The use of the word “narrative” in the title for this series of talks is important. During Holy Week we read the narrative of the events that are the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. We tell the story. But we don’t tell the story just to hear what happened. We tell it because it has something to say about who we are today. Here we touch on the difference between history and story/narrative. History tells us what happened – the when, where, who and how. But narrative is the telling of the story of what happened. Narrative is the selection and interpretation of the events of the past in order to throw light on the present.
It is no secret that the way in which we tell the story of what happened in the past is a powerful means of defining who we are today. Take for example the controversy that was sparked some years ago when the Taoiseach at the time decided to have the remains of Kevin Barry and others who were buried in Mountjoy Jail exhumed and re-interred in Glasnevin cemetery. There was uproar! History tells us that Kevin Barry was an 18 year old youth who was executed for his role in an ambush on British military in Dublin in 1920 in which three British soldiers died. There is no denying that this is part of our history. The question is, do we want this to be part of our story? In the context of the Peace Process, etc., is this the story we want to tell? (Another example would be the participation and deaths of thousands of Irishmen in the First World War: history tells us that this happened, but how was it never part of our story until recently?).
The Jews had their history and from that history they created a narrative that told the story of who they were as a people. Jesus was a Jew so this was his narrative. He interpreted himself in the light of this narrative. The Gospels tell the narrative of the life of Jesus and we interpret ourselves in the light of that narrative. So we have narrative being transformed into new narrative.
The narrative of the Jewish people
At the risk of being overly simplistic, the narrative of the Jewish people is found in what we call the Old Testament, in particular in what we call the “historical books”, and specifically the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The key moment in the process of establishing this narrative would appear to be the Exile in Babylon during the 6th century BC. The experience of the Exile seems to have caused the Jewish people to re-read their history, and the historical event that became the focus of this new narrative is the exodus from slavery in Egypt.
There are genuine historical concerns concerning the period of slavery in Egypt: was there ever a man called Moses? Were there seven plagues? Did the people really wander in the desert for forty years? The answer to all these questions is: we simply don’t know. Egyptian sources are silent on the presence of a large ethnic population of Hebrews as the Book of Exodus would have us understand. However, Egyptian sources do speak of conditions and building projects not unlike those described in Exodus. What we can say is that there was a tradition of a time spent in slavery in Egypt, and the story of liberation from that slavery is re-told to become a new narrative for the people. The two highpoints in this narrative are the Passover meal and the crossing of the Sea. We will now read extracts of the narrative of these two events.
The Passover Meal (Exodus 12)
As you read this text, ask yourself for what type of person was this written?
1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. [ … ]
11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
The language is simple and direct. It seems to be written for everybody and anybody in the Jewish community. It reads like a list of instructions, more than an account of what was done the night before the departure from Egypt.
- This text is first and foremost about a meal. Why would such efforts be made for a meal the night before a mass departure? It is clear that the meal is important and the correct preparation of the meal has something to do with what God will do to free his people from slavery. Yet it is not a meal like any other meal – there is the meat of the lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. There is something sacrificial about the meal – the lamb is to be an animal without blemish. The blood of the lamb is used to mark the doorposts of each house.
- There is a lot of death in this text. The lamb is slaughtered. The firstborn of every living thing in Egypt – human and animal – is about to be struck down. The people who eat the meal will be delivered from death. There is much that can be said about the image of God in this text. What kind of God strikes down the first born of every living thing? This is a discussion for another occasion.
- Salvation from death will come through the blood of the lamb. The people will be saved from death thanks to the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their homes.
- The meal is to be eaten in haste because a journey is to be undertaken. The meal is therefore food for the journey. The people who eat this meal will escape death and journey to the promised land where they will live in harmony with God and with one another. They dress for the meal as people who are about to set off on a journey (sandals, staff, belt).
- The meal is about remembrance (v.14). For all generations, the people are to celebrate this meal in order to remember when they were saved from death by the blood of the lamb. Remembering brings them back to the event itself. For all generations, no matter when or where Jewish people sit down to have this meal, they become the people who have been delivered from slavery and death.
The Crossing of the Sea (Exodus 14)
15 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers." 19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt."
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
Notice the recurring “refrain”: “all of Pharoah’s horses, chariots and chariot drivers”. This contributes to an ominous sense of pending doom. But it also contributes to the feeling that this victory will be with the Lord.
- From earliest times, it has been believed that the sea in question was the Red Sea. This is highly unlikely. Usain Bolt going flat out for 24 hours would not make it as far south as the Red Sea, never mind a huge crowd of men, women and children walking!! The Red Sea is 150 miles in width on average so it is unlikely to be the crossing point for the Hebrews. Some have speculated that it might have been the Gulf of Suez, i.e. the “arm” at the top of the Red Sea, but this too is too far south. The Hebrew name of the sea is given as “Yam Suph”, meaning “the sea of reeds”. But there is no specific sea known by this name. It perhaps refers to a marshy area in the Nile delta.
- What is important is that the Hebrews “walked dry-shod through the sea” – what particular sea they walked through is of less importance. In Jewish thinking, the sea is a symbol of chaos and death. We are reminded of chapter 1 of Genesis where there is darkness and waters, and God begins his work of creation by dividing the waters so that land can appear. In fact there seems to be an allusion to the creation account of Genesis in the Exodus text in the reference to the wind that drives back the waters. In Genesis, the breath of God hovered over the waters. The passage of the Hebrews through the waters is therefore a new creation.
- The Hebrews walk from slavery through death to new life.
The narrative of the Passover and Exodus provides a key to understanding what Jesus accomplished in Holy Week. Jesus offers a new Passover, where he is the Lamb, and those who share in the Eucharist become the new people who are saved from death through the blood of the Lamb. His death and resurrection become a new Exodus, leading us from slavery to sin through death to new life. By entering into the narrative of Holy Week, the life, death and resurrection of Christ are actualised for us today. The sacraments – particularly the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist – are our entry points into the saving events of the life of Jesus. Just as the Passover meal brought – and continues to bring – the Jewish people back to Egypt to be participants in God’s saving work, so the sacraments bring us back to Calvary to participate once again in the saving work of Jesus.
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