In God’s covenant with Israel in the Torah, he provided the people with liberation, societal structure, laws and a calendar, all for the ordering of their new lives of freedom. In this calendar, God designated three major feasts: Passover, Weeks and Booths. While all three have instructions for celebration, Passover (פֶּסַח) receives the largest and most detailed treatment. Passover’s importance appears immediately God’s arrangement of their new calendar around it, “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you,” and the language designating its repeated observance, “you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance.” Unlike the other two feasts, God included a prohibition against anyone outside of the covenant community celebrating it, “This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it. . . A sojourner or a hired servant shall not eat of it.” These items provide sacramental status to Passover. “These sacramental signs served as covenantal markers to define the people of God, remind them of their relationship to him and each other, and focus them on their duty to live as a peculiar people among the nations.”
Appreciating Passover as sacrament helps us understand the instructions for its celebration. As a means of grace given by God for the communication of his love, Passover connects the people to God via the tangible. As a sacrament, the instructions for its observance would be known theologically as Words of Institution. These Words explain the meaning of the rite, the way God acts in it for the people, and instructions for repeated observance. For Passover, Exodus 12:12-17 contains these words. Furthermore, because Jesus forever united Passover to his passion, death and resurrection in the Eucharist, a proper understanding of the later Eucharistic Words of Institution begins not in the Gospels, but in Exodus 12. As Pitre writes, “If we are going to be able to see Jesus’ actions through ancient Jewish eyes, we first need to study the meaning of the Passover itself, both in Jewish Scripture and in Jewish tradition.”
Exodus 12:12-17 is the center of the longer discussion of Passover. What Exodus 12 describes is Israel’s memorialization of their redemption by God, with specific attention God’s actions in the tenth plague, the slaying of the firstborn. Also, it provides the foundational commands for its continued ritualistic memorial. The received text of Exodus 12 provides the context for understanding the feast.
Thus, with this background in mind, we move toward the specific group of verses for study. I’ve provided them with my new translations.
For on that night, I will pass through (from one side to the other) the land of Egypt, and I will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human and animal, and on all the gods of Egypt, I will execute judgment. For, I am The Lord.
This verse contains the one of Passover’s key themes for study: judgment. Here, the writer links the killing of the firstborn to God executing judgment, specifically judgment on Egypt’s gods. Pictured here, as the climax in this battle to redeem Israel from Egypt, is the idea that God asserts his supremacy. While the ultimate outcome is Israel’s freedom, the objective seems the vindication of God himself. In this assertion, God states his divine name, as if his own character is the reason for this enterprise. God now reveals himself to the world through his action of deliverance. Through the plagues, God brings judgment on Egypt’s pantheon of gods, and specifically on Pharaoh, who is god on earth, punishing him for his brutality of God’s people.
And the blood on the houses where you are will be a sign for you. For I will see the blood, and I will pass by (spare) you, and there will not be any plague to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This verse details the purpose and meaning of the blood which God instructed the Hebrews to put on the lintels and doorposts of their houses. The blood will be a sign. This word, usually translated “sign,” carries multiple meanings: “mark,” “token” or “signal” in the secular sense, and “miracle,” “omen” or “reminder” in the religious. In this verse, all the meanings may mingle, especially because it is paired with the application of blood and sacrifice. Nahum Sarna uses sacramental language as he comments, “the blood was simply to function as an outward, visible sign . . . an identity symbol; the entrance to the house with such a symbol is now a portal of freedom.” The blood (and the sacrificial lamb) served as the mechanism by which God would spare or pass by the house. Because of the blood on the door, the plague of death will not come to the house.
Thus it will be a day for you to remember, and you shall celebrate it as a festival to The Lord for your generations; you will keep it as a perpetual statute.
With verse 14, the context shifts from the first Passover to instructions for the nation to observe a yearly festival devoted to the remembrance of God’s actions on their behalf that day. Passover is a feast of remembrance. Sarna writes, “The Hebrew stem of z-k-r connotes much more than the recall of things past. It means, rather, to be mindful, to pay heed, signifying a sharp focusing of attention upon someone or something. It embraces concern and involvement as is active not passive, so that it eventuates into action.” Here, God’s instructions for future observance have a particular participatory feel. The celebrant becomes not only a part of the later festival, but somehow also invested in the action the festival memorializes. The traditional text of the Haggadah of Passover describes it well, “In every generation each individual is bound to regard himself as if he personally had gone forth from Egypt.” Thus, each person through history has a connection to every generation before and after, i.e., “for your generations.”
Seven days, you will eat only matzoth (unleavened bread). On the first day, you will remove leaven from your houses; indeed, you shall exclude from Israel anyone eating khametz (leavening) from the first day until the seventh day.
Here begins the detailed information about the use of unleavened bread in the observance of the festivals. While the bread appears in the detailed observance of the first Passover (vs. 8), the commands for the perpetual observance contain specific prohibitions against eating anything leavened for the length of the holiday. Coupled with verse 17, “observe and keep the matzoth” these strict rules about leaven add an authoritative atmosphere to celebration. What is it about using unleavened bread that requires such regulation? Khametz carries a meaning of fermentation and leavening. Sarna explains the significance:
Because the prohibition on leaven has wider application than that of the Passover, it is likely that the process of fermentation was associated with decomposition and putrefaction, and so it became emblematic of corruption. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to associate such a symbol with a sacrificial ritual whose function was to effect conciliation between man and God and to raise man to a higher level of spirituality. In other words, leavening implies sin. To remove leavening from the house during the feast could be understood as a command to holiness, a practical reminder of the later commands in the Levitical Laws.
The first day shall be a holy assembly, and the seventh day shall be a holy assembly. You will do no work on those days. Indeed, you will only make that (food) which everyone will eat (for that day).
What does it mean to be an Israelite? Those who mark themselves according to the covenant claim that status. In the previous argument that Passover carried sacramental status, we noted that a sacrament defines and separates a group that observes it. This verse connects these words in Exodus 12 with specific language in Leviticus 23:4-7. There, the writer focuses on the distinction of Israel from the rest of the world: holiness. This word appears eleven times in chapter 23 and 69 times in the entire book, the most in any book of the Hebrew Scriptures: sanctification matters. To make this sanctification a reality, God commands no work be done except that which is necessary to eat. Only Sabbath and Yom Kippur have more stringent laws about work. For a culture enslaved for over 400 years, the idea of days of rest is very foreign. God forges something dramatically new in the life of a people newly liberated.
Thus, you will observe and keep the matzoth; for indeed, in that very day, I brought your multitudes forth from the land of Egypt, and you will guard the very day permanently, forever.
This final verse forms a neat closure to the discussion, providing the full rationale for the observance of the festivals. The key word in this verse, the verb, translated here as “observe and keep,” has a very active meaning. Strong’s defines it “to hedge about (as with thorns)” Similar uses appear all over the Torah regarding keeping of all the ordinances, and regulations of the Mosaic Law. God is insistent that Israel keep this festival to remember it.
So what? Why does this matter to Christians and their observance of the Lord’s Supper. We’re not Jews after all. Not so fast. There are three themes for study: perpetual remembrance, sacrifice and judgment.
“Thus it will be a day for you to remember, and you shall celebrate it . . . for your generations; you will keep it as a perpetual statute . . . you will guard the very day permanently, forever.” Verses 14 & 17 indicate that the Israelites should keep Passover in perpetuity to remember the miraculous redemption from Egypt. God wants to guarantee that Israel forever understands the remarkable way he redeemed them. Jesus and the disciples participated in this event at the Last Supper. Jesus took the full measure of meaning found in the Exodus, connected it to his passion, and spoke these words, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me. This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” Here appears, the fusion of Passover language with the words of institution for the Eucharist. Christ commands the disciples to forever connect the memorial of the redemption of Exodus with the memorial of the redemption of Calvary. To “observe and keep the matzoth,” now reaches fullest expression in the breaking of the bread of the Eucharist. Paul’s language in Corinthians completes the full range of meaning when he comments, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
God’s interest in connecting the perpetual memorial of the Exodus with the perpetual memorial of the Passion necessitates celebrating the Eucharist properly fusing both. It seems that Christians, gentile or Jew, should also celebrate Passover, in a fashion that memorializes the Exodus in the context of its fulfillment in Christ. In fact, the earliest Christians understood the feast this way. “The celebration of began life as the Christian version of the Passover, observed on the same day as its Jewish antecedent and focused upon Christ as the paschal lamb who had been sacrificed for the sins of the world . . . set within the context of the whole of the Christ-event, from his birth to his expected second coming.”
Passover is about sacrifice. The lamb, sacrificed, eaten with blood smeared becomes the vehicle through which the Israelites receive redemption. Through the ritual, God wants his people to tangibly unite themselves to his actions on their behalf. This gives wider meaning to Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 5, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival,” as well as his words in chapter 10, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Passover is a festival about redemption through sacrifice and blood. The Eucharist’s enactment should focus on Christ’s atonement through blood in light of God’s miraculous rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt.
Passover is also celebration, a joyous festival! While solemnity certainly has its place (Ex. 12:16), God has redeemed with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Celebration of the Eucharist should not be overloaded with heavy penitential attitudes, but instead be a joyous occasion because God has overthrown and judged the evil of the world in Christ. God’s character means that he cares about oppression, evil and false gods: “on all the gods of Egypt, I will execute judgment. For, I am The Lord.” Passover displays in vivid clarity that God will be supreme. Christ displays this as vividly as the Exodus, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” This is the classic Christus Victor view of Jesus’ atonement.
Therefore, to celebrate the Eucharist in light of the Passover, imbues it with a sense that Christ has conquered all the evil and false gods (Jn. 12:31). Furthermore, the Eucharist must envision eschatological hope, so that when the Passover yearns for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the Eucharist answers with, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” In this way Exodus 12:17, “on this day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt,” becomes the fulfillment, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”
Exodus 12:12-17 provides not only a vision of God’s work to redeem Israel, but a foundation for how Christians should see the ultimate redemption in Jesus Christ. For Christians to “unite themselves to God’s redemptive history, and consequently to the nation of Israel,” they should understand the roots of the sacrament given to them, and how to celebrate it in a way that honors the fullness of redemption in the Jewish Messiah given as the Passover Lamb that takes away the sins of the world. The words of institution of the Passover provide the basis necessary to celebrate the richness of the Eucharist. To understand the character of God in the redemption of Christ, one should begin with the character of God in the redemption of the Exodus.
2 Kgs. 23:21-27/2 Chr. 35, Passover was restored under Josiah, where the chronicler wrote, “None of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as was kept by Josiah” (ESV). In 2 Chr. 30 Hezekiah celebrated Passover as a two week festival to emphasize its importance in Israel.
For a detailed treatment of how Old Covenant ceremony constitutes Old Covenant sacrament, see Matthew Sichel, “Sacraments Reimagined: Fulfillment, Continuity and the New Israel,” Evangelical Journal 34, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 1-17.
Paul F. Bradshaw, “Easter in Christian Tradition,” in Two Liturgical Traditions, ed. Paul F. Bradshaw, vol. 5, Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 1.