Passover begins tonight, and more Jews will participate in a Passover Seder of one sort or another than any Jewish event in the entire year. The Passover story is the “enabling event” that opened the door to all subsequent Jewish experience.
A recent letter I received from a man claiming the Exodus never happened and that Bible stories were fairy tales did not surprise me.
I have long known some scholars question whether the Exodus happened or not, and I leave the question to those who spend their professional lives in such inquiry.
For me the truth of the Exodus story like all Biblical stories does not depend on did it happen or not? Or is it scientifically correct? The truth of a biblical story lies in what it teaches us that help us to be better people and encourages us to use our talents to make the world a more just, caring and compassionate place.
To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will – between gods. In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see Chapter One of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.
In the other corner, though, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished.
The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.
Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.
Because God intervenes so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay.
Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.
Yet, we try. We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society.
Passover is a story of movement, as the (Baskin, 1974, p.34) Haggadah puts it:
- from slavery to freedom
- from degradation to dignity
- from the rule of evil to the sovereignty of God
Passover is not just a history lesson. “In every generation” each of us should act as though we go forth from slavery to freedom. And because we have had that experience we feel a duty to do all we can to free others from the many bond that enslave people today, hunger, homelessness, lack of heat in winter, foul water. The list is endless.
None of us can do everything, but Passover teaches us the we all must do something to ease the suffering in our world. That is the TRUTH of the Passover story!