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Shemot/Exodus 11:5 And all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die ... and all the first-born of cattle.
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We know that G-d is merciful, for the Scriptures tell us that "it is not His purpose that anyone should be destroyed, but that everyone should turn from his sins" (2 Peter 3:9, CJB), so how are we to make sense of our text? Does that not appear to be a fairly all-encompassing sentence upon a huge number of people? Indeed, the early rabbis taught that the first-born were not only the first-born of man but also of woman and that the first-born child could be of either male or female gender, thus including an even broader range - almost everyone seems to be included one way or another. Perhaps that is why the narrative of the first Passover night's fulfillment of the text says: "and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no house where there was not someone dead" (Shemot 12:30, NASB). InPesikta de Rab Kahana the rabbis pick up on the last phrase of our text and ask, "Men sinned, to be sure, but how can cattle be said to have sinned?" They then provide the answer, "Since the Egyptians worshipped the ram - the symbol of the Egyptian god Amon, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus - the cattle were also struck in order that the Egyptians should not be able to say: It is our deity who has brought thus punishment upon us. Out deity is strong and can stand up for himself, as is shown by the fact that this punishment did not come upon such animals as represent him" (Piska 7).
The rabbis use the progression of tzara'at as another example of the way in whichHaShem is reluctant to harm mankind. First, He begins with a man's house; if he repents then only those stones affected by the tzara'at need be removed: "then the priest shall order them to tear out the stones with the mark in them and throw them away at an unclean place outside the city" (Vayikra 14:40, NASB). But if he does not repent, then the whole house has to be broken down: "He shall therefore tear down the house, its stones and its timbers, and all the plaster of the house, and he shall take them outside the city to an unclean place" (v. 45, NASB). Next, the focus shifts to the man's clothes; if a men repents then only a patch is torn from the garment: "then if the priest shall look and if the mark has faded after it has been washed, then he shall tear it out of the garment" (13:56, NASB). But if he does not repent then the whole garment is lost: "the article with the mark shall be burned in the fire" (v. 57, NASB). Finally, if He has not had a response, HaShem turns to the man's body; if he repents then he is cured of the tzara'at in his flesh. If he still refuses to repent then "he shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live aline; his dwelling shall be outside the camp" (13:46, NASB).
The same progression is also seen in the way that HaShem allows Job to be tested by Satan - first only his possessions and family: "Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him" (Job 1:12, NASB). Only when Job proves that he will not sin or blame G-d is Satan empowered to move further: "Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life" (2:6, NASB); his life is protected throughout. The rabbis see a similar progression in the treatment of Elimelech and his sons at the start of the story of Ruth (Ruth 1:3, 1:5) and quote from the Psalms to show the process at work in the Egyptian plagues - crops, cattle, mankind: "He struck down their vines also and the fig trees, and shattered the trees of their territory" (Psalm 105:33, NASB), "He gave over their cattle also to the hailstones, and their herds to bolts of lightening" (Psalm 78:48, NASB); only at the last did HaShem resort to touching man: "And [He] smote all the first-born in Egypt" (v. 52, NASB).
G-d acts in the same way with believers and those who do not know Him today. There are many powerful testimony books that show how G-d patiently pursued a man or a woman through years of sinful living and rebellion before finally catching up with them: "He wants all humanity to be delivered and come to full knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4, CJB). G-d has a vision and a plan for each of our lives, so the prophet said, "For the vision is meant for its appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. It may take a while, but wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay" (Habakkuk 2:3, CJB). Although men may put G-d "on the back-burner", "you despise the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience; because you don't realize that G-d's kindness is intended to lead you to turn from your sins" (Romans 2:4, CJB), it is absolutely certain that He will be there waiting for them, either in this world or the next! He closes down our options so that we have to focus on Him.
This position applies also to believers. As Peter writes, "For the time has come for the judgment to begin. It begins with the household of G-d" (1 Peter 4:17, CJB). G-d wants us too to repent of our sinful ways and habits so that we may be cleansed and purified by His grace and forgiveness. Speaking of disputes within the body, Yeshua taught a staged approach: "Moreover, if your brother commits a sin against you, go and show him his fault- but privately, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he doesn't listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation can be supported by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to hear them, tell the congregation; and if he refuses to listen even to the congregation, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax-collector" (Matthew 18:15-17, CJB). He also taught that our forgiveness from G-d is conditioned upon our forgiveness from those we had offended.
Writing to the Corinthian community, Rav Sha'ul told them, "Get rid of the old hametz, so that you can be a new batch of dough, because in reality you are unleavened. For our Pesach lamb, the Messiah, has been sacrificed. So let us celebrate the Seder not with leftover hametz, the hametz of wickedness and evil, but with the matzah of purity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8, CJB). Sha'ul is pointing to two things here. Firstly, as believers in Messiah, we are in relationship with G-d, we are new creations, Yeshua has already justified us with G-d so that we are free to serve Him. We are no longer slaves to sin; we have a choice in our behaviour and speech. Secondly, Sha'ul urges us to celebrate, not just the Passover seder at this particular time of year, but throughout the year, our freedom in Messiah. We can do and say nice things; we can choose always to speak the truth; we can live lives that are pure from the contamination of the world. Both as individuals and as a community we can celebrate this Passover season in a more righteous way that will be more pleasing to G-d than last year.
Further Study: Shemot 13:6-7; Ephesians 4:22
Application: How can you move towards purity and truth in your life this Passover season? Perhaps you could prune your library of videos with any rating higher than PG, or put out any books that you wouldn't want your children or grandchildren to read. Activities that you wouldn't want to take Yeshua along to are an obvious candidate for stopping, as are relationships or habits that drag you down or away from G-d. As we focus on removing leaven from our houses, why not remove some from your life!
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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