(RNS) — The Bible is the Bible not just because it reports the past, but because of its inexhaustible capacity to become contemporary.
The story of the Book of Exodus recounts how Moses returns to Egypt from exile in the desert, where a strange deity has commissioned him to free Moses’ people from bondage. With his brother Aaron, Moses confronts Pharaoh with a series of plagues.
These disasters culminate in the nighttime death of firstborn children across Egypt. The Israelites are directed to smear lamb’s blood on their doorways and remain in their homes, so that death will pass over them. It is this story that Jews will recall the world over beginning Wednesday evening (April 8) at Passover.
The bereaved Pharaoh releases the Israelites, who leave Egypt only to be cornered at the Red Sea by fickle Pharaoh’s army. Moses’ God delivers them again by creating a dry way out in the midst of the waters.
This year the Exodus story will mirror the experience of millions across the globe who are staying inside their homes, praying that death will pass them by and that God will once more provide deliverance. Although Israel’s liberation from Egypt is arguably the central motif of the Hebrew Bible, it is striking that the primary accent in Jewish memory is not the triumph at the sea but the night before Israel’s departure, Passover’s vigil of watching and waiting.
By annually reliving that moment of uncertainty and fear, Jewish tradition remembers something true about the human condition, even as it draws strength from God’s past action. Passover faith is the faith that God can do it again.
Christians are often unaware that Holy Week is viewed by many Jews with apprehension, since historically the Easter season has been a time of heightened Jewish persecution and pogroms. In light of the health crisis we all now share, this year presents a timely opportunity for Christians to reflect on the Jewish roots of their tradition with greater appreciation and understanding. This Easter will be much more like Passover.
Rather than putting on their new Easter clothes and gathering at church, Christian families may find it meaningful to read from Exodus together.
Christians have always discerned parallels between Exodus and Easter. The Easter hymn “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain,” whose lyrics were penned by the eighth-century theologian John of Damascus, celebrates how “God hath brought his Israel / into joy from sadness / loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke / Jacob’s sons and daughters / led them with unmoistened foot / through the Red Sea waters.”
Here Israel’s deliverance at the sea is seen as a type of resurrection.
In retelling the Exodus, Jews and Christians will recall how the biblical God characteristically and reliably brings liberation out of oppression, community out of loneliness, health out of sickness, and life out of death. Sunni Muslims commemorate the Exodus event on the fast of Ashura, so they may also find fresh strength and insight in reconsidering the story.
Even secular readers may discover that Exodus, from so long ago, offers a gripping portrait of a situation much like our own. They may ponder how, as Shakespeare put it, “There’s a divinity” — call it God, history, destiny or what you like — “that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will.”
COVID-19 is for many a jarring reminder that, no, we are not masters of our own fate. Plagues once brought this same message home to Pharaoh. But “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2:25 NRSV).
(The Rev. Stephen B. Chapman is associate professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)