Origins and influences III: Passover

A long read today! But an important one for it considers Passover. Passover is one of the principal feasts of Judaism, and has proved one of the most important sources for considering the what and wherefore of Eucharist.

Passover perhaps has its most ancient origins in two distinct feasts/rites – the first a nomadic ritual involving the slaughter of a sheep and the use of its blood in a rite to safeguard the family home against evil forces; and the second a spring feast for a settled community to celebrate the barley harvest.

These rituals of sheep/lamb and grain/bread find new and particular significance when they are newly coined to commemorate the night of the Passover when the angel of death visits the first born of the Egyptians (God’s final act that persuades Pharaoh to let go the people of Israel) and the following day as, in haste, they leave.

The Passover

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbour shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.

“Then 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. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.”

Exodus 12.1-20

The command is to a domestic ritual, celebrated by households. It is kept for Israel to remember its new beginning in the liberation from Egypt. It is a ritual that is about remembering, and about passing on knowledge of the saving action of God to the next generation.

From home to Temple and back again

There is quite some leap from this domestic ritual to the practice with which we are familiar with from the time of Jesus, where the keeping of Passover now involves religious sacrifice and is centred on Jerusalem.

The revised practice is imposed on Judaism in instruction provided in Deuteronomy 16.1-5

 “Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the LORD your God, for in the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night. And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the LORD your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that the LORD will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days, nor shall any of the flesh that you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain all night until morning. You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, but at the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, at the time you came out of Egypt. And you shall cook it and eat it at the place that the LORD your God will choose. And in the morning you shall turn and go to your tents. For six days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly to the LORD your God. You shall do no work on it.

Deuteronomy 16.1-5

The Deuteronomic text introduces into the narrative of Moses and the Exodus changes, an instruction to observe Passover in a new way, following innovations, which seem to have been introduced during the rule of King Josiah, at the time of a major religious revival in Israel – as recorded, for example in 2 Chronicles. At the time of revival local temples and sanctuaries were supressed, in favour of the Temple of Jerusalem; and the role of the Temple cult became more and more important for Israel.

Josiah kept a Passover to the LORD in Jerusalem. And they slaughtered the Passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month. He appointed the priests to their offices and encouraged them in the service of the house of the LORD. And he said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the LORD, “Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built. You need not carry it on your shoulders. Now serve the LORD your God and his people Israel. Prepare yourselves according to your fathers’ houses by your divisions, as prescribed in the writing of David king of Israel and the document of Solomon his son. And stand in the Holy Place according to the groupings of the fathers’ houses of your brothers the lay people, and according to the division of the Levites by fathers’ household. And slaughter the Passover lamb, and consecrate yourselves, and prepare for your brothers, to do according to the word of the LORD by Moses.”

Then Josiah contributed to the lay people, as Passover offerings for all who were present, lambs and young goats from the flock to the number of 30,000, and 3,000 bulls; these were from the king’s possessions. And his officials contributed willingly to the people, to the priests, and to the Levites. Hilkiah, Zechariah, and Jehiel, the chief officers of the house of God, gave to the priests for the Passover offerings 2,600 Passover lambs and 300 bulls. Conaniah also, and Shemaiah and Nethanel his brothers, and Hashabiah and Jeiel and Jozabad, the chiefs of the Levites, gave to the Levites for the Passover offerings 5,000 lambs and young goats and 500 bulls.

When the service had been prepared for, the priests stood in their place, and the Levites in their divisions according to the king’s command. And they slaughtered the Passover lamb, and the priests threw the blood that they received from them while the Levites flayed the sacrifices. And they set aside the burnt offerings that they might distribute them according to the groupings of the fathers’ houses of the lay people, to offer to the LORD, as it is written in the Book of Moses. And so they did with the bulls. And they roasted the Passover lamb with fire according to the rule; and they boiled the holy offerings in pots, in cauldrons, and in pans, and carried them quickly to all the lay people. And afterward they prepared for themselves and for the priests, because the priests, the sons of Aaron, were offering the burnt offerings and the fat parts until night; so the Levites prepared for themselves and for the priests, the sons of Aaron. The singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their place according to the command of David, and Asaph, and Heman, and Jeduthun the king’s seer; and the gatekeepers were at each gate. They did not need to depart from their service, for their brothers the Levites prepared for them.

So all the service of the LORD was prepared that day, to keep the Passover and to offer burnt offerings on the altar of the LORD, according to the command of King Josiah. And the people of Israel who were present kept the Passover at that time, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days. No Passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as was kept by Josiah, and the priests and the Levites, and all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah this Passover was kept.

2 Chronicles 35.1-20

This is pretty much how Passover would have been celebrated in the Second Temple period also, at the time of Jesus.

The changes from the earliest times of Passover are remarkable. The meal held in the household remains a principal feature of the ritual, but now the slaughter of the lamb is understood as sacrifice, and it is not carried out by the family but by priests, and not in the home but in the Temple of Jerusalem.

However in 70 AD the Temple was destroyed following the Jewish revolt against Rome and the sacrificial cult came to an end; and Jews were banished from Jerusalem.

In these changed circumstances Jews continued to keep Passover but as it could no longer be celebrated in Jerusalem and at the Temple with sacrifice offered by priests the ritual was once more developed as a domestic ritual.

We do not know in any detail the form it took in the first centuries after the destruction of the Temple until we start to find some description of it in the Mishnah (formed during 1st and 2nd centuries AD). This does confirm the introduction of a domestic liturgy before the Passover meal (a series of ritual questions and answers about what is being done and why, and the singing of Psalms). However we only get comprehensive detail of what was done at Passover meal from much later, the 8th and 9th centuries AD.

So there have been many changes in how Passover has been kept in the maybe 3500 years since the Exodus. What remains constant in the way the feast has been kept is a family sharing in a meal that celebrates God’s faithful service of his people, his gift of freedom from oppression and his promise to bring them to the promised Land.

That latter – the promise of bringing them to the promised Land – has been differently understood according to the circumstances of particular Jews celebrating Passover in their particular time and place. Sometimes those celebrating have been free and in (more or less) safe possession of the Land. Sometimes they have been free but away from the Land. Sometimes they have been away from the Land and far from free.

Remembering in anticipation

In most every circumstance when Jews celebrate Passover there is something of the already and not yet. God’s past saving action is remembered and praised – and Jews renew their faith and trust in that same saving action being there for them here and now to bring ancient promises to their complete fulfilment – in a freedom which is about more than freedom from oppressive rulers, and being at home in a way which (however important the land of Israel remains for Jews) is more than simply being in possession of a particular land.

This remembering of the past in a way that makes past present and opens the present to future fulfilment in continuity with the past, by the agency of God goes under the technical term of anamnesis. It is a feature of Christian prayer, most especially in the celebration of the Sacraments. We will return to the concept when we look at the Eucharistic Prayers.

Why is Passover important for Christians? Well, most everything in ancient Jewish tradition is important for Christians for it is part of the heritage the Church shares with Judaism. But the Passover is of particular importance because from the earliest days it has been one of the ways in which the life and death and resurrection of Jesus has been interpreted, beginning with Jesus’ own words at the last supper, continuing through the writings of Paul and the Evangelists, and continuing in the Church’s theology to this day – not least in her Eucharistic theology.

That will be considered in next week’s blog.

And the week after we move on to look at the rituals with which we Christians begin our contemporary celebration of Mass.

For now, some concluding reflection questions.

Reflection Questions

  • What are the foundational stories of your family? Your community? Your nation?
  • What domestic prayer rituals do you keep in your home? Are there others you know are kept by friends and family or parishioners?
  • What difference is there – for you – between the liturgy prayed in church, and the prayer of the domestic church?
  • What has God done for us in the past that we still wait to come to fulfilment? Are there particular times or ways in which we focus more on what has been, and times when we look forward more to what is still to come?


  • Translation of Scripture: English Standard Version (c) 2001-9, Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
  • Photographs. All (c) Allen Morris: 2016, Gloucester Cathedral; 2007, Temple Model, Western Wall Excavations, Jerusalem; 2019, Passover seder plate. Museum of Religion, Glasgow
  • Commentary: © 2021, Allen Morris

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