A Passover Reflection on the Four Questions
At every Passover seder, one of the more dramatic moments is when the family recites the Ten Plagues that God sent against Egypt. Together everybody names each plague and pours out a drop from the aptly-named Cup of Plagues, the second cup of the evening. The idea is that we are prohibited from rejoicing over the defeat of even our enemies, so we symbolically diminish the joy in our lives by reducing the amount in our cups.
Though the recitation of the Ten Plagues treats them all as equivalent, there is actually a significant difference between the first nine plagues and the last one. The plague of flies appears to be emblematic of the first nine — while they wreaked havoc in Egypt, the Israelite dwellings were immune:
“But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land. I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This miraculous sign will occur tomorrow.” — Exodus 8:22-23
Similarly for the plague of cattle disease:
“… the hand of the Lord will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die.” — Exodus 9:3-4
We read the same thing for the plagues of hail and darkness (Exodus 9:26 and 10:23).
In the first nine plagues, Israel did not need to do anything to be spared. God simply treated them differently than the Egyptians. The tenth plague, however — the death of the firstborn — required something more than simply being Jewish. It required every Israelite to follow the divine instructions or else share in the fate of the Egyptians.
Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning. When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down. — Exodus 12:21-23
This distinction between the tenth plague and the other nine leads to a reflection on the seder’s Mah Nishtanah (usually rendered as The Four Questions in English), all of which deal with the theme of “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
That might well have been an unrecorded question that the Israelites asked themselves on that night: “Why is this night of the tenth plague different from all other nights of the plagues?” The answer may well have been given, “On all other nights we do not have to do anything to be spared the plagues. But on this night, we must step out in obedience to God and place the blood of a lamb on our doorposts.”
Israel was blessed during the first nine plagues simply by being Israel. But to receive life instead of death, they needed to be willing to hear God and obey Him. At the tenth plague, the status of being Jewish was not by itself sufficient.
Let me raise some questions for this Passover. What does God ask of Jewish people today? The New Testament speaks of our lives in terms reminiscent of the tenth plague:
… the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Messiah Yeshua our Lord. — Romans 6:23
The same author specifically has Passover in mind when he writes:
Get rid of the old chametz that you may be a new batch without chametz—as you really are. For Messiah, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old chametz, the chametz of malice and wickedness, but with matzah, the bread of sincerity and truth. — 1 Corinthians 5:7-8
So there are perhaps four additional questions we should ask ourselves on this Passover:
Why is this time in which we live different from all other times?
Could it be that just as we had to apply the blood of a lamb to our doorposts thousands of years ago, God has today provided another Passover lamb, Yeshua?
Is the plague of death still with us, Jews and Gentiles alike?
And is simply the status of being Jewish, a privilege though it is, sufficient for life?
As you reflect on these questions, we at Jews for Jesus invite your comments. And we extend to you and your families a wish for a very Happy Pesach.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.