Torah Portion Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:6
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Bo, God commands the Israelites to put blood on their doorposts on the Passover night. Unlike the practices of the pagan nations, this blood was not purposed for protection against demons, but for covenant connection with YHWH so that He would protect the household.
- Ancient Near Eastern Text by Pritchard
This is the fifteenth portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing Jeremiah and the concept of shame sanctioning and its importance to our lives today.
The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot by Michael Fishbane
- The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton
- Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity by David DeSilva
- Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel
In Bo, we will discuss why God must destroy the oppressors through plagues and tribulation in order to restore shalom.
- The Bible
- Ancient Near Eastern Text by Pritchard
Why All The Blood?
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
Green fog rolls down the street, searching for a victim. It approaches a door and suddenly turns away, averted by the blood painted upon the home's doorpost. This is a scene from Charlton Heston's Ten Commandments that many of us are familiar with, but is it based upon fact or fiction? Did God order the Israelites to put blood on their doorposts as an apotropaic magical rite to ward off the demonic Destroyer or did it have a different significance to ancient Israel? Similar rituals can be found in other ancient Near Eastern cultures and were used for apotropaic purposes, but is this clear evidence of Israel borrowing a practice from its pagan neighbors or did God employ these familiar practices to serve a different purpose than the surrounding nations? In Deuteronomy God exhorts the Israelites to not enquire about how the nations worship their gods and then use such practices to worship YHWH, yet we see many similarities in the modes of worship which YHWH commanded Israel and those of pagan nations! Other nations had priests, temples, and animal sacrifices. The Hittites and Babylonians used blood in purification rituals just like Israel. Prayer, psalms, fasting, and many of the other rituals that the Scriptures speak of were also found in pagan religion. Why were these practices not only allowed but commanded directly from YHWH Himself if Israel was supposed to avoid all pagan practices? The passage in Deuteronomy gives us a clue, "for every detestable thing which YHWH hates they have done for their gods." The motivation behind the prohibition isn't that God just wants people to worship Him in a totally unique way, it is that God does not want Israel to worship Him through the wicked practices used by the pagan nations. This is why Israelite worship did not have to change every time a pagan started copying them.
Humans use rituals as a means of communication through actions. Today when you first meet someone and you want to convey the message that you respect them, you extend your hand in order to initiate the ritual of handshaking. Certainly you could express such a message in words, yet we choose to act it out in a physical ritual because such a ritual conveys a much stronger message than words. As the saying goes, "actions speak louder than words." So too in the ancient Near Eastern culture, ritual actions were used to convey a message in a way which was more powerful than words. Yet in order to convey a message, the ritual must be prescribed in a manner in which it could be understood. If you extended your hand out to someone who had never experienced handshaking as a greeting, that person may perceive your action as a threat. Thus rituals only communicate a message within a given culture and to those on the outside who have never experienced such rituals, they can often be confusing and wildly misunderstood. Ancient peoples used animal sacrifice rituals as a means of communicating with the divine and Israel was no different. God did not have to explain the functions of most of the sacrifices to the Israelites because they were already well aware of the message being communicated through ritual slaughter of an animal and manipulation of its blood, since such modes of worship were common in the ancient Near East. In order for us to understand the message that the Scriptures are telling us by describing these sacrifices, we must understand the difference between what was common practice among the pagan nations' sacrifices and how YHWH commands Israel to perform such rituals. Only by investigating the cultural understanding of the message communicated by animal sacrifice rituals in the ancient Near East and the differences between Israelite sacrifices and those of the nations can we truly understand the message of these passages in Scripture. To fail to investigate this would create a high risk for us to impose a purpose and function upon these rituals that would be completely foreign to ancient Israelite understanding and thus cause us to misunderstand God's Word. It could turn a friendly handshaking gesture into a gesture of ill-intent.
YHWH informs Israel that the month of the Passover will now be to them the beginning of months, Rosh Chodesh, to them. They shall commemorate it annually on the 14th of this month by slaughtering a lamb or goat that is no older than one year by our reckoning, and then roast its flesh in fire in order to memorialize their salvation from Egyptian bondage. This month occurs in the spring harvest time and many other cultures celebrated harvest festivals around this time as well and offered up sacrifices for fertility of the soil. During the spring harvest festival, the Canaanites would offer a kid of a goat for fertility by boiling it in its own mother's milk. That this pagan practice is mentioned specifically as a prohibition in conjunction with the Feast of Unleavened bread in Exodus 23:16-19 is no coincidence and the requirement to roast the lamb or goat whole during the preparation of the Passover meal is a key differentiation between the ways of the pagans and YHWH's ways. It serves as a polemic against the cruel practices of the Canaanites!
The Babylonians also had a 12 day new years Akitu festival around the same time period, in the month they called Nissanu. On the 5th of Nissanu, they would slaughter a ram and then take the bloody carcass of the animal and wipe the walls of their temple. The text states,
He shall call a slaughterer to decapitate a ram, the body of which the mašmašu-priest shall use in performing the kuppuru-ritual for the temple. He shall recite the incantations for exorcising the temple. He shall purify the whole sanctuary, including its environs, and shall remove the censer. The mašmašu-priest shall lift up the body of the aforementioned ram and proceed to the river. Facing west, he shall throw the body of the ram into the river.
Ezekiel's vision of a future temple also uses blood to purify the Temple and in a manner which is very reminiscent of the Passover. In Ezekiel 45:18-19, Adonai YHWH commanded that on the first day of the first month (Nissan) a young bull be offered as chatta't (sin/purification offering) and that its blood be put upon the doorposts of the Temple as well as several other locations in the Temple. The text specifically states that this chatta't offering's blood is used to cleanse the sanctuary. This passage, coupled with the fact that the Israelites were commanded to use hyssop, a common agent in purification, to wipe the blood on the doorposts is a strong indicator that they would have understood the blood manipulation ritual as having purification purposes, not apotropaic function. There was a need to ritually communicate the purification of the entire household in preparation for what was to follow. The difference between the Israelite purification of the home and that of the Babylonian Temple purification ritual is important. First, there is no incantations required here nor elsewhere in any of the texts relating to the Tabernacle/Temple and sacrifices. It was a service of silence to ensure understanding that it is not through magical formula but through obedience to the pattern prescribed by YHWH that the rituals are effective. Next, the purpose of the Babylonian ritual was exorcism; the removal of demons. The Babylonians and other nations believed that their temples were defiled by demons and so it was necessary to remove demonic impurity using these rituals. The Torah denies the power of demons over God, over His Temple, and over His people. It is never demons that cause defilement of the people or the Temple, it is the people’s sins and major impurities which are the result of the human condition of mortality. This distinction teaches us that it is not demons that cause us to sin and thus separate us from God, but it is in fact our own poor choices that damage the relationship. Lastly, in the Babylonian ritual the impurity is transferred to the carcass of the animal which must be disposed in a river to remove the impurity. This transference of impurity is paralleled in the bird-release ritual for the purification of a healed leper and also in the scapegoat ritual of Yom Kippur, but in both those cases the animal is released alive. The Scriptures instead purpose blood as a ritual detergent; wiping an object with blood functions to purge impurity, not to transfer it. In Egypt, Israel is in a state of ritual impurity and required cleansing prior to YHWH's action of pasach, or "passover".
"The blood will serve as a sign for you"; literally, the blood communicates louder than words to YHWH that those within the household are ritually purified and are in obedience to His instructions. The English translation that YHWH will "pass over" you is a poor translation of the Hebrew concept of the verb pasach. This verb is rarely found in Scripture but two of those occurrences clue us in to how to understand its usage in this Torah portion properly. In 1 Kings 18:21, Elijah confronts the Israelites who are worshipping both YHWH and Ba’al asking them, “how long will you pasach between two opinions?” Clearly this usage speaks not of passing by two opinions, but of hovering between two opinions. Isaiah 31:5 likens YHWH’s protection of Jerusalem to flying birds, stating that YHWH will “protect and deliver it, He will pasach and rescue it.” This brings the imagery of a bird protectively hovering over its young to protect them from a threat. This is in fact the context of usage of pasach in our Torah portion and is clearly explained in Exodus 12:23. The blood does not avert the evil green fog… “when [YHWH] sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, YHWH will pasach the door and will not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses to kill you.” The contrast that the Scriptures are making here is quite clear; in pagan cultures blood serves an apotropaic function to ward off evil spirits but in Israel it is not so. In Israel, the blood serves to create a covenant relationship between the people and the God of the People and it is He who protects them from demons. We do not have to live in fear of demons; we fear YHWH and He takes care of the demons. Over a thousand years after this event, Yeshua partook of the Passover with his disciples and told them that the cup of wine represented his own blood of the renewed covenant which was poured out for the redemption of many. Yeshua becomes our means of covenantal connection to the Father even if we are not literal descendants of the tribes of Israel. He is the door and it is his blood which is the sign of the covenant that invites YHWH into our homes and into our lives so that we too may be known as the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel!
 Apotropaic: designed to avert evil
 Deuteronomy 12:29-32
 Deuteronomy 12:31.
 The exception to this is the chatta't offering, commonly translated as "sin sacrifice" and the asham offering, commonly translated as "guilt sacrifice" because they were apparently unfamiliar with the usage of such offerings. Notice that these types of offerings only ever occurred in conjunction with the Tabernacle and Temple; they were never used prior to the Tabernacle's commission. We will discuss the specific function of these two types of offerings in a later Torah portion.
 In Jewish culture, counting of years starts at the beginning of the time period, not at the end. Thus a child we consider to be newborn would be considered to be one, or better said, "in his first year." Thus the command in Exodus 12:5 would indicate a lamb or goat in its first year of life.
 Fisher, Knutson, and Morgan, Ras Shamra Parallels, 31-32.
 Pritchard, ANET, 333.
 cf. Psalms 51:7, Leviticus 14:4, Numbers 19:6.
 kipper, generally translated as "atone, atonement" has been misunderstood as meaning "to cover". It concretely means "to wipe" and abstractly means "to purge" or "to purify". (Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 1080).
 Exodus 12:13.
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16. Yale University Press, 1998.
Loren R Fisher, F. Brent Knutson, and Donn F. Morgan, eds., Ras Shamra Parallels: The Texts from Ugarit and the Hebrew Bible., vol. 1, Analecta Orientalia, 49 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1972)
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