This is the first in a three-part series on Passover. This first post gives a general overview of the Passover celebration. The second will provide a more detailed discussion of the Passover meal (Seder), and the third will set forth a theology of Passover.
Last evening (April 10th) at sunset, Jews around the world began celebrating the feast of Passover (Pesach), which commemorates their deliverance from bondage in Egypt to the freedom they would enjoy in their covenant relationship with God.
Passover is a springtime celebration—a time of new plantings and new beginnings. Passover and Israel’s exodus from Egypt marked a new beginning for Israel and served to illustrate God’s redemptive work. This is the event that the prophets and psalmists look back to and celebrate, even as followers of Jesus look back to and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and our deliverance from the bondage of sin to freedom in Christ.
The ten plagues were designed to introduce the pharaoh of Egypt to the God of Israel and show him why he should let Israel go (Exodus 5:2). The tenth plague was the death of the firstborn sons in Egypt. Even the firstborn among the sons of Israel fell under the death sentence. How would these Israelite sons be saved?
God instructed the Israelites to sacrifice a “small animal of the flock.” The Hebrew term used in Exodus 12:3 (seh) can refer to sheep or a goat, but the use of a lamb was eventually established by Jewish tradition. The blood of the animal was to be applied on the doorposts and lintels of the Israelite homes. By faith in God’s provision of a substitute, the firstborn among the Israelite sons were spared from death. God told the Israelites, “when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13).
To commemorate this miraculous deliverance, God instructed His people to celebrate the memorial feast of Passover as a “permanent ordinance” (Exodus 12:14). Although Passover was one of the Pilgrim feasts (Deuteronomy 16:16), it was observed in the home as a family ritual rather than in the temple or Synagogue.
The tractate Pesach in the Mishnah prescribes the preparations for Passover. A month before, bridges and roads would be repaired for pilgrims, tombs were whitewashed so that an unsuspecting traveler might not stumble upon one and become levitically unclean. Many pilgrims went to Jerusalem early “to purify themselves” (Jn. 11:55).
Four days before Passover lamb would be selected for sacrifice. The animal was to an unblemished yearling (Exodus 12:5). On the morning before the evening of Passover, Israelites were to stop eating leaven (hametz), and all leaven was to be burned by noon.
In the early afternoon, the Passover lamb was taken to the temple and slain by the individual Israelite. The blood would be blood collected by the priest and poured out at the base of the altar (Pesahim 5:6). During the sacrifices and the pouring out of blood, worshipers would sing the Hallel Psalms (113-118).
After nightfall the lamb was roasted on a spit with no bones being broken. The Passover supper was eaten at night in Jerusalem. It was generally a family meal with the father presiding.
The items on the Seder plate help tell the story of Israel’s Passover.
The Bible commands that the father tell his children on Passover evening the story of God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The term “Haggadah” refers to this telling. The traditional Jewish Haggadah is a booklet that tells the Bible story along with Rabbinical explanations, fables, legends, prayers, and songs. Ancient records suggest that the Hagaddah has not changed significantly since the New Testament period.
The “Hagaddah” refers to the book used during the Passover service. The term “Seder” refers to the ceremonial meal itself. Special “Seder plates” and “Seder cups” are used at the Passover meal.
The items on the Seder plate help tell the story of Israel’s Passover. The shank bone of a lamb (zeroa) serves as a reminder of the Passover lamb that took the place of the firstborn son. The bitter herbs (maror) and horseradish (hazrot) are reminiscent of the bitterness of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. The parsley (karpas) reminds us that the Passover took place in the spring of the year. The haroset (a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine) depicts the mortar the Israelites used in building for pharaoh. The significance of the hardboiled egg (betzah) on the Seder plate is debated. Some say it serves as a holiday offering. Others suggest that the egg was added during the Babylonian captivity and reflects the fertility of the goddess Ishtar (from which we get the term Easter).
Also on the Passover table were three pieces of Unleavened bread or matzah (Exodus 13:6-9), a cup of salt water representing the tears shed by the Israelites under Egyptian bondage and four cups of mixed wine.
While the first Passover was eaten in haste, with “loins girded, sandals on your feet, and staff in your hand” (Ex. 12:11), memorial Passovers did not require this. The Rabbis insisted that a portion of the meal was to be eaten in the recumbent position—reclining around the table—to reflect the fact that the Israelites have been delivered from bondage to freedom.
The Passover meal was a time of joyful celebration by people who had experienced the burdens of slavery but could now rejoice in freedom because of God’s provision of deliverance. Paul recognized the messianic and redemptive significance of Passover when he wrote, “For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).