The Passover Story: Exodus

Once Moses accepts his commission and persuades the Israelites to listen to him, he is fairly well prepared for the difficulty of actually winning freedom. In chapter 7 God warns him quite clearly that Pharaoh won’t listen, and there’s going to have to be a drawn-out process of attrition: the 10 plagues. It’s all portrayed as rather well orchestrated, which makes this one of the less interesting parts of the story to me.

The next part I’m really interested in is the moment of departure from Egypt. After a fairly quick succession of plagues 1-9, the whole of chapter 11 is devoted to warning Pharaoh of the ultimate plague, and chapter 12 verses 1-28 spell out the rules of the Passover observance in some detail: both what the Israelites were to do in preparation for the 10th plague and what we their descendants are to do to commemorate it. But when that long-trailed plague comes, it strikes in the middle of the night and terrifies the Egyptians so intensely that they don’t merely let the people go: they throw them out, in an enormous hurry. This is where the business of the matza comes from: after all that scheming, the actual departure is presented as too frantic to allow for proper preparations like baking bread or packing any other food. One of the reasons this detail is commemorated so prominently is to serve as a reminder that we don’t always get to wait until we’re ready and have everything planned out: sometimes we just have to work with what we’ve got and improvise.

The theme of unreadiness and inadequate planning continues. Moses has no idea where he’s taking everyone. Or at least, that’s what I read into:

Exodus XIII:17 “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: ‘Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’ But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea…”

The rationalisation just feels so much like a post hoc justification for taking a perilously roundabout route, and the sense of Moses making it up as he goes along is only strengthened by subsequent verses. Chapter 13 ends with the signs of the pillar of smoke and pillar of fire which ought to have led the wandering people, but chapter 14 launches straight into a course correction.

This reads a lot like everyday life to me. Most of us are just muddling through, making what we can of life as it happens. At the same time, most of us are pretty good at spinning a retrospective yarn that makes it look like our lives had far more planning and far more of a coherent narrative than it felt like at the time. And we all deceive each other about this: I’ve come to believe that almost everyone’s life looks simpler and better-planned from the outside than it really feels to the person living it in the moment.

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