Miracles, Plagues and a Nonviolent God

Posted: October 5, 2008 in Uncategorized
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Fair warning: this post is an exercise in experimental theology. It’s the beginning of an attempted answer to a very good challenging question posed to me while I was holding forth on the nonviolent nature of God as revealed by and in Jesus, the God who “makes the rain fall on the evil and the good.”  Someone asked me, “So, does that mean you don’t believe that God killed the first-born of Egypt in the final plague?”

…*cue crickets*

This is a very tricky subject. The Exodus and Passover are key stories in Jesus’ tradition, and they help shape the narrative and message of Jesus. In many ways they are essential bindings that cause his story to make sense. And while Jesus did do a good bit of reinterpretation of the symbols of Judaism, if one is going to go further (as I was during this conversation) than the “God fights for us” frame of Yoder and actually assert that Jesus gives us good reason to believe that God himself is also nonviolent, we should admit up front how problematic and foundational this challenge is. And it’s larger than the Passover – it extends also to the drowning of the Egyptian army.

What I want to do here is build a basic response and have readers offer their own thoughts. So here we go:

You can come at miracles and plagues from many directions.

That “Reed Sea” explanation has been making the rounds for years I guess. First heard it from my mother years ago — she picked it up in a Catholic seminar apparently. When she told me that the Israelites crossed over the sea after the winds had blown the water level to a mere few inches in depth, I laughed and said, “Well then the real miracle was that God managed to drown the entire Egyptian army in a few inches of water.”

Many of Christ’s teachings and the story of his life on Earth involve radical reinterpretations of the Judaic tradition. The Last Supper was no exception. The supper was a modified Passover meal, but with startling twists. The Passover tradition reaches back to the final plague upon Egypt – the plague that killed the first-born of the Egyptians, when death “passed over” the Hebrew households who had marked their doors with the blood of a slain lamb and eaten its meat in preparation for the departure from bondage. The power of God in this part of the Exodus story zeroes in on the plague as the indicator of the nature and power of God.  The traditional interpretation of this story includes the idea that God is giving the Egyptians what they deserve – the story of Moses begins with the murder of the Hebrew children, and comes full circle with Pharoah planning to do it again and finding his plan turned back on him. Thus God redeems his people b dealing justly with their enemies.

The Last Supper, though, scuttles this description of God.  Matthew 26:

19So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal….26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ 27Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is my blood of the* covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’

This could be one of many examples of Jesus’ simultaneous affirmation/radical reinterpretation of Jewish traditions, identifying God on the side of the victims, not the victors.  Jesus shifts the revelatory focus. Instead of a God who redeems his people from bondage by killing enemies and their loved ones, the God revealed by Jesus saves his people by dying for them, marking them out and sealing them against the destruction to come. The power and salvation of God is not in the death stalking the land; it’s in the lamb slain and consumed by the Hebrews. Jesus identifies himself and God with the creature that gives its life.  This reinterpretation fits well with Jesus’ other teachings of warning against the impending destruction of Jerusalem as the fruit of the violent nationalistic rebellion brewing and the narrow way of salvation from it: the self-sacrificial love of enemies.  One of the levels Jesus operates on here is the use of the plague of the first-born as a metaphor for the coming mass slaughter at the hands of the Romans and identifying himself as the sacrificial lamb, not as the killing force directed at enemies. Jesus’ teachings and self-sacrifice open the way of salvation, including the very concrete salvation from the national disaster bearing down on the Jews. Thus, the God revealed by Jesus redeems his people by dying for them.

If you’re looking in the final plague for the God revealed in Christ, do not look to the angel of death; look to the Lamb.

  1. Stuperb says:

    I’m only barely an armchair theologist, so I don’t have a ton to add here.

    I love your exploration of the idea of the Last Supper as a new seder. It was well-crafted and really interesting.

    It’s just a really tough question to know to what extent the old covenants really did pass away when Jesus walked the earth. My husband likes to taunt me by saying that God is a vengeful god who likes to smite people (he’s kidding) and I always point to the idea of the new covenant.

    It’s especially interesting to me how many hateful or violent philosophies are justified by Christians who point to the Old Testament to rationalize their desire to exclude or to punish – even by willful ignorance of the words directly surrounding the passages they’ve pulled out.

    On a barely related note, my seven year-old is fascinated with the story of Exodus, and wants to celebrate a Passover seder next year. I’m all for it.

  2. Hey there, good thoughts.

    Here’s my two bits:

    As a historical text, you’re probably off the hook. The likelihood of the book of Exodus narrating “history” (in the sense that we understand the word) is quite slim. In other words, the real body count is probably not to be found in the text.

    As a theological text, however, the hot water remains. What does this text tell us about God? (Cue the theological crickets). I think that your Christological reading is a good one, but if you’re going to avoid Marcionism, you’ve got to say something about how Exodus and Revelation fit together in the same canon. Does it make sense to say that Christ fulfills the Exodus by dying as the lamb whose blood covers the Egyptian’s doors too, or by going to the bottom of “the sea” to lift up the drowned Egyptians?

    I’m experimenting with you.

  3. dcrowe says:

    Hi everyone! Sorry for the slow responses…been out of town.

    Stuperb: If you’re interested in more on the Supper as a new seder, I’d recommend N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. I’d recommend it for a great deal more than that, but it really is a great work.

    Eric: On your first point, I very much agree, but maybe for everyone’s benefit you could elaborate a bit. On your second point: First, an aside…I am always jealous of people who tick off the keepers of prevailing opinion enough to get an “-ism” named for them. Maybe we can work on a Derrickism. 🙂 I think there has to be room for both of these texts in a canon, simply because jettisoning, whole cloth, the Exodus story unbinds the frame through which Jesus story is told. The Exodus-from-bondage-led-by-God-not-by-our-own-strength could probably be said to be the key framing story through which the Jewish people in the first century viewed their history and future. If, as you suggest, we’re talking about looking at the literal language of the Hebrew scriptures as theological interpretation of events, rather than literal descriptive narratives of that history, Christ’s use of the lamb symbolism in the Exodus story could be seen as a critique of an interpretation, not as a rejection of the whole frame and/or historical underpinnings.

    This might fit well with the NT understanding of God’s “wrath,” which Paul describes in Romans 1 as basically turning human beings over to the full, unrestrained consequences of their natures, withdrawing God’s restraining influences on them and letting us have the full weight of our free will bear down on us. (cribbing a bit from Terrance Rynne) That fits very well with warnings about the consequences of a violent confrontation with Rome being warnings of “judgment” on Jerusalem (now borrowing from Wrights NTATPG mentioned earlier). Christ could be “fulfilling” the law the same way the prophets did: by critiquing it, correcting it, and claiming that we’ve had it wrong all along.

    But this doesn’t quite get me around the plain text of Exodus…hrmm….

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