Let’s begin with a story. I don’t talk as much about Judaism here, in part because I’ve known more Jewish atheists than Jewish theists, and even at a young age the Jewish people in my community (Toronto) articulated awareness that many of Judaism’s central stories didn’t happen. Major Israeli/Jewish media outlets like Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, and Jewish Journal are quite blunt about this, every Passover in particular: archaeological data makes plain the earthly fabrications in this supernatural tale.
But maybe I should talk more about Judaism, because it was my first real site of understanding humanism, too — long before I fully understood the wide reach of that term. I was charmed by Judaism as a child because of its high valuation of study, intellectual discourse, and the resolving of moral quandaries in a community of peers. Obviously, Orthodox Judaism wasn’t great, but I admired what reform and liberal Judaism in particular had done to open up the faith in recent decades.
Here, I thought, was a faith and identity that knew its holidays and stories were more about using ritual to foster a sense of community, even and especially when one’s community was persecuted with terrible frequency throughout history. Here was a faith and identity that welcomed new intel, and championed critical thought.
It helped, too, that Judaism didn’t have much competition in this regard — at least, from my exposure-sets growing up. Whereas the more prominent forms of Judaism embrace questioning, and readily cede flawed concrete details to open up room for mystery, other dominant monotheisms in my purview (Christianity, Catholicism, Islam) could not give up flawed core details as readily, and as such more often clashed with the fruits of empirical inquiry. For many of the loudest of these other faiths, the core stories needed to be “true” in a way that made “embrace the mystery” synonymous with “just shut up about all the inaccuracies and let Jesus / Allah into your heart.”
So, okay, I have a bit of a soft spot for Judaism — even though, to be clear, there are forms of Islam and Christianity that also emphasize the figurative nature of their tales, too.
But every Passover, I’m still reminded that it’s not enough simply to acknowledge that the Passover story is a fiction, because the Passover story itself is easily one of the least humanistic stories that the Abrahamic faiths have given us.
Can it be reclaimed? Of course. It already is, say, by Jewish women, who know full well how male-child oriented the original Exodus narrative is, along with the Passover rituals around it. But humanists (spiritual and secular alike) can push further still, since Israeli archaeologists and literary scholars are among the most open about how deeply fabricated Biblical stories are. As such, we have all the tools at our hands
a) to think deeper about reprehensible tales like the Passover story;
b) to come to a more humanistic understanding of why they exist; and
c) to decide what to do with that knowledge now.
So let’s get cracking, shall we?
The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Passover Story
Yes, the Passover story is also part of the Christian Bible, but we’re not engaging in in the dangerously anti-Semitic dogwhistling of “Judeo-Christian” elisions anymore in this column. As such, we’re looking at “Shemot” (Names), “Va’eira” (And I Appeared), and “Bo” (Come!), traditional weekly readings from Shemot — or Exodus — the second book of the Torah. I’m taking my quotes from a bilingual translation on Sefaria.org, which uses a plainer English than my favourite, a version you can read on Mechon Mamre, which has a similarly poetic quality to the KJV.
I want to mention, though, that one key aspect of this story’s awfulness exists in both versions: the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart by YHWH. It’s just present a lot more in the original version of this tale.
There’s also a lot more about Moses (unsurprisingly) in Shemot. Moses is told by YHWH to ask Pharoah to let his people go out into the wilderness to worship their god, but Pharoah doesn’t recognize YHWH as a god, and thinks his Jewish subjects are looking for an excuse to cut and run from their labours. He then makes their labours even harder as punishment, and Moses despairs of ever being made a prophet, when he only seems to be making things worse for his people.
That’s when YHWH tells him: “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.”
(Oh, and FYI: Aaron plays a huge role here, being very important to Judaism and its hierarchies, while the Christian Bible is big on streamlining characters. Now you know what HBO producers were up to in their past lives!)
And that’s our first place of moral repugnance, obviously — because right from the beginning all the suffering about to occur is created by a god who refuses to let Pharoah yield in full, so that he (YHWH) can make a great story about all the trauma later.
We know what comes next, of course. “Signs and marvels” happen to include a series of plagues, each nastier than the last. In the Hebrew Bible, though, it’s Aaron who’s effecting most of them with his rod: lots of magical stick-work in this tale! More importantly, though, Pharaoh relents after the insects. He gives up and starts negotiating: Fine, fine, worship in the city. (In the city! He’s proposing a path to integrating different religious beliefs!) But Moses haggles, arguing that they can’t worship with objects forbidden to the Egyptians in Egyptian lands, or they’ll be stoned by the locals. FINE, says Pharaoh, do it outside the city — but stay close, and first plead with your god to stop the plague of insects.
Pharaoh doesn’t actually release the Israelites to worship, though, even after Moses has gained mercy from YHWH over the insects; and so next comes a pestilence of livestock — one in which YHWH promises Moses that all Israelite livestock will be fine. Then come boils, and then hail (where, again, Israelite land is spared).
We then get a reaffirmation, in the Hebrew Bible, as to why this agony continues, because:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD.”
In other words: Everyone’s suffering right now because I wanted you guys to have a cool story to pass on through the generations about how badass I am, and how I totes humiliated the Egyptians that one time.
Nice gods our ancestors chose, eh?
Once more in the Hebrew Bible, then, Pharaoh is agonized by the trauma of the plagues, and begs for Moses and Aaron to intervene to make it stop — which, they do, and YHWH does. But even after doing so…
The LORD caused a shift to a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and hurled them into the Sea of Reeds; not a single locust remained in all the territory of Egypt.But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.”
OH, COME ON, YHWH, YOU ABSOLUTE UNMENSCH.
Forget about “Let my people go!” — let pharaoh go!
Quit hardening his heart just so you can show off!
But YHWH doesn’t, and so we come to the critical pestilence for Passover: the murdering of firstborn sons. The Israelites prepare to take flight from Egypt — so quickly that there isn’t time to leaven bread for their passage, which underpins some of the rituals associated with the holiday. But, uh, let’s take a closer look, first, at this horrible situation the Israelites are leaving:
And the LORD said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all.Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.”
The LORD disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.
Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians, and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle.
And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again; but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast—in order that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.
What the ever-loving fudge is this.
Remember, most folks distill this story for Passover to “We were slaves in Egypt, and then Moses set us free by the will of G-d.” But even before modern archaeology came along to illustrate that a) bonded servitude was different back then, and b) Israelites of the period had a different social standing… uh, what kind of oppressed people are in such good favour with their neighbours that those helpful Egyptians are all, “Oh, sure, you want to borrow silver and gold from us? No problem! Oh, hey, Moses! My man! For sure we’ll help — what do you need?”
Now, the Christian Bible simplifies the reprehensible elements of this story to just having innocent firstborns killed willy-nilly by YHWH, but you have to grant that the Torah is at least honest and upfront about the nationalistic pissing contest here. To hell with the (neighbourly!) Egyptians who suffer so that the Israelites can rebuild their own land. Egyptian humiliation, far more than Israelite salvation, is the explicit point of this tale.
Passover in Practice
Ugh. So, maybe you can see why this story is a dangerous one to keep telling, year after year for Passover, even if the households relating the tale aren’t actually theistic. Certainly, most households are far more selective in their readings from these texts (as Christians are with theirs), but even the ritual for telling this highly tribalist story also has components that double down on this nasty us-vs.-them rhetoric.
One scene for the seder, for instance, involves the idea of there being four different “sons” (four different reactions a child might have to why Passover is celebrated); and one of them, the “wicked” son, is supposed to be answered in a passive-aggressive way that suggests that, while YHWH did these things for the respondent’s benefit, probably the son would have been left to die with all the rest in Egypt, because of his resistance to the practice of gratitude. Ick and double-ick.
Yes, some liberal Jews try to spin this awful scripting as a positive — because hey, he’s being reminded of his offense, but he still has a seat at the table! No one’s kicking him out! Is this really much different, though, than, say, a queer person being allowed to sit at the table with people convinced they’re hell-bound? OK theatre; lousy humanism.
So how on Earth can this story be redeemed?
How on Earth can Passover be made a site of humanistic practice?
As already noted, plenty of reform and liberal Judaism already works to this end by putting to one side as many horrible bits of this story as possible, focussing instead on a simplistic notion of Passover being about a time of suffering at last coming to an end, and gratitude for that deliverance from oppression.
However, we could all benefit from learning about why such a story came into being in the first place — because in that story, the origin of the Passover story — we gain a great deal of insight about human nature. In that story, we learn the importance of looking at who’s telling the tale to understand how human beings can be led into religious nihilism.
Origins and Uses for Passover
I’ve already linked at the outset to three Jewish news outlets’ frank talk about Passover’s history, so here I’ll simply focus on the lesson from King Josiah. Indeed, sometimes it gobsmacks me how much this one dude shaped our modern mythologies — if he existed, that is, since there are some contradictory details around the time of his rule (e.g. repairing the Temple seems to have happened earlier); but scholarly consensus is that it’s fair to assume he did.
Either way, as the story goes, when Josiah invested in Temple upgrades, his priest Hilkiah conveniently found a whole new book of divine ordinances (a precursor to Deuteronomy) that pushed for a massive nationalistic project, in which Josiah banned the worship of other gods from the preceding pantheon (including Ba’al, of the harvest: nice dude, all about them “fertility” rituals), dismantled their altars, desecrated the graves of their priests, and centralized worship of YHWH by reinstating Passover rituals as an expressly public affair involving sacrifices at the freshly elevated Temple.
Now, was it Josiah who benefitted most from this project? Or was it Hilkiah, a priest of YHWH who conveniently found the text that promised great suffering for those who didn’t return to the proper worship of his god? Those sorts of details, we can never know for sure, although human nature and a study of geopolitics from that era makes personal gain mighty probable as a motivator.
However, we can trace aspects of the modern Passover story to spring-oriented food rituals, including one for the first cereal crop of the season, which couldn’t be leavened because there was no starter from preceding doughs after a winter of eating through reserves, and another for the use of lambs ahead of spring flock movements. (Generally, too, animal sacrifice had strong preceding roles in Israelite communities, all the way back to Mesopotamian pre-history.)
We also know that the story was reinstated with some critical shifts in location for the ritiuals, with what was once more of an at-home affair with localized sacrifices becoming a centralized act of community-wide worship. This is a logical step for the consolidation of state power, similar to how many other civilizations established strong states. The Torah doesn’t even hide this in its description of Josiah’s reforms — and why should it? A mandatory return to the collectivized worship of a warmongering pantheon god was simply King Josiah’s (and his priest’s) way of shoring up sovereign rule.
(Or, again, at least that’s the way the Torah tells it, but recent archaeological discovers have illustrated that this centralization plan wasn’t as uniform as Torah makes it out to be; another, sanctioned temple existed near Temple Mount in the same era.)
The Living Passover
However, that’s just a history of the time the story was first reconstituted for state-building purposes.
Whatever its true origins, we also know that something vitally humanistic happened to this tale over the course of subsequent Jewish history, because as the Jewish people were subsequently persecuted, driven from their homes, and slaughtered throughout succeeding centiries, the Passover story also gained a measure of truth — at least figuratively — for a scattered and traumatized people longing for safety. Longing for home. As such, while the original story might have been pure consolidation-of-power rhetoric, it later gave strength to Jewish communities in the wake of unconscionable horror; and then later to other peoples also given the story (albeit more often through the Christian retelling) in their own persecutions and enslavements.
So should this reprehensible tribalist tale be expunged entirely?
It’s a bit of a silly question, I know, because the Passover tale can’t be expunged entirely; it’s part of our collective history now. However, if it isn’t this nasty bit of nationalistic rhetoric being bandied about at family functions, there will always be something else. (Certain national responses to pandemic, for instance, make clear that geopolitical pettiness doesn’t simply disappear in the absence of faith.) And so, since the Passover story is already so well known; because its mythopoetic vocabulary is already widespread… why not wield it more humanistically?
Why not teach the story, that is — but do so by telling it plainly, in full light of how it was created, and the purposes it served?
Why not walk the next generation through all the ways that power-plays like the one fictionalized between Egypt and Israel in the Passover tale required everyday people on both sides to suffer? Good neighbours, too! The kind who lent gold and silver because they were asked, and still woke the next day to grieve the deaths of their children.
Why not reflect on how those power disparities persist today? How dynastic and plutocratic systems continue in today’s nation-state paradigm?
Why not keep the theme of gratitude, but reframe its practice as something that compels a widening of the table, after we ourselves are “free”, so that we can liberate others from oppression, too?
Even better, why not come up with ways in which we can seek to be freed together from tyrannical and egotistical rule?
Some truly awful stories underpin our society, and some of the worst have chauvinism at their core. The Passover story in particular, as it reads in Torah, is one of relentless tribalist cruelty so that a god might show Egypt that Israel is #1, and give the Israelites a story to tell for years to come. It’s a nasty, brutish bit of nationalistic rhetoric — exploited precisely for that aim by King Josiah’s court! — and yet it gained a measure of thematic truth over time, as horrific traumas were later visited upon Jewish peoples, as well as upon other demographics who also find strength from simplified versions of the tale.
And so, yes, the act of reshaping of this vicious tale is already underway.
Humanism, though, can take this reshaping a step further — if we refrain from simply condemning the story on its own, awful merits; and if we refrain, too, from trying to spin as much of the good out of it as possible, while ignoring the bad. Rather, we need to face the story’s nihilism head-on, so that we can expand our storytelling scope to include the story’s political provenance and purpose, and then interrogate the many kinds of suffering left out of its redemption arc.
Why? Because history is a vital tool for 21st-century humanistic practice — including the history of stories on which we’ve built whole cultures. And because the world of King Josiah is not beyond us yet. Because too many supposed democracies continue to imperil average citizens (up to and including via modern plagues, like our current pandemic) to advance their nationalistic and corporate projects.
But when humanists of every stipe and creed come together, we can instead advance a world where the Moseses, Aarons, Pharaohs, and YHWHs among us no longer matter anywhere near as much as the voices of everyday citizens. Not only can we, either, but we must — because, Egyptian and Israelite alike, every one of us deserves a system of government that can adequately protect and provide justice to all.
Warmth to you and yours, then, as you seek to keep justice in your communities — especially amid the pestilence upon us now, but also in whatever world we build after.