Life: A Drama of Inescapable Terror

The scene before us in Exodus 12 and 13 is full of terror. The perfect year old-lamb from the flock lives with the family for four days before it is sacrificed on the Passover. It is very adorable and everyone is deeply aware of its presence. Its blood is smeared on the doorposts and lintel; it must be eaten completely by morning and whatever is left is to be burned. The historical context of this ritual is the divine act of killing enemy firstborns. But YHWH demands the life of every male firstborn of Israel, man and beast, the very best, as well! Everyone in the family passed through the bloody doorposts not only thinking of the lamb that recently became a part of their family, but keenly aware that the blood they see is in the place of their very own firstborn male (13:1, 2, 15). The law of the firstborn and the Passover are intertwined by their juxtaposition in the narrative.

This terrifying scenario can only make sense in the context of a world where YHWH was the ultimate reality that must be reckoned with, or, in the broader pagan society, the gods. Human sacrifice was thought to be a necessity, for human life is most precious, especially when the child sacrificed is most precious. Life before God or the gods could not be lived out with integrity without offering them the very best! Feeling deeply the reality of sin and failure, how could things be made right by offering something less than the best? The remarkable thing about Israel, surrounded by a sea of human blood sacrificed to the gods, was that YHWH forbade the sacrifice of their children, accepting the blood of perfect lambs instead. However, human sacrifice was never far from the psychology of their worship. The majestic act of Abraham, their father in blood and faith, ready with outstretched arm for the ultimate sacrifice of His son Isaac, was always before them. And then there was that lamb they lived with for four days every Passover, sacrificed in the place of the most important person among the children, their own first-born male.

There is a profound similarity between the pagan world and Israel in that both YHWH and the gods inspire terror. There are profound differences as well. The pagans were terrorized by the gods, and never quite knew if they were appeased by their sacrifices. They lived in a climate of terror and had no way to escape the fear it inspired. No doubt it seemed to them that the gods smiled at times upon them, but inevitably, angry clouds would set in. For Israel, who was called to live with a Holy God, terror was inescapable as well. In fact, the very idea of the “holy” cannot be separated from the mysterium tremendom, holy terror. Terror gives way to šālôm and the sheer joy of divine acceptance and mutual relationship established by covenant and its liturgical requirements performed with faithful hearts. For Israel, terror and joy were never far apart. In fact, the Crucifix brings together the paradox perfectly.

Today, we are far removed from old paganism and old Israelite ritual and sacrifice. The terror they experienced before the holy is incomprehensible. A God that is so absolute and real that He demands ultimate sacrifice is offensive to us. Such concepts are dismissed as old relics of a stage in human development out of which humanity is hopefully emerging. True, there is terrorism inspired by misguided religious fervor, but there is also the terror that springs forth from the secular world view. The human soul was made to engage with God and to experience the sheer terror and delight the mere force of His being inspires. Without this quest the soul shrivels up and the sheer boredom of aimlessness settles in, creating terrorists of our own making. Our world is far more full of terrors than the old world; terrorism is an imbedded part of our world culture, and there is no true joy. We run from the terror of God to our own manufactured terror. Terror is inescapable. It is a holy terror to run toward God, but to run away from God is terrible in the most awful way.

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