The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
Today as Hurricane Irma lumbers toward the Florida coast, I’ve been anxiously (obsessively?) checking for the latest news on its projected trajectory. My mother lives on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and as the predicted landfall inches northwestward, my concerns intensify. A few years ago, another “I” hurricane, Isaac, battered down her windows and the storm surge extensively flooded her house. I don’t want her to have to go through that again. I want the hurricane to pass over her, and go somewhere else. But I know that wherever it goes, it will cause extensive damage to somebody’s home. So how then should I pray? If my prayers are answered in the way I want them to be answered, somebody else’s prayers won’t be.
Let me make this clear: I don’t think that God is in the business of micromanaging the paths of hurricanes. I don’t even like the term “acts of God”, which I think was invented by insurance companies in order to mitigate their financial losses. I am embarrassed and angered by the shoddy and shallow theologies postulated by those who say God sent Katrina to punish New Orleans for its licentiousness, or Sandy to punish New York for its secularism. Not only do I not think God works that way, I think these people make themselves look foolish, because hurricanes also strike morally rigid, religiously observant communities. Job was a pretty good guy, yet underwent terrible undeserved suffering; the writer of Ecclesiastes observed that sometimes the wicked prosper and the good die young; and I think Jesus was pretty clear that bad things sometimes happen, and they aren’t always the result of bad behavior. Instead of assigning blame, Jesus taught, we should try to help. But an uncomfortable truth remains: what is good news for some is often bad news for others.
Today’s Old Testament reading commemorates the origins of Passover, an event which was good news for some and bad news for others. The background story is familiar, but here’s my brief synopsis: During an extended time of famine, the patriarch Jacob, aka Israel, and his entire extended family emigrated from Canaan to Egypt. The immigrants were initially treated well, but over the years the relationship between native-born Egyptians and alien proto-Israelites deteriorated. The Egyptians became increasingly concerned about the Hebrew fertility rate, which they tried to manage in horrifying ways. Perhaps they felt Egypt should be for Egyptians, not Semitic sheepherders. Perhaps they were concerned that their culture and way of life would be lost to these monotheistic interlopers. At any rate, the Hebrews found themselves mistreated, used, and abused for several centuries. By the time Moses came along, Rameses was in full make-Egypt-great-again mode, mainly by the use of Hebrew slave labor. But, the story tells us, God was not happy with the way Egyptian exceptionality was being advanced. He heard the cries of his enslaved people, and entrusted Moses with the task of doing something about it. Through his messenger Moses, God sent sign after sign to Pharaoh that he ought to “let my people go”. But no matter what Moses said or did, Pharaoh managed to explain away, often with the assistance of advisors currying his favor. He blamed his victims, accusing them of not working hard enough, and made life even more difficult for them than it already was. Finally, God had had enough. He would send one final plague, the death of the first-born, which the Hebrews could escape by marking their doorposts with blood. The angel of death “passed over” those homes, and Passover was commissioned as a permanent reminder of God’s intervention on their behalf.
That first Passover was good news for the enslaved Hebrew people, and bad news for the Egyptians. What is understood as deliverance by the Hebrew slaves comes across as a cruel and devastating loss to their Egyptian masters. What’s especially sad to me is to think of the collateral damage. I imagine the average working-class Egyptian was unaware of the escalating Moses vs. Pharaoh drama, much less of the dangers posed by the concern of an unknown god for his chosen people. Some of them may have even been friendly with their Hebrew neighbors, as they asked for and were given valuable parting gifts. But, according to the story, they still suffered tremendously from the plagues. Their tragedy is often commemorated symbolically in many Passover seders, as drops of wine are spilled as each plague is mentioned. The joy of the freed Hebrew slaves is tempered by the sadness of the bereaved Egyptian families, for God cares about both. There’s also a Talmudic teaching about God’s reaction when the Hebrews began to celebrate the drowning of Pharaoh’s army; “How can you sing as the works of my hands are drowning in the sea?”
This story says several things to me about God. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that God takes the side of those who are oppressed over the ones who are doing the oppressing. The love of God and the wrath of God seem to be two sides of the same coin, and your perspective determines which side you see. If you’re the one being rescued, you see God’s love. If you’re the cause of the need for rescue, it’s likely that you see God’s wrath. I don’t know that the Hebrews were morally superior to the Egyptians, as their various bad behaviors in the wilderness later proved. Their deliverance wasn’t based on their merits, but on God’s empathy for their suffering. God seems to care more about how people treat each other than some of the things some people think he is concerned about.
Second, God uses human beings to bring about positive change, as he did through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The usual way God seems to work is to change human hearts so that their thoughts and desires are more in line with God’s thoughts and desires. I’m not discounting the possibility of direct divine intervention, but most of the time I think God chooses to work through people. Why did God wait so long to rescue his people? Maybe God wanted to intervene much earlier, but Moses was the first person to pay attention, hear God’s voice, and respond to it. Imagine what the world might be like if more people were willing to pay attention enough to see, and the desire to do something about, human need.
Finally, we must acknowledge the reality of collateral damage, not as a result of God’s actions, but of ours. All of us, if we are honest, know that we make many mistakes, some intentionally and some unintentionally. We all fall far short of God’s desire that we love our neighbors as ourselves. As the Book of Common Prayer phrases it, “we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved thee with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Awareness of that reality ought to cause us to be more compassionate toward others, but unfortunately instead we often want to blame others for their own misfortunes. We attempt to cover our own nakedness, not with fig leaves, but with pointing fingers. If we don’t get away from that kind of thinking, we may find ourselves looking at the wrong side of God’s coin of love and wrath.
No, God doesn’t steer hurricanes toward particular communities as punishment, but it does seem highly likely to me that human actions may have been a contributory factor in the ferocity of this year’s hurricane season. As ocean temperatures inch upward, they provide a fertile breeding ground for hurricanes. As sea levels rise, more and more coastline is vulnerable to inundation. As we destroy more and more wetlands in our quest to build bigger and bigger barns, we remove the layers of protection they might have provided. If we are willing to pay acknowledge that there might be a problem with the way we have cared for God’s creation, we can work together to find a solution. If we don’t, we may find ourselves in a position eerily similar to that of Pharaoh”s pursuing army, overwhelmed by forces of nature we cannot control.
Good news or bad news? God’s deliverance or God’s wrath? God’s love or God’s justice? It’s more complicated than some make it out to be. But I’m pretty sure on which side I want to be.