Since the three main characters in Exodus (Pharaoh, Moses, and Yahweh) were identified in Exodus 1-3, the narrative has been focused on the struggle with Pharaoh. In an effort to make Pharaoh “let my people go,” God through Moses has been displaying his mighty power with nine plagues. Pharaoh has been stubborn, hardhearted, to the bitter end (11:9-10), which is about to come. But before God forces Pharaoh to free his “first born” by taking Pharaoh’s first born, we have this pause in the narrative where God ordains the Feast of the Passover before the actual Passover actually happens. Ritual interrupts narrative, a phenomenon about which I will comment later.
The significance of this annual feast and the event it celebrates is highlighted by the fact that God reorients Israel’s entire calendar around Passover. In the ancient Near East, all calendars were based on the cycle of nature, so that the new year began with the new season of growth in nature. Here God focuses Israel’s calendar not on nature or creation, but on grace or redemption.
Israel must count their days according to the mighty acts of God. The new year began in the month when God delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. To remind them that their new life began when God passed over them as he passed through Egypt, God gave them this Passover celebration in the first month of their new calendar. While Israel also celebrated the cycle of nature along with their pagan neighbors, God wanted to make sure they never forgot that they owed their lives to the redemptive action of their God.
Thus, God gave them these very detailed instructions for the Passover feast. They focused primarily, but not solely on a lamb. On the tenth day of that first month, the head of each family was to select a lamb (or goat, vs 5) from the family’s flock. It was essential that each family have access to a lamb, so if a family was too poor to spare a lamb, a neighboring family was to share their lamb with the poor. The family head was to consult with the family cooks to make sure that the lamb would provide enough meat for everyone in the family. The lamb must be a year old and totally perfect, with “no defect.” The selected lambs must be given special care until the fourteenth day of the first month.
Then, at twilight of that day, each lamb must be slaughtered. The blood had to be caught and then smeared on the sides and top of the doorframes of the homes where they ate the lamb. The consumption of that lamb had to follow strict guidelines. The same night the lambs were slaughtered the people were to eat the meat. The lamb had to be roasted whole, rather than butchered and boiled in water. The main course had to be accompanied with bitter herbs and bread made without yeast. Whatever was not consumed had to be burned to ashes before morning. And Israel was to eat this feast in a hurry, like they were late for a trip, which, of course, they were. They were to eat “with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the reasons for some of those directions. The focus on a lamb was a divine foreshadowing of the Lamb whose blood would take away the sins of the world. Thus, it must be without spot or blemish, absolute perfect. The lamb was roasted whole because that’s how wandering shepherds prepared their lambs out in the wild, where God’s wandering people would spend the next 40 years. The bitters herbs were a perpetual reminder of Israel’s bitter servitude in Egypt. The unleavened bread was a reminder of the haste with which Israel had to leave Egypt, after a 400 year wait and before Pharaoh changed his mind. The peculiar state of dress of the Israelites pointed in that same direction; remember how you had to flee for your life as fast as you could.
But the central meaning of the lamb and all the accompanying details is found in those last words of verse 11. “It is Yahweh’s Passover.” This feast and its annual celebration pointed to Yahweh and what he did that fateful night. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every first born—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am Yahweh.” That’s what this whole struggle with Pharaoh was about—who is God, who is sovereign, who controls the life of Israel? Is it the gods of Egypt who seem to have prevailed for over 400 years? Or is it Yahweh, who has systematically demonstrated his power over those gods in the Ten Plagues, ending with the ruination of the house of the god Pharaoh?
When Yahweh sets his people free, he gives Israel a sign to remind them for all time that he and he alone is their only Savior—that blood on their doorframes, the blood of the lamb that marks them as the saved. It was a sign for them and, apparently, a sign for God; “when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” All of the peculiar rules for the Passover feast were designed to remind Israel that Yahweh is their God and Savior who passed over them because of the blood of a lamb.
And, says verse 14, they are to celebrate this sacramental feast “for the generations to come,” so that the succeeding generations don’t forget their liberating God. Sadly, Israel did forget their God when they stopped celebrating Passover. That, in turn, led to the downfall and exile and new bondage of Israel.
Clearly, Passover is a uniquely Jewish feast, but it points to several Christian applications. First, this passage shows us the centrality of worship for the maintenance of an historical community, and it demonstrates the importance of doing worship in the right way. This festival for Israel was at the heart of the way they marked time, the way they identified themselves, and the way they related to God. So, it was important not only that they kept the festival, but also that they kept it properly. Every detail meant something.
We have seen the importance of corporate worship in this time of pandemic. We can get by with online worship for a time, but eventually the lack of face to face worship destroys the sense of continuity of our historical community. Voltaire spoke prophetically when he said, “If you want to destroy Christianity, you must abolish Sunday.”
As I pondered the detailed instructions for the celebration of the Passover feast, I wondered if there was any message in that for the way we worship today. Much of the church has embraced a casual, spontaneous, informal worship in the name of authenticity. That concern for heartfelt worship is laudable. It is, of course, very possible to dwell so much on rules and forms that worship is robbed of its heart. And it is possible that formal ritualistic worship can become a substitute for real life engagement in the great social issues of our day. Think of God’s harsh words through Isaiah about the kind of feasts and fasts that make God sick and angry, because his people don’t engage in care for the poor and oppressed.
But have we become slipshod in our efforts to be spontaneous? When Jesus said that we must worship “in spirit and in truth,” was he suggesting that “spiritual” worship must be shaped by the truth revealed in Scripture? That suggests to me that given the importance of worship/festival to our relationship with God, we ought to take great care with how we do it.
Second, I was intrigued by the way God rearranged the Jewish calendar so that the year began with Passover. God was saying, remember that your life began when I saved you from bondage. I am the source of your life. It might be helpful to challenge your congregation with questions like these. What is the source of your life? Your family, your culture, your heritage, your nation, your own choice, your own actions? Or ask it this way. When did your life begin? At birth, when you became an adult, when you married, when you got your dream job, when you came out? There is a society-wide tendency to think that we establish our life by the choices we make. You can be whoever you decide to be. Or are our lives established and grounded in God and what God has done for us? Passover points to the latter.
Third, the connection between Passover and the Lord’s Supper is very clear. It was no accident that Jesus established the Eucharist at the Passover feast. He was very deliberately saying that God was doing in him what God did in Egypt long ago. The New Testament calls Jesus the spotless Lamb of God whose blood marks us, sets us free, and cleanses us from all sin. Because of that blood, God passes over the new Israel when he passes through the world to destroy the gods who have enslaved so many.
The importance of ritual celebration in preserving the identity of an historical community is easy to illustrate. Think of the Fourth of July in the United States, or May Day in Communist Russia, or Cinco de Mayo in Mexico.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 6, 2020
Exodus 12:1-14 Commentary