Exodus 12: Introduction of Passover

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Negotiations have ended. A new phase begins. Following the Lord’s dramatic pronouncement about the death of the firstborn, the story slows down for the institution of the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Scholars argue whether this is something completely new, or if it simply instilled new meaning into an existing festival in honor of the spring new moon. There is nothing in the text to suggest the Egyptians have previously allowed the Israelites to go off to commemorate festivals, so any such tradition would most likely have preceded their time in Egypt.

Nonetheless, the majority of scholars favor the idea that this is something new. It is fitting that as the Israelites begin a new life, they are given new traditions, liturgy, and rituals to sustain them – and a whole new calendar. So it is that the Lord says to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” The month is named Abib; scholars think it means “young head of grain.” Later it will become known as Nisan. It is roughly March or April. So while Passover is a spring festival, it is also the beginning of a new year. It will be forever rooted in God’s saving acts. (Currently, the Jewish new year begins in autumn. Though scholars are unclear exactly how the transition was made, it is believed the spring new year lasted well into the Babylonian captivity. Yet, by the time of the second temple period, the autumn date had taken precedence.)

God continues: “Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household.” Just as the death of the firstborn will strike every family, so here, every family is to participate in this collective action. Big and small, old and young are acting as one unit, solidifying this community. It is true that oftentimes words like “congregation or community” refer only to the male members, but the use of “family” suggests that all participated, regardless of age or gender. Obviously, any and all non-Israelites (slaves, foreigners) would be excluded, as would be any Israelites who chose not to participate.

It is unknown whether there is significance in waiting for ten days. The idea is that this whole lamb will be totally consumed. So if “any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are.” Later, it will be decided that ten are required for a whole lamb. Tonight, however, the father is “to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.”

Of course, there are instructions about the lamb. The word is actually generic and can mean “head of any small stock.” Hence, they can be taken “from the sheep or the goats.” They must be “year-old males without defect;” unblemished animals are required for sacrificing as they represent perfection of the species. Only the best is offered to the Lord. It is standard to use males for sacrifices, leaving the females for future reproductive purposes. The Israelites are to care for these animals for “four days,” then “all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.” “Twilight” really means “between the two evenings.” Scholars don’t all agree on the time involved. Late afternoon or early evening are options, but some think it means between sunset and the onset of darkness. There are several thoughts involving the four-day delay. One has to do with observing the lambs to make sure they are without defect and that they have no opportunity to render themselves unclean. Others think the four days allows the Israelites time to reflect on the significance of these events. Still others think it nicely coincides with the middle of the month when the moon would be full, thereby providing plenty of light for the late night activities.

“Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.” It is noteworthy that the father of each family is to do this. No priests are involved. And, this tells us that they are settled, living in houses. It also suggests they are interspersed throughout Egypt. If they had all been confined to Goshen, the Lord could just have stayed out of that area. That same night “they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.” That this lamb is to be eaten indicates that it is not a sin offering, or any other form of sin sacrifice. Indeed, the roasting would burn off any remaining fat or blood, both of which are unclean to Israelites.

The “bitter herbs” could have been lettuce, endive, chicory, or anything else that tasted bitter. If there is a reason they are included, it might be a reminder of the bitter times in Egypt. “Bread made without yeast” is matsah, the same bread Lot hastily made for his unexpected guests (see Genesis 19:3). It is flat bread made with unleavened flour and water, used by nomadic people everywhere, and typically the bread used in sacrifice. Its use signifies the hastiness with which this meal is put together. The instructions are very specific: “Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire -- with the head, legs and internal organs.” These relate to very archaic eating practices. Oftentimes, meat is cut into pieces before cooking, but here it is to remain whole, intact. Some scholars say this is a reminder of the unity that binds the community.

“Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it.” Burning the leftovers highlights the sacredness of the meal, thereby preventing it from becoming common food. The idea, however, is to have as little leftover as possible. “This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt (which is what people would do when they wanted to walk quickly), your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.” In other words, before they begin to eat, they should all be fully dressed and ready to go for the call to leave might come at any minute. This, again, may be more symbolic than actual. It does take some time to roast a whole lamb, and there will, essentially, be no movement until morning, as evidenced by having to burn any leftover meat.

This sacred meal is called “the Lord’s Passover.” The word for “Passover” is pesah, with no further explanation, leading scholars to believe the word is already well-known. In other biblical verses, it means “lame or limping.” Akkadian sources use it in the sense of “appeasing,” leading some to think the blood on the doorposts is, indeed, an appeasement to the Lord. Initially, its meaning was “to protect, to have compassion.” It wasn’t until the time of the Vulgate (ca 1600s) that “to pass over” became the dominant definition. Here, Passover relates to the events that are happening on this particular night.

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” Lest there be any doubt about the true nature of this contest, it is between the Lord and the Egyptian gods. One assumes the Egyptians will invoke their gods to pray for their firstborn sons only to realize just how powerless they are in light of the Lord’s decree.

“I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.” This is a divine promise. It should be noted that this sign is “for you.” In reality, the Lord doesn’t need the sign, but the people do. The people who daubed their houses realize their uniqueness. There is nothing magical about the blood other than it serves as the sign for the Lord to pass over and protect that house. The blood, itself, offers no protection. It is simply a sign, and the Lord will pass over. Given that the lambs have just been slaughtered, the blood is readily available for use and provides striking coloring.

Beyond such practical considerations, however, “blood” has been infused with the notions of life and vitality. It is the life of creation. Over and over, the plagues have been presented as the undoing of creation, the orderliness of creation devolving into chaos. That the blood provides protection for the inhabitants inside the house is not to be denied. Some have, therefore, suggested that the blood of the lamb has a substitutionary significance, in that Israel’s firstborn are saved by the death of the lamb. That theological perspective might have evolved over time, but for this night, the blood allows the Lord to keep his promise to protect them. And lastly, marking with blood is a stark reminder of all the blood shed by the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians.

As a reminder, the Lord continues: “No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” Some scholars have tried to determine whether a specific plague could have accounted for this scenario. Among them is the suggestion that the rotting fish, frogs, fleas, and flies, etc, released mycotoxins or fungi into the air. This landed on and poisoned the grain. The firstborn would have been the first to pick/eat the grain, and thusly, became ill and died. Needless to say, many questions are raised about such a theory. It helps to remember that all firstborn males were affected, from the cattle to the lowliest slave to the Pharaoh’s own. One explanation does not fit all. Furthermore, such attempts to provide natural causes miss the point, which is the divine hand at work in these supernatural events.

Another common question is why did all the firstborn have to die when Pharaoh has been the obstinate one? It helps to know that the Ancient Near East, including Egypt, governed according to the rule of primogeniture, the first born. The firstborn is imbued with power and authority, simply by virtue of being born. Killing the firstborn attacks their entire culture. Eldest sons ruled younger sons. Younger sons could dominate servants or slaves. Needless to say, the Israelites were the lowest class, which might offer another explanation why the Egyptians were so loathe to let them go. And, ironically, the lowest class provides the foundation upon which the whole nation rests. The death of the firstborn, then, is not only the precipitating factor in having Pharaoh cast out the Israelites, but it also opens up the Egyptian society to new possibilities and new-found freedoms.