A Hebrew 4th of July

Any country or ethnic group that has ever been set free from an oppressor often marks the event with some sort of celebration. We might think of the Festival of Passover as the Jewish version of our 4th of July. It was an important event and critical to the historical memory of the Hebrews. It defined them as a people. The Passover, or Pesach, commemorated that singular, defining event in Jewish history as Moses prepared to lead the children of Israel out of servitude into the promised land. The cruel and clueless Pharaoh became the unwitting prototype of unjust despots down through the ages.

It is easy to conflate the crossing of the Red Sea with the word Passover. That’s understandable. But the Passover event actually preceded the crossing and it is filled with rich symbolism. In Exodus, the Bible tells us that God visited ten different plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Flies, frogs, boils, embarrassing itches and the like spread about the Egyptian kingdom. Yet, Pharaoh couldn’t be brought to the bargaining table. He didn’t just abhor a minimum wage – he was hostile to any wage. Thus, the tenth and most heart-wrenching of the plagues was brought to Egypt – the death of the first-born.

The Passover re-enacts these events that led to the flight of the Israelites. They were given instructions to mark the doorposts of their homes with the sacrificial blood of a young lamb. This mark of blood would spare the wholesale slaughter of first-borns that was about to take place. Upon seeing the mark, the angel of death “passed over” the house.

When Pharaoh finally cried “Uncle” and briefly agreed to free the Israelites, they left in a jiffy. There was not enough time to let the bread rise. They smacked it down into tortillas and began hot-footing it to the Red Sea. Thus, as part of the Passover Feast (a bit of a misnomer) is the consumption of flatbread – or “matzos.” No tasty loaf of Ciabatta is offered.

And thus we begin the last week of Jesus’ life. John will tell the story in more detail than the other gospels. It begins with a preview of things to come. There are those seeking an audience with Jesus who are Gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith. They have come to join in a feast where they are not all that welcome. Although father Abraham had been commissioned to be a blessing to all the nations, the religious administrators during Jesus day were not genial toward the Gentiles. They still referred to them as “the strangers.” Racial purity was paramount to their theology. They were early adopters of denouncing cultural appropriation. They were politically correct before it was a thing.

The universal appeal of Jesus is foreshadowed in this brief narrative account: Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” ~John 12: 20,21 The Greeks came to meet Jesus and reached out to a Jew with a Greek name, Φίλιππος, Philippos. The Greeks understood the symbolism of the Passover Feast. What they didn’t yet realize was that the symbol had come to life in a man who was walking about Jerusalem.