Sacred rituals are crucial for shaping God’s people to embody God’s character and to serve as a witness to the world. Our Scripture lesson focuses on the Passover festival as described in the book of Deuteronomy. The power of the Passover is found in its ability to ground the community in past as a means to living faithfully in the present and preparing for the future.
1 Observe the month of Abib and celebrate the Passover of the LORD your God, because in the month of Abib he brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 Sacrifice as the Passover to the LORD your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his Name. 3 Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste-so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt. 4 Let no yeast be found in your possession in all your land for seven days. Do not let any of the meat you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain until morning.
5 You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the LORD your God gives you 6 except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name. There you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening, when the sun goes down, on the anniversary of your departure from Egypt. 7 Roast it and eat it at the place the LORD your God will choose. Then in the morning return to your tents. 8 For six days eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day hold an assembly to the LORD your God and do no work.
Our Scripture lessons falls within a larger segment (16:1-17), which includes instructions for three annual, national festivals: Passover or Unleavened Bread (vv. 1-8), Feast of Weeks (vv. 9-12), and the Feast of the Tabernacles (vv. 13-17). These three festivals are related to the agricultural cycle of the year. But most importantly, these represent three opportunities to connect the passing of time with the saving work of the LORD. Instead of the annual events of agricultural life being viewed as an endless cycle, these festivals root Israel’s life in the land with God’s missional plans for creation and remind God’s people of the formative events that gave them life.
Verse 1 provides the time and rationale for the celebration of the Passover. Passover is celebrated in the month of Abib. Abib is the first month in the year for the ancient Israelites. This is significant because it declares that Israel’s life together is established by the actions that Passover celebrates. Passover is the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt. As we have seen this quarter, the Exodus was the foundational event for God’s people in the Old Testament. The Exodus was so crucial for the self-understanding of God’s people that its celebration falls at the beginning of the year. In the United States, we celebrate our Independence as a secular nation on July 4 at midyear. The celebration of Israel’s deliverance was so foundational that Israel structured the very manner that it kept time around its salvation from Egypt.
Passover is fundamentally the time when the people of God remember their deliverance from Egypt. They remember and celebrate the salvation of God. The language in v. 1 is intentional: the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night. Israel exists by the grace and power of the LORD.
The first Passover is narrated in the book of Exodus (12:1-13:16). These verses alternate between instructions for celebrating the Passover with the actual story of God’s climatic act in delivering Israel from Egypt. The Passover represented the tenth sign that God performed against Egypt to secure the release of God’s people from unjust servitude to Pharaoh and his people. In the original Passover, each Israelite family was to gather in its home. They were to slaughter and roast a one-year old male lamb. They were to take some of the lamb’s blood and mark the top and sides of the door in the place where they would eat the Passover meal. Moreover, they were to eat the meal in haste with unleavened bread and while fully clothed. They needed to be prepared to leave Egypt at a moment’s notice. During the evening at midnight as God’s people ate the Passover meal, the LORD struck down the firstborn of Egypt. The name Passover alludes to God’s passing over or by the homes of the Israelites, which were marked with blood. Only those firstborn in homes left unmarked were targeted for death. This terrifying act of judgment against Egypt served as the climactic action that won Israel’s release from Egypt. Pharaoh summoned Moses in the middle of the night and released God’s people for immediate departure.
The celebration of Passover serves to recreate the original event to unite present and future generations of God’s people to their reason for being: the Exodus from Egypt. The analogous ritual in the Christian church is the LORD’s Supper. This ritual calls to mind the sacrificial death of Jesus as the foundation for our life with God. It is a call to center our lives on the cross of Jesus.
Verses 2-8 offer specific instructions on the proper way to celebrate the feast of the Passover. Verse 2 focuses on the sacrifice. In Exodus, a one year old male goat was the expected sacrifice. Deuteronomy is not as specific and opens up the possibility of using an animal from the flock or herd.
The key statements in verse 2 focus on the subject of the sacrifice and the proper place for the Passover celebration. The Passover sacrifice is for the LORD. Passover is fundamentally about and for God. It is a community celebration by the people but its focus is God and specifically God’s salvation and creation of the people of God. Deuteronomy also prescribes a centralized celebration of Passover. The Passover is to be held at the place that the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his name. In Exodus, the Passover meal was held in the homes of individual Israelite families (Exod 12:1-11). Deuteronomy envisions a shift for the Passover celebration once Israel gains entrance into the Promised Land. All Israel will gather at the central sanctuary and celebrate together. Deuteronomy is not referring to any particular geographical location at this point. In Exodus 25-31 and 35-40, the LORD provided instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was a portable tent shrine that accompanied Israel during its movements to the Promised Land. Once in Canaan, the Tabernacle continued to move to different locations among God’s people (2 Sam 7:6) until coming to rest in Jerusalem during the reign of David. When Solomon completed the LORD’s temple (1 Kings 8), the Tabernacle was incorporated in the Temple itself.
The only reference to Passover after Joshua 5:10-11 occurs during the time of Josiah (late 7th century B.C.) in 2 Kings 23:21-23. By this time, the central sanctuary was well-established as the temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was also the site of the Passover during the time of Jesus (Luke 2:41).
The Passover meal was a reenactment of the original meal. As such, it involved multi-sensory elements. One of the principal acts of Passover was the avoidance of yeast-based products. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with yeast, but God’s people were to avoid it for one reasonâ€”Passover is about readiness. People who eat leavened bread have time to wait for the dough to rise before baking it. God’s people had no such luxury on the night that the LORD delivered Israel from Egypt. On that night, God’s people had to eat their food hastily. This meant that there was no time for fluffy leavened bread or any other food that required yeast for its cooking process.
The annual feast expanded the use of unleavened bread for a full week. This served as a reminder for God’s people of the preparation and waiting for God’s decisive acts of salvation. The week also provided a time for intensive reflection and teaching on the meaning of the LORD’s Passover. In our study last week on Deuteronomy 6, we reflected on the necessity of passing on the life of faithful obedience to the emerging generations. Passover was a mandated time for such instruction. In the Book of Exodus’ description of the Passover event and celebration, opportunities for teaching children are provided for in the instructions themselves (12:26-27, 13:8, and 13:14). The consumption of unleavened bread had the power to transform the community by (re)instilling God’s people with the story of their salvation. In Deuteronomy 6, we saw that God’s people were to be ever mindful of the command to love God wholeheartedly. In Exod 13:9, the language describing the eating of unleavened bread suggests its power to ingrain a God-centered mindfulness in the people: It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt.
Unleavened bread is given the name bread of affliction. This is significant. The unleavened bread that the people will consume each day is to serve as tangible reminder of the oppression in Egypt. By eating the bread of affliction, the community becomes the original Passover generation and so connects anew with the LORD who delivered God’s people from Egypt. It serves to keep God’s people mindful of the LORD’s salvation for all the days of [their] life.
Yeast is forbidden anywhere in Israel’s territory for the seven days. Notice the language: No leaven shall be seen with you. The Passover celebration is part of the visible witness that God’s people manifest to the watching world and to their own children. Passover was reserved only for God’s people (Exod 12:43-45) so there would be non-followers of the LORD present in the land who would be watching the celebration as well as the nations that surrounded Israel. Also, within the community, if it is to teach faithful obedience to the LORD, it is vital for each member of the community to uphold the values and instructions of the Passover celebration.
Verse 4 also reminds God’s people that they must consume all of the meat of the sacrifice in one night. This regulation is part of recapturing the original event and the hastiness of the meal. It is also a reminder that the Passover was an act on one night in the life of Israel. There can only be a single meal. Thus, all of the meat was eaten or any remaining meat was burned up in the morning.
Verses 5-7 emphasize again (v. 2) the proper location for celebrating Passover. Passover was a national celebration. Israel was now dwelling in the land of Canaan. This meant that they were spread out over a significant portion of territory. The risk was the fragmentation of community. Israel existed as the whole people of God. In the original celebration of Passover as noted above, each family celebrated Passover in its own home. But what is easily missed is that all Israel lived in close proximity in one particular part of Egypt-the land of Goshen. Thus even on the night of the original Passover, all God’s people were able to meet together to slaughter their lambs as a communal act (Exod 12:6). Thus, Deuteronomy calls all Israel to come together as the visible people of God to celebrate and remember the core act of their salvation and existence as God’s people in the Promised Land. In practical terms, this meant that Passover was forbidden in all of Israel’s towns except for the place where God chose as a dwelling for his name (see above).
Verse 6 emphasizes again the timing of the sacrifice. Passover was to be celebrated precisely at sunset-the time of the original Passover sacrifice. Verse 7 suggests that all Israel then enjoyed the feast together before returning to the family tent.
Verse 8 concludes the description of the Passover celebration by linking it with the seven day cycle of the Sabbath. The week long observance of Passover ends on the Sabbath when the gathered community worships the LORD and enjoys their status as the redeemed people of God by refraining from work.
What do you think?
You can also check out my post on the Passover texts in Exodus