The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Passover (Part 1)

This is the beginning of a regular, periodic series, focusing on the major Festivals of ancient Israel, as attested in the Old Testament Scriptures, and subsequently in Jewish practice. I will be relying primarily on the Scriptural sources, with an emphasis on how the Festival traditions and customs influenced early Christian thought and practice. These studies will correspond, generally if not strictly, with the traditional dating and chronology for each festival during the year. We begin with the festival known as Passover—Hebrew js^P# (Pesaµ), Greek Pa/sxa (Páscha).

Passover—Part 1:
Ancient Origins and Old Testament Background


The traditional term “pasch(al)” comes from the Greek transliteration (pa/sxa, páscha) of the Hebrew noun js^P# (pesaµ), while our English “passover” stems from the customary assumed meaning of the root jsp I in Hebrew (“to pass over”). Unfortunately verb forms of jsp I are extremely rare in the Old Testament, with only four occurrences, three of which are in Exodus 12 (cf. below), and those may represent an attempt to explain the meaning of js^P# in terms of the historical tradition of the Exodus. The other occurrence is in Isaiah 31:5. There is a separate root (jsp II) which apparently means something like “limp, hobble” (cf. 2 Sam 4:4; 5:6; 1 Kings 18:16, 21, and the derived adjective j^s@P! “lame”).

Some commentators believe that jsp I more properly denotes protection (i.e. “guard, protect”) which certainly would fit the context in Exodus 12, as well as the reference in Isa 31:5. The core Exodus tradition indicates that js^P# signifies a specific kind of sacrificial/ritual offering, and could relate to the Akkadian pašâ—u, meaning something like “soothe, appease”, such as of the deity in a ritual context; and, indeed, there are scholars who would explain Hebrew js^P# on this basis. The Hebrew noun itself is used exclusively for the “Passover” festival—or, specifically, to the sacrificial offering of the festival.

The Exodus Narrative and Tradition

Our understanding of the origins and background of the js^P# festival stem almost entirely from the ancient historical-religious tradition(s) in the book of Exodus (chapters 12-13). This, of course, refers to the traditions regarding the “Exodus” of the people of Israel from Egypt, made possible through the miraculous “plagues” that struck the land of Egypt (chaps. 7-12). The last of these plagues took place on the evening of the “first Passover”, the night-vigil of the Exodus.

The narrative in Exodus 12 is typical of the way that traditional narrative and religious law/custom are blended together throughout the Pentateuch, but especially in the book of Exodus. While this is part of the sheer beauty and power of the book, it also creates difficulties for commentators who approach the narrative from an historical-critical perspective—exploring both the historical background and historicity of the narrative. In terms of the Passover/js^P#-tradition itself, there are three aspects which have to be considered:

    • The ancient background of the festival, which may pre-date the Exodus tradition
    • The context of the historical tradition of the Exodus, and
    • The parameters of the festival as it would be understood and practiced subsequently by Israelites
The Initial Reference in Exodus 12:11

The festival is established and outlined in vv. 1-11, at the conclusion of which is the following declaration:

“It is a js^P# to/for YHWH”
(v. 11b, cf. also vv. 27, 48, Lev 23:5, etc)

By all accounts this is an extremely ancient formula, however one evaluates the narrative otherwise from an historical-critical standpoint. This wording suggests that js^P# represents a kind of sacrificial/ritual offering. Apparently it is a familiar term, requiring no explanation; however, it is not immediately clear whether this familiarity should be understood (a) from the standpoint of (later) readers, or (b) in terms of the underlying historical tradition. If the latter (b), then it would mean that Israelites at the time of the Exodus would be familiar with the word and its usage. Let us consider this possibility.

A Pre-Exodus Festival?

A number of critical commentators have posited the theory that the Passover/js^P# reflected a pastoral religious tradition already in existence among Israelites (and/or other Semitic peoples) by the mid/late-2nd millennium (i.e. by the 13th century B.C.). This would conform with other aspects of ancient Israelite religion, whereby current/existing forms and customs were adapted—and re-interpreted—to be given a new and deeper meaning, specific to the religious experience of Israel. For example, the basic design of the Temple/Tabernacle was hardly unique or original, but tended to follow a pattern already in existence in Canaanite Temples, and nomadic Tent-shrines, etc. The same can be said with regard to many aspects of the sacrificial ritual, and other areas of Israelite religion. The uniqueness was not in the specific form, as much as it was of special (revelatory) meaning it had for Israel as the covenant people of YHWH.

The same may have been true of the js^P# offering. It may have originated as a pastoral/nomadic custom—an offering from the flock/herd, possibly intended to ensure God’s protection for the tribe. The communal-meal aspect of the offering could well have been part of the basic rite. According to this theory, Exodus 12:1-11 takes an existing rite, and applies it specifically to the context of the Exodus setting. This is a js^P# offering to God, but one with very special meaning and significance, since it marks YHWH’s protection over Israel and His deliverance of them from bondage in Egypt.

The Traditions in Exodus 12-13

By all accounts, Exodus 12-13 represents a complex blending of historical and religious traditions. The historical Exodus-setting of the Passover rite is, of course, foremost in view; and yet this narrative also serves as the framework for what we would call Torah—that is, instruction on important matters related to the religious and cultural life of the Community. As noted above, the guidelines for performing the Passover festival are given primarily in 12:1-11. The basic details are well-known, and may be summarized as follows:

    • The Passover is to take place in the month of Abib (Nisan, March-April), which becomes the first month of the Israelite calendar (v. 1; cf. 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; Deut 16:8)
    • Each household (ty]B^) selects a lamb (from the sheep or goats) for the Passover meal (vv. 3-5); the lamb is to be a male in its first year, and must be “complete” (<ym!T*)—an adjective with ritual significance, as it refers to the physical wholeness/perfection that is required for sacrificial offerings (Lev 1:3; 3:1; 22:19ff; Deut 15:21, etc).
    • The lamb is selected on the 10th of the month, and kept (vb rm^v*) until the 14th, when it is to be slaughtered “between the two settings (of the sun)” (<y]B*r=u^h* /yB@), a phrase taken to denote the time between noon and sunset—i.e., in the afternoon/evening (vv. 36). According to the Mishnah (Pesaµim 5:5), the slaughtering was done in groups of thirty or more, a number that might cover more than one household.
    • In each house where the meal is eaten, blood from the slaughtered animal is put upon the doorposts and crosspiece (lintel), v. 7. This implies the removal of the animal’s blood before it is eaten, an essential religious and societal requirement for Israel (Gen 9:4; Exod 29:12, etc).
    • The meat (“flesh,” rc*B*) is to be eaten that same night, roasted in fire, and served with toXm^ and “bitter herbs” (<yr!r)m=), i.e., herbs with a sharp/pungent flavor used for seasoning (v. 8). The word hX*m^ is introduced and used here without any explanation, and we may assume that, like js^P# itself (cf. above), hX*m^ was a familiar term even at the time of the Exodus. The context indicates that it refers to flat bread-cakes made without leavening (cf. below), though the relation of the word to the presumed root Jx^m* (“drain [out]”) is not entirely clear.
    • The whole animal is to be roasted, and whatever of it that is not eaten must be burnt up in the fire that night, with nothing remaining of it into morning (vv. 9-10).
    • The instructions regarding how one is to be dressed when eating (v. 11) clearly is meant to symbolize and commemorate the historical circumstances of the Exodus. The historical tradition is particularly emphasized in vv. 12-13; on the central declaration in v. 11b, cf. the discussion above.

More detailed instructions follow in vv. 14-27, beginning with the statement in v. 14, which clearly has future generations of Israelites in mind:

“And this day shall be to you for a memorial (/ork=z]), and you shall celebrate it (as) a festival (gj^) to YHWH…”

Verses 15-20 establish the connection between the Passover festival and the seven-day festival of toXm^ (‘Unleavened Bread’); cf. also in 13:3-16. It is likely that this originally involved two separate celebrations, and the festivals remained distinct throughout Israelite history, even though they were inseparably joined from the earliest time, due to the historical Exodus-tradition. During the seven days (15th-21th of the month), there should be no leavened dough (lit. sourdough, Jm@j*) present in Israelite houses; the leavening agent itself is called roac= (13:7; Deut 16:4, etc), the etymology of which remains uncertain.

Specific ritual instructions for the js^P# (Passover) festival then follow in vv. 21-27, describing: (1) how the blood is to be applied to the doorframe, and the ritual symbolism involved (vv. 22-24); and (2) application of the symbolism within the Passover meal-service in the house (vv. 25-27). The latter includes the famous instruction which forms the basis of the liturgy (Passover Haggadah) that would develop:

“And, it shall be that, (when) your sons should say to you, ‘What (does) this service (mean) for you?’ even (so) you shall say: ‘It (is the) slaughtering [jb^z#, i.e. sacrifice] of (the) passover [js^P#] to YHWH, who passed over [lu^ js^P*] (the) houses of (the) sons of Yisrael in Egypt, in His striking (the) Egyptians; and (indeed) our houses He snatched (out of danger).'” (v. 26f)

Further instructions on the Passover are found in vv. 43-49, following the statement in v. 42, declaring the Passover evening as a night-vigil commemorating the historical tradition of the Exodus.

In Part 2 of this article, we will survey other Old Testament references to the Passover (and toXm^ festival), with some consideration given to how it developed in Israelite/Jewish thought and practice. This will be important for an understanding of how the festival—and its ritual symbolism—influenced early Christianity. The importance of the Passover in the Gospel tradition, with its specific connection to the Passion (and death) of Jesus Christ, is currently being featured in a set of studies in the series “The Passion Narrative” (Episode 2). See also the note on the chronological issues involved with the Passover association in the Gospel narrative(s).

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