The Passover Story
So, I watched Prince of Egypt on Wednesday night to celebrate Passover. Then, I noticed some people watching it to celebrate Easter, which, okay, fine. It’s not like you’re holding a Seder and it is an excellent movie.
But along the way, it occurred to me that part of our responsibility to God and one another is to share the Passover story with others.
So I’m going to do that now.
My way. With a certain degree of fidelity and a certain degree of irreverence.
You have been warned.
Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat happens. Jacob went to Egypt, blah, blah, blah, the children of Israel settle in Egypt.
Problem is, the land of Egypt is currently under the conquering foot of the Hyskos, so when the Jews helped the ruling class they helped the conquerors because those were the people in charge. The Hyskos were predominantly a sea-people who had also invented chariots and they terrorized the Mediterranean. We think they might have been Mycenean or a proto-Mycenean culture.
A couple hundred years go by. Some Jews leave Egypt and matriculate to the Sinai or further north, to Canaan. We’ll come back to them later.
The Egyptians have learned all about chariots and are now better at them than the Hyskos. They politely ask the Hyskos to leave, wait five minutes, and then use chariots to kill as many of them as they can run over. The rest show themselves out.
“Eh, not our problem,” says the Jews.
They were wrong.
And so four hundred years of slavery begins.
The Egyptians use the Jews to build their homes and their temples and their statues and other structures, but not the goddamn pyramids (which had been there since the first dynastic age and this is about the middle of the second).
The pyramids at this point were covered in limestone, which meant you could see them from freaking anywhere during the day and made navigating the desert a little easier.
What were the pyramids for? Well, other than being a shining beacon for land navigation, they also had some cool uses for astronomy and astrology. The Egyptians were big believers in astrology, with thirteen astrological houses (the Greeks would later condense it to twelve, because they had a thing about the number thirteen).
So, with all this astrology going on, some Egyptian priests start warning the Pharaoh that the Jews might revolt.
“Well, they’re already revolting,” the Pharaoh says, and everyone laughs because the Pharaoh just told a joke and he is considered to be a literal god.
Anyways, they come up with a theory that someone will be born on such-and-such a day, under this astrological house or maybe that one, and will probably be a firstborn child, and that person will lead the Jews to freedom.
“Screw that,” Pharaoh says, “Who will do the laundry or weave our fine linen? Do… do people expect us to change the nappies of our young?”
A simple solution is reached: every firstborn male child (because a female leader? Hah!) of a given sign will be taken from their parents and relocated to the Nile, where they will be eaten or drown or probably both. Any parents that resist will be beaten and probably killed, which is okay because we’re only slaves.
This happens every few years.
For four hundred years.
A woman named Yocheved (pronounced “Yocheved”) is born. She will later be voiced by Ofra Haza, and if you don’t know who Ofra Haza is you should youtube her and listen to her sing; you’re in for a treat. If you don’t know who Yocheved is, she’s Moses’ mom.
Moses’ mom already has two kids: Miriam and Aaron (I’m named for him). Miriam gets out of danger of death by Nile by being a girl, and Aaron gets away from it because no one cares about Aaron (there’s some thought that he’s the second son of a previous marriage, and that Miriam was born of that marriage, too. Moses is the first son of the most recent marriage or the result of a not-wedded sexing, which might have been an Egyptian lover or the result of her being a sex slave, because we know that happens when slavery is a thing).
Yocheved has been around a bit, and she takes her baby in a basket to the Nile because the Egyptians sometimes let parents do this – it was easier than killing a slave that someone important might like. Yocheved has sneakily made the basket buoyant, so it floats down the Nile and into the Pharoah’s palace.
Pharoah’s wife finds the basket with the baby inside and decides that she’s going to keep it because it’s clearly a gift from the gods. They name the kid not-Moses (Yocheved gave him the name, and his Egyptian name is purposely forgotten by the Egyptians and we respect their life choices. Really, don’t deadname Moses).
Miriam had a job working in the palace doing menial jobs, like doing the laundry, weaving linen, and changing her secret brother’s nappies. And if a slave is calling the young prince “Moses”, well, what does that mean, anyway?
Moses grows up with his brother, Ramses. There’s no expectations for Moses, as he is an adopted child and cannot inherit anything, but Father-Ramses has big expectations for Son-Ramses and we’re going to get some inter-generational trauma here based in vicarious living, good intentions, and cultural bias. Shall we do the thing?
Moses is put in charge of some military efforts up north and to the east. He organizes some raids against people living in the Sinai and brings back slaves. Father-Ramses is pleased, but his big plan was to separate the brothers and give Son-Ramses a chance to mature.
Son-Ramses is put in charge of some temple shit and does pretty okay.
The two brothers reconnect. Son-Ramses is named Pharaoh-to-be and no one is shocked. He awards Moses with one of the slaves that was taken by Moses, a woman named Tzipporah (pronounced “Tzipporah”).
Tzipporah is an actual badass and escapes. Moses helps through inaction and, along the way, discovers he might be Jewish. Miriam is able to show him his basket, tell him what happened to his mother, and otherwise prove that this particular prince of Egypt is actually a Jew.
Moses’ reaction is so bad you’d think he had just listened to Alex Jones for the first time.
Father-Ramses finds Moses and negs him. “You’re not like those other Jews,” says he. “They’re only slaves. We feed their kids to the Nile. We did it just last week, you can still see some of the pieces floating in the water. See the red bits?”
Moses is not doing so well and wanders around a bit. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster having fun whipping some Jew to death. Moses grabs the whip and kills the taskmaster.
The other taskmasters are ready to respond but Moses is a prince and they know they have to respect his authority so they do nothing.
Moses freaks out and it becomes public knowledge that Moses is a Jew, so they banish him and Father-Ramses has Moses’ name expunged from the records and sets a law that not-Moses’ name shall not be uttered on pain of death. See? We respect the Egyptians’ life choices.
Father-Ramses says his adopted son’s deadname again on his death bed.
Moses flees across the desert with almost nothing.
He makes it to Sinai and comes across three lost Hyskos harassing three children. He uses “I’m a Prince of Egypt, bitch!” and it’s super effective. The Hyskos run away.
Moses pulls a Wesley from the Princess Bride – he has no strength and falls down. There’s a well right beside him, so why not fall into that?
Moses is pulled out of the well by Tzipporah and the kids. Tzipporah recognizes him and kicks him back in, because this… is… SINAI~! The kids explain that he chased off the Hyskos, though, and then she helps Moses out of the well and takes him home.
Her father, Jethro, is one of those Jews that wandered away from Egypt back when and settled in Sinai. Moses is invited into the tribe because why not? It’s just the sort of getaway he needs to find himself. He finds he enjoys being a shepherd and finds himself working for Jethro and the tribe, tending sheep. He tries to put his past behind him.
Moses falls in love with Tzipporah. She also falls in love with him. Jethro is delighted by this. “What’s not to love,” says Jethro. “He’s a prince!” He presides over the wedding.
A sheep Moses is tending gets lost. He follows it to a bush that happens to not be burning despite being on fire.
“Moses,” the bush says.
“I am here,” Moses says. The proper nomenclature is “he nae ani”, for those wondering how to respond if God ever speaks to you.
They have a chat where God tells Moses to go back to Egypt and Moses says that’s not going to happen. Moses is arguing with God, though, so there’s a good chance he’s going to lose and go to Egypt.
He loses and goes to Egypt.
Moses brings his wife with him, and part of his deal with God is that he gets a security blanket. In this instance, that means his brother, Aaron, who he barely knows. Miriam ends up playing peacemaker between them and also gives Moses a place to stay while he’s vacationing in Egypt, which is nice of her. You can always count on family.
So, remember Father-Ramses? He’s dead now. Son-Ramses has taken over.
Henceforth, he shall be referred to as “Ramses.”
Moses, Aaron, and Tzipporah go to the palace. Ramses recognizes Moses and welcomes him home because they do love one another.
The priests point out that Father-Ramses has Moses’ name erased from history and he exiled.
Ramses goes “No worries, this is my bro, bro. We’ll call him by his slave-name, and slave-name bro cannot be tried for any reason. Word of Pharaoh, y’all, this is, like, a law now.”
And it was.
Moses needs security blanket Aaron to be there before he presents his case: “Um, God spoke to me and said to let His people go.”
God turns Moses’ staff into a snake because that’s impressive. The Egyptian priests respond by doing the same thing, so Moses’ snake eats their snakes and then becomes a staff again. Moses looks at Aaron and repeats the let my people go thing. Ramses is not impressed and decides to make the Jews’ lives harder.
God turns all the water in Egypt to blood. The Jews get water, but if the Egyptians try to drink it, it becomes blood. The Egyptian linens are all bloodstained and also they are suffering from dehydration, so now the slaves are slacking off like they’re the working class during a coronavirus outbreak and the Egyptians are the 1%.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, drinks some blood, and says ‘no.’
God calls frogs. Everywhere there are frogs. Everywhere there are frogs. They are in your bed. Your bathroom. Your linen drawer. Your clothing. Your hair. Frogs. Frogs everywhere. The Jews do not have this problem.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, eats a frog, and says ‘no.’
God calls lice. You’d think they frogs would get them, but the frogs leave them and the Jews alone and the lice are also not bothering the Jews. The Egyptians are shaving themselves everywhere to try and deal with the lice. It is not working well.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, scratching his bald spots, and says ‘get out of here.’
The Jews get super excited when they hear. The blood becomes water. The frogs go away. The lice vanish. The Jews pack up what little they have and get ready to leave, but before the bread they’re baking can rise Ramses changes his mind.
“Who will do the laundry?” Ramses demands.
The Jews are forced back to work.
God summons flies. Fly clouds so thick they block out the sun. Flies in such numbers that you can’t tell day from night. You open your mouth and choke on flies. They cannot be escaped. They do not bother the Jews.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, chokes on some flies, and says ‘no.’
God inflicts disease on the domesticated animals of Egypt. They begin to wither and die, providing more breeding grounds for more flies. The stink is unbelievable. Livestock used and cared for by Jews are fine or recover, but those owned by Egyptians pus and scab and blister and peel.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, cradling a crocodile that used to eat Jewish babies, and says ‘no.’
God uses boils on the Egyptians. It is super effective. Egyptian flesh begins to blister and burn and peel. It hurts. It itches. You scratch and you bleed. The Jews are not affected. The blood soaking your linens is now your own. Your skin is rotting if you are Egyptian and there is nothing you can do.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, his fingers sinking into his flesh, and says ‘get the hell out of here.’
The Jews get super excited when they hear. The flies go away. The livestock recovers. The Egyptians heal without scars. The Jews pack up what little they have and get ready to leave, but before the bread they’re baking can rise Ramses changes his mind.
“Who will weave our fine linen?” Ramses demands.
The Jews are forced back to work.
Okay, so up until this point, the Egyptian priesthood has been waging magical war on Moses, and Moses has been responding in kind and kicking all kinds of ass. This is a forty-day magical duel, with a bunch of smaller plagues, hexes, and curses. The priesthood has done their best to match Moses plague for plague, and this is where they fucking fail. Why?
GOD CALLS GIANT BALLS OF FLAMING ICE FROM THE SKY. We’re talking treasure chest-sized chunks of ice that are also on fire. They slam into buildings and people, freezing what they touch, while the fire spreads and consumes everything that isn’t frozen or Jewish. The Jews are fine. A little panicky, maybe, because it’s clear God is done fucking around.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, standing in the Nile where he will not be on fire, and says ‘no.’
God calls locusts. Demon locusts. Cicadas. They make THAT sound and also eat all the stores of food that the Egyptians have, and all their fine linen, and bite the Egyptians, and they’re everywhere, and the priesthood has failed, and maybe Ramses should listen this time and do the thing.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, then asks Moses to repeat the question over THAT sound, and whimpers ‘no.’
SO GOD PUTS THE SUN AWAY. The Jews still have light, but the Egyptians cannot see it, cannot feel it. There is no light or warmth, and the torches they steal or protect begin to gutter, their light seething down to nothing.
Moses approaches Ramses and promises this will end if Ramses will let the Jews go. Ramses thinks about it, alone in the dark, and says ‘get the fuck out of here.’
The Jews get super excited when they hear. The fires go out and ice thaws. THAT sound stops. The sun comes back. The Jews pack up what little they have and get ready to leave, but before the bread they’re baking can rise Ramses changes his mind.
“Who will change the nappies of our babies” Ramses demands.
The Jews are forced back to work.
See, Ramses remembers he has a child. Moses has a nephew. And that nephew questions Ramses’ commitment to sparkle motion, and by sparkle motion I mean Egypt. They need to make Egypt great again, and maybe the best way to do that is to take the Jewish firstborn children and adults regardless of sign and put them in a camp called the Nile, where they will drown or be eaten.
And he tells this to Moses and Moses understands and begs – he begs – his brother not to do this. Ramses promises a wail will rise out of Egypt in the morning that is like nothing anyone will have ever heard before or ever hear again.
Ramses decides to kill every firstborn Jew in his kingdom.
They’re only slaves.
Moses tells the Jews to cover their doorframes in lamb’s blood. He does not tell them why. The burden of foreknowledge is his alone.
God visits every Egyptian household and claims every firstborn male, a mockery of Pharaoh’s threat. God takes the adults. God takes the children. The only firstborn he leaves is Ramses.
Every other firstborn male dies.
All of them.
Moses approaches Ramses.
There are no words. What could he say? What comfort could he give his brother? How should he mourn his nephew?
There are no words.
Ramses whispers “Go.”
The Jews are not super excited when they hear. They are terrified and heart-broken, but they also possess enough pattern recognition to not bother with waiting for the bread to rise. They leave with unleavened bread (matzah), gather what they can carry, and go. Some of the Egyptians want to go with them, and they are welcomed.
Moses leads the Jews to the Red Sea. The Jews are not sure where they want to go, but God tells Moses that he intends to return them to Canaan – they just need to make a stop in the desert first.
God has told Moses what he has to do but Moses is reluctant after that whole mass murder thing. He cannot help but feel that he is responsible.
Ramses is torn by grief and anger. There are others that are likewise torn. He tries using the power of his gods and the priests to call back his son from death. His son is still dead. His son is still dead. He is Pharaoh. He cannot let this stand. The chariots are gathered. All the Jews will die. They ride.
The Jews are wondering what to do next when the Egyptian army starts racing towards them. A HURRICANE OF FIRE comes out of the Red Sea and creates a wall of flame between the Egyptians and the Jews. God tells Moses to do the thing.
Moses does the thing.
The Red Sea parts, allowing the Jews to pass from Egypt to Sinai. As the Jews approach Sinai, God lets the wall of fire dissipate and presents Ramses with a choice: stay here and let the Jews go or die. Ramses believes he is a God, so he decides to charge with his whole army.
As the Jews are pulling out of the water, they notice the army coming for them. The waters begin to close. Moses calls to God: “My brother spared me from his wrath, please do the same for him.”
The Egyptians are crushed by the Red Sea – every single chariot is destroyed and all their riders are killed. Only Ramses survives unscathed, tossed by the waters back to Egypt.
In heaven, the angels sing God’s praises.
“Who is like you, oh God, to have freed a nation in bondage from another nation? Who is like you, oh God, to have stood against one nation to free another? Who is like you, oh God, to have fought evil directly-”
But God silences the Host.
“The Egyptians were My children, too,” God says.
And then God weeps.
Gods leads Moses, and Moses leads the Jews into Sinai. They hook up with the other Jews and begin making their way up to Canaan. Moses tells everyone they need to stop for a bit – there’s a thing he’s gotta go pick up. “My father-in-law can teach you how to stay alive in the desert,” Moses says, and Jethro smiles because he can. Moses leaves Aaron in charge and heads up a mountain.
God gives Moses the Ten Commandments.
“Why ten?” Moses asks.
“I’m trying to keep this simple,” God replies.
“What happens if people disobey?” Moses asks.
“From Me? Nothing,” God answers.
“And what happens if we do obey?” Moses asks.
“The world will be a better place,” God says.
“I AM THE LORD THY GOD.” Simple. Straightforward. The creator of everything and the person and place and thing who can worship or not as you choose.
“THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME, NOR SHALL YOU MAKE ANY GRAVEN IMAGE OF ME.” This one’s a little more complex. It’s not “thou shalt have no other gods.” It recognizes other gods, but claims that those gods are part of the creation that God is. God is everything. There is nothing that God is not. By making a graven image, you would be trying to simplify an understanding of God and lying to yourself about what God is. Do not do that.
“THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD IN VAIN.” Don’t talk with God’s authority. You’re a mortal, I’m a mortal, the best we have are guesses. Is God there? Does it matter? Don’t claim authority that isn’t yours.
“REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY, KEEP IT HOLY.” Take a day off. One day out of every seven, just relax. Take a breath.
“HONOR THY FATHER AND THY MOTHER.” Be good to your parents. They’re trying their best. Keep your promises to them and try not to stress them out too much.
“THOU SHALL NOT MURDER.” Don’t just go out killing people. You can defend yourself and your family, sure, but wholesale slaughter just leads to more killing. Chill out.
“THOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY.” So, bigamy was a thing back then, but we don’t often talk about how that worked all ways. The real thing being talked about here is going behind people’s back to have sex with someone; it’s effectively don’t lie about sleeping with people, be open and honest about intimacy and the needs of all involved. Honestly, it makes things simpler and would have saved Isaac and Jacob a world of misery.
“THOU SHALL NOT STEAL.” Don’t take stuff that’s not yours. Try and get it back to who owns it if you can.
“THOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST THY NEIGHBOR.” Don’t start shit. Don’t spread rumors and gossip. Just be upfront with people. It’s not hard.
“THOU SHALL NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOR’S SHIT.” It’s basically spouse, house, and stuff. Don’t compare yourself to other people, because you’re not other people. Your metric of success is going to be unique to you, so try to live to that. Living to other people’s expectations of what success looks like is only going to make you miserable.
“Simple, right?” God says.
“Yeah,” Moses says. “What else you got?”
And God provides Moses with a long scroll, some ink, and a silver pen. Then Moses writes the first Torah.
“This is tricky,” Moses says. “First, I die in the second book, and there’s five of them. That’s a little weird.”
“Sorry about that,” God says.
“What about all these other rules?” Moses asks, pointing at books three, four, and five.
“A bunch of people are going to sit around getting drunk and formalize them,” God says.
“But you’re dictating them to me now,” Moses says. “Doesn’t that make them the Word of God?”
“No,” God says, “It just means I know what they’re going to say in the future, because I am them in the future and I am you now and I am here now. All of these things are true at once.”
“These books feel like a contract,” Moses says.
“They are,” God confirms. “You set the terms of what our relationship is. I’ve given you the Commandments. The rest is up to you.”
“No punishment for breaking them?” Moses asks again.
“The only punishment is the world that comes from breaking them,” God says.
“What about the afterlife?” Moses asks.
“What about it?” God asks.
“What happens there?” Moses asks.
“Don’t worry about it,” God says.
“I do worry about it,” Moses says. “The Egyptians had a whole book of the dead thing going on, and all the other religions have something to say about it.”
“I’d rather you focus on what you do while you’re alive,” God says. “That’s what matters.”
“Will we be rewarded in the afterlife for things we do here?” Moses asks.
“No,” God says.
“Then why be good?” Moses asks.
“Why indeed?” Gods says. “Our Covenant is one you have to choose. It will not be easy. The point is to live well and try to make the world better than you found it. There’s no special punishment or reward for either doing so or failing to do so.”
“So, we’re just trying to make the world better for everyone?”
“Choosing to, or not. And you’ll be surprised how many people won’t get that.”
So, Moses finishes the Torah and grabs that and the Commandments and heads down to find the Jews have created a Golden Calf and are worshiping that.
Moses loses his shit and thrown down the Torah and Commandments, destroying the calf.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Moses roars. “God literally just went into a nation and fought that nation for you and you decide to worship a fucking statue? Fucking Abraham sorted that one and… and… do you know nothing?”
And Jethro says “They don’t. They barely remember who they are, and we tried to tell them, but…”
“Okay, listen,” Moses says, glaring. “I’m going back up the mountain. Jethro, Aaron, Tzipporah, Miriam, you guys start teaching everyone how to read. I’m going to go get our history and then I’ll be back. Try not to worship anything else until I get back.”
“Right, right, but we’re thirsty,” some people say, so a very angry Moses hits a rock with his stick and causes water to spill forth from it. They start praising Moses, who does not correct them as he stomps back up the mountain.
“You should have told them I did the thing with the stick and the rock and the water,” God tells Moses as Moses gets back to writing. “They’re going to think you did it with magic or something.”
“They already think I do all the things,” Moses says.
“You know how that ends,” God says, and Moses weeps because he does.
Moses comes down from the mountain. He presents the Commandments and the Torah. There’s plenty of time to talk about the contents of both as they walk to Canaan.
The Jews learn their history – the learn about Abraham’s rebellion, Isaac’s betrayal, and Jacob’s children. They learn to read and to understand that they have to choose to be God’s people and that it is an ongoing relationship, a promise to be good to show the world what it could be. They discuss and they argue and they learn how to kvetch and by the time they reach Canaan’s borders they have chosen to be Jewish, have chosen to be Israelites.
And then Moses says “I can’t go with you.”
“What?” asks the Jews.
“I can’t go with you,” Moses says. “You know this. You read the story. I can’t be your parent or your shepherd – you all need to figure this stuff out, and you can’t do that if you’re expecting me to fix all your problems.”
“But we need you,” the Jews say. “You’re our…”
“No saviors,” Moses says. “No demigods. I’m just a man doing what God asked me to do. You can all do the same.”
And the people that still thought that Moses had created water with a magic stick shuffled their feet nervously.
“This isn’t your fault,” Moses said, looking at them. “It’s time to move forward, if that is your choice.”
And it was.