Book: The Christian Passover

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Some Biblical scholars have cast doubt on the meaning of the name “Passover.” The authors of one publication have stated, “One final point, a minor one, concerns the name ‘Passover’ (Hebrew pesah) itself. It has sometimes been thought that the name came from the ‘passing over’ of the death angel and that this could mean that the entire festival has to be on the 14th. However, the exact origin of the name is disputed by scholars, and such etymological arguments can never carry a great weight in any discussion” (Dr. Robert L. Kuhn and Dr. Lester L. Grabbe, The Passover in the Bible and the Church Today, p. 14).

That is an unbelievable statement coming from scholars who are supposedly Christian-professing, Bible-believing researchers, and who have undertaken to establish doctrine for a large church of God! But their statement does not mean that we cannot ask and find the answer to the question, what does the word “passover” mean? Why is the Passover called by this name?

Today, most Jews will say that the Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. But is that what the Bible teaches? No, that is not what the Bible teaches!

The Scriptures define the meaning of the word “passover.” The Passover is named for an event which was executed by God: “...It is the LORD’S Passover, for I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. And the blood shall be a sign to you upon the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I WILL PASS OVER YOU. And the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you when I smite the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:11-13).

The Passover received its name from the night in which God passed over the houses of the children of Israel and spared their firstborn from the plague of death, while they were still in their houses in the land of Egypt, before the Exodus took place—not while the Exodus was taking place! The Lord passed over the houses of the children of Israel and saw the blood of the Passover lambs on the side posts and lintels of their doors, and He did not kill their firstborn.

The Passover derives its name from this event of the Lord’s passing over the children of Israel in Egypt, sparing their firstborn from death and redeeming the entire nation from the bondage of slavery. The redemption of God was their only salvation from that bondage of slavery. As the New Testament shows, their slavery was a type of bondage to sin, and the ultimate penalty for sin is death. The Passover has great significance for Christians in relationship to God’s passing over our sins through the sacrifice and blood of Jesus Christ, and sparing us from the penalty of sin, which is eternal death.

To commemorate His passing over them, God commanded the children of Israel and their descendants to observe the Passover year by year on the day that marked this event: “And you shall observe this thing [the entire Passover ceremony and all that it entails] as a law to you and to your children forever....And it will be, when your children shall say to you, ‘What does this service mean to you?’ Then you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’S Passover, [for the reason, because of the fact] Who PASSED OVER the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt...” (Ex. 12:24- 27).

Remember this! The Bible teaches that the Passover ceremony was to commemorate the PASSING OVER of the houses of the children of Israel by the Lord, while they were still in their houses in the land of Egypt. That is why it is called “the Passover.” Nothing could be plainer! The Bible nowhere says that the Passover was to commemorate the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which immediately follows the Passover, commemorates the Exodus. The Passover is on the 14th day of the first month, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread begins on the 15th day of the first month and continues through the 21st day (Lev. 23:5-6).

Flavius Josephus, a noted Jewish historian who was a Pharisee and a general during the Jewish wars, shows in his narration of Exodus 12 that the Jews as late as AD 93-94, when he was recording the customs of the time, still understood that the Passover was named after the event of God’s passing over the houses of the children of Israel:

“Whence it is that we do still offer this sacrifice in like manner to this day, and call this festival Pascha, which signifies the feast of the passover, because on that day GOD PASSED US OVER, and sent the plague upon the Egyptians; for the destruction of the first-born came upon the Egyptians that night...” (Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 2, Ch. 14, Sec. 6, emphasis added).

Nothing could be clearer! Josephus’ statements agree completely with the Scriptures and show that Josephus understood why the Passover day is called “the Passover,” as did many of the Jews of his day. He also shows that most of the Jews of that time understood that the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorates the Exodus. “So the Hebrews went out of Egypt, while the Egyptians wept....Whence it is that in memory of the want we were in, we keep a feast for EIGHT DAYS, which is called the feast of unleavened bread” (Ibid., Ch. 15, Sec. 1, emphasis added).

While Josephus includes the Passover with the Days of Unleavened Bread, his writings show that calling the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread by their correct names, and with understanding as to their meaning, was still practiced by the Jews during his lifetime. He repeats his explanation of the separate meaning of the two feasts in Book III, Chapter X, Section 5, where he again records that the total number of days observed was eight days—not seven days, as now practiced by the Jews.

It is interesting that when Josephus explains the Scriptural narrations of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he relates that information correctly. Likewise, he reflects the later traditional practice of calling the entire eight-day celebration “the Passover” when writing about events which occurred from approximately 71 BC to 39 BC. He states, “As this happened [a particular siege] at the time when the feast of unleavened bread was celebrated, which we call the PASSOVER...” (Ibid., Bk. 14, Ch. II, Sec. 1, emphasis added).

Josephus’ writings verify that the traditional Jewish naming of both feasts as “the Passover” was a later development. God’s commands for the two feasts, as found in Exodus 12 and 13, clearly name the Passover as one day and the Feast of Unleavened Bread as seven days, making a total of eight days.

We have proven from the Bible and from historical references that there is no question as to why the Passover day is called “the passover.” It was named the Passover because of the act of God in passing over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, sparing their firstborn but killing the firstborn of the Egyptians, man and beast. The Passover day, the 14th day of the first month, was to be kept throughout all generations as a memorial of this event: “And this day shall be a memorial to you. And you shall KEEP it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations. You shall keep it a feast as a law forever” (Ex. 12:14).

Now that we understand the Scriptural meaning of the name “Passover,” we need to fully understand what it means to KEEP the Passover.

What Constitutes Keeping the Passover?

The traditional Jewish interpretation of the Scriptural command to keep the Passover on the 14th is that only the killing of the lambs was required on that day. This traditional interpretation is supported by some scholars. We are told that “...Leviticus 23:5 states, ‘on the 14th of the first month, between the two evenings, is the Lord’s Passover.’ This shows that whenever a precise time is given, the emphasis was on the slaughter of the lamb, not subsequent events such as eating. The only part of the ceremony specified for ‘the 14th between the two evenings,’ is the slaughter of the lamb. The eating and other aspects of it did not have to come at that time” (Dr. Robert L. Kuhn and Dr. Lester L. Grabbe, The Passover in the Bible and the Church Today, pp. 14-15).

Is this what it meant to KEEP the Passover day as “a feast to the LORD”? Did it mean only to kill the Passover lambs? Is that all God required for the keeping of the Passover?

In order to justify their tradition, the Jews claim that all that needed to be done on the 14th was to kill the Passover lambs. But what about roasting the lamb? Did not roasting the lamb constitute keeping the Passover? What about eating the Passover lamb? Did not eating the Passover lamb constitute keeping the Passover? Were not all aspects of keeping the Passover to be completed on the 14th? What does the Bible teach? What is the true meaning of God’s command to “keep” the Passover?

God’s commands and ordinances for keeping the Passover are clearly recorded for us in Exodus 12. These instructions must be carefully studied in order to fully understand the answer to the question of whether Israel’s first Passover was kept entirely on the 14th day of the month.

God’s commands to Moses in Exodus 12 show us the step-by-step procedures required for keeping the Old Testament Passover. It is clear that the act of slaying the lambs was only one part of keeping the Passover. The nine steps for keeping the Old Testament Passover were as follows:

1) Select an unblemished male lamb less than one year old on the 10th day of the first month (Ex. 12:3).

2) Kill the lamb on the 14th day of the first month at dusk [Hebrew ben ha arbayim, “between the two evenings”]. Share the lamb with a neighbor if one’s own family was too small to eat it. Do not break a bone of the lamb (Ex. 12:4, 6, 46).

3) Strike the side posts and lintel of the door of the house with some of the blood (Ex. 12:7).

4) Roast the whole lamb—head and legs and edible entrails— with fire (Ex. 12:9).

5) Do not boil the meat in water or eat it raw (Ex. 12:9).

6) Eat the flesh in that night with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (Ex. 12:8).

7) Allow no alien to eat it unless circumcised (Ex. 12:43-44).

8) Eat it in the same house where it was slain. Do not carry any of it out of the house (Ex. 12:46).

9) Burn any remains, such as the bones and fat, the skin and guts, with fire by morning (Ex. 12:10).

These were the commands of God for Israel’s first Passover. If the children of Israel had not observed all nine steps for the Passover exactly as God commanded, the Passover would not have been fully “kept,” and the Lord would not have spared the firstborn of Israel.

At their next Passover, the first one in the wilderness after the tabernacle was set up and dedicated, the nine rules for “keeping” the Passover are called statutes and ordinances: “Let the children of Israel also keep the Passover at its appointed time. In the fourteenth day of this month, between the two evenings, you shall keep it in its appointed time. You shall keep it according to ALL ITS STATUTES, and according to ALL THE ORDINANCES of it” (Num. 9:2-3).

This Scripture shows that the nine rules for the Passover, here called statutes and ordinances, were to be observed in all the years that followed. All nine ordinances were to be observed on the 14th day of the month! It is quite clear in Numbers 9 that all the statutes and all the ordinances that were established at the first Passover were to be observed by the children of Israel. We find no later instructions given in Scripture that in any way alter or modify the manner in which the Passover was originally commanded to be observed.

(Please note that in Numbers 9, God instituted a provision concerning the keeping of the Passover if one were unclean or on a journey outside the land at the commanded time for observing the Passover, which was on the 14th day of the first month. In such cases, the Passover was to be observed on the 14th day of the second month, but according to ALL the statutes and ALL the ordinances that God had commanded. See Numbers 9:6- 14. We will thoroughly study Numbers 9 in Chapter Nine. At this point we will focus on what constitutes keeping the Passover.)

Keeping the Passover, according to God’s commands in Exodus 12, included eating the Passover. When we carefully examine the commands in Exodus 12, we find ten verses that directly refer to eating the Passover (verses 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 43, 44, 45, 46, 48). In fact, eating the Passover was the key part to keeping the Passover. If the Passover was not eaten in that night, then no Passover was kept!

God commanded, “This is the ordinance of the Passover. No stranger shall EAT of it. But every man’s servant that is bought for silver, when you have circumcised him, then he shall EAT of it....All the congregation of Israel shall KEEP it. And when a stranger shall dwell with you, and desires to KEEP the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and KEEP it. And he shall be as one that is born in the land. But no uncircumcised person shall EAT of it” (Ex. 12:43-48).

Here we see very clearly in the Word of God that to KEEP the Passover meant to EAT the Passover. Since the Passover was to be kept on the 14th day of the first month, it had to be eaten on the night of the 14th, not on the night of the 15th. The Passover lamb was not to be killed on the 14th and then eaten on the 15th. KEEPING the Passover on the 14th meant EATING it during the 14th, because the Passover cannot be kept unless it is eaten! KEEPING the Passover on the 14th meant observing all nine ordinances on that day, as commanded by God, including killing and eating the lamb.

If any of these ordinances were omitted or were observed at the wrong time, it is obvious that the Passover would not have been kept as God commanded! According to Scripture, the nine ordinances for keeping the Passover were all to be carried out on the 14th day of the first month. Keeping the first ordinance of the Passover, the killing of the lambs, on the 14th, and keeping the remaining ordinances on the 15th, does not constitute keeping the Passover as God commanded in Exodus 12. A PASSOVER THAT IS EATEN ON THE 15TH IS NOT THE PASSOVER THAT GOD COMMANDED.

Jesus and His Disciples Knew That KEEPING the Passover Meant EATING THE PASSOVER

Jesus and His disciples knew that keeping the Passover meant eating the Passover. When it was time to keep His last Passover (the disciples did not know it would be His last Passover), as they were walking into Jerusalem, Jesus gave His disciples these instructions: “And He sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us that we may EAT.’ But they said to Him, ‘Where do You desire that we prepare it?’ And He said to them, ‘Watch, and when you come into the city, you will meet a man carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house that he enters; and you shall say to the master of the house, “The Teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest chamber, where I may EAT the Passover with My disciples?’ ” And he shall show you a large upper room furnished; there [at that house] prepare.... With earnest desire I have desired to EAT this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you that I will not EAT of it again until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God’ ” (Luke 22:8-12, 15-16).

These verses show clearly that Jesus and His disciples knew and understood that keeping the Passover meant eating the Passover. There was no question about it! There was no doubt whatsoever!

The religious leaders of the Jews, who by Jesus’ time had replaced the ordinances of God with their traditions, understood that keeping the Passover required eating the Passover. However, they ate their Passover on the 15th, a day later than Jesus and His disciples, who kept the Passover on the 14th, as commanded in Scripture: “...But they [the religious leaders] did not go into the judgment hall, so that they would not be defiled, but that they might EAT the Passover” (John 18:28). This Scripture does not state that they did not go into the judgment hall lest they should not be able to kill their Passover lambs. The emphasis is on eating the Passover lamb, not killing the Passover lamb. It is evident that the Jews of Jesus’ day still considered eating the Passover as keeping the Passover.

There can be no doubt whatsoever! After examining the Passover commands in the book of Exodus, the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Luke, and the example of the religious leaders as recorded by John, it is absolutely clear that keeping the Passover includes EATING the Passover.

Understanding the Hebrew Words

A comparison of the words that are used in the Hebrew text will confirm that keeping or observing the Passover required more than the sacrificing of the lambs:

1) The Hebrew word asah in Exodus 12:47-48 means “to observe, keep or accomplish.” Nowhere in the Old Testament is asah used to signify the killing of a sacrifice.

2) The Hebrew word shacht, which is used in the command in Exodus 12:6, means “to slaughter, to sacrifice, to kill or to offer (a killed sacrifice)” (The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament). The children of Israel were instructed “to kill,” or shacht, the Passover lamb. This same Hebrew word is used throughout the Old Testament in reference to the killing of sacrifices.

3) The Hebrew word translated “eat” in Exodus 12:48 is akal, which means “to eat, to consume, to dine, to devour” (The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament).

In Exodus 12:47-48, which records the statutes and ordinances for the Passover, we find the word akal, “to eat,” used in conjunction with the word asah, “to keep.” The Bible itself is our evidence that keeping the Passover requires eating the Passover. Nothing could be clearer than these plain commands of God. This is how we are to let the Bible interpret itself: “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.”

The Hebrew word asah, “to observe” or “to keep,” has a much broader meaning than the Hebrew word shacht, “to kill” or “to sacrifice.” Hence, it is erroneous to claim that simply killing (shacht) the Passover lambs constituted keeping the Passover, or that the slaughter of the lambs was all that God commanded to be done on the 14th. In order for the Passover to be kept (asah), it had to be eaten (akal)!

There is additional proof in the book of Ezra that keeping the Passover means eating the Passover. When we examine the Hebrew text, we find that all three of the above Hebrew words are used in Ezra’s account of the epochal Passover kept after the dedication of the temple by those who had returned from the Babylonian captivity: “And the children of the captivity KEPT [Hebrew asah, which means “to keep” or “to observe”] the Passover on the FOURTEENTH DAY of the first month....And they KILLED [Hebrew shacht, which means “to kill” or “to sacrifice”] the Passover lamb for all the children of the captivity, and for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. And the children of Israel ATE [Hebrew akal] the Passover lamb, all who had come again out of exile...And they kept [Hebrew asah] the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy...” (Ezra 6:19-22).

The three Hebrew verbs that are used in Ezra’s account show that the complete meaning of keeping the Passover involved both killing and eating. Ezra specifically records that the Jews who had returned from their captivity in Babylon kept the Passover by killing and eating the lambs on the 14th day of the first month. The entire Passover was observed on the 14th, as commanded by God in Exodus 12.

In the next chapter, we will undertake a detailed study of the Hebrew terms that God used to specify the commanded time for the killing of the lambs and the eating of the Passover.