Viewing Passover Story from a Modern, Secular Perspective
The feast of Passover — the first of whose eight nights Jews began celebrating Friday — is the most ancient of this planet’s religious festivals. It was already 10 centuries old when Jesus shared out his matzah and wine at the Passover dinner the Christian world knows as the Last Supper. The liturgy read at Passover, the Haggadah, was completed 1,200 years before Archbishop Cranmer composed the Book of Common Prayer, 300 years before Mohammed unveiled the Koran.
The story told at Passover is that of the Exodus from Egypt, but in those immense periods of time, many other layers of meaning have accreted upon the holiday. It has been read as a promise of life after death, with Egypt representing the rigors of life in this world and the land of Canaan as the paradisical world to come. It has been understood as a Jewish festival of national liberation, like the Fourth of July or Bastille Day. Some have interpreted it as a generalized celebration of freedom, in which the Jews stand in for all the world’s oppressed and the Egyptians for all the world’s oppressors.
What I find myself brooding about at the Passover, however, is the aspect about the holiday that is perhaps the most troubling to the modern, secularized mind: the intervention of the divine into human history.
The Passover story is full of miracles — the burning bush, the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, the manna in the desert. Modern people simply don’t believe in miracles: As the great skeptical philosopher David Hume acidly noted, it’s far likelier the person who observed the alleged miracle erred (or lied) than that the laws of nature were violated. Even people who regard themselves as religious tend to adhere to some version of what the 18th century called the “watchmaker” theory: God made the universe, wound it up, and then set it ticking without it requiring any further involvement on His part.
At Passover, though, Jews repeat phrases which, if taken seriously, commit us to quite a different belief: to a belief that God can — and has — dramatically intervened in human affairs to shape history. It’s possible, I suppose, to read those phrases without meaning them, as an antique preliminary to tucking into supper. But suppose one were to take them seriously for a moment?
The 20th century has certainly not lacked for decisive events that changed histories in ways that nobody could have predicted: the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand in the streets of Sarajevo, the seizure of power in Petrograd by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the failure of Britain and France to chase Germany out of the Rhineland in 1936, to name just three. The problem, for anyone who wants to see Providence at work, is that most of these startling occurrences have altered history for the worse. Had life continued to bubble along as expected in, say, the spring of 1914, how much happier would the lives of tens of millions have been!
But then, maybe the real problem is that we assume too quickly that the sign of the providential is a change for the better. The Exodus story echoes with complaints that remind us the Israelites did not always share Moses’s conviction that he was improving their lives. “Were there no graves in Egypt that thou hast taken us away to die in the wilderness?” And, in the end, the generation that fled Egypt did all die in the wilderness, after 40 years of wandering through the desert of Sinai.
In the 37th year of that bleak itinerary, the Israelites must have found it as difficult to muster confidence that history was unfolding in accordance with some divine plan as we do. And their experience suggests two important truths to modern people who despair of seeing any order or purpose in the flow of life: First, that what seems to an individual like an unbearably long delay — 40 years of dust and heat — is but a very short time in the life of the human race. And second, that if there is such a thing as providential purposes, we should not hastily assume they include the comfort and prosperity of each and every generation.
We interpret suffering as proof there is no providence, because we take for granted that God’s purposes — if He has purposes — preclude suffering. Tell that to the Egyptians who lost their first-borns in the 10th plague. The Passover story reminds us of a very different truth: that God’s purposes, if such exist, need not be the same as man’s — and that perhaps we can see His presence in even the worst of human misery.