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The book of Exodus tells about the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt (1:8-22), and Moses’ early life (chapter 2). Then follows the burning bush episode where Yahweh tells Moses that Yahweh has heard the cry of the Israelites and has decided to deliver them—and that Yahweh has chosen Moses to confront Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (3:1-12). Pharaoh refused to let the people go, so Yahweh brought ten plagues on Egypt (chapters 7-12). Moses learned of the nature of the tenth plague (the death of all firstborn) in chapter 11, but the plague itself will not take place until the last part of chapter 12—after the giving of the instructions that constitute our text.
EXODUS 12:1-2. THIS MONTH SHALL BE THE BEGINNING OF MONTHS
1Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, 2“This month shall be to you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year to you.
“Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt” (v. 1). Earlier, at the burning bush, Yahweh commissioned Moses to confront Pharaoh. Moses’ God-given mission is to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and to lead them to the Promised Land (Exodus 3:1-12). Yahweh chose Aaron to assist Moses shortly after the burning bush incident (Exodus 4:14-30).
Moses and Aaron are brothers, the sons of Amram and Jochebed. They are Levites (Exodus 2:1; 6:20; Numbers 26:59). In chapter 7, we will learn that Moses is eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three at the time that they speak to Pharaoh.
Aaron and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, will become the first priests (Exodus 28:1). It will be their mission to lead Israel in the observance of the law.
“This month shall be to you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year to you” (v. 2). Yahweh is about to outline to Moses and Aaron the preparations that they are to make to avoid the death of their firstborn during the tenth plague. Those preparations will include a ritual meal prepared and eaten according to exacting rules given by Yahweh. The people will eat that meal clothed and ready to depart Egypt.
But first, Yahweh instructs Moses and Aaron to revise their calendar to honor this Exodus event. Because the Exodus will begin the transformation of this slave-people into a nation under Yahweh, they are to honor this event by observing this month as the beginning of their calendar year. This month will become, in essence, not only the beginning of their calendar year, but also the anniversary of their birth as a nation. Yahweh is telling them to bring their calendar into congruence with the seminal event of their history—the Exodus.
Israel will call this first month Nisan. It comes in springtime—March or April by our calendar.
EXODUS 12:3-11: TAKE A LAMB FOR EACH HOUSEHOLD
3Speak to all the congregation (Hebrew: ‘edah) of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth day of this month, they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; 4and if the household is too little for a lamb, then he and his neighbor next to his house shall take one according to the number of the souls; according to what everyone can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You shall take it from the sheep, or from the goats: 6and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at evening. 7They shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they shall eat it. 8They shall eat the flesh in that night, roasted with fire, and unleavened bread. They shall eat it with bitter herbs. 9Don’t eat it raw, nor boiled at all with water, but roasted with fire; with its head, its legs and its inner parts. 10You shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire. 11This is how you shall eat it: with your belt on your waist, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste: it is Yahweh’s Passover.
“Speak to all the congregation (‘edah) of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth day of this month” (v. 3a). As we will learn in verse 6, the Israelites will observe their ritual meal on the fourteenth day of Nisan. However, they are to begin their preparations on the tenth day of Nisan. This will help them to avoid the kinds of mistakes that come with last-minute preparations. Also, it will give them an opportunity to recover gracefully if an unforeseen problem occurs, such as a lamb being injured after having been chosen.
This is the first occurrence of the word congregation (Hebrew: ‘edah) in the Hebrew Scriptures, but it will occur frequently—particularly in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures). The word ‘edahmeans a gathering or an assembly. The frequent use in the Torah of this word emphasizes that Israel is more than a collection of individuals. The Israelites are a congregation—a people—the people of God. The New Testament equivalent is the Greek word ekklesia, which refers to people gathered in some sort of assembly. We translate as ekklesia as “church.”
“they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household” (v. 3b). The ritual feast is to be both a family observance and a community observance. Each household will select a lamb for its own meal, and they will eat the lamb as a family. However, all Jewish families will eat the same ritual meal at the same time. The occasion therefore transcends family relationships and becomes a national observance.
“If the household is too little for a lamb, then he and his neighbor next to his house shall take one according to the number of the souls; according to what everyone can eat you shall make your count for the lamb” (v. 4). We who are accustomed to thinking of households as being only two or three or four people might wonder how an ordinary household could consume a whole lamb. However, these people tended to have many children. Also, a household would often consist of three generations—grandparents, parents, and children.
As we will see in verse 10, Yahweh will require these people to burn any meat that is left over. The ideal, however, is to tailor the size of the household to make it possible for it to consume the whole lamb. If a household is too small to consume a lamb, it is to find a neighboring household with which it can share a lamb. If they do that, they are to share the lamb proportionately. In other words, if one family has three members and the other has six, the smaller family would get half the amount of meat provided the larger family.
“Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You shall take it from the sheep, or from the goats” (v. 5). Since this is to be a ritual meal, the people must take care to honor Yahweh. Yahweh gives strict guidelines for them to follow in selecting the animal to be sacrificed.
The animal is to be without blemish. While there would be no difference in the quality of meat between a blemished and an unblemished animal, the purpose of the unblemished animal is to honor Yahweh by providing the best animal possible.
The animal is to be one year old. Since lambs and goats tend to be born in the springtime—and this is the springtime—finding a one-year old animal would be easy. One-year old lambs and goats are nearly full-grown, but their meat is more desirable than that from an older animal.
The animal is to be a male. This is an important provision. Families who depend on lambs and goats for meat keep females for breeding. They slaughter males for food. Also, this is a patriarchal culture that values males above females, so the sacrifice of a male animal is appropriate for a meal intended to honor God.
The animal can be either a sheep or a goat. This is also important. While sheep provide better meat, goats are hardier and more plentiful. Some families might not have an unblemished sheep, and being able to sacrifice a goat broadens their options. The meat of a year-old goat would be good. It is the meat of more mature goats that would be unacceptable.
“You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month” (v. 6a). As noted above, the people are required to choose the sacrificial animal on the tenth of Nisan, and are to keep it ready until the fourteenth of Nisan.
“and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at evening” (v. 6b). As noted above, this is both a family observance and a national observance. The communal nature is emphasized here as all the households slaughter their animal at the same time—at twilight on the fourteenth of Nisan.
The slaughter would include bleeding, skinning, and gutting the animal to prepare it for roasting. While eating the entire animal is emphasized, that would not include inedible parts.
The meal is to be consumed at night. Performing the slaughter at twilight serves two purposes. First, the twilight hour offers sufficient light to carry out the preparation. Second, in the absence of refrigeration, it is important to slaughter the animal close to the time that it will be cooked and consumed. By slaughtering the animals at twilight, the people will enjoy fresh meat for this nighttime meal.
The months are keyed to the cycle of the moon, and the fourteenth of the month is the time of the full moon. The moon will provide light for the meal and the subsequent exodus.
“They shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they shall eat it” (v. 7). Doorposts are the upright supports on either side of the door. They support the lintel, the horizontal beam across the top of the door. Yahweh instructs the people to sprinkle the animal’s blood on the doorposts and lintel of each house. They are to do this prior to the meal—while the blood of the sacrificed animal is still fresh.
Yahweh tells them to use blood for this purpose, because blood is associated with the life of the animal. Yahweh prohibited the consumption of blood quite early (Genesis 9:4), and Jewish law will later prohibit its consumption—”for the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). Yahweh chooses blood—the life of the animal—to preserve the lives of the Israelites. This blood will emphasize the life-for-life transaction that takes place at the Passover.
“They shall eat the flesh in that night, roasted with fire, and unleavened bread. They shall eat it with bitter herbs” (v. 8). This meal has a hurried character, because the Israelites will be preparing to leave Egypt this very night.
Roasting a lamb or goat over a fire is the quickest and easiest way to prepare it for consumption. Unleavened bread requires no waiting for the bread to rise. Bitter herbs would include plants such as lettuce, endive, chicory, and dandelion, which would be readily available. Perhaps the bitter herbs are intended to commemorate the bitterness of Israel’s service to Egypt as slave laborers (1:14).
“Don’t eat it raw, nor boiled at all with water, but roasted with fire” (v. 9a). Eating raw meat would be quicker, but would impose health risks—inappropriate for thousands of people planning to start on a long journey that very night. Boiling meat would require extra time to boil the water. Also, roasted meat makes a nicer meal that boiled meat.
“with its head, its legs, and its inner parts” (v. 9b). For those accustomed to purchasing meat in shrink-wrapped packages, the Yuk Factor gets pretty high here.
As noted above, there is an emphasis on consuming the whole animal, but this would not include inedible parts. Brains are edible, so they are to include the head. Inner organs would include the heart, liver, kidneys, and other edible organs.
“You shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire” (v. 10). This provision has a health purpose. Hundreds of thousands of people are about to embark on a long journey. Having no refrigeration, they would be foolish to eat leftover meat that might spoil and make them sick.
But, more importantly, this is a sacred meal—intended for something greater than fueling the Israelites for flight. It is intended to honor Yahweh and their relationship to Yahweh. Burning leftover meat highlights the sacred nature of this observance, making it clear that it is food for the soul as well as food for the body.
“This is how you shall eat it: with your belt on your waist, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste: it is Yahweh’s Passover”
(v. 11). As noted above, there is a hurried quality to this meal. That is part of the reason for the roasted meat and the unleavened bread. We see that same hurried quality now with regard to clothing. The Israelites are to eat this meal dressed for travel. A person preparing for travel would tuck some of the loose cloth of the robe into the belt (girded loins) to avoid tripping while moving across uneven ground. People would usually remove sandals indoors, but are to eat this meal with sandals on their feet. Shepherds use staffs to herd and to defend sheep, and would check their staffs at the door when coming indoors—but these people are to eat this meal with staffs in hand.
EXODUS 12:12-13: I WILL STRIKE ALL THE FIRSTBORN
12For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and animal. Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Yahweh. 13The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be on you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.
“For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and animal” (v. 12a). This alerts the Israelites that something momentous is about to happen—and will happen this very night. Yahweh will implement the tenth plague on Egypt, striking down (killing) all the firstborn—both human and animal—throughout the land.
I remembered that a death angel performed this task, but the text doesn’t mention a death angel (although 12:23 does mention a “destroyer”). It goes on to say, “It happened at midnight, that Yahweh struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of livestock” (12:29).
In most families, there is a special joy associated with the firstborn. That was especially true in ancient times. While I have not been able to research Egyptian practices associated with their firstborn, we can see the preeminence of the firstborn reflected in Jewish law and practice:
• Yahweh considers Israel to be his firstborn (4:22; see also Jeremiah 31:9).
• Israelites are to consecrate all firstborn, both human and animals, to Yahweh (Exodus 13:2; 12-13).
• While Jewish law requires the sacrifice (the death) of the firstborn, it requires that people redeem their firstborn sons and allows for the redemption of certain animals (Exodus 13:2, 12-13; 22:29-30; 34:20; Leviticus 27:26; Numbers 18:15).
• Firstborn cattle, sheep, and goats are to be holy—used as sacrificial animals. There is no provision for redeeming them. They must be slaughtered as sacrifices to Yahweh (Numbers 18:17; Deuteronomy 15:19).
• Firstborn sons are to receive a double portion of the inheritance, and fathers are prohibited from reassigning the firstborn’s portion to another son (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
• It is through the firstborn son that families trace their lineage.
To summarize, people tend to hold their firstborn especially dear. Therefore, Yahweh will strike down the firstborn throughout Egypt as a way of breaking Pharaoh’s hard heart and forcing him to let the Israelites go.
“Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (v. 12b). The judgment that Yahweh brings on Egypt during Passover night will extend not only to the firstborn of Egypt and their parents, but also to Egypt’s gods. Egyptians have looked to these gods to provide prosperity and protection, but they will learn this night that their gods (which, in fact, are not gods at all) have no power to save them.
“I am Yahweh”(YHWH—Yahweh) (v. 12c). YHWH or Yahweh comes from a form of the Hebrew verb “to be” that means “I am who I am.” This is the word that God used to identify himself to Moses. When Moses asked God his name, God replied, YHWH or “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).
“The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be on you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt” (v. 13). Note that Yahweh doesn’t say, “The blood shall be to me for a token on the houses where you are,” but says, “The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are.”
Yahweh could have identified Israelite homes without a sign. However, by requiring Israelites to smear blood on their doorposts, Yahweh gives them opportunity to exercise their faith. He will honor this expression of faith by allowing the faithful to escape the havoc that will be wreaked on the Egyptian firstborn.
EXODUS 12:14: THIS DAY SHALL BE FOR YOU A MEMORIAL
14This day shall be to you for a memorial, and you shall keep it a feast to Yahweh: throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever.
“This day shall be to you for a memorial, and you shall keep it a feast to Yahweh: throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever” (v. 14). It is not just this day (Nisan fourteen) that the people will observe, but seven days (vv. 15-20). They will open the seven day observance with a solemn assembly and close it with a second solemn assembly. During the seven days, they will abstain from work, purge their homes of leaven, and eat unleavened bread. They will continue this commemoration as a “perpetual ordinance” (v. 17).
Having created people, Yahweh knows that they forget easily. This annual observance is to keep the Passover fresh in Israel’s memory—to remind Israel of its origins and of Yahweh’s providential care.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan