Their nerves must have been frayed. Surely everyone in Egypt was on edge. Think what all had endured. First, the water of the Nile turned foul. Then, frogs, gnats, and flies proliferated well beyond what could be considered a nuisance. It constituted a public health crisis that infected livestock and created boils on human flesh. Next, the weather turned bad… thunder and hail wreaked havoc. Surely crops were damaged and whatever was left standing was soon devoured by a devastating swarm of locus that covered the land. As if all of this was not bad enough, the country was thrust into three whole days of near darkness.
The plagues against Egypt. We have the advantage of looking back on them with historical and (more important) theological perspective. We view them through the lens of Moses’ confrontation with the Pharaoh. We see them as acts of divine judgment on an oppressive regime and people. We understand their severity as testaments to the hardness of the human heart. But try if you can to put yourself in the sandals of an average Egyptian or typical Hebrew. Most likely you would have no knowledge of the greater goings on. There was no ‘God channel’ you could tune in to get the official word from Moses or even the spin from Pharaoh’s cronies. The only things you would know are misery, suffering, and fear. What in the world is going on and what is going to happen next?
It shouldn’t be too hard for us to imagine the plagues from this perspective, after all, within the last thirty days we have endured a swamp fire (with its thick, choking smoke), an earthquake, and a hurricane. We know what its like to be stuck in our home, to be cut off from the world, to have our normal course of food disrupted, and to lose the ability to engage in our livelihood. It is miserable – isn’t it! – and it wears on us – doesn’t it! Toss in the terrible economy, the sour nature of political discourse in our country, and the approaching tenth anniversary of 9/11 and you a get sense of why life feels so difficult. It feels not unlike what the Hebrews and the Egyptians felt so many years ago.
For them the worst was still to come. The tenth and final plague was to be the most devastating of all: the death of the firstborn male in each family – the one in whom was invested all the hope for the family’s security and future.
The Passover instructions tell us much that is helpful in our day as we face our challenges. They are, if you will, God’s evacuation plan for the Hebrew people. Let’s consider some of the details and ponder what they might say to us here and now.
• First, God directs the Hebrews to mark time by the lunar cycle, as opposed to the Egyptian’s use of the sun. God declares that both time and the Hebrew people belong to God. Every vesture of enslavement and oppression is to be thrown off. God’s people are to regard themselves first, foremost, and always as God’s beloved. This tells us that our identity is not grounded in our social status nor is our value measured by our 401k. Our identity and value stand on the firm foundation of God’s love for us.
• Next God directs the Hebrew people to gather as households and neighborhoods. After all the people had been through and given what they were about to endure, God’s wisdom directed the people not to face it alone. We need each other at all times. We especially need each other in times of great stress and calamity. If you hunkered down last weekend with family and if you ventured out after Irene to commiserate with neighbors then you understand why God grouped people together in the face of this final calamity. We survive together or we suffer alone.
• Marking the lintel of the house with blood serves as a symbolic preparation for the storm to come. The avenging angel will see it and pass over that house leaving the firstborn unharmed. The preparations we made before Irene were more concrete – buying water and batteries, putting away patio furniture, and tying down what might blow away. But there was something equally symbolic to this as well. It gave us the feeling we had done all that was within our power and our control to be ready for what might happen and there was something comforting in that.
• The lamb is roasted quickly and unprepared. There is no time to marinate it or add garnishes beyond the bitter herbs. Bread is baked in a hasty fashion. The people were told, “Make as much as you can as fast as you can. Do not bother to leaven the dough because there simply isn’t time to sit around idly while it rises.” God told to people to prioritize and to prepare. Do now what matters most. There is not a minute to waste. We went through a similar process of discernment: what should we cook, what should we gather, what do we need to face an extended period of disruption?
• God’s next to last directive is for the people to eat “with loins girded, sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand, you shall eat hurriedly.” God’s people are to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. They are to pack light so that they can travel fast. It is a sobering and sensible reminder that our most important possessions in life are our life and our family and the bare essentials we need to provide for both. The day before Irene hit Rt. 460 westbound became a huge bottleneck in Windsor. Fortunately I was travelling east and did not have to suffer through it. Some of the west-bound cars bore the obvious signs of disappointed vacationers fleeing the coast: car top carriers, bicycle racks, beach chairs tied to the roof, that kind of thing. Most cars, however, looked to be residents of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and other low-lying areas who were heeding the advice to evacuate. With the exception of one or two cars pulling a trailer loaded with stuff, these folks simply packed a bag and got out; measuring life more important than material things.
All these practical reminders are seeds which give rise to a spiritual benefit. Plagues and hurricanes and hardships have a way of refocusing us on what really matters. They force a clarity upon life; bringing into focus what often gets blurry when times are good. Is it any wonder then that God’s last directive to the Hebrew people is the call to remembrance. “You shall celebrate this day as a festival to the Lord; throughout all generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”
Much of what the Hebrews (and all God’s people) are to remember is that God delivered those oppressed from the land of Egypt. But what we might want to remember this day is how God directed them to prepare for the worst in the best possible way: remember that you belong to God; gather with family and friends; prepare as best you can; think through what you will need; be prepared to move at a moment’s notice. These are lessons not just for plagues, not just for hurricanes, and not just for disasters, but for all of life. It is a good way to live because it is God’s way to live. It is how the God who gives us life guards us to see us through.
Remembering together in the presence of God has a way of putting the past in the past and helping us to reengage life again. It puts us on a path forward with sure footing, knowing that a sense of ‘normal’ will once again return even as we acknowledge our dependency on God alone… God who has been with us, is with us even now, and will be with us in the trying times of the future.