This week is the holiday of Passover, one of Judaism’s high holy days which commemorates the ancient Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Although the archaeological evidence for captivity and exodus is lacking, this story has become a fundamental part of Jewish cultural consciousness, as well as a symbol and an inspiration to others. In pre-Civil War America, for example, the Exodus mythology played a role in the abolitionist movement, as African slaves and their allies looked to these passages to craft a narrative opposing the pro-slavery Bible verses so often preached on by pious Southern slaveholders.
But for all its cultural resilience, the true moral of the Passover story is more disturbing than it is uplifting. To see why, let’s consider what scripture says about the origins of the holiday.
Despite all the inspiring morals and ethical lessons that have been added on, what the Passover festival actually celebrates is the last and most terrible of the ten plagues: God’s sparing the Israelites’ children when he slaughtered the firstborn sons of Egypt. In fact, that’s where the name comes from: the English name “Passover” derives from the Hebrew name, Pesach, which means “to pass over, to exempt, to spare”. The reference is to chapter 12 of Exodus, where God instructs the Israelites to mark their houses with lamb’s blood:
“And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” (12:13)
That night, God strikes Egypt with the tenth and final plague – the death of the firstborn – and spares only the Israelite houses painted with the blood, slaying man and beast in all the others:
“And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” (12:29-30)
As I wrote in “A Book of Blood“:
The next morning in Egypt must have been a black dawn indeed. How many mothers and fathers were there, stumbling dead-eyed out of their homes? How many wails of grief and funeral songs could be heard? How many graves had to be dug? One can only imagine the horror, grief and despair that would ensue if anything comparable happened in a modern nation.
This is the twisted and bloody moral of the Passover story – it’s a holiday founded to commemorate a mass murder. Even if we take the Bible at its word, the Israelites’ freedom was purchased by the deaths of thousands of innocent Egyptian children. Let us not forget, ancient Egypt was not a democracy! Regardless of their feelings on the matter, the Egyptian people had no say in whether the Israelites were set free. The only person who had the power to make that decision was the pharaoh. What purpose did it serve for God to torment and massacre his subjects? Truth, why not just kill the pharaoh and ensure that the next person to come to the throne was more sympathetic to the Israelites’ plight?
The Passover story, like most of the Old Testament, dates back to an era where religion was a matter of savagery and bloodshed, not love and forgiveness. Its uplifting, modern message of freedom and redemption is a secondary derivation, created by carefully stepping around the unsavory parts of the tale. And therein lies an important lesson: For all that atheists are accused by apologists of taking the Bible out of context, it’s actually theists who often fail to appreciate the importance of context. Not just Passover, but many biblical tales – Abraham and Isaac, Noah’s flood, the crucifixion of Jesus – are treated as beautiful stories only by suppressing their ugly side.