Exodus 12: Introduction of the Festival of Unleavened Bread

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The Lord continues his instructions to Moses and Aaron for their final meal in Egypt. He has already described the killing of the lambs and putting the blood on the doorposts of every Israelite household. The blood is a sign for the Lord to pass by that home. Passover is to be a springtime event, at the time of the vernal equinox, when the lambs are likely to be born. It is held during the night when families have fulfilled their daytime responsibilities and in the middle of the month when the moon is full. The entire lamb is to be eaten, with nothing saved for the priests. Indeed, the priests are not even involved since all is to be orchestrated by the heads of the households.

Now, the Lord adds: “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.” It is not entirely clear if this refers to Passover or provides the introduction to the Festival of Unleavened Bread. In either case, it effectively conjoins the two events. Scholars believe that the festival of unleavened bread already existed as a springtime celebration. That would have been the season for the barley festival. It is celebrated in the month of Abib, which means “fresh, young ears of barley.” As an agricultural festival, it could easily predate the Exodus. At the start of the harvest, the first sheaf would have been brought to the priest for ritual blessings and sacrifice. Then all the old leaven would have been tossed out in order to have a fresh start every year. The new dough takes about a week to ferment, meaning all the bread would have been unleavened during this period. Here, the entire festival is repurposed for this new occasion.

The Lord’s instructions continue: “For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel.” Seven days is a measure of completeness and a perfectly normal period of time for a holiday. On day one, all the leaven must be removed from every house. There are two words that refer to leaven. One is se’or; the other is hamets: se’or refers to the leaven itself, which is an old piece of dough that has been fermented; hamets refers to the new bread that would be mixed with some of the se’or. People would never eat the se’or, for it is sour and basically inedible. It seems that the old tradition involves throwing out the se’or, and starting over every year.

However, the Lord adds: anyone that eats anything with leaven in it will be “cut off” from Israel. Scholars have struggled to determine the reasoning behind this addition. Some have suggested that fermentation could be associated with uncleanness or decaying dough. Others say that doesn’t fit here, because there is no sense of pollution requiring reconciliation with the Lord. This is not a sacrificial offering. It is a hurried meal, and that is, undoubtedly, the key to understanding the directive. They are to commemorate this festival by reenacting it every year. If the bread is leavened, it removes the whole sense of urgency that is at the heart of this nighttime meal. The person eating leavened bread is lackadaisical, at ease with his surroundings. He has all the time in the world and is not participating in the danger and heightened anxiety that is part of this evening. Being “cut off” is a virtual death sentence in that they would be thrown out of the camp and required to live on their own. It will be much later in their writings before the Rabbis begin to discuss the notion of leaven in conjunction with corrupting behaviors.

The Lord continues, “On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat; that is all you may do.” The first and seventh days not only marked the beginning and the end of the festival, but they were also to be commemorated as days of religious observance. The first day would commence at sundown on the fourteenth day of the first month and end with sundown on the twenty-first day. No work was to be done on these days except food preparation.

“Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.” These events are not just for one evening. This night will be indelibly imprinted into their communal consciousness, and they are to tell the story to future generations for all time. In this way people will participate in the Exodus over and over. Each person is charged to remember how God has kept his promises and continues to keep his promises. As they celebrate the Passover, they will each celebrate coming out of Egypt. In order to stress this fact, many of the instructions are again repeated.

“In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And anyone, whether foreigner or native-born, who eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel.” This time around, the Lord clarifies that everyone is included, whether “foreigner or native-born.” While foreigners are not compelled to worship the Lord, they are expected to keep the law of the land, which now includes this festival. “Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.” These are, again, words for the ages. It is as binding for Jews living outside the middle east as it is for those in the midst of the Promised Land.

Then, Moses summons all the elders of Israel and says 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.” Another meaning for “basin” is “threshold,” which indicates the lambs might have been slaughtered right there. Hyssop was a small bushy plant, frequently used in purification rites. Its leaves were somewhat fuzzy or hairy allowing it to retain water/blood for the duration of the ceremony. It might have been marjoram or something related to the mint family. It was so hardy that it was known to grow out of walls. Here, it is to be dipped in the blood saved from the slaughter of the lambs, and brushed upon the top and sides of the doorposts. It’s always tempting to imagine the Israelites, as slaves, living in makeshift homes or tents. But here they are living in houses with doors, and it again appears as though they are living amongst the Egyptians. To that end, the Lord specifically warns them: “None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning.” This requirement is for this night only. It seems as though they would be in grave danger if they left their houses that night.

“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.” The idea of a “destroyer” is new to this story. It could be referring to night demons as an element in their culture. It could also refer to an understanding of angelology that includes their activity as messengers or, in this case, destroyers. Many scholars refer to it as the “Angel of Death.” Whatever it is, it acts in accordance with God’s directives.

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants.” This is now the third time the Lord has referred to this festival as a “lasing ordinance” (see Ex 12:14, 17, 24). The three-fold repetition highlights its importance. “When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” The idea is to not only include all of the children in this festival, but to also remind them of its meaning and purpose. Traditionally, the youngest child that is able to ask the questions does so. The answers identify the peculiarities and specialness of this Passover meal. This meal is not just a memory; it is a reenactment of that night. The tradition has continued for centuries. In this way, the Exodus has become one of the central tenets of Jewish worship. It is that time when God delivered them from enslavement, against all odds.

“Then the people bowed down and worshiped.” These words are identical to those found at 4:31 when Moses and Aaron first met with them and told them that the Lord had heard their cry. This provides a substantial inclusio (framework) for the whole plague narrative. It concludes by simply saying, “The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.”