Formations 02.23.2020: The First Passover

Exodus 12:21-31, 40

Have you ever known someone who has lost a child? Maybe you have personally suffered that loss. I have been granted the awful privilege of walking with some families through this nightmare, and I can tell you that I have seen no comparable grief. The shaking shoulders of a father as he listens to his child’s eulogy. The sound of a mother’s wail when her child’s coffin is lowered into the ground. The agony in their eyes in the days, weeks, months, and—yes—years to come as they walk through life along the balance beam of “what might have been.”

When I read the story of the first Passover, I tend to see it through the perspective of those parents whose firstborn children were “struck down” by the Lord (Exod 12:29). I feel their anguish. I sense their shock. I experience their incomprehension of what has happened. Even though the first verses of our text, verses 21-31, tell the story from the perspective of Moses and the oppressed Israelites, I still tend to side with the grieving Egyptian parents.

It’s been difficult for me to reconcile a loving God with acts like the plagues on Egypt. Formations series editor Darrell Pursiful, in last week’s Coracle post, helped me look at the story in a different way. He wrote, “What if the point of the plagues is not to tell us what God thinks of sinners (namely, people like you and me) but what God thinks of injustice.”

Is it fair that innocent children and animals died on Passover night? No. Is it fair that their parents, their leaders, and their government oppressed an entire people, ruling over them and abusing them and using them as slaves? No. We could argue that both instances are unjust. But we could argue, too, that God gave the Egyptians many chances to treat the Israelites fairly—to let them go and be a free people.

God looked upon Egypt and saw injustice, so God acted on the side of justice. Sometimes justice is ugly, and its consequences can hurt the undeserving. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.

What does God think of injustice? I believe it’s pretty obvious from the Bible that God hates it and will go to great lengths to get rid of it. Look what God did hundreds of years after this first Passover: God came to earth as the human Jesus who spent his three decades of life focused on justice, mercy, and love. And, toward the end of his earthly life, Jesus sat down with his closest companions for his people’s yearly meal in memorial of the first Passover. This time, he gave them something new to think about, explaining that he would mark them with his own blood and his own body, saving them forever in the eyes of God (see Mt 26; Mk 14; Lk 22).

God takes injustice very seriously. What does that mean for us today?


• Why do you think grief over the loss of a child seems more intense than other kinds of grief? What do we lose when a child dies?

• Why do you think God chose to strike down the firstborn of Egypt, human and animal alike?

• The Bible attributes all the events of the plagues to God’s judgment on the Egyptian people. Even today, some people attribute horrific disasters to God’s judgment on sin. Consider Darrell Pursiful’s statement from last week: “What if the point of the plagues is not to tell us what God thinks of sinners (namely, people like you and me) but what God thinks of injustice.” How does this point reframe the story for you?

• What other connections can you make between this first Passover and the final Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples before he died?

• Since God takes injustice so seriously, what does that mean for us? What are the injustices in our world that God takes seriously? How can we take them seriously enough to do something about them?

Reference Shelf

Moses Summons the Elders and Delivers the Instructions; the Israelites Carry Them Out (12:21-28)

Moses carries out YHWH’s commission. Aaron is in attendance, as v. 28 suggests, but in contrast to Aaron’s role in the D-version as Moses’ spokesperson to the people (4:16), Moses himself summons and directly addresses the elders as representatives of the people. The elders’ role is to receive the message on the people’s behalf and to enable their response (v. 27b). Moses delivers the message in two parts corresponding to his commission: A’, vv. 21-23, for the first Passover (cf. A, vv. 3-13); B’, vv. 24-27a, for the perennial rite (cf. B, vv. 14-20). The Israelites respond appropriately in vv. 27b-28.

In 12:24-27, P reuses some D-expressions about unleavened bread that occur in D’s explanation of the rite in 13:3-10, perhaps in corrective anticipation. Verse 25, “When you come to the land that the Lord will give you…you shall keep this observance,” has close parallels in 13:5. But there are subtle changes: for the simple stem of the verb “you come,” the D-version uses the causative stem, YHWH will bring Israel into the land. The D-version lists the pre-Israelite population, a stress that is appropriate for its expectation of return from exile as replay of the original conquest, including the supplanting of the resident population. P, by contrast, is resigned to eschatological expectation: the practice of the rite now is an anticipation of that end-time. The children’s question, “What do you mean by this observance?” (v. 26), is a feature of Deuteronomy, e.g., 6:20 (though there the singular “child” is used). Perhaps the most surprising retention of D-phraseology is to call the Passover “a sacrifice,” using [a noun that] implies a rite in the temple…. The mention of “Passover” enables P to reemphasize the etymology for “Passover” given in v. 13. The response, “the people bowed down and worshiped” (v. 27), recurs in the D-version in 4:31 of the people’s spontaneous reaction of awe and acceptance that YHWH will intervene, and in 34:8 of Moses’ own reaction to theophany. Prostration in worship, utter self-humiliation, is the appropriate response to this new sign (v. 13), this fundamental confirmation, that YHWH is now about to rescue his people.

The Slaying of the Egyptian Firstborn and the Exodus of the Israelites (12:29-36)

Exodus 12:29-36 records the exodus, the climactic event of YHWH’s deliverance of the people of Israel that has been in preparation since the beginning of the book. The final catastrophe, the death of all the Egyptian firstborn both human and animal, finally forces Pharaoh’s hand. At midnight, he summons Moses and Aaron and urges them to lead their people out of Egypt forthwith. In their haste to leave, the Israelites have no time to wait for their bread dough to rise. They bundle up their kneading bowls and are gone. The Egyptians load the departing Israelites with gifts.

As argued above, 12:29-36 is plague X (part 2), the second part of the final plague narrative in the D-version, resuming from 11:1-8. P has broken up D’s final plague narrative in its radical reinterpretation of Passover as a one-night observance as opposed to D’s seven-day festival. It has drawn a line under its own ten-portents cycle with the summary it inserts in 11:9-10. It has incorporated new legislation on Passover and Unleavened Bread in 12:1-28. But the hand of P does not appear to be evident in 12:29-36. P includes the passage en bloc as the necessary account of the exodus. It dovetails neatly with P’s own wilderness itinerary that begins in 12:37.

Exodus 12:29-36 resumes many of the themes and expressions from the earlier D-narrative. For the timing, “at midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (v. 29), see 11:4; for the verb “struck down,” see 2:11; 3:20. Verse 29 continues with a variation on 11:5: “from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon”; the contrasting extremes of rank and physical location emphasize the totality of the disaster. “[A]nd all the firstborn of the livestock” is a necessary continuation, anticipating the legislation on the offering of the firstborn of domestic animals in 13:1-2, 11-16. The death of the firstborn is the manifestation of “the strong hand” of YHWH, which finally accomplishes the purpose of the whole seven-plague cycle of the D-version—to compel Pharaoh to set Israel free.

With swift, graphic strokes, the narrative depicts the Egyptians’ grief and panic, and the urgency of their response. Pharaoh awakes in the night, he, his courtiers, and his people (v. 30). Great is the cry (see 2:23-25) throughout the land of Egypt (a requital of the plight in which Israel had first found itself, 3:7), for there is not a household where death has not struck. Israel as beneficiaries of the action remain unharmed; in any case in D they live apart from the Egyptians in Goshen (8:22; for P the apotropaic blood of the Passover victim protects them behind their doorways).

Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron (v. 31), as he had in the course of earlier plagues (8:8, 25; 9:27 [and 10:24]). Then the summons had been for negotiation or sham concession; now the crisis is beyond negotiation, the decision required irreversible. The catastrophe in the darkness of night finally forces Pharaoh to grant what Moses and Aaron have been demanding from the beginning: “Go, worship [for the key term, see 3:12] the Lord, as you have said” (see Moses’ commission in 3:18, first delivered in 5:3). The four-fold repetition of the adverb “even” (gam) in vv. 31-32a expresses the totality of his capitulation: “even you…even the Israelites…even your flocks, even your herds” (only partly brought out by NRSV). What Pharaoh had refused in plague VIII (10:9) (and IX [10:24]), he must now concede.

William Johnstone, Exodus 1–19, Smyth & Helwys Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2014), 233–35.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.


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