[Site editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the recent Disinformation title 50 Things You’re Not Supposed To Know: Religion, authored by Daniele Bolelli.]
Often, the stories at the origin of many religious holidays sound like sweet fairy tales.
Think of Christmas, for example, with the shooting star, the three wise men bringing gifts, and baby Jesus being born in the midst of all the happy barn animals. It has a “God meets Old-MacDonald-Had-a-Farm” feel to it.
The story at the roots of the Jewish holiday of Passover, on the other hand, doesn’t sound quite like a fairy tale—unless perhaps one created by Stephen King. What exactly is celebrated during Passover? Our tale begins in Egypt over 3,000 years ago—or at least so we are told, since there is less historical evidence for the authenticity of this story than for the existence of the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster. No source for its truthfulness exists other than the Torah. For all we know, it could be all exactly true or it could just as well be entirely made up. But in any case, here’s what the Torah has to say about the origins of Passover. Over three millennia ago, times were not rosy for Jewish peoples (some things never change …). Being enslaved in ancient Egypt was not the epitome of fun, so Jews were desperately looking for a way out. The one and only God came to the rescue by empowering Moses to threaten the Pharaoh with a series of horrific plagues unless he freed his people. Nine consecutive plagues failed to sway the Pharaoh. So, for the tenth plague, God decided to pull out the big guns. He told good monotheistic Jews to mark their doorposts with the blood of sacrificial lambs. This was to make sure that the angel of death—who apparently could be a bit distracted sometimes—would not make mistakes. The blood on the door was the signal to the angel of death that he was not welcome to come in for a visit: the blood told him to “pass over” those homes and go carry out his murderous homework elsewhere. God’s orders, in fact, were pretty specific: all the firstborn children of the Egyptians were to be wiped out in a single night. And just in case that weren’t enough, all the firstborn calves were also to be killed (if you are wondering about that, sorry but the Torah doesn’t tell us exactly what evil sin Egyptian cows had committed to deserve such punishment).
Since this story was apparently not perverted enough, here’s the icing on the cake. It was God all along who had hardened the heart of the Pharaoh to make sure he wouldn’t release Jewish people before He had a chance to unleash all ten plagues. “Why?”—you may ask—“What kind of weird game was God playing?”
This whole drama was a publicity stunt set up by the one and only God, “… in order to show you My power and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.” In other words, the killing of thousands of Egyptian kids was but a way for God to flex His muscles and gain some fame: bloodshed and terror tactics as a strategy to get attention.
Now, ancient Jews were clearly not overly fond of their enemies’ children. In Psalm 137, which begins as a moving lamentation over being exiled from their homelands, we are told with gleeful satisfaction about the joys of smashing the heads of the children of Babylon. During the march to the Promised Land, we are told in multiple occasions about Jewish armies hacking to death all enemy males, including those still suckling. But the lovely tale of the angel of death having a field day with Egyptian kids is the only massacre of babies to get its very celebratory holiday.