The Passover

Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral: 2 April 2017

Liturgy precedes the liberative event” says Terence Fretheim of this chapter.

The Book of Exodus is in the process of telling the exciting story of how God forced the hand of Pharaoh to let his people go, when all of a sudden the story is put on hold and details are given of how Israel is to celebrate its freedom from slavery.

Yes, there are still story elements relating to the first Passover – but there are also instructions on how the Passover is to be celebrated in the future. If the truth be told, Exodus 12.1-20 is something of a ‘mish-mash’. Indeed, the ‘mish-mash’ is compounded, since Exodus 12.1-14 seems to be concerned with the institution of the Passover Festival, while Exodus 12.15-20 seems to be concerned with the institution of the Festival of Unleavened Bread – some scholars suggest that we have here a bringing together of two festivals which were originally separate. The ‘mish-mash’ is further compounded in so far as Exodus 12 is almost certainly a conflation of two or more ancient sources.

This morning, however, our interest is not in the origins of the text, but rather in the text itself and how it has impacted itself on the people of God down through the centuries.

What do we learn here about the Passover, Israel’s most important festival?

1. The Passover is about new beginnings

V2: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you”.

In ancient Israel the year was held to begin in the autumn – but the Passover is a spring festival, celebrated in the month of Abib, which later became known by its Babylonian name, Nisan. Here the Lord tells Moses and Aaron to rip up the calendar – and let the year begin with Passover. With Passover a new era of salvation begins. It is a time or new beginnings, in the sense that it marks the beginning of the Jewish’ people’s identity.

For reasons which are not clear to me, later Israel went back to the old calendar – so that today the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is in the autumn – in 2017 it begins on the evening of Sept 20 and traditionally makes the creation of Adam & Eve: according to the Jewish way of reckoning time, we are living not in 2017 AD but in 5777.

As Christians we do not celebrate the Passover – or at least not the Jewish Passover. But we do celebrate the new era of salvation brought in by Jesus. In the words of Apostle Paul: “Our paschal lamb, Christ has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival” (1 Cor 5.7,8). For us too Good Friday marks a new beginning.

2. The Passover is a family festival

V3: “Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one: the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it

Like Thanksgiving in the USA and Christmas in the UK, the Passover is a family occasion. At one stage in the history of Israel there was an attempt to link the Passover with the Temple – but with the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the Passover became a family occasion again.

When we talk of it as a family festival, like most Christmas dinners, it is a festival for the extended family. In later Judaism it was laid down that there should be at least ten adults present for a Passover festival.

Jews don’t have to have a rabbi or priest present to celebrate the Passover – instead proceedings are in the hands of ‘the head of the household’. So even today, after the serving of the bitter herbs, the youngest person present asks: “Why is this night different from other nights? For on all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, but on this night only unleavened bread. On all other nights we eat any kind of herbs, but on this night only bitter herbs. On all other nights we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, but on this night only roasted”. This forms the cue for the head of the family to say: “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26.5), and beginning with Abraham he tells the story down to the deliverance of the Passover

Even today, although many Jewish children go to the synagogue to learn Hebrew, the home is the primary place for religious instruction. Would that for Christians the home were still the primary place for religious instruction: all too often this task is delegated to the church.

3. The Passover is about a lamb

V5: “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats”. “Without blemish”; i.e. with no disease. GNB “without any defects! “A healthy male” (The Message); a perfect specimen.

V7: The lamb was to be slaughtered “at twilight”. There is a good deal of scholarly controversy about this phrase – literally ‘between the evenings. REB: “between dusk and dark”. In Jesus’ time lambs were normally killed between three & five (Ellison)

V 8: “They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat”. Why? I like the suggestion that this symbolised that they belonged to God. Excavations at the Egyptian archaeological site Amarna have revealed that around that time aristocrats advertised their ownership of their houses by having their names painted in brightly coloured hieroglyphs on the doorposts and lintels of their houses. A clear sign that the were not Egyptians

V13: “When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt”. As Christians immediately our minds into ‘Jesus-mode’. We think of the words of John the Baptist: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29). Or we think of the words of Peter: “You were ransomed… with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Pet 1.18, 19).

But the parallels with Jesus are not as close as we might think. Here in Exodus 12 the Passover lamb is not a lamb of sacrifice. The blood of the lamb wards off death (it is ‘apotropaic’ – a Greek words meaning ‘to turn away’). It is not redemptive – it does not atone for the sins of humans. It becomes the means of Israel’s freedom, but no sacrifice takes place. Yes, we can say that we in turn have been ‘marked’ by Christ’s blood, and that he protects us from death – but that is not really a NT parallel.

4. The Passover is about a meal

V8: “They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat is roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs”. From the very beginning the Passover was about Jews eating together. The meal consisted of three elements:

  1. A whole roasted lamb. Precisely why the lamb had to be roasted rather than boiled, I am not sure. To my surprise I discovered that lamb does not always feature on the menu at modern-day Passover celebrations: but nonetheless the lamb is not forgotten – for on the table there is the bone of a shank of lamb.
  2. Unleavened bread – pita bread. Today Jews use Matzos (from the Hebrew massot). Why unleavened? “Because you came out of the land of Egypt in great haste” (Deut 16.3). This unleavened bread called “the bread of affliction” (Duet 16.3)
  1. Bitter herbs – according to one commentator (Hyatt) they were “probably originally the wild desert plants which the nomads would pick to season the meat. The Mishnah lists five herbs that may be eaten to fulfil this obligation: lettuce, chicory, pepperwort, snakeroot and dandelion”. Modern Jews use horseradish. These herbs traditionally representing the bitterness of Egyptian slavery when the Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour” (Ex 1.14).

I find interesting that in the Book of Exodus there is no mention of wine being drunk at the Passover meal. By contrast the Passover today involves a series of four cups of wine – but there is no mention of that here in Exodus 12. However in v14 the Israelites are told to “celebrate this day”

The Lord’s Supper is also about a meal. Indeed, the very term translated ‘supper’ is better translated as ‘dinner’ – deipnon was the main meal of the day. It was within the context of a meal that Jesus took bread and wine and said ‘This is my body” ; “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”. The first Christians continued to break bread and pour wine within the context of a meal – it was only because of abuse that the Lord’s Supper ceased to be a proper meal: see the “shameful carousings” (Jude 12 GNB).

5. The Passover is about God at work

V11c: “It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night and I will strike down every firstborn in Egypt… on all the gods of Egypt I will exercise judgments”. This is the only time that Exodus mentions the Egyptian gods. Otherwise it is a conflict between the God of Israel and Pharaoh. But Pharaoh undoubtedly had his gods, and before Israel’s God they were powerless.

It is the Passover of the Lord. The Hebrew for ‘Passover’ is pesach, from which the English word ‘paschal’ has been derived (through Greek). See 1 Cor 5.7 where Jesus is described as the ‘paschal’ lamb. The exact etymology of the word translated ‘Passover’ is disputed, and all kinds of weird and wonderful theories have been propounded. Whatever the origin of the term, pesach is related to the Hebrew pasach ‘to pass over”, and it is that term which is used in our English translations. Passover is when God passes over and saves the Israelites’ first-born.

6. The Passover is about remembering

V14: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you”. The Message: “A memorial day”

Remembering is more than having memories of a long-past event

  • George Knight: “To ‘remember’ here is to throw a bridge back over the centuries, and so to join up the past with the present. Traffic can then pass in both directions”
  • John Goldingay: “Passover is not just an event from a nation’s past in the way that King Arthur or William the Conqueror might be for me. It is the event from the past that shapes the present for the Jewish people”
  • Terence Fretheim: The Jewish liturgy for Passover (Passover Haggadah) stresses that worshippers in every celebration are actual participants in God’s saving deed: God brought us out of Egypt.

When Jews remember, they do so in such a way that the past becomes the present. I shall never forget visiting a synagogue where a young rabbi began to speak about the holocaust –and as he began to speak about the terrible suffering inflicted by Hitler upon the Jews, he did so as he was there. So at the Passover. The Rabbis used to say: “In every generation a man must so regard himself as he came forth from Egypt… You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came up out of Egypt”.

Remembering brings the past into the present. What is true of the Passover, is true too of the Lord’s Supper. In the words of one NT scholar (Ralph Martin) “’In remembrance of me’ is no bare historical reflection upon the Cross, but a recalling of the crucified & living Christ in such a way that He is present in all the fulness & reality of his saving power”. In the words of one of the old hymns found in the communion section of the book we find the lines: “Here O my Lord, I see you face to face; here faith can touch and handle things unseen; here I will grasp with firmer hand your grace, and all my helplessness upon you lean”. Down through the centuries there has been much debate about the so-called real presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine. As Protestants we do not believe in the RC doctrine of ‘trans-substantiation’ – but this does not mean that Jesus is not really present with us.

6. The Passover is an ordinance

V17: “You shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance” (see also v24). GNB “You must celebrate this day as a religious festival… celebrate it for all time to come”. REB: “Generation after generation you are to observe it as a statue for all time to come”.

It’s a strange term, ‘ordinance’. Within the context of Christian worship it refers to something which has been ‘ordained’ or ‘commanded’. In the 17th and 18th centuries Nonconformists used the word to describe a wide variety of worship practices given us by God, which could include the reading and preaching of the Scriptures, the singing of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’, as also the offering of prayer to God.

However, gradually the term ‘ordinance’ was narrowed down and came to apply to baptism and the Lord’s Supper alone – it was a reminder that these two rites were ‘commanded’ by the Lord (see Matt 28.19; 1 Cor 11.24,25).

As far as the Jews were concerned, the Passover was an annual festival.

By contrast at the Cathedral for most of us the Eucharist is a weekly celebration

But did our Lord, when he commanded us to ‘remember him’, have a weekly festival in mind? In some Presbyterian churches communion used to take place four times a year – in some Southern Baptist churches communion takes place once a year. Before the 19th century Oxford Movement communion in some Anglican churches could be quite infrequent too.

The Scriptures are not as clear as we would like them to be: Luke tells us in Acts 20.7: “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding discussions with them…” Was this the custom at Troas? Was it a more widespread custom? 1 Cor 11.20 may well suggest that at Corinth the Lord’s Supper was a weekly observance: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper”


  1. For Jews the home is the primary place for religious instruction. For Christians this task is often delegated to the church. What practical steps can we take this Easter to help our children/grand-children to understand the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus?
  2. For the first Christians the Eucharist was primarily a meal: the Lord’s Supper is more accurately translated as ‘the Lord’s Dinner’. Today the Eucharist can scarcely satisfy a starling. Have we over-individualised this sacrament?
  3. Remembering brings the past into the present: how does this affect your experience of the Eucharist today? To what extent do you identify with the words of an old communion hymn: Here O my Lord, I see you face to face; here faith can touch and handle things unseen; here I will grasp with firmer hand your grace, and all my helplessness upon you lean”. Is Jesus really present for you?
  4. For Jews the Passover is an annual festival. For us the Eucharist is often a weekly celebration. But did Jesus, when he commanded us to ‘remember him’, have a weekly festival in mind? Is there a place for non-eucharistic Sunday worship?

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