood and sacrifice to mark the significance of this exit impresses seriousness: God is dead serious, as it were, of his concern and love for his poor people. This resonates the theme of dignity for the vulnerable people: they may be slaves, they may be unimportant in the stately affairs of the Pharaoh, and they may be unkempt, illiterate and lowly, but they are important, loved and dignified by the most powerful God. He is serious in recognizing and upholding the dignity of the people who are deprived of freedom, justice and peace.
Background to the Story
The authorship of the book of Exodus, and the Passover in particular, is mostly attributed to the Priestly source. In fact such giving of instructions by God to his people is “a favorite P device” that recurs for much of the Leviticus narratives (Clifford, 1990, p.49), highlighting the justice of God for much of its themes. The Passover narrative is the climactic part of the deliverance story that has been introduced in earlier chapter and narrated for the rest of the content of the book of Exodus. Craghan (1998, p. 396) describes the book of Exodus as “Israel’s identity papers, the record of human interaction and divine grace… [where] God’s real time intervention of human drama in time of difficulty is seen and felt (Craghan, 1998, p.396). The emphasis of God giving importance to the dignity of human being, especially giving assistance to human endeavors, including delivering them to redemption is central to the themes of Exodus. The Passover narrative beautifully exemplifies such message.
The term Passover is taken from the Hebrew word Pesach that is based on the quote: “I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt” (Ex 12:13). It is always embedded with the connotation of sacrifice. Moreover, it is also worth mentioning that the term pass over is related to the word ‘protect’ as referred to in the book of Isaiah 31:5, but also generally alluded to in the whole book of Exodus (Unterman, J., 1985, p. 753).
The Passover is a memorial and a festival of the story of Israelite’s deliverance from Egypt to the Promised Land – Canaan. The Pentateuch has given three accounts of similar story; two of which are found in Numbers 9:1-14 and in Deuteronomy 16:1-8. Senior and Collins (2006) postulate that it might have existed prior to the coming of the Hebrews in Canaan, but later incorporated into the Israelites’ commemoration. The Catholic Study Bible scholars explain: “There seems to be a record of this combination when the Israelites, after entering Canaan, are said to have kept the Passover [in Josh. 5: 10] and on the following day to have eaten the produce of the land [in Josh. 5: 11]” (Senior and Collins, 2006).
The Jews tend to follow the specific instruction on how the festival is celebrated through the original instructions of God to Moses and Aaron in the Torah or Pentateuch: to be done on the first month of the year: Abib (March – April). The animal is to be slaughtered on the 14th day and cooked and eaten in certain ways. The unleavened bread, the Matzot, as well as the bitter herbs are to be consumed to accompany the story being told to Jewish children. Apart from the biblical references of the Passover, two archaeological sources: otraca and papyrus explicitly refer to the auspicious celebration of the Festival in the Jewish Community in the Elephantine region of Egypt in 5th century B.C.E. (Unterman, J., 1985, p. 754).
However, the most significant aspect of the Passover Festival is the myth and tradition within the Jewish culture that God had liberated and redeemed them, giving them hope in the face of physical and spiritual oppression. Radmacher (1999, p. 106) and Unterman (1995, p. 754) maintain that the continuing relevance of the Passover points towards the freedom from discrimination or the acquisition of religious liberty or human freedom.
A call to journey with the poor and vulnerable
The theme of sacrifice and the symbolisms of lamb and blood are realized in the sacrament of the Eucharist within the Catholic tradition. As instituted by Jesus Christ himself on the night before he died, whilst celebrating the Passover with his disciples, he models the sacrifice which he physically endures on the cross the following day. His blood, life and teachings are spiritual sustenance – such theological significance that magnanimously becomes the focus of Catholic’s spiritual life being in communion with God in this life’s journey, bearing with it the moral dimension that they are challenged to be Christ-like to work towards justice and peace for the Kingdom of God. Each time the sacrament of the Eucharist is celebrated, Catholics are endowed with the salvation that liberates them from sinfulness and death, which brings them to life, justice and love.
The striking parallels of the experiences of the people of God in Exodus and the current experiences of the refugees and asylum seekers and those who are currently suffering in the poor countries are not coincidental. In both situations, land is an important element: from being left behind due to problems, to a land sought for peace and happiness. Another important element is blood. In the Passover, blood is sacrificed to attain liberation. In the case of he refugees, blood is shed accidentally or incidentally often due to war and conflict and yet ready to be shed in search for justice and peace. We have heard stories of Asylum seekers in Manus Island threaten to cur their wrist in protest to the Australian government (Sievx, 2014). The third significant element is community or families that come together, with the culture and ritual. Paradoxically, the culture and tradition of the Hebrews were set by God to be preserved and remembered meanwhile the culture and tradition of the refugees today are evidently suppressed and hampered. The fourth and most important element is the longing for redemption and liberation is present in both situations. The people of God are redeemed while the refugees and the asylum seekers are in the process of such redemption. However, central to both situations is the ways in which God shows his concern and uplifting of the dignity of each human being, especially the poor and the vulnerable such as the refugees and asylum seekers.
The narrative of the Passover is overflowing with the messages of the unwavering love of God to humanity. It brings readers to the timeless nature of God as an involved participant in the salvation of people. He is the God of justice, freedom, and redemption. Within these rich meanings, perhaps the timely message of the Passover for our world today, is that it invites us to sympathize with the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, not only in Australia but also those coping with injustices and poverty around the world. As Christians who are called to be Christ-like to our brothers and sisters in need, metaphorically explained by Jesus as the salt of the earth, we are challenged to respond to the very real and raw experiences of injustices, prejudices and disrespect of the dignity of the refugees and asylum seekers. The exacerbation of the current Governments’ actions in ignoring and depriving human needs averts the message of the Passover today. The church’s advocacy for the plight of the refugees and asylum seekers is a good initiative to spearhead the solution to the issue.
In explaining the message of the Passover today, Greenberg (2014) and Klein (2014) state that the Passover is God’s way to show his ever-recurring redemption, referring to it “as the past and future redemption of humanity.” Greenberg (2014) explains the practical message of the Passover: “Exodus morality meant giving justice to the weak and the poor. Freedom: honest weights and measures, interest free-loans to the poor, leaving part of the crops, the orphan and the widow, treating the alien stranger as a native citizen” (p.2). Thus the moral application of the Passover does resonate or should be echoed in the various practical situations of life where the many facets of freedom and redemption are challenged. The campaign for the alleviation or eradication of poverty in the developing nation countries who can no longer afford to feed themselves let alone pay for the interest of their country’s debt to multinational banks is one practical ways to essentially work towards liberating people from bondage of our time.
The Passover is a narrative in Hebrew and Christian scriptures that beams with reminders of our calling to be in communion with God in the action towards liberating the marginalized members of our society today. It invites us to come on board in the journey with God in respecting and upholding the rights and dignity of all peoples especially those who are poor and vulnerable.
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About the author:
Erwin Cabucos studied Religious Education from Australian Catholic University, Brisbane Campus.