The Politics of Sacrifice—Exodus 12:1-14 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In the Passover we find a myth of the foundation of a nation that differs markedly from the contractarian myths of the Western liberal tradition. It disclosure of the sacrificial basis of the political order offers us a hermeneutical key for understanding the roots of our own nations and helps us to understand how we might be established as communities of faithful witness to them.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

The nation of Israel was founded upon an act of sacrifice.

Even after nine judgments—three cycles of three—had fallen upon the land of Egypt, Pharaoh still refused to relent and let the Israelites go. Before our text, Moses announced one final judgment yet to come: the death of the firstborn. Between the record of this declaration and the event of the judgment, we read of the institution of the Passover.

The observance of the Passover and the death of the Egyptian firstborn should be held in the closest of relations, two sides of a single event. The outcome of the conflict between YHWH and Pharaoh was to be the deliverance of Israel, YHWH’s firstborn son, and the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn (cf. Exodus 4:22-23). On account of Pharaoh’s resistance, YHWH claimed all of the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, either in judgment or by setting them apart through redemption (cf. Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16; Numbers 3:13). As in the divine provision of a ram as a substitute for Isaac, YHWH provided redemption for the sons, who then came to embody YHWH’s claim upon the nation, itself spoken of as YHWH’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22). As Numbers 3:13 declares, ‘all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine.’ In the sacrificial event of the Passover, the firstborn sons of Israel, standing as representatives of the whole nation—a role that will later pass to the Levites—are claimed as God’s special possession, a position of both privilege and danger.

Exodus 12:1 begins with a temporal disjunction, framing the institution of the Passover as a retrospective interruption in the narrative—‘The Lord said … in the land of Egypt.’ Within the immediate context of the Exodus narrative, it would also seem as though the institution of the Passover must occur before the events that immediately precede it in the text. Further to this, rather than giving us an account of the actual celebration of the Passover, the observance of the Egyptian Passover is expressed in the briefest terms possible (v.28), while detailed attention is given to its institution. Chapters 12 and 13 of Exodus are concerned, less with a historical narrative of Exodus from Egypt, than with the liturgical and ritual memorialization and institution of this event. The ‘time’ of the Passover is dislodged from the pure linearity of historical narrative to be shared with those ‘throughout Israel’s generations’ who observe the meal.

The Exodus begins the time of the nation, both in its history and yearly cycle—‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.’ It also is the event at the heart of Israel’s time, the celebration that constitutes Israel in the dynamic space between its originary past and its eschatological future.

Various myths have been forged to account for the foundation of nations, not only in stories such as those of Romulus and Remus, but also in the famous myths of political philosophy, such as those offered by Hobbes and Locke. Although it might easily go unrecognized in this respect, the narrative of the Passover should be read as another such national foundation myth. It is through the Passover that Israel is constituted as a nation and from it Israel derives its fundamental meaning.

Reading it in such a manner proves instructive: Israel achieves its foundation, not through a contract or compact between its members to ameliorate a violent or uncertain state of nature, but through the divinely instituted ritual of a sacrificial meal within a crucible of apocalyptic judgment. Through this event, the nation of Israel, celebrating in its constituent families, is established as the bearer of a divine meaning—as the firstborn son of YHWH (themes of birth pervade the first half of the book of Exodus).

In Putting Liberalism in Its Place, Paul Kahn observes the blindness of liberalism to the constitutive role played by sacrifice in the establishment of the state. Liberalism’s assumption of a contractarian basis for the state dulls our awareness to the manner in which our politics continue to be shot through with principles of sacrifice, faith, and love. The state presents itself as worthy of sacrifice, as the bearer of an ultimate meaning, worth dying and even killing for. On account of liberalism’s thrall to reason, it has neglected the importance of the will and thereby failed to recognize some of the most powerful forces that animate its own political communities.

In the Passover, the sacrificial basis of political community is disclosed. The legal constitution of the Torah, given later in the Exodus narrative, is established on this sacrificial foundation—‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 20:2). The nation is established through the dedication of its firstborn sons to YHWH and through its annual memorialization of its origins in the sacrificial Passover meal. In the gospels, Jesus institutes his Supper in the context of the celebration of the Passover, establishing the foundation of the new political community of the Church through the meal memorializing his sacrifice as the firstborn Son.

Uncovering the sacrificial and erotic foundations of the sovereignty of the liberal nation state is an essential task of our political theologies. We must trace the forms of sacrifice that are embedded and instituted in our societies. We need to recognize, expose, and challenge, for instance, the role that the practice of war plays in the sacrificial economy of the state and the idolatrous ways in which political communities can come to claim our ultimate loyalties.

We will be equipped in this hermeneutical and prophetic task as we are grounded in the sacrificial practices of political communities in which we commit ourselves to an ultimate Good that relativizes the lesser goods secured by the nation state. As in Israel’s Passover celebration, the sacramental economy of the Church ritually enacts the sacrificial basis of a community that is founded upon divine initiative and redemption, leading to devotion to God over all other sovereigns. Within this new sacrificial politics any one of us may be called to die a martyr for Christ.

7 thoughts on “The Politics of Sacrifice—Exodus 12:1-14 (Alastair Roberts)

  1. To me, this point particularly is important:
    “In the gospels, Jesus institutes his Supper in the context of the
    celebration of the Passover, establishing the foundation of the new
    political community of the Church through the meal memorializing his
    sacrifice as the firstborn Son.”

    I think it’s vital to see Passover as the key OT reference point for our theology and understanding of the cross, because it seems that this is the emphasis that The Gospels and the rest of the NT have. As such, it could be argued that the DNA of The Church, founded on that basis, should be in announcing a Gospel of liberation from captivity through a sacrifice which should act as a model for the Church’s engagement with ‘the world’, i.e. self-sacrifice.

    Do you think that this has been distorted over the centuries by theologies of the cross that rely more on atonement (punishment) than passover (liberation), even in terms of how that affects the unity of the godhead’s actions within the crucifixion of Jesus (cf. Moltmann) and its impact on the political awareness and stance of elements of the church?

    1. I think that the OT and Passover background has really been neglected. There has been a tendency to focus upon theories, when the meaning of the atonement was chiefly revealed through the symbol of a meal. I wouldn’t simply dismiss the theories on this account. However, they should be accorded a much less dominating position in our thinking.

  2. “Although it might easily go unrecognized in this respect, the narrative of the Passover should be read as another such national foundation myth.” Could you define what you mean by “myth”? Are you saying that the events of Ex 12 are not historically true, or do you have another meaning for “myth”?

    1. By ‘myth’ I am referring to a traditional story that provides a root for a culture’s practice and understanding of the world. It functions on a deeper level than mere history, even if it is historical. My use of the word wasn’t a statement concerning the question of whether the events of the Exodus account actually occurred.

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