Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14
These verses detail how and when to hold the sacrificial meal popularly known as “Passover.”
Great care is taken in describing how and when ritual food should be prepared, consumed, and disposed of. At first glance, Exodus 12 might seem like an unlikely quarry from which to unearth a sermon. But patient and careful study reveals a text brimming with insight and theological depth.
Exodus 12:1-14 is embedded within a larger narrative complex, in which Yhwh is at war with Pharaoh over the liberation of the Hebrew people. The instructions for Passover follow immediately upon chapter 11, in which the 10th plague is announced: “every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die” (Exodus 11:5). Yhwh’s actions against the firstborn of Egypt echo Pharaoh’s own murderous policy, in which he commands midwives to kill newborn Hebrew boys (Exodus 1:15-16). God’s actions against Pharaoh are not merely “eye for an eye” retribution: you killed my sons, so now I’m going to kill yours. More significantly, Pharaoh’s attack on Hebrew children must be interpreted in light of God’s ancient promises to Abraham and Sarah: “He [God] brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (Genesis 15:5). Pharaoh’s fear of the outsiders in his midst (Exodus 1:8-10) set him down a murderous path that ultimately contained the seeds of his own downfall. God acts not only in response to Pharaoh’s heinous crimes, but also to ensure the future of the promise.
With the fog of war fully engulfing the land, God summons the Israelites to the work of liturgy, ritual, and memory. Given how Passover has developed, it is easy to forget that, for Exodus 12, Passover is a wartime liturgy. Designed for adverse conditions, these verses constitute a liturgical response to the demonic, trauma-inducing reign of Pharaoh. Exodus 12:1-14 represents one element of a lengthy, iterative process of teaching Israel to live, no longer as citizens within a system of domination, but rather as recipients of the kind but fierce benevolence of Yhwh.
The Passover ritual described in Exodus 12:1-14 also marks the beginning of the calendar year: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you” (verse 2). Passover creates an annual, historical touchstone that reminds every subsequent generation that they are a liberated people. In this system of marking time, every subsequent month is ordinally numbered, relating back to the anniversary of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. Exodus 16:1, for instance, reads, “The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.” As Jeffrey Tigay insightfully notes, “Since the numbers will mean essentially ‘in the Xth month since we gained freedom,’ every reference to a month will commemorate the redemption.”1 Other texts in the Pentateuch call upon Israel to “remember” its slave past, and to let that memory shape its communal life (Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:18). It would be understandable if a people like Israel wanted to set aside these tragic and violent years. The Passover meal, however, ensures that they are regularly attentive to the memory of liberation.
Passover also ritualizes readiness, urgency, and vulnerability, and asks its participants to do so in a fully embodied manner: “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” (verse 11). Passover is meant to be practiced with a sense of haste and disquietude, with the awareness that liberation may arrive like a thief in the night. The participant’s entire body is drawn into the experience.
Exodus 12:1-14, however, is not simply a surrender to uncertainty or fate. Haste and disquietude are present but not dominant. The ritual offers its participants a specific promise, bound to the concrete reality of the sacrificial victim’s blood: “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt” (verses 12-13). The blood of the sacrifice distinguishes the people of God from the Egyptians and shields them from death and judgment.
For additional discussion on the calendar, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, “Exodus,” in The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 125.