Today's reading is Exodus 7-9 (read it in the KJV or NIV)
Today's passage covers the final three plagues (locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn) and God's commandments for the Passover.
Today's readings contain some of the first explicit commandments for today's Jews. Even though the Israelites are not, at the time of this passage, Jews, they nonetheless are given specific commandments for how to act in future generations. Specifically, God gives very precise commands for how the Israelites should prepare to ensure God does not slay their firstborn, and he also instructs them about how to remember the event annually in future years. This remembrance is known today as Passover.
It should come as no surprise that God wants the Exodus to be remembered. As I mentioned in the last essay, one of the reasons God brings about the plagues in the first place is to show his power and ensure he is remembered by the Israelites and the Egyptians. Today's passage repeats the theme: Ex. 10:1-2 reads as follows in the KJV, "(1) And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him: (2) And that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son's son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the LORD."
Given this focus on posterity, it is also unsurprising that God does not leave the remembrance to chance. Instead, he gives very specific instructions for how the Israelites should celebrate every year. The details are somewhat technical, taking up most of chapter 12, so I would like to focus on one or two commandments and show how they apply, even today.
First and most importantly, God commands, "And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever." (Ex. 12:14, KJV) This is absolutely clear: the Israelites must keep this celebration forever. It is nonetheless still remarkable that even three thousand years later, Jews are celebrating Passover. Though individual traditions vary by culture and household, the fundamentals remain strikingly similar to the original commands. Most importantly, Jews do not eat leavened food (bread, cakes, or anything else that rises) during the seven days of Passover. (Ex. 12:19)
Also notable about the Passover is who is invited to partake. The restrictions, found in Ex. 12:43-49, describe the original Passover (ie: the sacrificial animal whose blood would be put on the doors to avoid the plague) and not the subsequent annual celebrations, but they are worth describing regardless. God explicitly says that no foreigners are allowed to partake of it (Ex. 12:43) except for those whose whole family has been circumcised (Ex. 12:48). Bought, circumcised slaves may eat it (Ex. 12:44), but not hired workers or temporary residents (Ex. 12:45). In other words, those who are permanently part of the Israelite community may celebrate the Passover, but those who are only temporarily associated may not.
These two features of the Passover, taken together, form a powerful bond: a community. With the latter feature, God chooses who will be in the Israelite community. With the former, he ensures that they continue as a community down through the generations. God establishes his community and maintains it. It is important to note that all this happens before God cements his relationship with this community through the covenant on Mount Sinai. The Passover celebration is a necessary forerunner of the Sinai covenant. Here, God chooses who will be in his community. At Mount Sinai, he makes the connection formal.
Of course, in today's increasingly-assimilated climate, non-Jews do attend some seders (the Passover feast held each year). In part, this is merely a fact of life in a culture where about half of all Jews intermarry. If your spouse is a non-Jew, he or she will likely attend the seder anyway. Furthermore, there are many non-Jews curious about Jewish customs. Some Jews today hold "model seders" where non-Jews are invited and encouraged to attend. Many people have absolutely no problem with this, myself included.
Nonetheless, there are some issues about including non-Jews in the seder. The Mail.Jewish mailing list notes a few complications that can arise when religious, practising Jews invite non-Jews to the celebration. Beyond that, there can be an inherent clash when inviting non-Jews to what is, essentially, a celebration of Jewish community. The message of the seder is "we were enslaved in Egypt, and God rescued us from bondage." This message resonates strongly with many of my Jewish friends, and very little with my non-Jewish ones.
It would be remiss of me to neglect the most famous seder, or Passover celebration, of all time. I speak, of course, about the Last Supper. The Gospel of Matthew is explicit that the Last Supper was, in fact, a Passover meal. (Matt. 26:17-20) Jesus along with all his disciples were, of course, Jewish. However, Jesus transformed the celebration of a traditional Jewish feast when he established the Host of bread and wine. (Matt. 26:26-28) From that point forward, the unleavened bread used at the Passover feast was no longer a symbol of the unleavened bread eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt. It was instead a symbol of the Christ, hence the etymology of Eucharist. Within a short period of time, historically speaking, Christians replaced the Passover tradition with that of the Eucharist, establishing a new community separate from the Jewish one.
All this talk of community ultimately stems from Ex. 12. Both Christian and Jewish communities are fundamentally shaped by this episode, whether modern practitioners acknowledge it or not. It is amazing that two- or three-thousand years after the fact, these communities continue to practice a ritual in much the same form as it existed when it was established.