Restoring God’s Image — Chapter 2 (Part 1)

I’m working on a book and sharing portions of it on Medium. We’re on to chapter 2 which takes a look at two rituals of worship that involved animal sacrifice: Passover and Day of Atonement. They have been used to interpret Jesus’ death and have often been done so in cruel and controlling terms. It’s called “Blood Is Life.” Thoughts on Passover are below.

Agnus Dei. Francisco de Zurbarán

Remembering Egypt

You were introduced to the book of Exodus in chapter one. In the opening verses we find God’s people in slavery. This is important to note. God’s people are not in a position of power and influence. They are the foreign “other” who are looked at with suspicion and are treated harshly. They have become too many to count and, therefore, too many to control. The king of Egypt (yes, Pharaoh) has become nervous. He is as close to the gods as one can get. In fact, many in Egypt may have considered him a god. He has it in his mind to keep it that way.

As Pharaoh looked over his nation, worried by this large group of foreigners, a “spirit of punishment” overtakes him. He decides the only solution is to enslave and oppress them. Taskmasters are set over them to control them and they are commanded to build cities for Pharaoh. The lives of God’s people became “bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” (v. 14) When the forced labor no longer seemed harsh enough, Pharaoh stepped up the cruelty and commanded all of the Israelite midwives to kill any baby that was a boy. Death would be the tool he would use to control his people.

I’m not sure who painted this.

It’s this genocide that Moses escapes as a boy thanks to his mother and sister. It’s this oppression that Moses flees when he kills one of Pharaoh’s guards. It’s to this enslaved people that Moses returns when God calls to him out of a burning bush. God speaks and what Moses hears from God are words of mercy and grace. The Lord said,

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;

I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.

Indeed, I know their sufferings,

And I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,

And to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,

A land flowing with milk and honey…

The cry of the Israelites has now come to me;

I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.

So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”

- Exodus 3:7–10

What follows is an epic struggle between God and Pharaoh for the ownership of this people. On the one hand, there is God who is fighting to set this suffering people free and bless them with a new life. On the other hand, there is Pharaoh who relents for a moment but then decides to double-down on the forced labor and oppression. In the end, it is God who wins when he passed through Egypt but passed over the houses of Israel.

On the night of the Passover God commanded the people to kill a lamb. They were to take the blood and paint it on the doorframes of their homes. The blood would be an important sign for them because God had plans to bring about a horrible tragedy on the people of Egypt. God would pass through each home in Egypt and kill the first born in each family. But, when “the destroyer” came to a home with blood on the doorframe he would pass over that house so that all of its residents could experience a new life in freedom.

This can seem a very cruel and unusual punishment for the people of Egypt. I won’t try to justify it, but I will explain that the people of Egypt are experiencing the same pain and heartache that they had inflicted on God’s people. It wasn’t just Pharaoh, but “all his people” who gathered up the baby boys of the foreigners that they had enslaved. In other words, they were experiencing from God the same cruel and unusual punishment that they had forced on God’s people.

On the surface, the blood of the lamb seems to serve as a simple sorting mechanism. The blood lets “the destroyer” know who to kill and who to spare as if to say, “Since I killed a lamb, God will spare my child.” For some the lamb is a substitute for the child. But, if that’s all the sacrifice is, then it is an extreme and grotesque way to go about it. Why not hang a flag or use paint? Why did a lamb have to die? What is it about blood that makes it so important to God? The answer, of course, is that blood is life.

There is more going on in this story than we see in the book of Exodus. All we know for sure at this point is that God’s people were in pain and suffering in slavery. We know that they cried out to God, that God heard their cries and had compassion on them, determined to rescue them. What we don’t know is what was happening before the cries went up and before God decided to respond and rescue. For that we turn to another book of the Bible called Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is a prophet, someone who speaks God’s truth, and in chapter 20 we read:

“On that day I (God) swore to them (my enslaved people) that I would bring them out of the land Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands.

And I said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things that your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.’

But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; not one of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on…” — vv. 6–8

What we don’t learn in the story of Exodus is that God’s people had turned away from God. They had been enticed by the gods of Egypt. The Lord had wanted to be their God, their only God, but the people chose the idols of Egypt instead. Even the offer of freedom and a glorious land was not enough to entice them away from those idols on which “their eyes feasted.” In a moment, God thought that he would pour out his wrath on them. He was terribly angry. But we now know that that moment doesn’t last.

The cries of God’s people must have softened God’s heart. Once again, mercy triumphs over judgment. Despite the fact that God’s people had chosen the idols of Egypt over the Lord, the Lord is the one who cared for them, desired their freedom, and wanted to bless them. These gods of Egypt only wanted to burden them. So, God would come not only to rescue the people, but to prove himself more worthy and more wonderful than the other gods.

We catch a small glimpse of this back in Exodus. As God is announcing the Passover we realize that he is not just talking about the people of Egypt, he is talking about the gods of Egypt as well.

“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.” v. 12

As you can see, there is a divine drama taking place behind the scenes. What you see is that the Lord of Israel is battling the gods of Egypt for the love and loyalty of his people. The gods of Egypt had lured God’s people away and forced them into slavery. So, the Lord God was not only going to free his people from their chains, he’s going to give them good reason to put their trust in him. That’s where the blood comes in.

The First Passover by William Margetson

What I’m suggesting is that the blood on the doorframe is not about the death of the animal but about a sign of loyalty and trust. In response to God’s forgiveness and generous promise, he was asking the people to show a sign of their willingness to leave behind the gods of Egypt and follow him and him alone. The choice was not between killing a lamb or losing a child. The choice was to end their “feast” with the gods of Egypt or to follow God into the wilderness trusting the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.

This would not be an easy choice mind you. Egypt was a powerful nation. Apart from recent events there was no end in sight to their slavery. There was no doubt that these gods of Egypt were equally strong. So, while this God who came with Moses has proven powerful thus far, if this God fails, there would be nowhere else to turn. The gods of Egypt would not likely have them back and if they did the suffering would only be worse. Painting the blood of the lamb on the doorframe would be a leap of faith.

Why blood? Because blood is life. The blood on the door frame was a sign for them that they believed God was able to rescue them from slavery. It was an outward expression of an inner trust in God’s promise to follow through. It was not simply a sign of something they were feeling at the moment. It was not just a symbol of agreement to some idea that they would hold in their minds. The blood sealed their commitment to leave behind the gods of Egypt and to follow God with their whole life: heart, mind, soul, and body. In other words, the lamb was not a substitute so that I could be spared. The blood was not about satisfying God’s anger. Instead, the blood served as a sign and a seal of a fully devoted life.

The Passover sacrifice would be regular reminder of that devotion. The books of the Bible called Chronicles help us here as well. In chapter 1, you were introduced to a bad king named Ahaz. His rule was full of corruption and idolatry. He “plundered the house of the Lord,” “sacrificed to the gods of Damascus,” “made himself altars in every corner of Jerusalem,” and “in every city…made high places to make offerings to other gods.” Needless to say, the Lord was terribly angry because of all that Ahaz had done. You can see in these brief quotes (from chapter 28), how a similar divine drama is taking place. The people have turned to other gods testing the loyalty and love of the God who rescued them.

As you already know, Hezekiah comes next and he is a good king. He “does what is right in the sight of the Lord.” He restores order and calls the people back to God saying, “Yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary.” There is a lot involved in the process, but the whole series of events culminates in a celebration of Passover. Again, a lamb is slaughtered and its blood is dashed about, but it’s not the death of the animal that satisfies God. The meal and its rituals and the blood serve as an outward sign of their inner willingness to yield their whole life to the Lord just as their ancestors had first done in Egypt. In fact, they were so glad to do so that they went beyond the required seven days and celebrated for two weeks!

There aren’t many mentions of God’s people celebrating the Passover, but when they do it is often at a point where they need to commit or recommit to God just as God’s people first did in Egypt. In the book of Joshua the Passover is celebrated just as the people enter into a new territory. It is a land of many different peoples and many different gods. The Passover serves as a way to promise love and loyalty to the God who brought them that far.

In the book of Ezra, the people celebrate the Passover as they are, once again, returning from slavery. Ezra lived and lead along with Nehemiah who you also met in Chapter 1. The people of God are coming back home. In this instance, the Passover serves as a way to begin again, devoted to the Lord with their whole life. Once again, God welcomes his people back as they celebrate his mercy and grace, patience and loving loyalty.

The rituals of Passover are a week-long celebration and feast (with roasted lamb!). It is not a time when “death and unrelieved gloom hang darkly.” It is a time of gladness and joy and promise. The people remember the promise of God first made in Egypt and make promises of their own. It is not death that satisfies God, but the praise and prayer of his people that softens God’s heart. Remembering Egypt reminded God’s people that God will rescue anyone who returns to him. Remembering Egypt reminded them that God is not blood-thirsty, so to speak, but hungry for his people to live rightly with their whole life.