Who are you? Whom do you serve?
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (1954)
Your Identity and Your Mission
The Riders of Rohan had swept past the three companions, but when Aragorn called out to them, they wheeled and charged back. Slowly they circled Aragorn and his friends and then came to a halt. Their leader, Éomer, nudged his horse forward and, with his spear leveled at Aragorn, demanded, “Who are you?”
Who are you? It’s a serious and sometimes difficult question. It calls for more than a name or a number. Ultimately, it is a question about relationships—about heritage, loyalty, and destiny. It’s a question about ultimate commitments.
Before Aragorn and his friends would answer Éomer’s question properly, they wanted to know more about him: “First tell me whom you serve,” Aragorn insisted. Éomer was not embarrassed to answer: He served his king and refused any allegiance to the Dark Power. But then Éomer pressed Aragorn for the same information: “Who are you? Whom do you serve?” Because Aragorn was an uncrowned king, he had no human liege. But neither was he a law to himself. His answer…
Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Anduril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. ‘Elendil!’ he cried. ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is reforged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!
Aragorn’s answer drew upon his lineage, his mission, and his destiny. He identified himself in terms of a story that had its roots in the ancient past and that was now propelling him toward a war for a kingdom waiting to be reborn. Aragorn was a free man waiting to lead other free men into battle against the encroaching Darkness. Aragorn knew who he was, and he expected others to recognize his destiny. Aragorn’s story was the outworking of a divine decree. Aragorn and his ancestors were liegemen to the Creator of Middle-Earth.
Identity Crisis: Israel in Egypt
When Moses appeared in Pharaoh’s court, the children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for more than 80 years (the length of Moses’ life), maybe a lot more. They had come to accept their bondage as part of the normal order. Pharaoh’s rule was absolute, they were his slaves. Nothing would or could alter that. The children of Israel had accepted the religious philosophy of Egypt. They even worshipped Egypt’s gods (Josh. 24:14). The most prominent of those gods and the most immanent and visibly powerful was Pharaoh himself.
Egypt’s religious philosophy assumed a continuity of Being between the divine and the human. Pharaoh was the crucial point of mediation, the bridge between the gods and men. As this ultimate earthly bridge he was sovereign and his rule was both absolute and beyond challenge. He was the son of the divine Sun. Pretty simple.
Whom Do You Serve?
Moses’ demand to Pharaoh was unequivocal: “Thus saith the LORD, Let my people go that they may serve me” (Ex. 7:16; 8:20; 9:1). More specifically, Moses demanded that Israel be released to go three days’ journey into the wilderness and there hold a feast or festival to the LORD, one that would center on sacrifice (Ex. 5:1-3). To the Post-Modern mind, Moses’ demand of Pharaoh might seem the harsh imposition of private religious concerns upon an Egyptian state dedicated to the culture and story of its own people. In other words, the demand might seem absolutist and unloving. What right did Moses have to impose his story on Egyptian politics and culture? To demand liberation in the name of class struggle would be one thing; to demand it in terms of an absolute religion defined by a sovereign Creator would be something else completely.
But Moses and Pharaoh both understood that God’s demand was intentionally and inescapably political precisely because it was religious. Pharaoh’s claim on Israelite service depended upon his prior claim to divinity. He was god on walking on earth to use Hegel’s phrase. To surrender his slaves to another God would be not only religious self-negation but political suicide. Though Egypt was polytheistic in its worship, Egyptian religion by its very nature couldn’t recognize a God who stood outside its closed system of continuous Being. For Pharaoh and for Egypt, the God of the Hebrews was a theological impossibility. He couldn’t exist by definition. Here’s the problem: Any compromise that brought Yahweh into the pantheon of gods might be loosely acceptable, but any acknowledgment of His absolute sovereignty, of any absolute sovereignty outside the State itself, was out of the question. Pharaoh understood that God’s insistence that Israel serve Him with sacrifices outside the borders of Egypt was a claim of ultimate sovereignty. Pharaoh refused to yield, and so the plagues began.
Who Are You?
The redemption of God’s people is ultimately the judgment of the world. But as long as history continues, God’s judgments are always mercy to those who survive them. Every judgment is another opportunity for repentance. (This should prove helpful for Americans as the coming economic storm humbles our nation.) God gave Pharaoh and his people many opportunities to repent. Again and again, they refused, ultimately to their own destruction.
But Pharaoh’s opposition was only part of the problem. The children of Israel identified themselves as Pharaoh’s slaves. They couldn’t conceive of themselves as anything else. Even after the Exodus, they spoke fondly of Egypt and seriously considered returning to slavery (Num. 11:5; 14:2-4; Acts 7:39). The Israelites weren’t ready to become new people and they certainly weren’t ready for freedom. (Are Americans ready for true freedom?) Service to Yahweh is always difficult and risky. It might interfere with your private pleasures. It might require maturity and responsibility. Heck, it might get you killed. Though the promises of God and the bonds of His covenant had a prior claim upon them, the children of Israel refused that identity in favor of the one Pharaoh had put upon them. Like most Americans, they preferred slavery to freedom.
Because of this God aimed the first three plagues at both Egypt and Israel (Ex. 8:22-23). Because of this, God drove Israel out of Egypt and made their return impossible (Ex. 11).
The Lord’s Passover
As God lifted the darkness of the ninth plague, Moses announced the tenth (Ex. 11). God would destroy the firstborn of every household in Egypt. Israel’s current covenant status would not protect her. God required more. He demanded an act of faith, one that involved the blood of a slain lamb. God would “pass over” any house that was marked by this blood and preserve its occupants. Every other household would suffer judgment.
The Passover ritual was complicated, at least by modern standards. And, like any liturgy, it was meant to reshape Israel’s perspectives and thought patterns. First, God altered Israel’s calendar. The seventh month became the first, and the first, the seventh (Ex. 12:1-2). God placed Passover, the festival of redemption, at the head of the calendar in place of Rosh Hashanah, the festival that commemorated the original Creation.
But Passover didn’t begin on the first day of the month. The festival required preparation. On the 10th day, each Israelite family was to take a lamb (or a kid of the goats) and set it apart (Ex. 12:3-7). They were to watch the animal for four days to make sure that it was without spot or blemish. On the evening of the 14th, they were to kill the lamb and splash its blood upon the doorposts of their homes. That night they were to roast the lamb and eat its flesh with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (Ex. 12:8). They were to eat standing, with their shoes on their feet and their staffs in their hands, as those ready for a forced march (Ex. 12:11). For judgment and redemption were about to come quickly. They needed to be ready.
Passover, Identity, and Freedom
The Passover feast was a communion meal, a sort of peace offering. Israel’s identity was in relation to Yahweh, in her communion with Him. But now that communion would be tied to Israel’s redemption from slavery. The price of that redemption was the blood of the Passover lamb. The lamb died in the place of the firstborn and its death spoke of a substitutionary atonement. Only as the children of Israel identified themselves with the slain lamb could they continue to claim any place in God’s covenant.
The bitter herbs served with the meal pointed to the bitterness of slavery and ultimately to the bitterness and bondage of sin. Israel needed to confess that slavery was a bad thing. The leaven, too, had reference to sin, but from a different angle. Leaven speaks of a growing and spreading influence. Sin grows and spreads, but so does the kingdom of God (Matt. 13:33). The leaven that the Israelites had to abandon was the “old leaven,” the leaven of Egypt (cf. 1 Cor. 5:6-8). They were to forget the idolatry of Egypt and the whole pagan worldview attached to the continuity of Being. They were also supposed renounce all the personal sins that went with polytheism. They were to be new people, free in their hearts and minds.
The Passover meal was a dividing line. Those who partook of it would shortly be leaving Egyptian slavery for the freedom of the Promised Land. Those who refused to eat would be rejecting freedom and identifying themselves with Egypt. Like the Egyptians, they would lose their firstborn.
Then and now, it might be dangerous to mark one’s house with blood. Pharaoh’s spies or Homeland Security might be watching and they probably will be taking down names and addresses. But truth, freedom and liberation are found only through the blood of the lamb. No lamb, no liberty. (Hey, that might be a nice bumper sticker.)
That first Passover and the Exodus that followed were real, historical events. Because of this, they were historical links between God’s promises to Abraham and Israel’s possession of the Promise Land. They were also important steps toward the coming of the Messiah. When John the Baptist stood on the banks of the Jordan and cried out, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), all of his hearers understood the allusion. And they all saw that he was pointing at Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was God’s Passover lamb. He entered Jerusalem on the 10th day of the first month. His enemies questioned and examined him. They found no fault in Him, no moral blemish. Jesus died on the 14th, at the very time the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. He returned to life three days later.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were the final and true Exodus, an exodus designed to lead men out of slavery to sin and into the kingdom of God. But unlike the blood of the Passover lamb, the blood of Jesus is offered to the world. Here is freedom, identity, and community. Here is the true and only God. Here is Eternal Life (1 Jn. 5:20). The idols of this world offer only slavery.