Israel had been in Egypt for something like 400 years and wanted to leave. Moses had applied to Pharaoh several times to let them go to the desert to worship God and make sacrifices, but the king wouldn’t allow it. God told Moses to throw down his staff and would make it turn into a serpent. Moses complied, but instead of being impressed, Pharaoh had his priests throw their staffs down, and they turned into snakes too! Even when Moses’ serpent ate all the other snakes, Pharaoh wasn’t impressed, so Moses left the court to confer with God once again.
Thus began the struggle between God and Pharaoh, with Moses as God’s representative. Each time Moses went to the king to ask him to let the Israelites go, Pharaoh would first agree, then change his mind. After each confrontation, God would tell Moses to go and raise his staff and something would happen to the Egyptians. They went through numerous episodes, starting with the Nile turning to blood and then other plagues, each one worse than the previous. After each plague, Moses would go to Pharaoh and ask for him to let the Israelites go into the desert to worship God with sacrifices. Pharaoh would first say “yes, go,” but before Moses could get to the door, Pharaoh would change his mind yet again, and the Israelites had to stay.
Today’s reading tells of the last two meetings between Pharaoh and Moses. This time, when Pharaoh once again said no, God told Moses to hold up his hand toward heaven, and Egypt plunged into darkness, but the Israelites had light wherever they went. After three days, Pharaoh called Moses to court and said that the Israelites and their children could go, but the herds and flocks had to stay behind. Moses reiterated that the livestock was necessary because they had to make sacrifices to God in the desert, but Pharaoh would not change his mind. Not only did he tell Moses to get out of his sight, but that he would kill Moses if he ever saw him again. Each time Moses had gone to court, God had softened Pharaoh’s heart but then hardened it again. It was like building up to a grand finale, and this time the people would be released.
The reading takes us as far as God telling Moses that in the darkest part of the night, God would go among the Egyptians, killing every firstborn child and offspring of the livestock. God promised that this time, they would not only be allowed to leave but would be commanded to go out of Egypt.
We know what happens next. God did what God promised, and every household in Egypt produced wailing and anguish while the Israelites prepared their last meal in captivity. As God had told Moses, God’s people were allowed to leave with everything they owned, but not until after the meal was finished. To the Jews, this is the seminal celebration of their people, the first night of Passover, celebrated with the Seder of food, wine, and narrative of how they had become free. During this coming week, from sundown April 8th to sundown April 16th, Jews worldwide will celebrate Passover, their deliverance from Egypt and the beginning of their journey to the Holy Land promised to them by God.
As we wrestle with our particular kind of affliction this year, it seems almost as if it were for us a reminder of what freedom is. Like the Israelites, we watched as the COVID-19 virus began to take hold across various parts of the world while we sat comfortably and hoped for it to pass over us as the plagues passed over the Israelites in Egypt. Now it is among us, and no one is genuinely immune or safe from it. It strikes from the highest echelons to the lowest, striking elders and now even a newborn indiscriminately. Where is God in all this?
No, I don’t think God sent this COVID-19 to punish us for our evildoings, although it is showing us where evil, greed, and bragging has gotten us. We have shortages of medical protection, no vaccine, exhausted medical professionals, and first responders, and scarcity of even the most necessary household products, food, and cleansers. We hear that it will be over by Easter, then extended to May, and now even June doesn’t look very optimistic. One day we hear that only a few have been affected only to be informed a day or two later that it is worse but not nearly as bad as had been anticipated. We see the figures for the rising number of cases and the sad statistic of the number of dead and wonder where it will end. In the meantime, where is God, now that churches are closed, even for Holy Week and Easter?
Where is God? Right here and right now. Just as the Egyptians could do nothing to relieve their suffering during the plagues, so most of us are trapped in self-quarantine, afraid to go out, afraid to say hello to the neighbors, and angry that we cannot find necessities at the grocery, even if we are brave enough to go into one. Perhaps we should take a lesson from the Jews who celebrate the deliverance that hadn’t yet come but was imminent on that first night of Passover, so many centuries ago.
This year churches will not sponsor congregational Seders, but perhaps there will be Jewish friends who will add theirs to YouTube so that we can see and visually share with them. We won’t have Holy Week and Easter in our churches, but there are many, many churches and cathedrals offering online services that we can watch and join in even if only virtually. Maybe this will be our Passover, the beginning of our release from fear and hatred, anxiety, and false promises. I hope so, anyway.
In the meantime, Gut Yontiff, Chag Sameach, Moadim l’Simchah, and Happy Passover. God will deliver us, just have faith, and it will come.
God bless us all.
Image: Foster Bible Pictures 0062-1 The Angel of Death and the First Passover, Author: Illustrators of the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster, 1897. Found at Wikimedia Commons.