In Exodus Chapter 12, we come to the Passover. The Passover is still a major Jewish holiday. In fact, you may observe it or know someone who observes Passover every spring. If you’re not Jewish, my guess is that you might not know much about the Passover, except that around Easter, grocery stores advertise specials on matzo and lamb.
Passover is surprisingly relevant to our understanding of Jesus. Jesus’s death and resurrection took place during Passover and early Christians used Passover as the central metaphor for understanding his life, teaching, death and resurrection. Familiarizing ourselves with the Passover story in Exodus offers another chance for us to add dimension to our understanding of Jesus.
Setting the Scene for the First Passover
Moses delivers God’s command to Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Pharaoh responds by doubling down on the oppression. The first nine plagues sent by God fail to change Pharaoh’s mind. Then God says to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely.” (Exodus 11:1) This sets up the crucial moment when God liberates his people from Egypt.
So Moses said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal.’ Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” (Exodus 11:4-7)
Next, the Lord gives Moses a set of instructions for the Israelites to prepare them for a quick exit from Egypt. These preparations mainly have to do with the last meal the Israelites will eat before they leave the land of their enslavement. It seems a little strange that God would put so much emphasis on the preparation and eating of the Israelite’s final supper in Egypt, but it makes sense when you consider that God is setting up the meal as a ritual to be recreated yearly by later generations of Israelites. (Exodus 12:17) More importantly, God is putting in place a symbolic event that would foreshadow the work of Jesus.
The Lord’s instructions put special emphasis on two parts of the meal: the lamb and the bread. In preparation for the Exodus, the Lord tells Moses that on the tenth day of the month, every Hebrew household is to take a one-year-old male lamb without any blemish and keep it until twilight of the fourteenth day of the month, at which time they are to kill it. If there aren’t enough people in the house to eat a whole lamb, they are to share the lamb with another household. It is important for them not to have meat left over after the Passover meal.
It goes without saying that the first Passover was a radical event. In the midst of issuing a warning about his judgment on the Egyptians, the Lord gives his people instructions on how to survive the night in Egypt. The lamb isn’t just to provide a quick bite of dinner on the way out the door; it provides the Israelites with a protective mark, a sign to show they are the people of God. In Exodus 12:7, God instructs the Israelites to take the lamb’s blood and smear it on their door frames to mark them as distinct from the Egyptians.
Does it seem odd that you would gather with your family every year to celebrate the killing of a lamb and the smearing of its blood in order to have the wrath of God pass over you? Actually, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine. We call it Easter. In fact, early Christians commonly connected the death of Jesus, who was called the Lamb of God, with the Passover.
The second key element of the Israelite’s last supper in Egypt is the bread. The Passover is the first day of a longer celebration that God is instituting called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Notice again that while God is giving the Israelites instructions on their preparation to leave Egypt, he is also giving directions on how to remember and re-create the Passover meal for future generations. Each element in the celebration serves a symbolic purpose. Exodus 12:15 lays out the requirements for baking and eating the bread:
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.
For emphasis, the rules for preparing and eating bread during are repeated in verses 17-20.
“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. 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. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.” (Exodus 12:17-20)
In between these two lists of regulations about the bread, God issued another command that no work be done during the festival. (Exodus 12:16). I don’t know about you, but a seven-day rest period sounds really good. God also mandated a special time of worship on the first and last days of the festival for all the people. The only work permitted was the preparation of food.
Why all this talk about the unleavened bread? It was to facilitate the Israelites’ quick exit from Egypt. If you’ve ever wondered why some churches today serve flavorless crackers or cardboard-like wafers that melt on your tongue, it goes back to Exodus and this passages describing how the Israelites needed to be ready to hit the road. They couldn’t take the time to let their bread rise.
For Now and Later
So this section of Exodus is about now and later. The Israelites are to follow the Instructions that Moses has laid out while they are in Egypt as the angel of death literally passes over their homes, and later as they remember the Exodus.
“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. 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.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. (Exodus 12:24-29)
God is setting up this holiday because he knows that getting the people out of slavery in Egypt is going to be a core memory that has to be rehearsed in order for ancient Israel to have an identity. In the years, decades and even centuries to come you continually see this reminder from the Lord: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt. Even when future generations of Israelites who never lived in Egypt are thinking, “That was like 500 years ago. I was born right over there,” it doesn’t matter. God is going to continue to say, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt because there’s a community identity, and the identity of the Nation of Israel is we were delivered from the hands of the Egyptians, and it was our God who delivered us from slavery.
Identity and Purpose
And God knows that they have to continue to rehearse that memory year after year for over a thousand years, because if the Nation of Israel loses sight of that identity they lose their purpose. If you read further in the Old Testament you see that’s exactly what happens. They lose their purpose. They lose their way because they forget.
I’ve been walking with the Lord long enough now that I’ve watched believers drop like flies. When circumstances of life come at you, it is so easy to forget. When you’re a mom and you can’t even get a moment to breathe, because your life is being poured into your children who demand constant attention, how do you take a slice out of life to even be able to pause and remember just for a few minutes? It becomes incredibly difficult and everything in our lives is screaming at us to distract us, to keep us remembering who we are in Christ and what God has done in our lives.
We need the rehearsal of those stories, we need those moments in our lives where we pause just to remember that God has done amazing things for us. That’s a necessary part of the Christian life. For all of us there will come times, whether is a dark time or more often it’s a distracted time, when we begin to lose sight of what God is doing in our lives. We have to build in rhythms that allow us to remember. God knows this and this is why he institutes the Passover for his people.