Troubling Texts: The death of the firstborn

Ah, the violence of the Hebrew Bible. Not surprising that this would come up as the first troubling text people want to tackle. Except, it’s not really one text, is it? And that’s part of the problem: We have a hard time wrapping our minds around the fact that it sure seems like God is repeatedly revealed to be violent and wrathful.  


Knowing the prevalence of oral tradition, the history of the Israelites, the circumstances of the written tradition, and the authorship of the Hebrew Bible goes a long way toward making sense of some of these troubling stories. A few of my favorite books that help do this are herehere, and here. (You’ll notice Walter Brueggemann features heavily in this list; in my research and reading I’ve found his Hebrew Bible scholarship to be without parallel.) 


The first Passover


But our endeavor is to (attempt to) make sense of problematic passages in light of what we believe to be the overarching themes of scripture. So let’s pick a specific instance of divine violence: The death of the firstborn during the first Passover, while the Israelites are in slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:21-32).  Let’s utilize a few modes of higher criticism to get to the heart of this text. (This is where books like the ones listed above come in helpful, along with other reference and research tools.) 


Historical criticism: Looking at what was happening in broader history and Israelite history we can acknowledge that the story of the Hebrew Bible is largely about one people group, from their perspective and their experience of God. It was written at a certain time with a certain motive. That motive includes acknowledging Egypt as wicked oppressors, perhaps to help justify any evil they may have suffered. 


Textual criticism: It is possible that the text indicates Egyptians who wanted to be spared this plague were given opportunity to participate in the Passover (Ex. 12:38). 


Contextual criticism: While the Moses story would have been passed down in oral tradition for generations, it was likely written down after the rise of the Israelite monarchy, the division of the kingdom, and the invasion by Babylon. These texts were probably written down while the Israelites were in Babylonian captivity - again becoming oppressed by overpowering forces. 


Literary criticism: Knowing the above context we begin to see how certain literary and rhetorical devices could have been used in crafting this story. I, for one, can see how it certainly would have been adventageous for a people who had been overpowered (both in Egypt and again by Babylon) to believe that God was capable of overpowering Pharaoh, hardening his heart, enacting “justice” to facilitate their freedom.


Back to the birds-eye


So with a bit more contextual understanding, we can begin to pull back up to that overarching view we’ve talked so much about. If you’ll remember from last week, some of the themes we see throughout scripture are: 


- chaos to order

- justice

- love is the law

- concrete renewal and salvation


And you may have other themes that you see as important to understanding scripture and your faith - this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list! What I want to do now is see where - and if! - our story fits within these themes. As uncomfortable as it makes me to say this, I think for the Israelites, it fits nicely! God is taking their chaos and making order through the justice of liberation, with the concrete action of plagues unto death, which ultimately lead to literal, physical freedom. 


Depending on how you look at it, it can be tempting or disturbing to stop here and say, ok — God is advocating so strongly on behalf of the oppressed Israelite people that God is “willing” to go to these extreme ends to see them liberated. This is certainly one truth the passage is telling, and a mode of interpretation that has been key for Black Liberation Theology and other oppressed groups.


But if the Gospel is good news for all; if our above themes are to be inclusive of all people, can we stop here? When we look at the story from the other perspective — innocent children died, children from families that likely had little or nothing to do with the power struggle at play — we’re back to balking at this troubling text. Taken from that perspective, it doesn’t fit with the themes which remind us that God loves the world (not just a select people group). 


One thing N.T. Wright cautions in his book Scripture and the Authority of God is to be careful about overlaying too much of our culture, experience, and expectation onto scriptural texts. This is to the point of taking the texts on their own terms. We can see the text as liberative for the oppressed Egyptians, but it’s hard for us to understand the death of innocent children. We want a better explanation.


Wrestling match


I said from the outset that I wasn’t seeking to explain away troubling passages, but to wrestle with them in a way that makes our faith more real. In the story of Passover we see chaos, injustice, a situation in need of renewal. This text reminds us that God sees, too, and fights mightily to right these wrongs. 


But the text also leaves us with questions. Holding the story of the first Passover up to some of scripture’s over-arching themes, we learn to listen to voices that are crying out in need of order, love, justice, and renewal. And this quest might actually be what leads us to question the death of the firstborn: Where is their justice and renewal?? 


So rather than leading us back to a hopeless catch-22 where we are stymied in a search of a redemptive reading, I suggest that this questioning process is precisely the answer. This is how we know the text is useful, alive, and working in our lives. 


You may be surprised (ha!) to read that I don’t have a good explanation for the death of the firstborn and the suffering it caused. I can understand the power of the text for communities (then and now) experiencing oppression; I can understand the Egyptians were harmful and deadly oppressors; I can understand there are textual clues that those who wanted to participate in the Passover ritual were invited to do so. 


But because of what this text reveals about God in light of our big-picture themes (that God is, in fact, the God of the oppressed), I am forced to also wonder about the death of the firstborn. And this is something I will continue to wonder. Perhaps you wonder the same thing. I encourage you to allow this question to lead you into places of deeper understanding of the God who fights powerfully for order, love, justice, and renewal — and asks us to do the same.