What did Passover mean in its original context (Exodus 12-13)?
What’s the message of the Passover story? What comes to mind for you? Do you picture a lamb being sacrificed for the people of God to be forgiven their sins?
Would it surprise you to know the Book of Exodus never says anything like that? We can’t understand what Scripture says if we smuggle in assumptions about sacrificial theology that aren’t there.
This matters because Passover is so significant. Even today, it’s still one of the most significant weeks in the Jewish calendar, celebrating the birth of their nation. More than 3,200 years ago, God released them from serving Pharaoh, to be something new and privileged: a nation directly serving the divine sovereign, a kingdom of God.
So what does Exodus say?
The plagues probably lasted for months, wearing down the hard-hearted king of Egypt. Now their new sovereign called his people to start the party (ḥǎḡ = feast, festival), a party to celebrate their liberation into his kingship. This regal celebration demanded top quality food. You couldn’t offer your king a defective animal you wanted to be rid of; you needed to bring a tender yearling, suitable for roasting. Offering a goat for the party was fine (12:5).
God has already “made a distinction” between his people and Pharaoh’s (9:4, 11:7). Now he called the Hebrews to self-identify as his. To publicly declare themselves as the people of YHWH, he asked them to take some of the blood of the celebration lamb and paint it on the entry to their home. They can’t just feast in his honour behind closed doors.
This is quite a subversive act. It could be scary to publicly identify with YHWH’s kingship rather than the ruler of this world. But not identifying as YHWH’s people would be even scarier: when the plague passed through the land that night, those who did not recognize his kingship were not under his protection.
I wonder if Jesus thought of his own kingship in similar terms (e.g. Matthew 10:32-33).
Blood on the doorway served as a sign (ʾôṯ, 12:13). It was a visible marker that these people belonged to YHWH, that they expected him to rescue them from oppressive human reign into his kingship. Remember the mark God placed on Cain to protect him from the avenger of blood? It’s the same word (Genesis 4:15).
Originally it was on the doorposts and lintel of their house (12:7), but this marker (ʾôṯ) was transferred onto the people themselves: on their hands and forehead (13:9). There’s no such thing as a secret servant of the true King: his people are publicly marked. Even as evil continued its dominance in the world, God’s people are marked as his in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 9:4-6) and the New (Revelation 7:3-4, contrast 13:16-17).
After waiting so long, the release from oppression arrived so quickly that the Hebrews could not wait for bread to rise for the special celebration meal. On this night they baked unyeasted bread, so they could leave in haste (12:8-11, 33-34). The suddenness of God’s overpowering of evil is so significant that Passover is sometimes called the Festival of Unleavened Bread (e.g. 12:17; 23:15; 34:18).
That tradition lives on today. In the week before Passover, Jewish families clear all the rising agents (leaven) out of their house. The man searches his house, knowing his wife may have intentionally left some for him to find, so his search is thorough. In Jewish thought, leaven has often served as a metaphor for impurities that ought to be removed from communal life (compare 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). But the unleavened bread is also associated with the expectation that YHWH’s kingship can arrive suddenly, as he breaks the power of evil.
Passover celebrates the central message of the Bible. Pharaoh had held God’s people under oppression under the threat of death (as in 1:15-22). On this night, God broke the reign of terror. Death passed over them. They were released to serve the heavenly sovereign instead of the earthly king.
That’s why Jesus chose Passover Festival to communicate what he was doing. He timed his final confrontation with the Jewish leaders for Passover week. He entered Jerusalem intending to confront the powers that held God’s people in their grip. He faced the final plague — death itself, the power tyrants use when they refuse to release their grip. And when Jesus defeated death, he brought humanity with him, leading the captives free.
Passover is the Bible’s theme and hope. It celebrates the exodus from the reign of evil, to be the kingdom of God.
Open Exodus 12–13.
What others are saying
N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion (SPCK, 2017), 181:
The entire Passover context made sense of the entire event that Jesus envisaged as he went up to Jerusalem for that final visit. Passover said, “Freedom—now!” and “Kingdom—now!”
- When Egypt lost its heirs (Ex 11–12)
- The king in the cloud (Ex 13:17-22)
- “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” (Ex 14:13-15)
- My blood of the covenant (Mt 26:28)
Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia
View all posts by Allen Browne
Used with permission of the author, Allen Browne.