Light from the Sidra

Bo ('Go'). 23rd January 2015. 4th Shevet 5775

Torah: Exodus:10:1-13:16. Haftarah: Jeremiahl 46:13-28

HASHEM will provide a lamb...

I hesitate to call Ridley Scott’s latest film Exodus: Gods and Kings a biblical epic, so let’s just say it’s loosely based on the book of Exodus. In Scott’s revision of the Exodus story, the first nine plagues on Egypt are natural phenomena. Crocodiles begin to attack the Egyptians in such large numbers that the Nile turns red with the blood. That drives the frogs onto dry land where they die and attract swarms of flies and so on. But even Ridley Scott can’t come up with a naturalistic explanation for the final, truly awesome judgement on Egypt and so, in typical Scott fashion, an ominous shadow slowly moves over Egypt, leaving behind a nation of bereaved families. And Pharaoh at last gives in and lets Israel go.

And at the heart of the Exodus story is a lamb, a motif appears time and again in the Hebrew Scriptures and each time is associated with death. In Genesis 4 there is what we might call, the ‘Lamb of Divine Prerequisite.’ In the very first recorded act of worship, Cain and Abel bring their respective offerings to HASHEM. Cain brings an offering of fruit, which HASHEM rejects, while Abel’s lamb is accepted. There, at the dawn of time, HASHEM establishes that all religions are not equal. If our worship is to be acceptable, it has to be on God’s terms and his terms are that he is to be approached my means of a sacrificial lamb.

In Genesis 22, as Abraham and Isaac climb one of the mountains of Moriah – which according to tradition was the temple mount – Isaac points out to his father that they have all the equipment necessary for a sacrifice but they have no lamb. The principle that God can be worshipped only through a sacrificial lamb was obviously known by Abraham and his family, which is why Isaac points out that they are missing God’s prerequisite for worship. A modern Jewish father might respond to Isaac’s question by saying that HASHEM doesn’t require sacrifices any longer; all he requires is a sincere heart but Abraham tells his son that God will provide the means by which he and his son can approach him.

Abraham’s response to his son’s question was not a white lie or evasion. The father of the Hebrew nation was a man of faith. In Genesis 15, HASHEM established an unconditional covenant with Abraham, under which he would grant him descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. And when God passed between the animals Abraham had slaughtered, he swore to give him countless descendants and a land in perpetuity. God was in effect saying, ‘If I fail to keep my covenant, let it be done to me what you have done to these animals.’ Abraham’s descendants were to come through Isaac but, as far as Abraham knew, HASHEM really did want him to offer his son as a burnt offering. What was going through the mind of the old man as he climbed the mountain on which, centuries later, lambs would be sacrificed on a daily basis?

Abraham trusted God with such a degree of confidence that he was confident that if he had to sacrifice his son, his only son, Isaac whom he loved, because of the covenant, God could resurrect his son after the knife and fire had done their lethal work. Nevertheless, he declares that God will provide a lamb.

The scene changes. Isaac is on the altar and Abraham has his knife in hand. Then comes a voice from heaven: ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad…’ The patriarch turns and sees that God has provided a substitute for Isaac: a ram. When Abraham told his son that HASHEM would provide a lamb, he was speaking of more than he knew at that moment. Abraham calls the place HASHEM Yireh – but God hadn’t provided a lamb; he had provided a ram. But Genesis 22:14 informs us that 400 years later, it was said, ‘on the mountain HASHEM will be seen’! Think about that. HASHEM was going to be seen on the very mountain on which Abraham prophesied that he was going to provide a lamb! When did that happen? Abraham was referring to the ‘Lamb of Divine Provision.’

In the biblical account of the Passover, the lamb stands out as the ‘Lamb of Divine Protection.’ The story of the Passover is one of God’s severity and goodness. All Egypt deserved to die but in wrath God remembered mercy and substituted the firstborn of Egypt for the nation. But because Israel was in Egypt, their firstborn were under as great a threat as the firstborn of the Egyptians. Israel was more sinned against than sinning but the penalty for sin is death, a fact established in the second chapter of the Bible: ‘In the day you eat… you shall die!’ But in an even greater display of goodness and mercy, God substituted a lamb for the firstborn of Israel.

Each family was to take a lamb, kill it and roast it in a similar manner to the future tabernacle offerings. They were to eat it and daub the blood on the doorposts of their homes. ‘The blood shall be a sign for you upon the houses where you are; when I shall see the blood and I shall pass over you; there shall not be a plague of destruction upon you when I strike in the land of Egypt’. The ‘Lamb of Divine Protection’ saved the firstborn of Israel.

Some of Israel’s sages saw in the Passover a shadow of the Akedah. Abraham’s firstborn was saved from death by the provision of a ram and so the people anticipated a day when God would provide on that same mountain a lamb. At the Exodus, HASHEM provided a lamb to protect Israel and for the next millennium-and-a-half God continued to provide lambs to atone for sin but the prophets of Israel continued to expect the ‘Lamb of Divine Promise’ spoken of by Abraham on one of the mountains of Moriah.

Almost a thousand years after the Exodus, the prophet Isaiah wrote of a future righteous Servant of HASHEM who would be led to slaughter like a sacrificial lamb, whose soul HASHEM would make a sin offering. That servant was to be the ‘Lamb of Divine Propitiation.’ Little wonder then that in the last days of the second temple period, the great Jewish revivalist and reformer Yochanan the Immerser identified Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus, the Lamb of divine prerequisite, prophesied and provided to protect us by making propitiation for our sins: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.’

What is your hope for when HASHEM finally judges the world? Will your mitzvot be sufficient to save you from God’s wrath or, like Abraham, do you cling by faith to the Lamb God promised and provided for the purpose of removing the penalty of sin? Too hard to believe? Maybe. But what would you have said if you had been in Egypt when Moses instructed everyone to put blood on their doors for protection? How about: ‘It’s not going to happen. My child’s not going to die!’ Or: ‘I’m not painting my door with blood for anyone! What will the neighbours think!’? Or maybe: ‘What do I have to lose? Quick, get me some hyssop!’

What then do you do with Jesus? You can look to him as the Lamb of God who takes away sin, or you can turn away and suffer the consequences of your sins. The choice is yours.

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