Why All the Dead Babies?

Especially at Passover, we have to conform scripture to our morality, not the other way around.

As an atheist mom, I am sometimes asked, “How do you teach your children morality?”

I’m not a cultural anthropologist, an evolutionary biologist, or a neurologist. I don’t know where we get our sense of right and wrong. But I do know one thing: No one’s morality comes from the Bible. At least no one I want to meet.

Passover is a perfect example. Most years, my husband and I — both raised Jewish — go to my in-laws’ house for a Passover Seder, our three godless kids in tow. We open the door to the most delicious smell this side of bacon: matzo ball soup.

Sorry, kids: two hours till dinner. Don’t touch that matzo! Look: Mom has brought you coloring pages!

I tend to bring all the Internet has to offer small children suffering through a Seder: Crosswords, word searches, and color-your-own cartoons of lice, flies, boils, locusts, and, especially, frogs — the fun plague.

My kids have not studied sharia; they have not heard of The Beatitudes. Still, somehow, they got the notion that killing babies is wrong.

But no matter how many pictures of frogs I wave around, my children fixate, outraged, on the dead babies.

They do not know the 10 Commandments, much less the 613 laws of the Mosaic Code. They have not studied sharia; they have not heard of The Beatitudes. Still, somehow, they got the notion that killing babies is wrong.

There is a lot of baby killing in Moses’ story, beginning with the Egyptian edict that all the baby Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile and ending with the Angel of Death killing all the (non-Jewish) firstborn children.

In this context of infanticide, distracting my kids with frogs feels a little dishonest. So a couple of years ago I decided to acknowledge the horror of the story. Then at least reframe the carnage as the tragic collateral damage of a system of oppression.

I found quotes from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. I found a CD with Paul Robeson singing, “Go Down, Moses.” I helpfully stickered my father-in-law’s Haggadah — the Passover playbook — with circled numbers keyed to a sheaf of supplemental materials on slavery.

Rather than relying on the verses selected in our Haggadah, I decided to return to the source: the book of Exodus itself. Although I didn’t believe Exodus was literally true, I thought it probably still contained powerful truths on the themes of slavery and freedom, tyranny and redemption.

Then I went back and read it.

Passover, as originally conceived, celebrates neither freedom nor justice. It celebrates the triumph of one god over other gods, one people over another. Murder is rampant and rarely justified.

Animals die first: countless fish from the water-turned-to-blood (Exodus7:21), land animals from livestock disease (9:5), then anyone or thing caught out in the worst hail/firestorm Egypt ever saw (9:25). And then, for the tenth plague, brutality, not justice, is meted out:

“Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again” (11:5-7).

All of this is particularly horrible because every time Pharaoh wants to let our people go, God hardens his heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3,9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 14:4, 14:17) so as to spread his fame in an age before the printing press or Twitter.

“But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:4; also 7:1-5, 9:16, and 11:9).

Glory in the eyes of the Jews is an even greater obsession. We are to remember him as “the Lord who took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 6:6, 10:2, 12:17, 12:27, 13:3, 13:8, 13:9, 13:14, 13:16, ad inf). We are in his debt and at his mercy:

“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians” (Exodus 15:26).

This isn’t God the Father so much as the Godfather.

As for slavery, the Old Testament makes it clear: there’s nothing wrong with owning slaves — just with being slaves. I’m not a biblical scholar or a historian. The rules in Exodus 21 about how one is supposed to treat one’s slaves may well represent, in the context of the biblical era, a giant moral leap forward.

But Passover, as it is set forth in Exodus, is not an anti-slavery, anti-oppression holiday. It’s an us-against-them-praise-the-Lord holiday.

I’ve never been to a Seder that presents Passover that way. Never. Some are more sectarian than others, but all of them reach for general themes that affirm — at the very least — that slavery is wrong, that struggle against oppression is righteous.

The Jews I know — believers and nonbelievers — comb Exodus looking for phrases that meet our ethical standards. We leave the rest out. We make scripture conform to our morality, not the other way around.

Why stick with those old texts at all if you have to twist, excerpt, and quietly ignore them?

I remember once when I was a child standing next to my father during Yom Kippur services. We turned to such-and-such a page to read aloud a prayer about sin and repentance and before I could begin, my father leaned over and whispered fiercely, “Don’t you read that. It’s not right: you’re a child, you haven’t sinned.”

It’s not right. Every day parents are leaning over and whispering that to their children. Or showing it by example. These people don’t get their morality from their scriptures — they bring their morality to it.

Like the bar mitzvah boy who interprets his short portion of the Old Testament with extreme creativity. Or the priest who grants annulments with unorthodox leniency. Or the Presbyterian minister who performs same-sex marriage ceremonies, no matter what Romans 1:26–27 may say.

Why stick with those old texts at all if you have to twist, excerpt, or quietly ignore them? Why struggle with Exodus once a year, when I could just give up on Passover entirely and feed my kids matzo ball soup on Martin Luther King Day?

I don’t know. Eventually I probably will give it up. Meanwhile, there’s something to be said for reading those passages aloud together and together proclaiming, It’s not right.

For us, and I’ll bet for many Jews, Passover is an annual celebration not just of how long we’ve lasted but also of how very far we’ve come.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Images courtesy of Jim Padgett via Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing.

Kate Cohen
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  • Martin Hughes

    Well, this is a story, told through fantastic events, in which oppressors are paid out in their own coin, the oppressed are patient and God vindicates them – though it is very hard for the human agents, even Moses himself, to understand God’s purposes. It is part of the story of the gradual recovery, which has to be in stages, of the human resort to violence and pride rather than trust in God’s providence. Perhaps the moral lessons are that we sometimes just have to hope against hope and that liberation and justice seem always to come at a cost in which some people’s lives just seem to be meaninglessly wasted – but better accept that fact than simply despair. The Liberation Theologians have rather liked Exodus and thought its message positive.
    We may like to hear, particularly on Martin Luther King day perhaps, that ‘the arc of moral universe is long but it bends towards justice’ – a statement which King took over from a nineteenth century (I think unitarian) preacher, I think called Theodore Parker. This statement is only the positive way of saying that in the slow processes of the universe many moral efforts seem to go for nothing and many evils go unpunished and many victims just seem to fall by the wayside. Parker was presumably reflecting on the sign of the rainbow given to Noah.
    Freud, if I understand him, thought that Exodus (which he interpreted in an extremely unorthodox way) reveals how progress comes amid tension and guilt: we’d better believe it, he thought.
    For my part, I have more problems with Joshua than with Exodus but the events of Joshua are in a way the working out of the curse on Canaan, for something that was absolutely not of Canaan’s doing, which rounds off the Noah story in Genesis. Some later Jewish theologians thought that the Canaanites had one residual right, that their name always attaches to the Holy Land: God had to sacrifice them but by keeping their name in memory he faces up (by contrast with Freudian patients) to his terrifying responsibilities.

  • HildyJJ

    This is a story, made up out of whole cloth, that teaches one lesson – yahweh is the most powerful god and don’t even think of getting on his bad side. From the flood, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to the plagues, to the slaughter of the natives in Canaan (including the Midianites who supposedly saved Moses from the pharoah), yahweh has no morality, just wrath.

    As far as the exodus, archeological evidence has found not a single text (outside of the torah) or shard to support its historicity. On the contrary, current evidence shows that the massive works of the Egyptians were constructed by well housed and fed craftsmen rather than slaves.

    • CryingCons

      Yes, that’s it! A loving deity you dare not cross!