Pulpit Speech: A Divine Cover-Up?

Michael J. Glodo
Associate Professor of Practical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

How is God both just and merciful? This is a first order question asked of any pastor by any person trying to reconcile God’s justice with his mercy. Our answer is often only to affirm that he is both and perhaps to explain why God’s justice must be satisfied. As the second of the Canons of Dort states it:

God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. His justice requires (as he has revealed himself in the Word) that the sins we have committed against his infinite majesty be punished with both temporal and eternal punishments, of soul as well as body. We cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God’s justice (2.1).

While it is important to proclaim that God is both just and merciful and why, it is to his greater glory that Scripture reveals how he is so, for it is in seeing the how that he is most fully the “blessed (̔εὐλογητός) God.” (Eph 1:3)

Pastorally, I have found the divine drama of Exodus 12 a useful, clear, and effective source for leading people to this divine beatitude. The key to seeing this in its fullness is a profound yet largely overlooked insight of Meredith Kline which reexamines the verb pesach (̔פסח) to reveal not only a helpful clarification to the modern translations, but to create a dovetail bond with Paul’s summation in Rom 3:26, “…so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”[1]

In Exodus 12:1-28 God’s explained what would happen in the decisive final plague in which the firstborn of Egypt would die and “on all the gods of Egypt [he] will execute judgments.” (v 12) As he would ultimately do in Jesus Christ, God would judge, but would also save by becoming himself the object of judgment. These two moves of God – to judge and to save – are expressed through the two Hebrew verbs ‘bar (עבר, vv 12, 23) and pesach (פסח, vv 13, 23, 27), but modern translations tend to obscure their sense.

Translated “pass through” (ESV, NIV, NKJV) or “go through” (NASB), ‘bar describes how God in the person of “the Destroyer” (מַשְׁחִית, v. 23, cf. 13)  would go through the whole land of Egypt “to strike the Egyptians” (vv 12, 23), i.e. to put to death the firstborn of every household. Whether the Destroyer is an angelic emissary or a Christophany, God attributes the judging act directly to himself. Even though in other contexts with the al (עַל) preposition ‘bar can mean “pass over,” as in the sins of the people (e.g. Mic 7:18 where it is in parallel with נֹשֵׂא עָוֺן, “pardoning iniquity”), here it is clearly God’s action to punish the idolatrous and oppressive Egyptians by cutting off their posterity, including Pharaoh’s first born who was the presumptive heir to the throne. God is not merely “passing through” but is on a search and destroy mission in response to the cries of his people (Ex 2:23-24) in order to liberate them from oppressive slavery and to recompense the deeds of their oppressors while showing his supremacy over Egypt’s gods on the world stage (Ex 19:4; Dt 4:6-7; 29:2). NASB comes closest to capturing the sense, which is that God would “go throughout” the land in judgment. The use of “pass through” to translate ‘bar by most translations is potentially confusing in light how the second key verb,  pasach (פסח, vv. 13, 23, 27), is translated as “pass over” (ESV, NKJV, NIV, NAU) since the use of “pass” in both suggests a similarity of action.

More problematic, however, is the translation of pasach as “pass over.” While consistent with translation of the noun pesach, “Passover,” it erroneously suggests that God “skipped over” or left untouched the Israelite houses. Kline’s reexamination of the meaning of the verb pasach helps us see that God is not merely skipping those houses (and therefore the sins) of the Israelites, but he is preemptively shielding them and thus delivering them from his own wrath by vicariously standing in their place. God is not ignoring the sins of his people, but in the midst of this great drama of judgment he is atoning for them.

As Kline notes (497-98), the verb pasach appears only here and in 2 Sam 4:4; 1 Kgs 18:21, 26; and Is 31:5. The adjective pisseiach (פִסֵּ֔חַ), “lame” (e.g. Lev 21:18; Dt 15:21), and the context of the verb pasach in 2 Sam 4:4 seems to have influenced the verb’s translation in its other contexts. Although “to make lame” for the verb is warranted by that context, Kline regards the 2 Sam 4:4 as a different verbal root. The essence of his reexamination is to allow the more clear usage in Is 31:5 to illuminate the others.

a          Like birds hovering (‘wp), so the LORD of hosts

b    will protect (gnn) Jerusalem;

b’   he will protect (gnn) and deliver it;

a’         he will spare (pasach) and rescue it.”

This promise of God to protect his chosen dwelling place invokes the avian image of God as a great bird protecting its nest (497-98).[2] Parallelism in Hebrew poetry can provide great help in understanding obscure terms. Here the sharing of the same verb by the b and b’ lines (gnn) forms a pivot or crux which draws the verbs of the a and a’ lines into closer association. Thus the clear imagery of ‘wp, “to hover,” sheds light on the rarer pasach suggesting a similar meaning – i.e. “to hover, overarch.” God will spread his protective wings over Israel in Jerusalem just as he had done in the Sinai wilderness (Ex 19:4; Deut 32:10-11), the same thing God in the glory cloud would do by the Red Sea shortly after the first Passover (Ex 14:19-20). Translating pasach as “hover” is further supported by the LXX choice of σκεραζω, “to cover,” to translate two of the three instances in Ex 12.

This sense of pasach fits as well or better than “limping” in 1 Kgs 18:21, 26. Thus Elijah challenges the people not to “hover” between Yahweh and Baal (v 21) while the narrative depicts Baal’s prophets as unsuccessfully conjuring over the bull prepared for Baal by “hovering” over the altar.

Is there anything else to suggest that pasach in Ex 12:13, 23, and 27 should be translated as “hovered over” or the like? Turning from the biblical to the historical-cultural context Kline says yes.

Outside the Bible, depiction of deity in avian fashion was common in ancient Near Eastern iconography and literature. Familiar is the use of bird emblems for gods in Egyptian religion…An important parallel to the Glory-theophany phenomena in the Bible is the widely attested motif of the winged sun-disk used to represent the divine majesty. Of special significance for the interpretation of the paschal event in Exodus 12 is the appearance of this winged symbol of divine glory on door lintels…It is within this world of avian and portal symbolism that the meaning of the Lord’s paschal act of salvation is to be sought (498)

Archaeological artifacts of Egyptian door facades, including tombs, show representations of Egyptian gods – particularly the winged-disc sun god – carved or painted on the lintels; the gods who were expected to safely accompany the deceased to the afterlife. But on the night of the Passover, on the lintels of the Israelite houses, there was no Egyptian god depicted but rather a symbol of Israel’s God hovering over that house. So then, while God in the Destroyer was executing judgment throughout Egypt, God the protector simultaneously hovered over the Israelite houses in a shielding stance.

Kline completes his case by addressing the noun pesach, “Passover” (503). It occurs in the OT only as a proper noun describing the Passover, i.e. it does not have a general usage. However, the Egyptian sach, meaning “booth” which can refer to the previously-mentioned Egyptian tombs with the winged sun God carvings, with the definite article p’p’sach – suggests a play on words. The borrowed Egyptian noun under the influence of the now-understood Hebrew verb becomes a memorial Hebrew noun to remind Israel (and perhaps polemically the Egyptians) that on the morning after the Passover they had emerged from death houses into newly-consecrated lives with and for God – from that day on, the firstborn of every house in Israel belonged wholly to the Lord (Ex 13:2).

But this was not simply God versus himself, a “house divided,” for the form in which God hovered over the Israelite houses was the blood of the Passover lamb. “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it” (v 7). The blood of the unblemished, year-old male lamb, so closely identified with God’s protective activity that it is the sign which signifies God’s personal presence, signified to the Destroyer that he had no work to do at that house – a death had already taken place, the death of an innocent substitute.

On that night, every Israelite house, just as every Egyptian house, became a house of death. As Kline sums up:

[H]ouses of death fill the scene in the drama of the pesah lyhwh [“Passover to the Lord”] in Exodus 12. Every house in Egypt was turned into a house of death that night (12:30, 33). Most literally, the house of the pharaoh, residence of the divine king according to Egyptian ideology, became a funerary sh-ntr [“tomb shrine”]. And is that not what the Israelite houses became also, marked as they were with the blood of the lamb?…This death-signifying blood—that is, the lamb slain—was at the same time the pesah, the covering that protected from the death stroke. (507)

So now it is that we can see in Exodus 12 God’s answer to the question of how justice and mercy meet. Contrary to popular understanding, it’s not a matter of “good cop” Jesus contending with “bad cop” God the Father or a Marcionite “unhitching” ourselves from the Old Testament in order to live under the grace of the New, but rather the full participation of the fullness of God in which he righteously judges all sin and mercifully take the place of the sinner who, like John the Baptist, sees “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). God saves believers from his own wrath, not by “skipping over” their sins, but by covering their sins by his self-sacrificing death as symbolized in the lamb. God saves us from himself by becoming the object of judgment.

To ask how the slain lamb can represent at once the death judgment of God inflicted and a protective shielding from that blow is to inquire into the judicial heart of the gospel of justification by grace. The answer lies in the nature of the death judgment suffered by the lamb. It was a vicarious, expiatory act of sacrifice, a suffering of divine wrath in the stead of others, so providing them with a place of refuge from that wrath passing over the world.

The wonder of grace deepens when we recall that by reason his personal Presence hovering (pasah) over the Israelites houses, the Lord himself was their shielding shelter (pesah). The lamb is the pesah and the Lord is the pesah. Both are true because the Lord becomes the lamb (507, emphasis added).

The Christian, including those at death’s door, has the assurance of Christ’s cross anticipated by  the blood-stained death door of the Passover. For on the night on which Jesus was betrayed, all were delivered from death except him who went out into the darkness of that Passover night (Jn 13:30). As we dwell under the shadow of God’s protective wings, we “will not fear the terror of the night / nor the arrow that flies by day” (Ps 91:5), for “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Thus God in Christ is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:26) As the Passover shows, for God to do one without the other is for him to be less than God. But “from his fullness we have all received” (Jn 1:16).

As a foretaste in the Passover and in fullness in Jesus Christ,

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
and righteousness looks down from the sky (Ps 85:10-11).

This is why not only the is and the why, but especially the how of God’s plan is to the praise of his glorious grace (Eph 1:6, 12). Or as Newton so eloquently penned

Let us wonder grace and justice,
join to point to mercy’s store.
When through grace in Christ our trust is,
justice smiles and asks no more.[3]

[1] Meredith G. Kline, “The Feast of Cover-Over,” JETS 34.4 (Dec 1994): 497-510. Scripture citations are from the ESV unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Kline develops the avian imagery of God beginning with Gen 1:2 and recurring throughout Scripture, particularly in relation to the work of the Spirit, in his Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980). He demonstrates that this imagery is particularly associated with the work of God the Spirit as concretely manifested in the divine glory, hence he can speak of these manifestations as the “Glory-Spirit.” Kline’s pneumatology of the Old Testament in which he correlates the progress of redemption with the Spirit remains largely unappropriated by the church. Elsewhere Kline notes profoundly that “pneumatology is the realm of eschatology,” Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (S. Hamilton, MA: Meredith G. Kline, 1986) 22.

[3] John Newton, “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder.”