TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

10 April 2017

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

And how Christians observe it. Or don’t. Or do, but medieval-style.

“Why don’t we celebrate Passover?” asked one of my students, when I once taught on the topic.

“We do,” I said. “Christians call it Pascha or Pascua or Páques. But in languages with a lot of German words mixed in, we call it Easter. And obviously we do it way different than you see in the bible.”

So different, English-speaking people routinely assume Easter and Passover are two entirely different holidays. I can’t argue with that assumption. Christians don’t bother to purge our homes of yeast or leavening. Don’t cook lamb; nor do we practice the modern Jewish custom of not having lamb, and emphasizing it ’cause there’s currently no temple to sacrifice a lamb in. Don’t put out the seder plate, don’t tell the Exodus story, don’t have the kids ask the Four Questions, don’t hide the afikomen and have the kids search for it. Although both holidays have eggs, and we do have the kids look for eggs.

Well, some Christians observe Passover as a separate holiday. Some of us do it Hebrew-style, as spelled out in the scriptures, in Exodus and Deuteronomy. More often it’s observed as practiced by Jews today.

The Messianic Jewish movement wants to emphasize the Jewish origins of Christianity. As they should. But many Messianic Jews aren’t all that solid on their history, and wind up teaching medieval rabbinic Judaism instead of the stuff Jesus and his first-century followers actually experienced. So when they observe Passover, their haggadah—the order of service—is nearly always adapted from Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. Which means it dates from the 10th century. Not the first.

Yes, some of its customs are in the Mishna, so they do date back to the first century. Still, these weren’t standard practices; not even in the 10th century. Just as Christians celebrate Christmas every which way, Jews then and now got to choose their own customs. Hence families have unique traditions, and various synagogues emphasize various things. Medieval Jewish communities in eastern Europe, north Africa, Spain, and the middle east, all individually came up with their own haggadahs. (As did the Samaritans.)

The point of the haggadah is to teach the Exodus story to the children. But remember, Jesus’s students weren’t children. Teenagers certainly, but still legal adults who knew the Exodus story. If they hadn’t heard it at home, Jesus would’ve taught it to them personally. So, just as some families don’t tell the nativity story every Christmas after the kids get older, don’t be surprised if Jesus skipped the haggadah’s customary Four Questions (why matzot, why bitter herbs, why roasted meat, and why the food gets dipped twice) as redundant.

Christians don’t always realize this. So whenever they attend a Passover seder, or ritual dinner, and hear whatever haggadah the leader came up with, they routinely think it’s so profound how Jesus “practiced” and “brought such meaning and fulfillment” to these customs. Even though it’s highly unlikely he practiced any of these customs. It’s pure coincidence his ministry “fulfilled” them. But y’know, not every Christian believes in coincidence.

Passover’s origins.

Exodus is about how the Hebrew descendants of Israel were enslaved by the Egyptians, and how the LORD miraculously and mightily rescued them from slavery. Passover memorializes the LORD’s last plague upon Egypt, which finally convinced their pharaoh to release the Hebrews: He “passed over” the Hebrews’ houses on his way to smite the Egyptians’ firstborn children. I know; that’s an extremely drastic punishment. But thus far the Egyptians had resisted bloody water, frogs, lice, flies, livestock disease, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Their stubbornness meant things had to escalate.

Passover’s also called the Matzot Feast, or Feast of Unleavened Bread. Ex 23.15, Mk 14.1 Unleavened bread is of course matzo (plural matzot; and you pronounce the final T, ’cause it’s Hebrew, not French). Well… most of the time. Apparently some companies make matzot with yeast. That’s why not all matzot is kosher for Passover. Today’s matzot tends to look like giant saltines, but in Moses’s and Jesus’s days it was simply flatbread, baked the same way as usual, but without yeast.

During the feast, the Hebrews were to purge all yeast, leavening, and fermenting agents from their houses. Ex 12.15 (Yep, that also means no beer for Passover.) Why? Probably to represent haste, much like cooking a lamb you hadn’t gutted properly. Which is also part of the LORD’s details on how to observe Passover:

Exodus 12.1-20 KWL
1 In Egypt’s territory, the LORD told Moses and Aaron to say,
2 “This is your main month, your first month of the year’s months.
3 Tell the whole Israeli assembly: On the 10th of this month,
every man pick yourself a sheep for your father’s house; one sheep per house.
4 If it’s too small a house for a sheep, take your neighbor’s house,
nearest in number of souls, in mouths to feed. Figure that for the lamb.
5 Pick yourselves a sound male lamb, born this year, from your sheep or goats.
6 Put it under your watch till the 14th of this month.
The whole Israeli assembly, together: Slaughter it between the evenings. 7 Take blood from it.
Put it on the two doorjambs, on the lintel, in the house where you eat it with one another.
8 Eat the meat this night, roasted over fire. Eat it with matzot and bitter herbs.
9 Don’t eat it raw, nor boiled in boiling water,
because its head, its legs, its innards must be roasted over fire.
10 Don’t have leftovers of it in the morning.
Burn the leftovers of it in the morning in the fire.
11 Eat it like this: Your waist belted, your sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand.
Eat it quickly. It’s the LORD’s Passover.
12 “I pass over Egypt’s territory that night.
I smite every birthright in Egypt’s territory, from Adam to the animals.
I enact my judgment upon all Egypt’s gods: I’m the LORD.
13 The blood on the houses where you are is your sign. I see the blood: I pass you over.
No smiting comes to destroy you when I smite Egypt’s territory.
14 This day is your memorial. Celebrate it as a feast to the LORD.
It’s an eternal doctrine for your generations. Celebrate it!
15 Eat matzot only seven days. On the first day stop using leaven in your houses.
If anyone eats leavening, get their souls out of Israel—whether the first or the seventh day.
16 The first day’s a holy assembly, and the seventh day’s a holy assembly.
Don’t do any work on them—other than what all souls need to eat. Only do that.
17 Watch the matzot. For on this day, in power, I brought your armies from Egypt’s territory.
Watch this day! It’s an eternal doctrine for your generations.
18 On the first month, the 14th day, at evening,
eat matzot till the 21st day of the month, at evening.
19 Seven days: No leaven is to be found in your houses.
If anyone eats leavening, get their soul out of Israel’s assembly, whether stranger or national.
20 Don’t eat any leavening in any of your dwellings.
Eat matzot.”

After that first Passover, after the LORD dealt with the Egyptians and the Hebrews were on their way out of Egypt, Moses added these instructions:

Exodus 13.3-10 KWL
3 Moses told the people, “Remember this day! You left Egypt, the slaves’ house!
You went out like this with the strength of the LORD’s hand! Don’t eat leavening!
4 The day you went out is in the month of Aviv.
5 Work this work in this month
once the LORD brings you to the land of Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites,
which he swore to your ancestors he’d give you—a land where milk and honey flow.
6 Eat matzot seven days. Feast to the LORD the seventh day.
7 Eat matzot seven days. Don’t even look at fermentation, at leavening in all your vicinity.
8 Proclaim it to your child on that day.
Say, ‘This action was done for me by the LORD when he took me from Egypt!’
9 It’s a sign on your hand for you. A memorial between your eyes.
It’s so the LORD’s Law would be in your mouth:
With a strong hand, the LORD took you from Egypt!
10 Keep this doctrine on its date in days to come.”

Passover thus became one of the three great festivals of Israel. Further commands were added about it: It had to be observed at temple, Dt 16.2, 5 and the firstfruit offering Lv 23.10-14 and other specific offerings Nu 28.16-24 became part of its observance. And of course the rabbis added the haggadah to ensure the children, like Moses said, were properly instructed as to why Passover is so important.

The last supper.

Yes, Jesus’s last supper was a Passover seder. Mk 14.14, Lk 22.15 In the year 33, Passover began on Sabbath/Saturday, Jn 19.14 but the Law permits a little wiggle room to do it the day before, when you started eating matzot. Dt 16.3 Jesus chose to eat the lamb that day, ’cause he knew he’d be busy, and the wording of the Law actually permits a little wiggle room to do so. (Although as you know, some Christians like to nitpick, and insist Passover had’t’ve therefore started on Thursday. But that’s not what the gospels describe.)

So Jesus’s students had to perform all the ritual sacrifices and offerings Thursday morning in preparation. Mk 14.15-16 Once sundown came—’cause the middle eastern day is figured evening to evening—they got the lamb killed, drained, shaved, and cooked, and Jesus and his students came and ate. Mk 14.17 So we know they had lamb, matzot, wine, and something to dip bread in. Jn 13.26 Which might’ve been a bitter herb sauce, but also could’ve just been oil. We aren’t told.

Christians tend to think of the last supper as a somber reflection of Jesus’s self-sacrifice. True, Jesus was a little agitated, and interrupted everyone else’s calm with it. Jn 13.21-22 But otherwise, the mood was just the opposite: This was a celebration of how the LORD had saved Israel. And now, through Jesus, he was gonna save ’em again—them, and the whole world.

Jesus added one feature to his seder, one we Christians now do all year round, and not just on Good Friday or Easter: Holy communion. Mk 14.22-24 That ritual meal is done in remembrance of Christ Jesus, and for many Christians it replaces the seder altogether.

Not that God’s deliverance of the Hebrews is irrelevant. Far from it! But for gentiles (Egyptian Christians in particular, y’know), the Exodus isn’t our story. It’s not about our salvation. It’s about the Hebrews’ salvation from Egypt. It provides us a significant historical context for what Paul and the apostles had in mind when they later wrote in their letters about the salvation Jesus brings us. It definitely explains the Lamb of God idea, where Jesus takes away the world’s sin. Jn 1.29 You wanna understand salvation, election, and covenants better, read Exodus.

But again: Christians have largely replaced Hebrew-style Passover with Easter and communion. So unless we’re of Jewish descent (or unless we’re legalists), we don’t bother with seders. Go ahead and check out a seder sometime; it’s interesting. But not mandatory for Christians, ’cause we celebrate Passover our own way.