Pesach or ‘The Passover’:
Pesach, usually called ‘The Passover‘ in English, is the greatest of the Jewish festivals, the holiday of the year and the oldest in the Jewish calendar. Like the Christian Easter, which partly originates from it, it varies in date from year to year, but occurs in spring and lasts for seven to eight days, about four of which are non-working days. Celebrated in the spring, at the full moon in the first month of the year, then Abib (April in modern calendars), the month of the green ears of corn, it contained the rite of the smearing of the blood of a lamb on the tent posts, probably designed to ward off demons of destruction or infertility. The festival probably dates back to the time when the Jews were wandering herders in the deserts of the Middle East, pitching their tents wherever they found grazing for their herds.
At the time when the young lambs were born, they observed a festival at which either a sheep or goat was sacrificed as a way of giving thanks; they gave up something which was valuable to them. The sacrifice was given at nightfall and the animal was roasted whole, in a nomadic fashion, and eaten hurriedly with desert food, unleavened bread seasoned with bitter herbs. No bones of the animal were broken, and no meat was left uneaten by daybreak. It was a family affair, not connected with the priests or a place of worship. The participants in the meal were ready to move at a moment’s notice to defend their flocks, belts fastened, sandals on their feet and staffs in hand. Passover was, initially at least, the festival of a pastoral community.
The Israelite Exile & Exodus Story:
As some groups of Hebrews became more settled and lived by farming the land, they developed their own traditions and festivals more closely related to growing crops. This took place before they harvested the barley and was called the ‘Feast of Unleavened Bread‘ referring to bread that had no yeast or ‘leavening’. At the beginning of the festival, all ‘sour doughs’ (used like yeast to leaven the bread), had to be destroyed to safeguard the produce of the year to come. Then the first sheaf of the newly-cut barley, the ‘omer‘ was presented to the priest as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. These people, of course, did not move from place to place like the shepherds, and therefore were able to build more permanent places of worship, often ‘high places’ on the hills. Even so, there were periods of poor harvests when the Hebrews found themselves dependent on the Egyptians for corn during the poorer years. All these characteristics of the two festivals, which eventually became one, are explicable without reference to the events of the exodus described in the Old Testament which gave Passover a new meaning.
In fact, the story of the Israelites’ exile in Egypt really begins with the story of Joseph (at the end of Genesis), the son of Jacob (Israel) who had been sold into slavery in Egypt and then rose to a position of high authority, describes how the Israelite family moved into Egypt to share the better harvests there. As they grew in numbers and social status, enjoying the privileges they had been granted, successive Pharaohs gradually became more resentful on behalf of their envious people, and the Hebrews found themselves reduced to abject slavery, longing to be free to reach the land flowing with milk and honey, promised to them by God. The Book of Exodus narrates how, under the leadership of Moses, the Hebrews achieved their freedom and escaped from Egypt, beginning with Yahweh’s terrible punishment of the Egyptians, and then set out to find their promised land.
The Passover Story:
The name of the festival, originally ‘Pesah‘ (Hebrew: pasah) uses a word of very uncertain meaning but one which is linked to the earliest ‘J’ source, with Yahweh‘s ‘passing over’ the blood-stained lintels of Hebrew homes while the destroying angel smote the firstborn children of Egypt (Ex. 12. 21-27). In the ‘P’ tradition of Ex. 12. 11, the fastened belt, sandalled feet and staff in hand are memorials of the haste with which the Hebrews left Egypt at God’s command. In Deut. 16. 3, the unleavened bread is called the ‘bread of affliction,’ again a memorial of the people’s flight in haste from Egyptian bondage. The date was also given a link to the exodus, for in the month of Abib, Yahweh your God brought you out of Egypt by night (Deut 16. 1; cf. Ex. 23. 14 ff.; 34.18).
Ever since that time, Jews have remembered and commemorated the night when they ate hurriedly, ready for the journey, and painted the doorposts of their houses with the blood of the lambs so that the plague of death would not touch the house. The two spring festivals became one historical festival symbolising and celebrating the struggle of the Jewish people toward national freedom. In the early days of Israel’s history, the festival was a festival of Pilgrimage when all who could, made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews became more widely dispersed around the Mediterranean world, the festival was divided into two parts, the ceremony in the local temple, or synagogue, and the observance of the ‘Seder‘ meal in each home. For this, the home is made spotlessly clean, and on the eve of Pesach (the Passover), all leavened bread is destroyed while the ‘matzoh’ or unleavened bread is prepared. Greetings are exchanged, the home is filled with light, and the table is set so that the whole family sits around it.
The various parts of the meal remind the Jews of the deliverance from the cruelty and enslavement in Egypt. At its commencement, the youngest son asks four traditional questions which his father answers fully. In this way, the younger generation is taught the Exodus stories. There are up to fourteen parts to the ceremonial of the Seder. It has given rise to inspired works of art in the making of the Seder dishes, Passover banners and matzoh covers. The meal also has special items. Four cups of wine are taken and there are cakes of bread, dishes of roasted egg, saltwater; perhaps symbolising the tears of the Hebrews in slavery, bitter herbs, and a sweet paste of almonds, apple and wine, said to represent the clay with which the Israelites were forced to make bricks when they were slaves. The last part of the Seder consists of prayers and songs, and a cup of wine is poured symbolically for Elijah when the door is opened so that he too may enter and drink.
The Last Supper and the Christian Festival:
It was probably at this meal, known to Christians as the Last Supper or the Lord’s Supper at which Jesus, as Paul describes, took the cup and the bread at one point and instituted for all his followers what became the central act of worship of their religion also called, variously, Holy Communion, the Eucharist or the Mass, depending on the different traditions to which they later came to belong. Maundy Thursday is named in the church’s calendar from the words of Jesus when at the Passover meal held with his disciples in the Upper Room of a house in Jerusalem, he said that he gave them a new commandment or mandate. He spoke the words as he proceeded to his act of humility and service, washing his disciples’ feet. The Latin words are, Mandatum novum da vobis; A new commandment I give you. From the word ‘mandatum’ came the word ‘maundy’ in Old English.
Pesach has a long history and in many countries, Easter (a name referring to the pagan goddess of spring, Eostre) is called Pasque (France) or Pasg (Welsh), following the Judeo-Christian tradition. In some parts of Britain ‘Pacé Egg Plays’ were performed on the following day in the Passover festival and beginning of the Hebrew Sabbath, Good Friday in the church’s calendar. Pacé was again derived from ‘Pasche’ or ‘Paschal’. The plays were thought to be based on a sixteenth-century story, The History of Seven Champions of Christendom.
The Exodus and the Hebrew Year:
The exodus from Egypt is central to the faith of the Old Testament. If there is one description of God that, above all others, is characteristic of the God of the Old Testament, it is this: I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. The prophets are the heralds of this God:
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt.(Amos 2. 10; cf. Jer. 2.6).
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of the land of Egypt I called my son.(Hos. 11. 1)
Psalmists praise this God:
Thy way was through the sea,
thy paths through the great waters,
yet thy footprints were unseen.
Thou didst lead thy people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron(Ps. 77. 19 f. ; cf. Pss. 66. 6; 78. 11 ff. ; 136. 10 f.).
When a son is asked by his father the meaning of the commandments binding on Israel, the father is instructed to reply:
We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, and Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and Yahweh showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household before our eyes…(Deut. 6. 21 f. ; cf. Ex. 20. 2; Deut. 5. 6).
The significance of the exodus for faith is unquestionable; what actually happened was probably sober enough. A group of Hebrew slaves under the leadership of Moses left Egypt. They safely negotiated a stretch of water called ‘the Sea of Reeds‘ (not the Red Sea). The location of the Sea of Reeds is uncertain; the likelihood is that it lay in the general region of what is now the Suez canal or perhaps further east along the Mediterranean coast at Lake Sirbonis. The earliest narrative strand ‘J’ speaks of a strong east wind blowing all night to push the water back (Ex. 14. 21-28). The pursuing Egyptian chariots stuck in the soft sand and were drowned by the returning water. Naturally, Egyptian records have nothing to say about what was at most, from their point of view, a minor frontier incident. In the Old Testament, however, this is never an escape bid engineered by Moses, but always a mighty act of God through which he delivered his people out of slavery. In what is probably the earliest OT witness account of these events, the triumphant Song of Miriam expresses the essence of what happened:
Sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously,
the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea.(Ex. 15. 21; cf. 15. 1)
This was Yahweh’s victory over his enemies, a victory on behalf of his oppressed people. That it was interpreted in this way from the beginning must be attributed to the prior revelation of God’s purposes given to Moses. The exodus is the heart of the Old Testament gospel, the good news of what God has done. Just as the memory of central events in the New Testament gospel was preserved in the worship of the early Christian communities, so the exodus was handed down in Israel in one great family religious festival, ‘Passover’. Alone among the festivals of the Hebrew religious year, Passover goes back beyond the time of the settlement in Canaan, in all probability before the exodus itself. But Passover is also an illustration of something that happened to most of the festivals of the Hebrew year. Besides the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Massoth) which became linked to Pesach, Qasir (Harvest) and Asiph (Ingathering) are native to the agricultural life of Canaan.
Whatever their origins, the Old Testament gives the festivals a historical and religious reference, and in most cases, that reference was to the exodus or to the events associated with it. Asiph, for example, is the great harvest thanksgiving festival. With the farmer’s work for the year successfully completed, the mood was one of unrestrained rejoicing. In Deut. 16. 13, however, this festival is called Sukkoth (Huts). The origin of these ‘huts‘ or ‘tabernacles‘ is disputed. Some find in it a reference to the sacred booth in which the marriage between the god and goddess of fertility was consummated. Others think that they are simply reminiscent of the temporary harvest tents which gave protection to farmworkers from the Palestinian sun. According to Lev. 23. 42 f. these huts or booths, however, had a totally different significance:
You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths that your generations may know that I made the people dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.
Patriarchs and People:
But although we may still think that the patriarchal stories preserve some kind of folk memory of earlier times, we cannot tell exactly how old they really are. Certainly, their names are not of a kind found later in Israel, suggesting that they do indeed genuinely originate from a time before that of the kings. But, in several cases, they are also unmistakably Egyptian. ‘Moses’ occurs as an element in well-known Egyptian names such as ‘Tut-Moses’ and Aaron and Phinehas, other characters in the exodus story, also bear Egyptian names. The exodus tradition also bears some kind of folk memory that the Israelite ancestors spent some time in Egypt, but these were not necessarily descendants of the same patriarchal group that had originally come to Canaan from Mesopotamia. Therefore, we may be dealing with two parallel memories, and it is not clear which resulting story is older than the other. There is one reference to ‘Israel’ on a stele (victory inscription) found in Thebes in 1896, belonging to the pharaoh Merneptah and dated to about 1215 BCE, which indicates that a people by that name was already in Palestine in the thirteenth century BCE, at that time under Egyptian rule. But we can learn nothing else about them, and Israel is never mentioned again in any ancient Egyptian texts.
If Meneptah‘s stele refers to a group that had settled under Moses’ successor Joshua, while the patriarchal stories concern people settling under the leaders called judges in the Bible, then the traditions in Exodus could actually be older than those in Genesis. The tribes ruled over by the judges bear the names of the twelve sons of Jacob, so the Genesis stories about these characters could easily reflect folk traditions from the judges’ period. This is, however, speculative and it is possible that the narrative sequence the Bible offers is correct. Unless some Israelites did genuinely owe their ancestry to people outside the Land of Canaan, it is hard to see why such traditions should have developed, for it was hardly advantageous in most ancient societies to present oneself as the child of immigrants. But the archaeological evidence, together with the biblical narratives and what is known of how folk memories are created, suggests that most later ‘Israelites‘ were, in fact, Canaanites, descendants of native inhabitants of the Land. The belief that all Israelites derived from those who had come out of Egypt with Moses was the belief of a few, but it was not internalised by the nation at large until later times. So all of Israel later celebrated the Passover Festival and rejoiced in the deliverance from Egypt that it commemorates, even though most were the offspring of people who had never been there. Nation-building, whether ancient or modern, often involves sharing with the multitudes folk memories that were experienced only by a few.
The Early Christian Writers & the Old Testament:
Some early Christian ‘churchmen’ saw no need for a New Testament so long as the Old can be read as describing the Christian faith so fully, and it is not surprising that the Gospels were not seen as Scriptures themselves. In the Easter Homily of Melito, the Bishop of Sardis (in what is now western Turkey), who died in 180 CE, states that the passage of Exodus that describes the Passover lamb is not meant to be read alongside the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper and the crucifixion, as prefiguring Christ: properly understood, it is already an account of the reliability of the New Testament, once read through properly enlightened (that is, Christian) eyes, is virtually is a New Testament already. When it is read in a church, it is a symbolic description of the passion of Jesus. The author of Melitho will almost certainly have known one of the Gospels. That is to say that he did not need to cite such texts as if they were scriptural, since for him the existing Scriptures, the Old Testament as we call them, were already to be read as essentially Christian works. Perhaps this helps to explain the strange phenomenon among some early Christian writers who accused the Jews of falsifying the Old Testament text by removing references to Christ, or the Messiah, and inserting misleading passages. They believed that Christians had the right, therefore, to correct the Old Testament in the light of the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In this way, the OT was seen as a complete and completely true revelation, not merely some preliminary disclosure, and a theory was developed that the ‘false passages’ that had been introduced into it needed to be removed or corrected.
The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael is a Jewish commentary on the second half of the book of Exodus, probably produced by synthesizing material from various dates, sometime in the second century CE. It is concerned primarily with how to observe the various pieces of legislation in Exodus, which from chapter twenty onwards consists of laws and precepts about life in society and the worship of the sanctuary. The Mekhilta is one of the oldest collections of rabbinic teaching in the form of scriptural commentary. A typical passage in it concerns the Jewish custom of the binding on the forehead and left arm a small scroll containing certain biblical texts, before beginning prayer. This is seen as enacting the instructions about keeping the Passover in Exodus 13: 6-9:
For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread… You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.” It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt.
The phrase a sign on your hand is understood as meant literally rather than metaphorically, and as referring to the left arm rather than the hand, for various reasons that the Mekhita spells out. To many modern readers, this interpretation seems extremely strange. In the first place, the text in Exodus 13: 9 is surely intended metaphorically; the remembrance of the exodus is to be as close to the Israelite as if it were written on his hand. Still, it is understandable that a physical expression of the command came to be customary.
Passover in the present – ‘the Season of Release’:
For Jews today, Passover remains essentially a family festival when the whole family comes together to remember, rejoice, and especially to hear again the wonderful story of their deliverance, and to look forward to the time when all over the world they will enjoy freedom once more. In Jewish tradition, the season is therefore known as ‘The Season of Release’. Its central theme is ‘release’ and this can be interpreted on three levels. Historically, Passover celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. On the annual seasonal level, it represents the release of the earth from the tight grip of winter, and on a personal and familial level, for each of those taking part, it symbolises his or her hope of release from the ‘bondage’ of wrongdoing.
John Barton (2019), A History of The Bible; The Book and its Faiths. London: Allen Lane (Penguin, Random House).
Martin Manser (1999), Bible Stories. Bath: Parragon.
Robert C Walton (ed., 1982), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.