'The Beginning of Months' (Exodus 12:1-28)

The exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago is the central and defining event of Jewish history. It delineated the community of God's elect and set it apart from Pharaoh, the cruel taskmasters, and the majority population. It would henceforth be "remembered" and "observed" by the Jewish people as the story of that night was repeated from generation to generation. There is an old Jewish proverb that goes: "All of us are asleep. By telling stories we are awakened." Passover requires the telling of Yahweh's story of redeeming Israel throughout the generations in order to awaken sleepy hearts. For each participant in Passover, the gathering, meal, and story become an occasion to experience the exodus as a personal spiritual event.

But have you ever considered the possibility that not every Israelite family believed Moses? Some cynical souls must have been among the Hebrews who asked, "Why should we think a criminal knows Yahweh's mind? That a murderer has been selected to lead us? That we should prepare to leave Egypt on his word?" There just may have been some grieving Israelite families that night — if there was no faith in that house and no blood marking their doors. The cry of a Jewish mother would have sounded just as pitiful as that of an Egyptian mother in those sad houses.

Let's look at that fateful night. Let's understand the abiding significance of Passover to Judaism. And let's look for insights from that night and its perpetual commemoration to our experience as followers of Jesus Christ.

Defining the Community

Yahweh had sent Moses to Pharaoh to demand freedom for his people. "Let my people go!" was the summons that fell on the Egyptian leader's ears (Ex. 5:1; cf. 3:10,18). But the words in his ears only triggered the hardening of his heart. He made the lives of the Hebrew slaves even more intolerable.

Thus began a series of plagues against Egypt that established the sovereignty of Israel's God over all the so-called gods of that nation. The final plague was a blow against the divine Pharaoh himself. The firstborn sons of every family in Egypt were to die as judgment against those who defied Yahweh. The only people exempted from the final plague would be those protected by the blood of a lamb. God would pass over the houses whose doors were marked with the lamb's blood. In those houses, the people were to be ready to flee on a moment's notice. They made their meal that night off the carcass of the lamb whose blood was on their doors and with bread baked so quickly that it didn't have time to rise.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt (Ex.12:1- 13).
Just as Yahweh had said, the final plague came against Egypt's unbelief and disobedience: "At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead" (Ex.12:29-30).

The Meaning of the Holy Night

Between the announcement of the final plague and its execution, believing Israelites received both instructions about both their preparation to leave Egypt and their ongoing commemoration of the event. Here is the biblical account:

This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread.

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, "Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lordwill pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?' you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.' " And the people bowed down and worshiped (Ex.12:14-27).
From that night until now, no matter where they lived or by whose civil calendar they have been required to live their lives, the spring celebration of Passover among the Jews has been regarded as the "beginning of months" for them. The central event of Passover is the seder. Seder means "order" in Hebrew and refers to the series of prescribed steps in the ritual meal.

Step One: The head of the family, normally wearing a white ritual shawl, pours the first of four cups of wine. A blessing is said to sanctify the feast to God.

Step Two: Everyone at the table washes his or her hands before handing any of the now-sanctified elements of the meal. At this point, everyone's attention turns to the seder plate in the middle of the table. Each item on the plate tells part of the story of bondage, deliverance, and freedom. The modern seder plate usually has six compartments for elements of the meal — in addition to a cup of salt water (or perhaps vinegar) that signifies the tears shed by the Jews under Pharaoh.

Step Three: The person presiding takes celery or parsley and dips it in the salt water.

Step Four: From a stack of three matzos, the middle one is removed and broken. The larger part, called afikomen, is hidden somewhere in the house. The matzo, of course, is the "unleavened bread" the Jews baked on this night of hasty preparation to leave Egypt. Children will later search for and find the hidden matzo, and it will be eaten as dessert to signify the end of the meal. At this point a shank bone that symbolizes the paschal lamb and a roasted (or boiled) egg that symbolizes mourning and renewal [1] are removed from the plate as a prayer is recited.

Step Five: The second cup of wine is poured. Pouring it signals the youngest child in the group to ask a series of questions: "Why does this night differ from all other nights? For on all other nights, we eat either leavened or unleavened bread; why on this night alone do we eat unleavened bread? On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs; why on this night do we eat only bitter herbs? On all other nights we need not dip our herbs even once; why on this night must we dip them twice? On all other nights we eat either sitting up or reclining; why on this night do we all recline?" The answers to these questions tell the story of the exodus to oncoming generations. The rich and poor, scholar and uneducated participate. The story of God's faithfulness is kept alive.

Step Six: Everyone washes hands again, for the meal is about to be eaten.

Step Seven: A prayer is said before breaking the bread and starting to eat.

Step Eight: The matzo is blessed.

Step Nine: The bitter herb is tasted.

Step Ten: A "sandwich" of bitter herbs and a mixture of apples, nuts, and spices (Heb, charoset) symbolizing the mortar used by Jewish slaves in their Egyptian building projects is eaten.

Step Eleven: Now the full meal that has been prepared is eaten by all present.

Step Twelve: Children search for the afikomen. When it is found, it is eaten to mark the end of the meal.

Step Thirteen: The third cup of wine is poured, and a prayer of thanksgiving over the meal is said. [At this point, many will pour still another (i.e., "fifth") cup of wine for Elijah. No one drinks from this cup. Instead, a child opens the door of the house to invite Elijah to come. Elijah, of course, was to come before the Messiah appeared. Cf. Mal. 4:5-6.]

Step Fourteen: The fourth cup of wine is poured, and Hallel psalms are sung in praise to God. This final cup of wine affirms the providence of Yahweh toward his people and looks not to the past but to the future. A prayer is then recited in unison.

Step Fifteen: A final song is sung — followed usually by folk tunes and playful songs for the children who have been present for the meal.

One Jewish source I read about the seder says this:

[The blueprint for the meal] stresses the importance of the seder as a spectacle meant to excite the interest and curiosity of the children. The biblical phrase, "And you shall tell your son on the day saying . . ." (Exodus 13:8), calls on the parents to educate their children about their history. . . . Thus, the participants not only read about the Exodus, but are encouraged to dramatically relive the experience.[2]
The meaning of Passover and the seder meal lie outside themselves. They are "remembrance" and "observance" that call a community together around its true identity in whatever place they may be in the world. They are also "anticipation" of God's continued presence and blessing in their midst.

Conclusion

Christians need to know and appreciate Passover for the background it provides for understanding our Savior. As early as the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus was pointed out to the multitudes as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Peter used Passover vocabulary to describe him as "a lamb without defect or blemish" (1 Pet. 1:19). And Paul wrote this: "Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7b).

Then, of course, there is the church's meal celebrating our "defining moment." Not the exodus but Christ's death, burial, and resurrection constitute the central and defining event of our faith. We have trusted that for our redemption. We have confessed and claimed it in baptism. And we remember, observe, and anticipate whenever we share the bread and wine of our Lord's Supper.

Jesus is our all in all. In him we find our life, our identity, our hope. He is "the beginning of months," Alpha and Omega, the One from whom we take our identity as a community of faith. "All of us are (spiritually) asleep. By telling Christ's story we are awakened."
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[1] The egg is sometimes said to represent the festival sacrifice that accompanied Passover during biblical times or, on other accounts, symbolizes mourning over the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Although modern Jewish interpretation varies about its specific meaning, the egg — almost always, by the way, a brown egg — is standard to the seder plate.

[2] Naomi Black, ed., Celebration: The Book of Jewish Festivals (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1989), p.114. 

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