22 April 2024

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

“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 this 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, ’cause there’s no temple in Jerusalem to ritually 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 even celebrate it Hebrew-style, as spelled out in the scriptures, as in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But more often, Christians do as Messianic Jews recommend—and Messianic Jews borrow their traditions less from the bible and more from the Conservative Judaism movement. (Which, contrary to their name, ain’t all that conservative.) Their haggadah—their order of service—is nearly always adapted from Orthodox or Conservative prayer books, which means it dates from the 10th century or later.

Yes, some Messianic Jewish customs come from the Mishna, so they do date back to the first century. Still, Mishnaic practices 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 customs, and various synagogues emphasize various things. Medieval Jewish communities in eastern Europe, north Africa, Spain, and the middle east, all came up with their individual haggadahs. (As did Samaritans.)

The point of the haggadah is to teach the Exodus story to children. And remember, Jesus’s students weren’t children. Teenagers certainly, but still legal adults who already knew the Exodus story: If they hadn’t heard it at home, Jesus would’ve taught it to them personally, and they’d have celebrated several Passovers together by the time of his last supper. So, just as some families don’t tell the nativity story every Christmas once the kids get older, don’t be surprised if Jesus skipped the haggadah’s customary Four Questions (what’s with the matzot, why are bitter herbs part of the meal, why roasted meat in particular, and why does the food gets dipped twice) as redundant.

Christians don’t always realize this. Nor do Messianic Jews. 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 the present-day customs. It’s pure coincidence his ministry “fulfilled” them. But y’know, not every Christian believes in coincidence.

Passover’s origins.

The bible’s second book, Exodus, tells us the Hebrew descendants of Israel ben Isaac 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: God “passed over” the Hebrews’ houses on his way to smite the Egyptians’ firstborn children. I know; that’s an extreme punishment. But thus far the Egyptians had resisted nine other dire warnings: Bloody water, frogs, lice, flies, livestock disease, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Their stubbornness meant things had to escalate.

Those two things hanging on the black inside of this clay oven (or tannúr) are bread. For Passover you just made ’em without yeast. Biblical Archaeology Society

Passover’s also called the Matzot Feast, or Feast of Unleavened Bread. Ex 23.15, Mk 14.1 Unleavened bread is of course מַצָּה/matzá, which in Yiddish became mátzo, so that’s what we call it in English. (Plural מַצּ֖וֹת/matzót, and you pronounce that final T, ’cause it’s Hebrew, not French.) I should warn you some companies make matzot with yeast, which is 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 in a clay oven much like you make naan, 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 Schocken Bible
1 YHWH said to Moshe and to Aharon in the land of Egypt, saying:
2 Let this month be for you the beginning of months,
the beginning-one let it be for you of the months of the year.
3 Speak to the entire community of Israel, saying:
On the tenth day of this month
they are to take them, each-man, a lamb, according to their Fathers’ House, a lamb per household.
4 Now if there be too few in the house for a lamb,
he is to take [it], he and his neighbor who is near his house, by the computation according to the [number of] persons;
each-man according to what he can eat you are to compute for the lamb.
5 A wholly-sound male, year-old lamb shall be yours; from the sheep and from the goats are you to take it.
6 It shall be for you in safekeeping, until the fourteenth day of this month,
and they are to slaughter it—the entire assembly of the community of Israel—between the setting-times.
7 They are to take some of the blood and put it onto the two posts and onto the lintel,
onto the houses in which they eat it.
8 And they are to eat the flesh on that night, roasted in fire,
and matzot;
with bitter-herbs they are to eat it.
9 Do not eat any of it raw, or boiled, boiled in water,
but rather roasted in fire, its head along with its legs, along with its innards.
10 You are not to leave any of it until morning;
what is left of it until morning, with fire you are to burn.
11 And thus you are to eat it:
your hips girded, your sandals on your feet, and your sticks in your hand.
And you are to eat it in trepidation—
it is a Passover-Meal to YHWH.
12 I will proceed through the land of Egypt on this night
and will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast,
while on all the gods of Egypt I will render judgment,
13 Now the blood will be a sign for you upon the houses where you are:
I will see the blood, and I will pass over you,
so that the blow will not become a bringer-of-ruin to you, when I strike down the land of Egypt.
14 Now this day shall be a reminder for you;
you are to celebrate it as a pilgrimage-celebration for YHWH;
throughout your generations, as a law for the ages you are to celebrate it!
15 For seven days, matzot you are to eat;
already on the first day you are to get rid of leaven from your houses,
for anyone who eats what is fermented—from the first day until the seventh day—: that person shall be cut off from Israel!
16 And on the first day, a proclamation of holiness,
and on the seventh day, a proclamation of holiness shall there be for you—
no kind of work is to be made on them;
only what belongs to every person to eat, that alone may be made-ready by you.
17 And keep the [Festival of] Matzot!>
For on this same day
I have brought out your forces from the land of Egypt.
Keep this day throughout your generations as a law for the ages.
18 In the first [month], on the fourteenth day of the month, at sunset, you are to eat matzot,
until the twenty-first day of the month, at sunset.
19 For seven days, no leaven is to be found in your houses,
for whoever eats what ferments, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel,
whether sojourner or native of the land.
20 Anything that ferments you are not to eat;
in all your settlements, you are to 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 Schocken Bible
3 Moshe said to the people:
Keep this day in mind,
on which you went out from Egypt, from a house of serfs,
for by strength of hand YHWH brought you out from here:
no fermentation is to be eaten.
4 Today you are going out, in the month of Ripe-Grain.
5 And it shall be,
when YHWH brings you to the land of the Canaanite,
of the Hittite, of the Amorite, of the Hivvite and of the Yevusite,
which he swore to your fathers to give you,
a land flowing with milk and honey,
you are to serve this service, in this month:
6 for seven days you are to eat matzot,
and on the seventh day is a pilgrimage-festival to YHWH.
7 Matzot are to be eaten for the seven days,
nothing fermented is to be seen with you; no leaven is to be seen with you, throughout all your territory.
9 And you are to tell your child on that day, saying:
It is because of what YHWH did for me, when I went out of Egypt.
9 It shall be for you for a sign on your hand and for a reminder between your eyes,
in order that YHWH’s Instruction may be in your mouth,
that by a strong hand did YHWH bring you out of Egypt.
10 You are to keep this law at its appointed-time from year-day to year-day!

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 getting killed. (Although as you know, some Christians like to nitpick, and insist Passover musta started on Thursday—contrary to 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: Passover was a celebration of how the LORD 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 Our 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.