A Reflection on Exodus 12

I remember that night in Egypt, our last night. It was dark and dreary, but it was mixed with a buzz of anticipation in the air. The buzz coursed through our camp like an electric current, finding outlets at every corner and bouncing onward gaining speed.

Bing. Bing. Bing.

Our leaders told us to use the blood from the sacrifice to draw an arch from frame to frame on the outside of our doors. I opened my door and quickly completed the task as the brisk desert wind rushed into our home. I tried to get it done before sundown. Heaven forbid I be confused as a victim of judgment and death, as the Egyptians would be.

Blessed souls.

Even the cruelest people do not deserve to grieve the loss of a child. But the destroyer was coming, they told us. He was almost here. We fell asleep that night, and I was abruptly awoken in a cold sweat by the shrieking wails. It was the Egyptian mothers. The children they bore from their own bodies now lay lifeless in their arms. Begging the hearts of their babies to go back to beating, they buried their faces in ashes and beat their bodies in shame. They would never be the same. I ran to my son, frantically hoping that he was spared. I checked his breathing, held my fingers over his pulse. Breath. Warmth. Deep inhale in. He was peacefully resting as his lungs filled up with air. And I began to mimic his breathing to calm myself down.

He’s ok. He’s ok. He’s ok. I told myself over and over again. And then the singing came. It was coming from outside. It was coming from our people. First it was a low hum, and I looked up in anticipation as it grew louder and louder, almost drowning out my heavy anxious heart. Light was coming. This meant it was time to move. It was time to go. I gathered the children and woke up my husband. We already packed all we could carry, and the animals were loaded.

Off we went, and I clung tightly to my first born as if he would be ripped out of my arms at any moment. I buried my face in his hair as my husband pulled us onward. Good-bye to Egypt, we all said.

I often wonder how tightly the Hebrew mothers clung to these words from Moses. I imagine them listening intently, leaning in and staring Moses down as he gave those sobering instructions. And then I see them repeating the instructions to their neighbors over and over to make sure they got it all right.

“The blood will be a sign to you on the houses where you are and when I see the blood I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” Exodus 12:13

 “…it is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.” Exodus 12:26

The Passover was more than just the last plague. It was more than just a sparing of the “home” of the Hebrew people. It was a moment in history where God showed God’s people where God dwells in the midst of the darkest night. Consider the verb “to pass over” used in these verses.

It has been noted by many Hebrew scholars that the word to “pass-over” found here is an inaccurate translation of the verbs describing God’s action. While the destroyer “passes over” or “passes through” the homes, it is YHWH who does not “pass over.” Instead YHWH “hovers over” as the verb “pesah” indicates in its most accurate translation.

The verb here, “pesah” translated “pass over,” parallels the verb we see in Isaiah 31:5 “to hover” or “to cover” or “to surround”:

As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver [it; and] passing over he will preserve it. Isaiah 31:5

According to Meredith Kline and others, this verb “pesah” is more accurately understood as an “abiding shielding presence” similar to the eagle hovering over her young in Isaiah. Therefore, a more accurate translation of the verb used to describe God’s action in Exodus 12 would be to “cover over” or “hover over” or “surround” instead of to “pass over.”

Imagery for God as a bird or eagle (avian imagery) is common throughout scripture. (Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 91:1, 4; Is 31:5).  In fact, it is the first metaphor we see for the Spirit of God at creation.

“The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.Genesis 1:1

God is hovering over the chaos at creation.

In Isaiah, we see a God who is flying over, hovering over, and rescuing God’s people. This is the same imagery used in Exodus 12. The Divine Presence is hovering over each Israelite home as an eagle hovers over the nest of her young when an attacker is out to destroy them. God is hovering over the chaos of death and destruction to stand in its way. The protective agent symbolizing this glorious and abiding presence is the blood of the lamb. The destroyer is seeking to take the treasured child. But the Hovering Over God stands in the way of the destroyer. The people of God are protected from the destroyer by the blood of the lamb.

Why does this distinction “hover-over” instead of “pass-over” matter so much to me? Because finding God in the midst of the darkest night has been my journey. I have experienced God as aloof and distant as I have faced a near death experience myself, and the near-death experiences of two of my own children. I saw only God’s backside, until this little verb. And as I sat before my Hebrew text and this word was explained to me, I wept.

I wept because I need a Hovering-Over God. I need a God who I can see more than the backside of in the midst of my own chaos and turmoil, trauma and grief. I need a God who does not move on but who moves in. I need a God who protects and does not destroy. I need a God who stands between me and the pain all around me. And this is the God that I find in Exodus 12. YHWH hovers over and stays close during the darkest night. In the moment of deepest despair, when all seems lost, when fear and anxiety have had their way and all that is left is wailing and desperation, God hovers over. This is who God is.

“In a desert land he found them, in a barren and howling waste. God shielded them and cared for them; God guarded them as the apple of God’s eye, like an eagle that stirs up her nest and hovers over her young, that spreads her wings to catch them and carries them on her pinions. The Lord alone led them; no foreign god was with them.”

 Deuteronomy 32:10-12

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the First Colony Church of Christ.