Nahariya, Israel is on the Mediterranean Sea, 6 miles south from Lebanaon. Nahariya is the last stop before you enter Lebanon, but there is no entering Lebanon. Not from Israel. When Kaytusha rockets are fired from Lebanon, Nahariya is often a target. The 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon sealed borders and fears on both sides.
The people who live in Nahariya understand this threat, but they choose to stay; they will not let fear dictate their lives. I wonder if their cautioned but calm approach doesn’t stem from the sunsets over the Mediterranean each evening. It is extraordinary. Light bounces from the sky to the water and makes its way to the shore by waves. Pink, orange, yellow, blue, and purple swirl together on a canvas that stretches beyond vision. The sun slowly sinks into the sea.
We arrived just before sunset in Nahariya for a Seder meal, a meal celebrated during the week of Passover in which we remember God’s acts of deliverance for the people of Israel in Egypt. It’s the festival that often correlates with our Holy Week, when we remember God’s act of deliverance for the world in Jesus. We remember that Jesus was in Jerusalem in the last week of his life for Passover.
The Passover Seder is a meal that tells a story. It’s such a big story that people gather once a year every year to retell it. It’s a meal that centers around children and their questions because there is a desire to pass on the story, pass on the tradition to the next generation.
The story is set in the Book of Exodus but, as tradition tells it, stretches into today, reminding us that we all were slaves in Egypt and God delivered us all from Pharaoh. We’re all in need of deliverance from very real forces, very real darkness, very real evil.
Pharaoh is the title of the king of Egypt. We remember how Joseph worked with Pharaoh to bring healing to a hungry land. But oh how things change with the flip of a page. Joseph grew old and died and there arose over Egypt a new king who “knew Joseph not” (Exodus 1:8).
This Pharaoh operated with great fear and he saw how hard the Hebrews worked and grew even more fearful. So he made life miserable for them. He instructed the Egyptian midwives, those skilled to deliver babies, to kill all the Hebrew males born in Egypt.
In this story, we’re more likely familiar with the person, Moses, who is called by God to lead the people to freedom. Moses was a Hebrew boy born to a Hebrew woman. Lucky for Moses, he was delivered by two Egyptian women who feared God more than Pharaoh and would not do as Pharaoh commanded. His mother had to send him into the Nile where he was brought to Pharaoh’s household. He grew up as son to Pharaoh and brother of Pharaoh’s son.
As an adult, Moses witnessed the harsh treatment of his people and one day he snapped, killing one of Pharaoh’s men and fleeing into the wilderness for fear of his life. There he encountered God in the burning bush and was called to tell Pharaoh “Let God’s people go!”
But Pharaoh would not let God’s people go.
And that is the point when the Seder meal starts, under the backdrop of bondage on the stage of slavery.
Now, the Seder meal requires a certain level of wine; each person will take in at least 4 full glasses. What can I say, it was our religious duty! It was a miracle we woke up early enough the next morning to be back to Jerusalem. It was early enough to see the moon set on the sea, and early enough to feel the full effects of the night before, and remember pieces of the story: the joy in deliverance and freedom, but also some sorrow. The plagues, screeched back into memory. Pharaoh refused God, and God sent plagues. A horrific scene.
Blood replaces water in the Nile. Frogs covered the land. Lice covered the animals. Wild Beasts swarmed the land eating and trampling everything in sight. Then a cattle disease wiped out the livestock. Boils bursted on the bodies of men and beast. Hail wiped out crops were left. Locusts swarmed the land. Darkness descended. And Pharaoh would not let God’s people go. Even Pharaoh’s officials said to him, “How long shall this fellow harass us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (Exodus 10:7).
Pharaoh wouldn’t listen until the final plague…the death of the first born. He who would kill the baby boys in the beginning of the story would lose his baby boy. It would make for poetic justice, if it didn’t sound so awful.
The Hebrews were told to take blood from a lamb and smear it on their doorposts and lintels so that God would pass over their homes and pass over their first born boys. The blood of the lamb would deliver them from death and lead them into freedom. It was the first Passover.
The Egyptians were told nothing. They lost their first born, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who sits in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. A great cry was heard all across Egypt.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this chapter of God’s story of redemption and grace. It’s horrible. Yet this story helps us see how God’s redemption and grace is working in the world today amidst the slavery we face and God’s deliverance which we cannot achieve by ourselves.
There is a Jewish book called the Mishna, a second telling of the stories passed down through oral tradition. In this story, the angels in heaven were rejoicing over the deliverance of the Hebrews at the Red Sea—singing and dancing and playing their harps. “Wait,” said one of the angels. “Look, the Creator of the Universe is sitting there weeping.” They approached God and asked, “Why are you weeping when Israel has been delivered by your power?” “I am weeping,” said the Maker of the universe, “for the dead Egyptians… are somebody’s sons, somebody’s husbands, somebody’s fathers.”
In Proverbs 24:7, it is written, “If your enemy falls, do not exult, if your enemy stumbles, your heart should not rejoice.” This is often read at the Seder meal, which serve to help us make sense of this story.
Tradition holds that at the Seder Meal, as the plagues are named and remembered, each person removes wine from their glass with reverence. 10 drops of wine mark the plates as the plagues are remembered along with the misery of the Egyptian people caught up in Pharaoh’s power complex.
Wine is seen as something to enjoy, but when we came to the plagues, the tradition is to remove wine, to diminish joy as we recount the suffering of others.
The Seder Meal brings us back, helps us remember who we are in light of who God is. Remembrance is an antidote to nostalgia. Remembrance is an antidote to cruelty. There is nothing nostalgic about people suffering. There is nothing sentimental about the misery of others. This story, this meal helps us remember that the cruelty inflicted by some is felt by many others. This story, this meal, helps us remember just how broken of a world God has entered into. This story, this meal, helps us remember who we are: people in need of God’s saving. This story, this meal, helps us remember who God is: the one who brings us from slavery and all of its entrapments, to freedom; the one who saves us.
This story, this meal is one we turn to and remember week after week. Like the Hebrews we take wine and we take bread and we remember who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us.
In this meal, in this story, we remember that God has given his Son, his one and only Son, to take away the sin of the world, suffering for us, with us. Jesus dies so that we will have life. Jesus holds the bread of Passover and says, this is my body, this is what will become of my body. It will be broken, but in the brokenness, there will be a blessing. He takes the cup of the Passover and says, this is my blood, this is what will become of my blood. It will be poured out, and you will be part of that pouring. Eat of it, drink of it, remember me, not with nostalgia but with conviction that I have delivered you from the slavery of sin and death and the power of evil.
Jesus is the lamb of God whose body and blood were given and shed for us, wiped on the doorposts and lintels of our lives and bodies, marking us forever as ones who belong to Christ, ones whom the power of sin and death and evil will ultimately pass over, ones who are made for freedom, ones who are made to remember how God looks upon cruelty and slavery, ones who are free to be God’s people and nobody else’s.