Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Angel of Death

While we're on the subject of Passover, my son is finally old enough to understand the story, and he's asking questions about it. And while I'm trying to explain it, I realize, it's terrifying. And pretty horrible.

It would be one thing if it were about the Israelites overcoming their oppression and liberating themselves. But that's not the story. The Israelites are rather passive in this story (with the exception of Moses, but he had to be talked into everything). Instead, it's about the brutality of slavery being countered by the brutality of God. God murders children to effect a policy change. Not only do I have a hard time telling this story to my kids, but I'm not sure why I'm telling it.

I had the idea that I could show my kids "The Prince of Egypt" (1998), which I remembered as a pretty good telling of the Exodus story without the campiness and lengthiness of "The Ten Commandments" (1955). Bad idea. "Prince of Egypt" refers pretty obliquely to the horrors going on in Egypt at the time. If you know the story, you get that firstborn children are being killed, people are being whipped to death, etc., but they don't directly show this stuff. But then comes the angel of death scene. There's just no way to soft-pedal that one. The film depicts this terrifying entity that moves through the city almost silently. The only sound we hear as it passes through a house is an exhalation -- the sound of breath being taken away from the oldest boy. We see one of these boys as he dies quietly in his sleep. The specter moves through the city with brutal efficiency and then leaves. Then we hear the sound of parents crying. Honestly, it's about one of the most horrible things I've ever seen committed to film. (Watch it here if you wish and tell me if I'm overreacting.)

Anyway, I know it's important that Jews pass along their stories to the next generation. But why this story above all others?

UPDATE: Ezra Klein (sadly, my source for religious scholarship) reminds us that the Pharaoh was prepared to give in to Moses several times, but that "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart." God manipulated Pharaoh into the visit from the angel of death. Which kinda makes you wonder, why didn't He just manipulate Pharaoh into letting the slaves go earlier? He apparently needed the confrontation to prove that He was more powerful than the Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods.

Which raises another point. When the Israelites are camped by the Red Sea, God creates a "pillar of fire and cloud" that holds back the Pharaoh's army until the Jews can safely cross the parted waters. But then the fire dies, allowing the army to enter the sea, at which point God closes the sea and drowns the soldiers. Why not just keep the fire going? These men had just lost their sons. Why kill them, too?


Cory said...

Maybe your question is rhetorical, in which you can ignore my response...:-)

I think this story has to be passed on above others because it's SUCH an epic of God rescuing His people from centuries of Egyptian slavery. God could have rescued the Jews any way He wanted to - He could have just zapped them all to the Promised Land or he could have made Pharaoh have a sudden change of heart or any number of possibilities. But, God chose to work through people and circumstances, to include having a reluctant and speech impaired Moses lead the way.

All of those plagues - the frogs, the flies, the Nile turning to blood, etc, those were all symbolic to the Egyptians because each of those things were worshiped by Egyptians as gods (worship of the Nile, of various creatures, of the sun, etc). When God overran Egypt with flies and frogs and when He turned the Nile to blood and blotted out the sun, God was showing his supreme authority above any gods that the Egyptians created.

And, with the ultimate plague of the death of the firstborn, I think God was not only showing that He is in ultimate control (and also that Pharaoh was not God as Egyptians also believed), but that was such a powerful event that no historian could ever say that Pharaoh had a sudden change of heart and benevolently let the Jews leave by his accord. All the generations of Jews (and others) since clearly understand that it was GOD that took the Jewish people out of Egypt, not anything that Pharaoh or any other mortal being did.

I agree that it's a brutal story, but it's such a great love story. God loved His Jewish people so much that He went to these great lengths to free them. The fact that this story can be backed historically and archeologically makes it all the more fascinating.

As a side note, I believe the Israelites are so passive because of the effects of 400 years of slavery - that's twice as long as our country has been around - 400 years is a long time to be beaten down.

Just my (non-Jewish) two cents.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Eric Rubin said...

you wanna know why god didn't do "this" and god didnt do "that"? Because its a fuckin made up story!

It always surprises me that people really believe in any gods. Isn't it obvious god is the tallest of tales invented to teach lessons?

p.s. I am reading a book called "God is not Great" by Christopher Hitchins - fascinating stuff check it out

Seth Masket said...

Cory and Eric, I'll definitely need to have the two of you at next year's seder.

Eric Rubin said...

bring it cory!

Anonymous said...

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