Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Passover - Slavery 101

"Moses and Aaron went in, and said to Pharao: Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: Let my people go." Exodus 5:1

Passover begins tonight. Jews all over the world gather around Seder tables to celebrate--and most of all remember--our people's release from generations of bondage in Egypt. It is a solemn celebration. And a reminder of the high price paid by the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

If you've read your bible or watched The Ten Commandments on TV--the kitschy old Charlton Heston movie and this week's new miniseries--you know the story. It's a fascinating tale of conflict, drama, belief, conviction, hubris, faith, weakness ... and in the end, hope and salvation.

But make no mistake about the central theme: Jews. Were. Slaves.

Here's the basic story:

In the ancient days of the Pharaohs in Egypt, Jews (then called Israelites) were slaves. In fact, historians believe theirs were the backs broken building the pyramids. They were monotheistic, which angered their slave-masters, who worshiped a whole panoply of gods. Another reason the two groups regarded each other with fear, anger and suspicion.

The Egyptian king Ramesses worried that the Israelites' growing population might someday revolt, so he ordered the firstborn male of every Hebrew family killed. (Which would come back to haunt his own son, Ramesses II.) One male Hebrew child, destined to lead his people out of slavery, survived -- Moses.

Moses was raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh's own household but as a grown man came to know his heritage and was called to spread God's laws to all His people. Moses went to the new Pharaoh, Ramesses II at God's command to demand the Israelites' release from bondage.

Each time Pharaoh refused, Moses brought God's wrath down on Egypt in the form of plagues -- all explainable as natural events and disasters, but to true believers, ones only God could have created in that order at that time.

As the plagues hammered the Egyptian people, they clamored for Pharaoh to release the Hebrews. He refused to waver. To teach him the power of God, Moses proclaimed that the final and most heinous plague would come from the mouth of the oppressor king himself.

Frustrated and angry with Moses and his demands, Ramesses II invoked his father's old command: the firstborn male of every household would be killed.

And so the die was cast.

The Hebrew leaders knew that by morning, every first-born Egyptian, man or boy would be dead. They spread the word that all Hebrews should place lamb's blood on the doorposts of their houses to assure that God's messenger, the Angel of Death, would pass over the Hebrew homes.

Pass over. Passover. Right.

Ramesses, his own son dead, was beaten. He sent the Israelites out into the desert. And so began the Exodus. A long involved story in itself. Some highlights you'll recognize:

Ramesses changed his mind and went after the Israelites. God parted the Red Sea to let them pass, then closed it over Pharaoh's army, drowning them all.

When the Israelites got to Mt. Sinai, Moses went up the mountain, communed with God and returned with the Ten Commandments.

While Moses was gone, the Israelites, unaccustomed to freedom, fearful of a long journey into the unknown and unable to believe in a God they could not see, reverted to Egyptian ways and created idols to worship.

On his return, Moses expressed God's anger with His Children for their faithlessness. He degreed they would wander the desert at least 40 years, until a new, untainted generation had grown and would accept God's laws.

The rationale is clear: those who have been enslaved cannot understand or accept the responsibilities of freedom.

The message is equally clear: slavery is wrong.

It happened thousands of years ago to the Jews. It happened hundreds of years ago to the Africans. It's still happening today to people around the world.

The Passover celebration of the Hebrews' release from bondage has become an abiding symbol to Jews of the power of faith in God, even in the face of overwhelming evil.

The continuing struggle against slavery and evil belongs to all of us.



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