It is often said that the darkest hour of the night is the one before dawn. I’m not sure that’s true, but if it is then one of those lowest points and subsequent dawns took place some 2500 years ago as we returned from exile to Israel again and began to rebuild the Temple under Ezra and Nehemiah. The first returnees were dismayed at what they found and became rapidly disheartened and discouraged at the enormity of the task that lay before them. The house of God, the centre of worship and sacrifice was a ruin; the heart of Judaism abandoned and desolate. No wonder then that the prophet Haggai was sent to encourage the people in their endeavour: Haggai 2:4-5.
So much time had passed since the events of Egypt and our great redemption and deliverance from Pharaoh, yet here at a cultural and spiritual low point we find the words of the Lord reiterating this basic fact: I made a covenant with you and I took you out of Egypt to take you back to the Land. The people can build with confidence because God is with them in this. Nehemiah is humbled by all this and his response too reflects the same sentiments: Nehemiah 1:8-9. Nehemiah knows WHY we were scattered and knows that repentance is needed to return. Nowhere does the text say that we shall return because we organise it, plan for it or do anything ourselves. The Torah is solid in its view that any return is down to the covenant faithfulness of God. We can add nothing to it.
Which brings us to the final plague in Egypt before we finally set out into the wilderness to serve our God. It might, at a stretch, have been possible to blame freaks of nature, the weather or strange seismic activity or peculiarities of animal behaviour or even just magic charms for the miracles demonstrated to Pharaoh and the land of Egypt. The final ‘plague’, the death of the firstborn was going to be different. It would be selective and targeted, at night on the stroke of midnight, it would affect all strata of society and more importantly it had no ethnic bias. Unlike some of the plagues that had gone before this one, Israel too would be affected and see their firstborn die unless a response was forthcoming. There would be no mistaking this for what it was: a lethal act of God to bring devastating judgement on Egypt and on Pharaoh in particular.
God was acting in a sovereign manner to bring about our departure from Egypt, He was showing us right here that He was, is and always will be able to deliver us from oppression, be it spiritual or physical, and take us to the Promised Land. God has never stopped being faithful to the covenants given to us. As much as when your fridge breaks down and you call up the repair man knowing it won’t cost you because you’ve paid for the insurance, so too with total certainty you can rely on Him to uphold the covenant, the contract He made with us. Redemption and salvation were to be through Him alone; only by a sovereign act of His power and deliverance would, could we be set free. All the glory is His and we dare not try to share in that.
It is the God of Israel, of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’acov that sets us free. The God of our fathers is the God who made covenants with us, not a generic deity. In Egypt that point is well made and vital to salvation. It was to our people that the final words came to daub the lintels and doorposts with the blood of the lamb, not to the Egyptians. And yet, despite this, the words spoken to us would also bring life and salvation for any and all who responded to them! I can imagine a scenario whereby the Egyptians, so broken by the yearlong devastation of their economy and country, watching with fear and some interest as the Israelites daubed the door frames. ‘Now what?’ they thought. And upon asking, they heard the answer: if you want your firstborn to survive tonight, you must get behind the blood daubed on Jewish doorframes, get into the Jewish houses for it is only there that you will be safe. The final plague was not ethnic, racial or even partial; it came down to one thing: would you show faith in the God of Israel and do what He commanded you to do? Even Jewish families had to show faith that night. If any Israelite household had failed to daub the blood, they too would have lost the firstborn. Whether you were born Jewish or were an Egyptian, the message was the same.
Getting into a Jewish house daubed with blood was only the first step. All those who had sheltered behind the blood whether Jewish or not, left Egypt and began the journey of faith to the Land. The Torah records for us Ex 12:38 that a huge mixed multitude left Egypt, all those who believed in the God of Israel, knew Him to be the one true God and had demonstrated faith in Him alone. The final act of leaving Egypt was symbolic of turning one’s back on this world and entering the Kingdom of God. As we marched into the wilderness the Torah talks only of the sons of Israel compared to the Egyptians left behind. Each one now took up the covenant promises of God and became a covenant member of Israel through faith and personal choice. The pattern established through Avraham was continued, righteousness is accounted by faith alone. Even as Jews, as great an advantage as we have because of our background and physical descent from Avraham, we must still decide to live that life of faith that our founding father demonstrated.
God is not partial and He has no favourites. His election is His prerogative alone and is not dependent upon us at all. He inaugurated and sovereignly instituted our salvation and acted in history to uphold the covenants He cut with us. These covenants are open to all and any who would love Him and choose to follow Him, accepting His offer of salvation through the sacrificial death of Mashiach once and for all to cover sin. Pharaoh didn’t release us. Equally we didn’t release ourselves. It was always going to have to be an act of God that set us free. He is always faithful; no-one can boast in what they’ve achieved for the Lord. Each receives from God what He gives because all things are from Him and through Him alone. He alone can act to save and deliver, so give Him all the glory!
Shabbat Bo (Come)