The Passover – Part 1
The cycle of Temple-festivals appropriately opened with ‘the Passover’ and ‘Feast of Unleavened Bread.’ The first took place on the 14th of Nisan, and the latter on the 15th, and lasted for 7 days, ending on the 21st of the month. (Look at the previous text in Archives to see a picture of the Jewish months and how they correlate to our calendar today). From their close connection, they were generally treated as one feast, however. In his writings, Josephus described it as a feast that lasted for 8 days.
There are peculiarities about the Passover that mark it as the most important of any of the other festivals. It was the first of the three feasts on which all males in Israel were bound to appear before the Lord in the place that He chose. The other two were the Feast of Weeks and Feast of Tabernacles. All of these great festivals bore a threefold reference.
They pointed to the season of the year, meaning the enjoyment of the fruits of the great land which the Lord had given to them to enjoy, but was really His.
There was also great prominence given to the history of each of these festivals, as they got their roots in the early times of the Israelite nation while they were living in the wilderness. The Passover was always given great prominence here.
There are frequent allusions in the New Testament to the Exodus, the Paschal Lamb, and Paschal Supper, and the feast of unleavened bread. Many people just used these terms to include all the different feasts, because they all had a great significance as each feast had come from the Wilderness Wanderings in some way.
Special Nature of the Passover
Nature, history and grace all combined together to give a special meaning to each of the festivals, but chiefly to the Passover. It was the feast of spring when every year seeds were born into a new harvest, and the firstfruits of their labors could be presented to the Lord. In this spring season, it also reminded them about their history, and each year the people celebrated their birth of the Israelite nation as they celebrated the Passover. It reminded them of all the great things that God had done for them. Accordingly, their month of Abib was to be unto them ‘the beginning of months’. It was actually the seventh month in the civil calendar year, but the first as far as sacred things went. Here again, the number 7 marks a sacred number.
The Feast of Tabernacles, which was the last feast for the year, took place on the 15th day of the first month in the civil calendar year.
Origin of the Name
The name of the Passover is Pesach, in Hebrew; and Pascha, in Aramaean and Greek. It is derived from a root which means to ‘step over’ or to ‘overleap’, and in this way points back to the historical origin of the festival in Exodus 12. When the Passover first came into being, it was something that God ordained and He gave them exact directions about how to proceed. In the later observances of the Passover, it was brought into harmony with the general practices of the Temple. Because of this, Jewish authorities have deemed that there is an “Egyptian Passover” and a “Permanent Passover”.
At the Passover’s first institution, it was ordained that the head of every household should select either a lamb or a kid of the goats that was without blemish and in its first year of life. This was to be done on the 10th of Nisan. Later the Jewish ordinances just limited the sacrifice to a lamb. They also explained that the four days previous to the slaying of the lamb referred to the four generations that had passed after the children of Israel went down into Egypt. The lamb was to be killed on the eve of the 14th, after the sun went down and before it came up the next morning.
The Institution of the Passover
Originally, the blood of the sacrifice was to be sprinkled with hyssop on the lintel and the two doorposts of the main door of the house. Then the whole animal was to be roasted, without breaking a single bone of it, and eaten by each family. If there were too few in one family to eat the whole thing, they could get together with other families. The animal was to be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs to symbolize the bitterness of their bondage and the haste of their deliverance, and also to point forward to the manner in which the true Israel were in all time to have fellowship in the Paschal Lamb. Everyone who was circumcised was to partake of this meal, and what was not eaten was to be burned totally.
The above ordinances were modified during the journey in the wilderness to the effect that “all males were to appear in the place which the Lord shall choose”, and there they were to sacrifice and to eat the lamb or kid, bringing at the same time another offering with them. Lastly, if a man was unclean at the time of the regular Passover, or gone on a journey and couldn’t do it, he could celebrate it a month later.
Directions in the Mishnah
The Mishnah contains the following as distinctions between the ‘Egyptian’ and the ‘Permanent’ Passover:
The Egyptian Passover was selected on the 10th, and the blood was to be sprinkled with a sprig of hyssop on the lintel and the two door-posts. It was to be eaten in haste in the first night, and wherever they ate it was where they were supposed to sleep. Then none of them were to go out of their houses until the morning. Israel commenced their journey out of Egypt on the 15th of Nisan.
The Permanent Passover was observed for seven days, but the use of unleavened bread was observed for only the first night, just as at the first Passover. The Israelites probably had to eat unleavened bread for several days, though, when they left Egypt the first time. Instead of actually leaving the land, though, they observed the Passover as a festival like a Sabbath. They all made their sacrifice, but could make it in one place and then take their lodgings in another.
Scripture Records of the Feast
Scripture records that the Passover was kept the second year after the Exodus in Numbers 9: 1-5, and then not again until the Israelites actually reached the promised land (Joshua 5: 10). This practice was directed by God Himself while they were in the wilderness (Exodus 12:25; 13:5). After that public celebrations of the Passover are only mentioned once during the reign of Solomon, once under that of Hezekiah, during the time of Josiah, and once more after the return from Babylon under Ezra.
Even though it is not mentioned a lot in the Scriptures, it is probable that in later times it was very universally observed. With all the historical writings that have been found, and all the archaeology digs, much has been found about this celebration in later times. We can form a pretty accurate idea of all the circumstances attending it at the time that Jesus lived on earth.
On the 14th of Nisan, every Israelite who was in good health, was not in a state of Levitical uncleanness, nor lived a further distance than 15 miles from the city, was to appear in Jerusalem. Though women were not explicitly told that they had to go, we know from Scripture that many of them did, and it was common practice at the time for them to do so.
It was a joyous time for Israel. The Jewish people came from all parts of the land, and even from foreign countries. They came in bands singing hymns and psalms, and brought with them burnt-and peace-offerings as the Lord had blessed them the previous year. None of them would appear before God with empty hands.
According to Josephus the historian, Cestius requested the high-priest to make a census, in order to convince Nero of the importance of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation. The number of lambs slain was recorded as 256,500. Recorded at the lowest computation of ten persons to every sacrificial lamb, would give a population of 2,565,000. Josephus writes that there were 2,700,200.
Many of the people must have had to camp outside of the city walls of Jerusalem. Those who could get lodging in the city were accommodated with much generosity. In return, they left their hosts the skins of the Passover lambs and the vessels which they had used in their sacred services.
It would have been in this festive company that the parents of Jesus went to this feast every year taking their ‘holy child’ with them after He had reached the age of twelve. This would have been in strict accordance with the Rabbinical law at the time. We also know from the Bible that Jesus Himself attended the Paschal feast as an adult, and that the last time He did so, He was very hospitably entertained in Jerusalem. He seems to have been planning to spend the night outside the city walls, but a disciple wanted Him to stay inside the city with him.
The Preparations for the Passover
The preparations for this great feast had begun long before the 14th of Nisan. A month previous to the great feast, bridges and roads were repaired for use by the pilgrims coming into the city. This was also the time for administering the testing draught to any woman who was suspected of committing adultery. The red heifer was burned during this time, and those who wished to remain servants for the rest of their lives and not ever be set free, got their ears bored as a symbol of that. This month prior to Passover was the time for making all kinds of preliminary arrangements before the Feast actually began.
In general, cemeteries were outside the cities, but any dead body found in the field during this time was to be buried on the spot where it had been discovered. As the festive pilgrims might have contracted ‘uncleanness’ by coming in contact with such graves, it was ordered that all ‘sepulchres’ should be ‘whitened’ a month before the Passover. This may have been what Jesus meant when he compared the Pharisees to “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness’ in Matthew 23: 27.
Two weeks before Pesach and the other festivals also, the flocks and herds were to be tithed and the Temple treasury-chests were publicly opened and emptied. Also, many people went to Jerusalem to purify themselves before the Passover actually started. It is this practice that maybe Paul was talking about in I Corinthians 11: 27-28, when he told them to examine themselves before they took the bread and drank of the cup.