Exodus 13 – Handling Memory

Exodus 13 Bible with Equal Exchange Organic Dark Chocolate Mint Crunch

Today’s ChocolateEqual Exchange Organic Dark Chocolate Mint Crunch

Today’s PassageExodus 13

I feel like we’ve got a lot to remember these days. Step by step, all through the day, I try to finish the task right in front of me so that I won’t have to remember it. And if I get interrupted, or have to set a task aside until something else happens, or think of something else I need to do next but might forget it, I write the task down. All throughout my house, you can find piles of to-do lists from months ago, full of obsolete items that I’ve already done or that don’t matter anymore. And sometimes I carry an object with me to remind me what I need to do next, which ensures that I’ll actually do the task when I run out of hands. And for all the things I couldn’t possibly hold in my brain all at once, I outsource my remembering to computers.

Part of what makes human memory so valuable and important is its scarcity: we can only remember so many things at once. A major reason God instituted the Passover and the dedication of firstborns, as Exodus 13 hammers home, is to put in place cultural mechanisms to remember the Exodus. Every year, the Hebrews would remember what God did exactly a year ago to free them. They’d materially recreate the conditions of their departure by removing all the leaven from their places of residence. They’d eat a physical reminder of how quickly Pharaoh released them when God took his heir.

And they’d pass on the memory to their own heirs, who hadn’t experienced it. God instructs his people: “You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (8). When you have to tell someone else why you keep a holiday, you can’t help but keep in your own mind what the holiday’s really about. And as long as they obey God’s command here, it won’t be just a few individuals here and there remembering the Exodus by themselves, nor just the nation that experienced it, but generations upon generations of as-yet-unborn Israelites.

And that brings us to the dedication of the firstborn. The first male to be born to every Hebrew, and to every beast that a Hebrew owns, is to be dedicated to the Lord. The animals are to be killed and offered as a sacrifice to God, except for donkeys (13). Sons are to have an animal killed in their stead, and donkeys may be spared if they are similarly redeemed by killing a lamb. I’m not sure why there’s an exception for donkeys, but the killing of an animal for the firstborn reminds the Israelites that they are God’s firstborn, and that their freedom came at a price: specifically, the life of every firstborn of their oppressors, human and animal alike.

The Passover requires the people of Israel to go without leaven for seven days. There’s something about observing a tradition, following detailed instructions, for an entire week that thrusts it into the center of your attention. And if having to sacrifice the firstborn male of every single one of your livestock wouldn’t drive the point home like a car with one headlight from a Wallflowers song, I don’t know what would. The only thing I can think of that even comes close in modern American culture is Christmas. But if we killed and ate an entire sheep at Christmas as a tangible symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for us–God’s firstborn by nature for God’s adopted firstborn–just imagine all the things we might remember.

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