Exodus 12: 1-20 Time, Ritual and Eating as Acts of Identity
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 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. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. 15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17 You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance. 18 In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. 19 For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. 20 You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread.
The taking of an enslaved people and transforming them into a chosen people, a nation of priests and agents of blessing for the entire world is a daring act of identity reconstruction. There will always be the temptation to revert to the former identity, to return to the land of Egypt and resubmit to the yoke of slavery when the call and covenant of the LORD becomes heavy or the passage of the wilderness or the people already occupying the promised land become a real and present danger. Identity is not something that is stated once and naturally becomes a part of one’s character, identity is formed through action, hearing, ritual and practice. If the Exodus is the narrative of Israel’s creation as a nation then Passover could be the ritual of renewal of that identity as it is handed on from generation to generation.
There are many ways in which identity is reinforced. We can trace the calendar most of Americans use back to the Julian calendar in 46 BCE so we may not consider the calendar as an important way of stating identity but you don’t have to spend much time studying ancient documents to realize how important the organizing of time is. For example, the Jewish Pseudepigrapha (A collection of documents from the centuries around the birth of Jesus which didn’t get included as a part of the bible) spends a great deal of time arguing about how to structure the calendar. Festival days which occupy the calendar shape the year and say when and how the year is ordered. For liturgical Christians, as another example, the year begins with the beginning of the season of Advent (four Sundays prior to Christmas) and this is held in tension with the Julian calendar which begins on January 1. Here time begins in the springtime in a time that celebrates the setting free of the people from their captivity in Egypt. Their year, like their new identity, begins and is centered around this act of liberation. The calendar is structured so that time becomes an active participant in the re-narrating this foundational story of the people of Israel.
Eating and practices also becomes an act of identity and remembrance. A couple of secular examples: when I served with 2d Cavalry in the U.S. Army there was a practice of always wearing our sleeves down (long sleeved battle dress uniforms can have their sleeves rolled up in garrison in warm weather for comfort) which while hot, especially serving in Louisiana, was the manner in which they would be worn in combat. It was a way in which the unit’s motto ‘Toujour Pret-Always Ready’ was reinforced through a practice. In the United States the practice of Thanksgiving, where certain foods are shared and eaten as an act of celebration but also a, perhaps unconscious, remembrance of the story told in elementary school of the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims in the new world of 1621. Eating becomes an act of remembrance and storytelling in the Passover. The food that is eaten remembers the events of the Passover where a lamb is slaughtered and the people eat unleavened bread. The festival and the food that is eaten also becomes a boundary marker for the people who are gathered. As I mentioned, in connection with Deuteronomy 14, if we understand the prohibitions legalistically we miss the point. The action of not eating leavened bread over the week of the Passover becomes a boundary marker which defines those who are a part of the community and those who are not. They are both expressions of devotion, reminders of a shared identity and bearers of the story. The lamb and the unleavened bread become visual words to pass on the story in a visual form across the generations.
Exodus 12: 21-28 The First Passover
21 Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. 23 For the LORD will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. 24 You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. 25 When you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.'” And the people bowed down and worshiped.
28 The Israelites went and did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron.
The meal within the home, or within the community of faith as it may be practiced today has a teaching purpose and here that purpose is located in the first Passover. The identification with future Passovers with the first Passover goes with one of the basic question of children, ‘what does this mean?’ The act and the ritual becomes an opportunity to tell again the story of God’s action of liberation, of the constitution of the people of Israel as they were taken out of the land of Egypt, and the beginning of the people’s journey to becoming the people of God. In the ancient world the slaughter of an animal was often reserved for a special celebration. In a world before refrigeration the meat would have to be eaten in a short period of time and therefore it was often only at festivals where a large animal like a lamb, goat or bull would be slaughtered and used as a part of the family’s or community’s celebration. It would be a feast looked forward to.
The plant here is probably Origanum Syriacum (Syrian Oregano) pictured above rather than what we call hyssop today
This first Passover has an element that was unique to that celebration: the painting of the lintel and doorposts with blood with hyssop. Here the blood serves as a marker to keep the ‘destroyer’ traveling with the LORD away from the Israelite houses. The ‘destroyer’ may have been thought of as ‘night demon’ which was a part of the folklore of all ancient Near Eastern cultures or, more likely in a biblical context, an angelic being that was dispatched as a means of destruction (see for example 2 Samuel 24: 16f. and 2 Kings 19: 35). (Myers, 2005, p. 99) Hyssop, which was used to apply the blood, is used elsewhere in the scriptures as a means of purification of lepers (see Leviticus 14 and Numbers 19) and that also serves as a metaphorical purpose of purification of sins in Psalm 51:9.
Lamentations over the Death of the First Born of Egypt by Charles Sprague Pearce (1877)
Exodus 12: 29-36: The Final Sign and the Departure of Israel
29 At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD, as you said. 32 Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”
33 The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” 34 So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders. 35 The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, 36 and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.
In the previous chapter the death of the firstborns in the land of Egypt and the people asking for gold and silver from the Egyptians is foretold, now the final sign comes and the cry goes up from Egypt. The loss of the children of Israel and their enslavement which brought about their cry to the LORD now has its echo in the cry of their oppressor. The portrayal of the LORD in the book of Exodus is that of a passionately engaged and involved God taking sides with the people of Israel against the leaders and people of Egypt. Egypt has been devastated, it’s crops, livestock and future have been compromised in seeking to hold on to a reliance upon the enslaved people of Israel. Change is hard and rarely comes without resistance but here, finally, the pain of the signs and wonders is enough to allow Pharaoh and the people to relent. No further conditions or restrictions are placed on the people’s departure to go into the wilderness and worship the LORD. Yet, now Pharaoh is put in the position of the petitioner asking Moses to intercede and bring a blessing for him as well.
The people do receive jewelry and clothing as they prepare for their departure. There is an urgency to the scene as the people of an Egypt, wishing for an end to this drama, open up their wealth and resources to send the former slaves on the way. Perhaps for the Egyptians this is a time of repentance or paying for years of servitude. Perhaps for the Hebrew people this is a recompense for lifetimes of servitude and the beginning of establishing themselves as a new people who are independent and free. The jewelry and clothing may not be the most important things for a long journey but for the departure of the people to worship they are gifts that can be dedicated to the worship of the LORD their God.
David Roberts, The Israelites Leaving Egypt (1830)
Exodus 12: 37-42: Beginning the Journey and Time Renarrated
37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. 38 A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. 39 They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.
40 The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. 41 At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt. 42 That was for the LORD a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the LORD by all the Israelites throughout their generations.
The journey of a mixed crowd of six hundred thousand men (not counting women, children) would lead to a departing people of over a million people, probably larger than two million. This is probably hyperbole, populations in the ancient world were much lower than today and even a million people would have been a very large portion of the population of ancient Egypt. Even at the beginning of the Exodus the people are not purely one ethnicity, they are a mixed group. The mixed group may refer to Egyptians and others who either chose to depart Pharaoh’s empire or who were linked to the community through marriage or other relationships. The narrative of a large group of people, Israelite and non-Israelite, and large herds making the initial stage leaving for the wilderness would have been a chaotic scene and yet an urgent one for the Hebrews and the Egyptians. The Egyptians want the people to depart prior to any additional punishment (or changes of heart within Pharaoh) and the Hebrews also now are finally having the opportunity to depart but are also driven out of Egypt.
Four hundred and thirty years of the Hebrew people in Egypt comes to an end. Their new calendar points to a new identity and the beginning of a new epoch. Time now becomes measured by their departure from Egypt and is reinforced by the vigil they are to keep. The move as a host, and military language begins to be used for their people, as they depart by companies.
Exodus 12: 43-51: The Ordinance Restated and Boundaries
43 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised; 45 no bound or hired servant may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the animal outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 The whole congregation of Israel shall celebrate it. 48 If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the LORD, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it; 49 there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.
50 All the Israelites did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 That very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.
Defining group boundaries is an important function in any society. With the Passover being the constituting ritual for the people it is important to address who is to eat of the Passover. What does it mean to be a part of the community that takes part in this rite. Circumcision becomes the marker that a person chooses to identify with the Israelite community. Slaves become joined to the household and are circumcised and an alien in the land may choose to have their household circumcised and join in the Passover celebration and by extension the community.