The book of Exodus begins with all 70 members of Jacob’s family living as immigrants in the land of Egypt.
A new Pharaoh arose “who did not know Joseph” (1:8). This new Pharaoh enslaved these rapidly growing Israelite foreigners for fear of their increasing numbers (1:8-14). After many years of slavery, the LORD called Moses to lead the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt (3:1-10). The LORD sent plague after plague upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians in an effort to persuade Pharaoh to set the Israelites free, but Pharaoh kept refusing time after time (chapters 7-10).
Finally, the LORD prepared the Israelites for one final and terrifying plague against the Egyptians: the killing of all first-born Egyptian children and animals (11:4-8; see 4:21-23). The first-born of the Israelites would be spared the deadly effects of this plague by participating in the Passover meal and smearing the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of their homes. The text for this Sunday describe this Passover meal in Egypt as well as the instructions for future celebrations of the annual Festival of Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread in future generations once the Israelites leave Egypt.
The First Month of the Year: The Festival Calendar in the Old Testament
The Passover meal is a remembrance of the LORD’s deliverance of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. It marks the most important event in Israel’s memory as the people of God and remains so today for people of Jewish faith. The LORD tells Moses and Aaron that “this month” shall be the “beginning of months . . . the first month of the year” (12:2).
The Old Testament uses the structure of time and calendars as key markers for the remembrance of key events, themes, and obligations among God’s people. Each day should begin and end in prayer and study of God’s words (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Each week should be marked by Sabbath rest on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
The twelve months of the year contain a large number of annual festivals, both major and minor, that trace the overall narrative of Israel’s story from the freedom from Egypt to the covenant at Sinai, from the building of the first temple in Jerusalem to the exile in Babylon, from the return to the land of Judah to the building of the second temple in Jerusalem, and many other events along the way.
The Passover Festival is the highlight of all festivals, defining the core identity of Israel and its God: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (20:2). And so the month in which Passover is celebrated marks the “first month of the year” (12:2).
Unlike the Western Gregorian calendar in which the new year begins in January, this version of Israel’s religious calendar begins in the spring of the year (sometime in April-May in our modern calendar). The Old Testament also refers to an entirely different agricultural calendar in which the first month of the year is in the fall during the grain harvest (Leviticus 3:1; 22:21; Numbers 28:3). This alternate calendar with the new year beginning in the fall became the dominant calendar in Jewish religious observance (Yom Kippur). In any case, the Christian church calendar with its festivals of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the like has its roots in this Old Testament linking together of key events of the past with annual festival celebrations that help us remember and reclaim those past events as our own story of identity and faith.
The Festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread
Passover and Unleavened Bread were probably originally two separate festivals with different origins, but they have been woven together in the present story of Exodus. The Passover is a nighttime meal celebrated on one day (12:1-13). The festival of Unleavened Bread lasts seven days. The Israelites did not celebrate the festival of Unleavened Bread in Egypt but only later when they came into the land of Canaan (12:14-20).
Some biblical texts speak only of Unleavened Bread and never mention the Passover (Exodus 23:15; 34:18). Other texts combine Passover and Unleavened Bread as two festivals celebrated one right after the other (Leviticus 23:5-6; Numbers 28:16-17). One tradition merges the two festivals into one integrated festival (Deuteronomy 16:1-8). These differences reflect the long and dynamic history of festivals as an essential element in ancient Israel’s life of faith over many centuries of time.
The immediate purpose for the Passover meal in Exodus was for the Israelites to mark their homes with the blood of the Passover lamb in order to protect the oldest sons of the Israelites from death (Exodus 12:7, 13, 22-23). When the angel of death saw the blood smeared on the doorposts of the home of an Israelite, the angel would “pass over” the home and spare the first-born there. The second purpose for the festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread was longer term: to enable future generations to remember and re-live the central story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt as their own story (12:14-17, 24-27; see Deuteronomy 6:20-23; 26:1-9).
One key theme shared by the festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread is the urgency and haste in which Israel left Egypt. Israelites are to eat the Passover meal with “loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly” (12:11). Likewise, the reason for the unleavened bread is that the Israelites could not wait for the bread to rise with yeast since they left Egypt in such haste (12:33-34, 39). Here the manner of eating (hurriedly) and the content of what is eaten (unleavened bread) help participants of future generations experience more intimately the actions and feelings of the first Israelites as they rushed out of the land of Egypt in search of freedom.
Passover and the Lord’s Supper
Three of the New Testament Gospels affirm that it was the Jewish Passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed and crucified (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:1-20). The associations of Passover and the Lord’s Supper are numerous. The Lord’s Supper uses wine and bread as in the Passover. Christ’s saving blood of the covenant (Mark 14:24) on the cross recalls the saving blood of the Passover lamb smeared on Israelite doorposts (Exodus 12:7). Jesus is associated with the image of the Passover lamb of God (Luke 22:7; John 1:29, 36).
Just as Passover commemorates the identity-defining story of the exodus out of Egypt for Israelites, so the Lord’s Supper is a powerful “remembrance” of the death of Jesus on the cross as the defining event of Jesus’ ministry. The Passover occurs in the context of resisting an oppressive empire in Egypt; likewise, the Lord’s Supper is associated with the cross, the Roman Empire’s tool of torture and death.
PRAYER OF THE DAY Lord God of grace and liberty, On the night of the Passover you sacrificed a lamb as a sign of freedom, thereby freeing the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In the night of Jesus’ final meal, you sacrificed your only son as a gift, thereby freeing all humanity from sin and death. Help us live into this new life, teaching us to serve you in faithfulness as you have served us. To you we offer our gratefulness in the name of the one who turned slavery into new life, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
HYMNS O living bread from heaven ELW 548 Here is bread ELW 483 As we gather at your table ELW 522, NCH 332 Bless now, O God, the journey ELW 326
CHORAL Here I am, Lord, Daniel L. Schutte (Augsburg Fortress, Publisher)