Reliving liberation (Deuteronomy 16:1-8)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (June 29, 2009)
The events of the exodus overshadow everything that follows in the Bible. Here is where God intervened to bring salvation to God’s people, establishing the character of God as savior and the pattern of God’s work throughout history. Crucially, the Bible insists that God’s act to bring life to slaves actually happened. It was not only a metaphor or dream.
The power of this concreteness lies in anchoring God’s healing work in real human life. In actual liberating events, we see the consequences of the exodus rippling down through the ages. The downside of the historical nature of this story is that it can too easily fade from memory.
To keep memories from fading, God commands Israel to re-enact the events of the exodus. Through their rituals, celebrations and festivals, Israel sought to sustain the vitality of the exodus.
This sustenance required two elements. The first was a pattern of life that continued to embody the basic elements of exodus faith —practicing liberation and healing, caring for vulnerable people, cultivating healthy and just communal life. The second element was the practice of rituals that educate about the original events.
Festival for life
In Deut. 16:1-8, we have an account of one of the major festivals — remembering the Passover. This version especially emphasizes the place of unleavened bread as a means to provide a concrete representation of the original event. This was bread eaten “in great haste” (verse 3), as the Hebrews could not wait for the yeast to rise before making their escape (see Exodus 12-13).
The memory of the unleavened bread evokes some of the emotion and intensity of the exodus — the vulnerability and fear, the amazing work of God to bring liberation. To go back to that place through the re-enactment of the festival should make the exodus fresh in people’s hearts.
The festival is not an autonomous event divorced from present life as a magical moment of escape. Nor is it an empty, calcified ritual. Rather, it links God’s past work with the people’s present calling: You were slaves. God liberated you. Go forth now and live in light of that liberation, practicing genuine love and justice as your part in healing the world.
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.