Nothing like a pandemic to bring the plague-ridden story of Passover into unexpected currency. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Passover, my mind immediately fills with images from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.” The name “Moses” is never said singly, but as a moaned “Moses, Moses” by Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Yvonne DeCarlo, Edward G. Robinson, large mobs of fleeing film extras, etc. The images from this film established not only the voice of Moses/God as inevitably Charlton Heston’s, but reinforced racism and superseded any well-intended actual biblical learning. Charlton Heston IS Moses, right? “Oh Moses Moses, surely you will save MY son.”
We remember stories especially well when they are told with image and sound. Hence, the epic Biblical films of the 1950s & 1960s shaped American ideas of great Biblical stories: Quo Vadis?, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Robe, David and Bathsheba, Samson & Delilah (ok, 1949- you purists), the list goes on. Why so many? Interestingly, at this time the easiest way to get edgy sex and violence past the censors was to make something “Biblical.” Good old sex and violence. Probably the real reason these films stick with us.
The basics of the Passover story are as follows: Pharaoh wanted to reduce the number of Jews in Egypt, so he had first-born males killed (the Bible is wicked rough on those first-born boy bebes). To save him, Moses’ mama puts him in a basket and floats him on the Nile. The basket is retrieved by (a slave of) Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses is raised as a Prince of Egypt. He grows up, figures out why he never quite felt at home in court, and is eventually told by God to command Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Much to everyone’s surprise (not) Pharaoh says no. God/Moses/Charlton sets out to convince him by way of the Ten Plagues. The first nine are: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Sounds like a commentary on climate change. For the final plague, “the destroyer” passes through the land of Egypt striking down the firstborn of every household. But the Jews had been warned to mark their doors with the blood of a lamb they’ve sacrificed — the Passover offering — so that God “passes over” their homes.
To cleanse my brain of Cecil B. DeMille, I re-read the Passover story in Exodus. I’d forgotten how rough it was on the lambs! Wow! And the emphasis on unleavened bread is not to be ignored. The preparation and sharing of food in a ritual manner is emphatically detailed. I had to look up “hyssop” - in biblical use, it is “a wild shrub of uncertain identity whose twigs were used for sprinkling in ancient Jewish rites of purification.” [google dictionary]; [it’s a kind of middle eastern mint]. I was particularly struck by the egalitarian nature of the Lord’s taking of the first born:
Exodus 12: “29 At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. 30 Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.” [Biblegateway.com]
The livestock too. Cecil didn’t show the smoting of little first-born boy calves. Coronavirus is shaping up to be a worthy modern plague. Interestingly, COVID-19 has proved to be more fatal to older men than women in general (“first-born male”). But that might be where parallels end. The coronavirus has been particularly hard on African-Americans, city-folk, and generally those without good healthcare options. In other words, it’s highlighted the tragic inequities of our health care system. God doesn’t put a price tag on human health, but we have. And while rich and poor may contract the coronavirus, those who can afford it will be more likely to receive treatment, thereby improving chances of survival.
Cecil got the epic part of this right. The Jews prepared for this plague so it would Passover, but we did not learn that lesson. Our government, our culture, was not prepared despite frequent warnings from scientists and medical professionals. Now I pray every night that this plague will pass over our home and the homes of my children, family & friends. Already I know of friends who have lost spouses and/or family members. When all is said and done, it may come to pass that “….there was not a house without someone dead.”