One of the things you learn about the structure of the cosmos in Genesis is that human action, since we are stewards of the cosmos, has an outsized impact on the stability and fruitfulness of it. The cascading failures of humanity after exile from the garden escalate to the point that the continued viability of the entire creation is threatened, and God has to destroy and recreate it; that’s the narrative of the flood. After the flood, God promises He will never let the destructive potential of human sin reach such a critical point ever again (Gen 8:21-22). As the story continues, we see in the dispersal at the tower of Babel (Gen 11), and the destruction of the Jordan River Valley civilization lead by Sodom and Gehmorah (Gen 19) some examples of how God will prevent human sin from reaching that breaking point. Essentially, when a particular society becomes so consumed by sin that their destructive potential begins to escalate; in order to prevent the spread of that destruction, God instead turns those destructive forces back on the society at fault; leaving them to be consumed by the consequences of their own sins.
Of consequence to the present passage, in the examples cited when this grim reversal becomes necessary, there’s also an implication that in connection with the human rebellion at foot is a less visible rebellion by spiritual beings. At the time of the flood there was the odd business of the nephilim which I’m not going to touch here, but which is a situation that the people of Sodom sought to duplicate by taking away the spiritual beings who were visiting Lot; and it’s implied that Nimrod, the foreign, Hammitic conqueror of the plain of Shinar who apparently ordered the construction of the tower of Babel, is also one of these hybrid heaven-earth beings. The tower reaching to the skies was an attempt to manufacture by human means a heaven and earth meeting place.
In all ancient near eastern cultures, firstborn sons played a uniquely important role both in the family and in religious rights. In Egypt, this was especially true, as the firstborn of the tribe or clan was believed to hold magical significance which made them necessary for the proper functioning of Egyptian worship practices. The first born male of an animal, likewise, held magical significance in their temple cults, and were also a necessary part of the regular function of their worship. Into this context of extreme value being placed on the firstborn, YHWH tells Pharaoh that Israel is His firstborn; not in terms of heredity, Israel is descended from nobody’s firstborn in the genealogies. Rather, in terms of the role they serve as the bearer of His image, and as His representative to the world. YHWH tells Pharaoh at the start of this conflict, “This is my firstborn, a concept you more than many others should understand the value of, and you’re oppressing them.”
At the current point in the story, YHWH’s already begun instructing Israel to warn their Egyptian neighbors who disagreed with Pharaoh’s continued rebellion about the plagues, and it seems implied that they would have done so during this plague as well. Notice, the distinction made on this night of destruction is not between blood descendants of Abraham, and non-descendants. The distinction is between those whose doorposts have blood on them, and those who don’t.
Pharaoh’s continued refusal to treat YHWH’s firstborn with respect, and his people’s continued choice to fear Pharaoh as god over YHWH as God, escalates to the point where their religion becomes a threat to the stability of the blessed corner of creation which they inhabit. The Nile has grown toxic, the crops are destroyed, the livestock decimated, and symbols of disease and death are running rampant throughout the land. So YHWH turns the destructive potential of Egypt’s religion back on itself. Egypt and its god-king had oppressed YHWH’s firstborn, so the destruction which they had sown, they now reap. It’s not pretty, it doesn’t sit well within us (nor should it in my opinion), but it is the natural end to the evil that had already been perpetrated.
It’s Maundy Thursday; and the reason this passage is in the lectionary at this point is to center the sacrificial lamb and the Passover meal, so that we can better appreciate the new meaning brought to it by Jesus during the last supper. But I wanted to spend the bulk of our time dealing with the destruction of the firstborn in Egypt before getting to that in part because it’s the piece that my heart can’t help but focus on. I cannot begin to wrap my heart around the suffering of that night, even as I realize the hope that was created through that tragedy.
However, I also think this better understanding of God’s work to curb the destructive forces of human sins is a necessary component to understanding Passover and the Last Supper as well. Realize, the Passover is a feast to commemorate a night when God delivered a people He called His ‘firstborn’ from the destructive power of sin by marking them with the blood of a spotless lamb running down the wooden posts of their doors. The Last Supper kicks off a series of events in which God delivers His firstborn over to the destructive power of sin, and as the post on which He hung became marked with His own blood, that destructive power began to crumble. Jesus descended to death, to the very heart of Sin’s power over creation, and rising again, He conquered death.
Jesus then invites all who would come to join Him on the journey through death into resurrection life. Baptism and Communion are saturated in this language. In baptism, water represents the grave, and when we pass under it we join Jesus in death. Then, rising again, we join Him in the resurrection. During Communion, in eating the bread and drinking the cup, we are being called to the very foot of the cross where the Passover Lamb’s blood marks us as those who have chosen YHWH and rejected Pharaoh. But more than that, this Passover Lamb doesn’t just mark us as citizens of YHWH’s firstborn among the nations, this Passover Lamb is YHWH’s Firstborn. Eating His body, and drinking His blood; we’re assimilating Jesus’ nature into our very bodies. We’re becoming not just part of God’s firstborn nation; we’re becoming part of God’s Firstborn!
And having joined Him in resurrection, we now face the world as it is, knowing what it will be when Jesus’ new life fills it completely. Even though the powers of Sin and Death still linger; until that day, we nevertheless face them as those who have already conquered. And if we’ve already conquered, how then can we sit back and watch our vanquished foes continue to plague the world around us. Christian, pay attention to the pull of the Spirit within you; the new life which you have been given flows from a river that longs to flood the earth. The life that is in us is infectious if we’ll only be obedient to the One who gave it to us. It longs to draw us into the darkest of places where Death’s power still seems strong. Because when we walk into the halls of the power of Death, resurrection comes with us, and a way through death into life opens up for those who are yet in chains.
It’s Maundy Thursday, and tomorrow commemorates the darkest of days. But we face it not as the Apostles did, filled with doubt and fear. Rather, we face it as those who already know that Sunday’s coming.