Exodus: Meal of Memory

The Passover meal makes the exodus story always contemporary.

A Passover Seder Plate.

An odd feature of the Exodus narrative is that it brackets its account of the final plague–the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:29-32)–with extensive directions on how future generations are to celebrate the Passover meal (see Exodus 12:1-20and Exodus 12:43-13:16). Someone who approaches the book as nothing more than a narrative story is going to be puzzled by this feature. Why does the “author” do this?

Well, it is important to remember that the Book of Exodus forms a part of the Torah. Although it is common to translate the Hebrew word torah as law, its fundamental meaning is instruction. The Torah (the five books of Moses together) have a very practical goal. They are to instruct the Israelites in their distinctive origins, mission, and ways of living in a covenant with their God. The Torah instructs them in how they are to be a people set apart.

Torah therefore has a good amount of history, but its chief concern is not with the past. Its chief concern is how the Israelites are to live in the present. So the historical narrative gets interlaced with a lot of legislation. The past is never quite past. There is a sense in which the past is always contemporary. Past and present form one united time. 

Making History Contemporary for Future Generations

We see this attitude exemplified in a passage in Deuteronomy 6:20-25. In this passage the text, set in the exodus era, looks into the future. It envisions a time when a young generation that did not live through the exodus questions the meaning of all the regulations that the Torah has laid down. Significantly the youngster asks What is the meaning of the decrees and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you? (Deuteronomy 6:20). 

I want to note the prominent use of the word you at the end. It is as if the youngster sees the regulations as applying to his parents but not to himself. And what the text advises the parents to say is: …then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21). 

Notice the emphatic use of the word we as the father begins his response. The son sees the exodus story has simply history. The father sees it as always contemporary. All future generations of Israelites lived through it as well as the original generation. It is a shared experience, an experience that binds the generations into one. 

The Passover meal reinforces this perspective. It is a way the Israelites will continually relive the events of the exodus each year. Today’s generation will pass through the night of liberation just as the original generation did. And so the immediacy of the liberation experience and the bonds that tie the generations together will be renewed year after year. 

The “author” seeks to ensure that result by bracketing the account of the final night in Egypt with these extensive regulations on how Israel is to celebrate the Passover meal each year. I suspect that this is one powerful reason why Jews have managed to preserve their distinctive identity as a people through the centuries.

The Binding Power of Family Meals

And what a wise decision to anchor this constant remembrance of the past in a family meal. I have vivid memories from my own childhood of attending many family reunions with my extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. 

A common feature of these reunions was a family picnic. As people finished eating but were still gathered around the table, the telling of family stories would begin. My cousins and I would sit there enthralled by the stories–many funny, but some sad–that would tumble out of our family’s history. The result was the forging of stronger emotional bonds within the family. The bonds within my extended paternal family are especially strong. 

Recognizing this should give us renewed appreciation of what’s going on when we celebrate the Christian Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. There are many things going on when we engage in that rite. One important function is giving thanks to God for what God has accomplished for our salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We recognize that function when we call the rite Eucharist. It is a thanksgiving meal.

But another important purpose is remembrance, as the apostle Paul makes explicit in his instructions on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, Paul quotes Jesus as saying about the breaking of the bread: This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise when Jesus pours the cup, Paul says he says: This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

Paul highlights the significance of the Eucharist as a rite to constantly remind us of the great events of our own liberation, that second exodus that the Christian church has always seen in the events of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. 

But like the Passover meal, the Eucharist is more than just a technique to jog the memory. It is the way we Christians actually participate in the Last Supper along with the original disciples. We might think of the Eucharist as the way that that table in the upper room gets extended broad and wide through the centuries so all believers have the opportunity to sit at table with Jesus and share in the blessing he confers. 

Like the Passover for Jews, the Eucharist is a way of making history contemporary for each generation of Christians.