Dear Friends of Art,
The end of March is marked by two great holidays of the Judeo-Christian
tradition – Passover (or Pesach) and Easter (or Pascha). Our guide again
is our guest from Jerusalem Dr. Victoria Vekselman.
The story is well known to everyone from the Old Testament book of Exodus. Moses, Jewish born, but brought up as an Egyptian prince, takes the side of his humiliated people and tries to persuade the Pharaoh to let his people go. The Lord governs and assists Moses. To show the Pharaoh His might, the Lord sends plagues to Egypt, each more terrible than the previous. The culmination of the story is the institution of the Passover, when the Lord ordered the people of Israel to procure a lamb or a kid for each family and slaughter them between dusk and dark. Then He ordered to take some blood and smear it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of their houses, stay in the houses, eat the meat and pray. “It is the Lord’s Passover. On that night I shall pass through the land of Egypt and kill every firstborn of man and beast. Thus I shall execute judgment, I the Lord, against all the gods of Egypt. As for you, the blood will be a sign on the houses in which you are: when I see the blood I shall pass over you; when I strike Egypt, the mortal blow will not touch you.” (Exodus 12: 12-13) This strike of the Lord was so hard that the Egyptians let the Israelites leave their land and take with them whatever they asked.
The centrality of this event in both the Jewish material and spiritual history can be seen from the First Commandment, which is read as following, “I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Deuteronomy 5:6). Thus, the experience of slavery, delivery, revelation and presenting of the Law (Torah) is a chain of events that formed the nation of Israel.
Biblical studies, or to be more exact, Biblical criticism, tend to deny or undermine the importance of this event. Historians often say that the Jewish escape from Egypt remained unnoticed, and Egyptian chronicles never mention terrible plagues that were inflicted on Egypt by the Pharaoh’s stubbornness and unwillingness “to let the Jews go”.
The Bible does not represent the escape from Egypt as an ordinary event, but as something accompanied by violent natural disasters that preceded the Exodus. “Then the earth shook and trembled, the foundations also of the hills moves and were shaken: coals were shaken because He was wroth. There went up a smoke out of His nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down, and darkness was under His feet” (Psalm 18:8-10). Can we interpret the Exodus narration, the Psalms and the words of prophets as a metaphor, or take it as real description of a real event?
There are strong arguments in favor of the Biblical story.
Emmanuel Velikovsky, an American historian, claims that we have a description of a real calamity, and a parallel text of the so-called Leiden Papyri #344 deals with the same events. According to his words, “it’s a record of lamentation and horror.”
Papyri 2:8 “In fact the earth turns like a potter’s wheel.”
Papyri 2:11 “Cities are destroyed. The Upper Egypt turned into a dry [desert].”
Papyri 3:13 “Everything is smashed!”
Papyri 7:14 “The palace was turned upside down in a moment.”
Papyri 4:12 “Years of noise.” (In Hebrew ‘noise’ and earthquake’ are pronounced and written almost identically. There’s strong probability of interpreting this Semitic word as ‘earthquake’).
Further on Velikovsky compares the two texts:
Papyri 2:5 “Plague is all over the earth. Blood is everywhere.”
Exodus 7:20 “And all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood.”
Papyri 2:10 “People shuddered at drinking it. Human beings were thirsty after tasting it.”
Exodus 7:24 “The Egyptians all dug for drinking water round about the river, because they could not drink from the waters of the river itself.”
Let’s now see the events of the last night before the Exodus that is marked by the death of first-borns. Its description might sound like a mythical story. But the Papyri tells the story of a very powerful earthquake “The palace was turned upside down. (…) The prisons were destroyed. (…) Pathetic crying and lamentations were heard all over the land”. Exodus 12:30: “And there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead”. We may add that the earthquake does not differentiate between the lowest person in the dungeons and the firstborn or chosen among the nation, but to emphasize the power of the Lord the later writers stressed that all firstborn were struck.
Slaves could not find a better chance for escape. Though later they claimed that they were saved by a special ritual of Passover. Unfortunately this last plague, sacrificial blood and unleavened bread mixed somehow with the notorious blood libel.
For centuries, until the destruction of the Second Temple the Jews celebrated the miraculous Passover, and sacrificed a lamb as a token of the miracle. In fact it was the central moment of the celebration – to come to Jerusalem, to sacrifice the lamb in the Temple, and to retell the story of Exodus. (After the Temple was destroyed, the main accent was shifted to the unleavened bread, symbolic meals, and reading and discussing the story of Exodus).
That is why it was essentially important for the Evangelists to make a link between the Passover and the execution of Jesus Christ. The human sacrifice had to substitute the symbolic one, and thus deliver not only one nation but all of humanity. That’s why Jesus and the lamb substitute each other and it generally accompanies both Jesus and John the Baptist in fine art. It seems that St. John, the author of one of the Gospels, who claims that the execution occurred on the eve of Passover is correct. It is inconceivable to imagine that the Temple priests could have desecrated Passover by persecuting, bringing to law and executing a man during the main national holiday. One or two days earlier, probably the previous night, when it was still allowed to eat bread, might have been better timing.
The principal theological difference between the two holidays stems from an attempt to overcome the particularity of the Jewish history, to make it symbolic and universal. While the Jews celebrate the deliverance from the catastrophe and slavery – two historic events that are deeply imprinted into the people’s collective memory, the Gospels stress the delivery from spiritual slavery.
Since the Jewish pilgrimage from the pyramids through Sinai, Negeb and
Jordan in the footsteps of Moses is unconceivable right now, but the Christian
pilgrimage is still possible, in our next article we’ll walk along the
present Via Dolorosa, the “Way of the Cross”, itinerary in Jerusalem.
Victoria Vekselman, Ph.D.
Dear Friends, you can write to Victoria at email@example.com
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