Pesach: The Original Pioneer Day


April 9, 2009 by Gsmith

egyptA few hours ago two holidays arrived. Pesach 5769 and the much less common Birchat HaChamah, which arrives every 28th passover and marks the solar and lunar convergence in the calendar.

My Hebrew sister, Rebekah, with whom I’ve celebrated the holiday in years past, sent me a gift in the form of an Haggadah. For those that are not superstitious, the Haggadah is the text by which Jews and their friends interpret the Passover holiday. It tells the story of the liberation of the Hebrews from their mythical Egyptian slavery.

The version she got for me (she’s been my friend for years, and knows me fairly well) is an officially atheist Haggadah, which supposedly removes any mention of divine miracles, plagues of frogs and other such stuff. In theory, I suppose it comes close to reconciling the legend with Dialectical Materialism. The exodus, viewed through this lens, becomes a national liberation movement and an exercise in class consciousness rather than a chauvinistic, murderous fairy-tale.

I say supposedly and in theory because the book she got me was printed in Israel. It’s entirely in Hebrew. I studied Hebrew for a full six years of my life, altogether, and don’t remember anything except for a few of the filthiest epithets in that otherwise interesting language.

This is one of my least favorite bible stories. As a little boy I remember wondering (quietly) why God didn’t just kill Pharaoh, rather than murdering all those little kids. Later on I wondered why the Hebrews looted the country and left, rather than spreading the liberation to their Egyptian brothers and sisters. It’s only this week, with this book in my hand, that I finally asked myself the question that’s sung around the table…

Why is this night different from all others?

The answer leads me back to wondering why Mormons don’t have a text describing our sojourn out of captivity and into Zion. We have the story, and in a way we have the holiday (for those that don’t know, it falls on 24 July – we call it Pioneer Day) but we have no text explaining the meanings.

When I lived in Salt Lake City, I saw Pioneer Day as simply an occasion to shoot off fireworks, watch a parade, and to watch the unobservant Mormons get publicly drunk in Liberty Park. The party prominently featured the same flag we originally celebrated getting away from.

Since leaving Salt Lake City, I’ve seen Passover in much the same way. It’s the day I got together with my friend, ate brisket, and heard stories about growing up in Fairfax.

Scratch the surface, and Passover and Pioneer Day reveal themselves as holidays which are inherently subversive. They are days in which common people celebrate their freedom, remembering the brave souls who sacrificed to give it to us.

Happy Holidays!


5 thoughts on “Pesach: The Original Pioneer Day

  1. Joseph says:

    I don’t want to distract from the main points here, but I found Gregoire’s question about “why didn’t God just kill Pharaoh?” I’m no expert or scholar, but I have read a lot on religion. Most of what I have read recognizes that all the earliest religions we have record of were goddess worshipers. The first universal God probably wasn’t a god but a Goddess, with various war gods competing for her favor. An important feature of goddess worship was the sacrifice of the first-born male (being a first-born male that doesn’t really sound like utopia to me, contrary to what New Agers might think). And as you have pointed out, the Passover is a kind of ritualized mythology (and you, unlike me, have actually experienced it, which I kind of envy). While I can only conjecture as to why it was the Egyptian children who died and the Israelites spared, and what the deeper meaning there is, I do feel confident in seeing a remnant of goddess worship in this account (along with the fact that Israel did still have to go through great lengths to redeem first-born males). Also this event takes place in conjunction with a certain phase of the moon at a certain time of year, which were important in terms of when to perform certain sacrifices (including human).

    I think this might explain the difference between the Jewish Passover and the Latter-Day-Saint Pioneer Day. Latter-Day-Saints have all the trappings and story-telling of a similar Exodus story, but lack the deeper religious symbolism. That’s not to say we don’t have the deeper symbolism, in fact with temples we are one of the few religious groups professing to be Christian that still have them. It’s just not in our Exodus story. And I think many Latter-day Saints would be troubled by the idea of their Old Testaments really being a record of a goddess religion (in spite of hymns like O My Father) massively revised around 600 B.C. (a kind of interesting date in relation to the Book of Mormon).

    In demonstrating my skepticism about the Old Testament, I do wish to clarify that I do take the translations and revelations of Joseph Smith, along with the New Testament (excepting some of the letters supposedly written by Paul) very seriously. And I do find beauty in the Old Testament and the Jewish rituals such as Pesach.

    I also do not wish to distract for Gregoire’s essential concerns about ritually enacting escape from political and religious oppression. I just thought it might be interesting to observe the strong evidence of goddess worship in the Pesach rituals in addition to the male war god elements that are more explicit maybe.

    But here in the Southwestern United States it is still a few hours before Passover begins, and as I mentioned before I’m a first-born male who is still superstitious enough to get a little jittery during Passover. Oh, and I also want to say Happy Holidays!

  2. Forest Simmons says:


    I read recently that when Nephi was trying to figure out the meaning of the tree in his father’s vision, he was shown Mary, whom he associated with Asherah, who, in turn, was commonly represented by the symbol of a tree, so then he knew that the tree represented the love of God.

    See 1 Nephi 11:9-23

    It is interesting that Book of Mormon peoples were very sensitive about the “one god” idea. They were so hung up on it that some of them (like Zeezrom) had a hard time seeing how there could be a son of god, since that would mean there were two gods.

    If I understand correctly, the same reformation that said, “No more mention of Asherah,” also said, “From now on we don’t just say ‘no other gods before me,’ but no other gods, period.” This was a great simplification, but it became a stumbling block for belief that the promised Messiah would be a god whose father was also a god.

  3. Grégoire says:

    Hey Fellas,

    Thanks so much for reading. These are totally interesting observations.

    and you, unlike me, have actually experienced it, which I kind of envy…

    You can seder next year. It’s really just an excuse to have a dinner party. If you ever do it in someone else’s house, just make sure to let the hosts know you need “Mormon Kashrut” (non-alcoholic) wine. If you’re like me and don’t drink, you’ll be overwhelmed by the (admittedly not very much for regular drinkers, but a lot for teetotalers) amount that’s served.

    If you really want to do something cool, go chant Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur. I think everyone should do that at least once, but that’s next fall’s topic.

    and I think many Latter-day Saints would be troubled by the idea of their Old Testaments really being a record of a goddess religion (in spite of hymns like O My Father) massively revised around 600 B.C. (a kind of interesting date in relation to the Book of Mormon).

    just thought it might be interesting to observe the strong evidence of goddess worship in the Pesach rituals…

    Historians seem to see the God of the Hebrews as an amalgamation of several earlier deities. There was a Yahweh (Ea-Ue) in southern Sumeria who was a very nasty character. He was the storm god who flooded the Tigris and Euphrates. He was a “pillar of fire by night, and a storm cloud by day”.

    That’s not the only aspect of God that exists today though. Just one of many. It’s a syncretic tradition. I’m sure there were some Goddesses who got adopted into the larger concept too, as you say. Inanna might have been one of these.

    The Hebrews don’t see God the way we do, or maybe they do, at least in comparison to the way Christians see God. It’s hard to explain.

    While we (Mormons) were raised seeing God with physical attributes, the Hebrews weren’t. He doesn’t look like a (wo)man and we’re not allowed to build statues or paint pictures of him.

    Even to think about God in the Jewish tradition borders on sinfulness. There’s a line in Talmud that says something like “don’t even think about thinking about Him, don’t ponder pondering Him, don’t consider asking your questions about Him, even to yourself”.

    What the scholars were trying to impress upon the reader is that to see God as something you can comprehend is inherently limiting to God. That includes gender. By creating an imagine in our heads we are doing God a disservice.

    There isn’t any real difference between not contemplating God, and not believing in God. This is why it’s O.K. for a Jew to be an atheist, and this is what attracted me to learning more about Judaism when I was young. Judaism isn’t about believing in things you can’t see. It’s more about doing things in the real world to better your community. Help your neighbor, visit the sick, leave the world better than you found it. These are the most important things. Believing in God, or even wondering whether he exists, is beside the point and probably not conducive to your own well-being. His name is “I become what I become”.

    For us we grew up with the idea that God had a wife, or maybe more than one wife, and that we had a Heavenly Mother. I guess Mormons aren’t supposed to pray to her, but it’s nice to know she’s there.

    For Jews there is only one God, but he isn’t limited to being masculine. He’s beyond the pale of our comprehension, and so we can approach Her as a feminine force also, and call her Goddess if we want. That’s not to say Goddess is a woman, only that she embodies everything we can possibly imagine, and more, so it’s acceptable to commune with the divine through whatever language the individual finds most appealing.

    I don’t know if this clarified or I just went off on a tangent. I’m sure I’m not qualified to lecture on comparative religion, and this response merely reflects my own personal understanding of the topic.

  4. Joseph says:

    If there is any tangent, I’m to blame, Gregoire. I do appreciate your clarifying Jewish beliefs about “God.” I certainly was not intending to explain current theology in the Jewish religion. I think my main point is there was a reason Pharaoh’s first-born died, and not Pharaoh himself, and it has to do with symbolism associated with goddess-worship. Anyway, the Jewish scholar Ralph Patai wrote a book called the Hebrew Goddess. It’s perhaps dated now, but I think still an important work on the subject. He doesn’t deal much with Passover, though. Interestingly enough, the Fall celebrations you mentioned (not so much Yom Kippur, but “Feast of the Booths”) are even more full of goddess symbols, but as you say, that’s for later.

    Forest, thanks for picking up on the Book of Mormon angle on this. I’m guessing you must have read Margaret Barker’s writings on this. Margaret Barker is actually not Mormon, but a Methodist Preacher, but has been willing to read the Book of Mormon and comment, especially on the chapter you mentioned. If you haven’t read her other works, I highly recommend them. I can share links if anyone is interested. She also wrote a great article for Ecology that discusses how the Book of Enoch directly condemns environmental destruction (I can dig up the citation on that if anyone cares). Anyway, I’m getting way off topic now.

    I guess to sum up I am interested in finding the divine feminine as well masculine in our religious traditions. We need both (and being a believing Mormon that means literally understanding that we are created in the image of Gods and Goddesses), and that’s why social justice is important, so keep up the great work Mormon Worker!

  5. Grégoire says:

    Joseph writes:

    Anyway, the Jewish scholar Ralph Patai wrote a book called the Hebrew Goddess. It’s perhaps dated now, but I think still an important work on the subject.

    Raphael Patai is never dated, dude. 🙂

    I have this one in my bookshelf at home:

    You might like it.

    Sorta funny. I’m actually at a sort of crisis these days. I’m in perfect health, but I just turned 39 and am starting to do the will thing. I and my wife are probably going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, and we’re buying the plots this year.

    Judaism (especially in my early 20s) gave me *everything* that Mormonism didn’t. Unconditional love, acceptance, total good-will, forgiveness for my inherent skepticism, tolerance of nutty communist idealism, great food, a community; yet when I think about leaving behind no mention of my Mormon beginnings, I feel nostalgic somehow.

    It’s sad in a way, but I suppose we can’t have everything. I can only hope that Mormonism will evolve similar alternative interpretations which will allow my descendants to revert if they want to. We (Mormons) have an exodus story worth telling and knowing too. We just have to figure out the narrative.

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