Opening The Old Testament
Narrative Ritualized...but Pay Attention! Reflections on Exodus 12:1-14
September 7, 2014
How easy it is for us to fall asleep (one hopes not literally, but surely metaphorically) as we exit the stirring narrative of the plagues of Egypt (Ex. 5–11) and enter the world of right sacrifice in all its seemingly boring detail. Exodus 12–13:16 stands as a sort of sore thumb, thrusting its ritual head through the narrative thicket and bringing the rip-roaring tale to a screeching halt. Exodus 13:17 thankfully brings us back to the story, as the escapees from Egypt are about to face their most terrifying trial, the great Sea of Reeds against which they are trapped with Egyptian chariots thundering behind them. One might not be sorry if this Passover ritual stuff just disappeared, and the text moved straight from Exodus 11:10 to 13:17.
But the loss would be far greater than we imagine, for without these verses it is very likely that the crucial story might have drowned in the sea of time just as Pharaoh and his horsemen, according to the story, did. After all, without a regular celebration of the ritual, the story's shelf life is quite short. And also the ritual has rather more theological juice in it that first meets the eye.
Narrative needs ritual regularity if it is to have ongoing relevance for those who embrace that narrative. Who better than we Christians know that? Our regular celebration of the Eucharist is, of course, a clear reminder of the story of Jesus, his life, his death, his resurrection. Those traditions that perform that celebration at least weekly, in my mind, get far closer to the reason for the ritual in the first place.
In my wife's last congregation before her retirement from the United Methodist pastoral ministry, that church had communion (Eucharist) every Sunday. The reasons for this weekly event (weekly communion is not common in UM churches) had to do with the vast diversity of this particular congregation. Many first languages were represented, and it occurred to a previous pastor some years before my wife became pastor that the ritual of communion was one involving far more than words and could thus be a uniting event across many languages and cultures. He was quite right, and that church now would not dream of not doing communion at every Sunday service. Drinking and eating and sharing together regularly bind that community with bands of devotion and love, forged in the fires of Jesus' offering for all.
And so it is in Exodus 12. The editor of the book of Exodus stops his famous narrative right in its tracks and announces that it is time to celebrate the story in regularized ritual. Fifty-three verses later, we all know how to celebrate the Passover feast. And we know why we are bidden to do it; we who count ourselves as heirs of the first Passover are reminded by the ritual's details what is finally at stake for us who claim the story that the ritual enshrines. The details are important, because they point us to the story in ways that the story itself cannot do, however exciting and central that story is.
Passover is to be performed in the first month of the year (Abib, as the Hebrew calendar has it—see Dt. 16:1), because that is the time when YHWH brought Israel from the land of Egypt, out of the house of their slavery (see also Dt. 5:6). The appropriate day is the tenth of Abib (Ex. 12:3). On that day each family, each household, is to take a lamb. But note that lambs are to be apportioned according to the size of the family; if a family (a single person?) is too small for a whole lamb, then that smaller unit must divide the lamb with other small units, according to "the number of people who eat of it" (Ex. 12:4). This demand assures that no family has more than it needs for the celebration, and that every family will have some lamb portion with which to celebrate.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.