The Institution of the Passover

12:1  The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 12:2 “This month is to be your beginning of months; it will be your first month of the year. 12:3 Tell the whole community of Israel, ‘In the tenth day of this month they each must take a lamb for themselves according to their families—a lamb for each household. 12:4 If any household is too small for a lamb, the man and his next-door neighbor are to take a lamb according to the number of people—you will make your count for the lamb according to how much each one can eat. 12:5 Your lamb must be perfect, a male, one year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 12:6 You must care for it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then the whole community of Israel will kill it around sundown. 12:7 They will take some of the blood and put it on the two side posts and top of the doorframe of the houses where they will eat it. 12:8 They will eat the meat the same night; they will eat it roasted over the fire with bread made without yeast and with bitter herbs. 12:9 Do not eat it raw or boiled in water, but roast it over the fire with its head, its legs, and its entrails. 12:10 You must leave nothing until morning, but you must burn with fire whatever remains of it until morning. 12:11 This is how you are to eat it—dressed to travel, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You are to eat it in haste. It is the LORD’S Passover.

Tidball points out that the story of the exodus has been an inspiring symbol for many: Oliver Cromwell and the English radicals who overthrew Stuart oppression; the civil right movement in America in the 1960s; and liberation theologians in Latin America. ‘The transformation of the sovereign action of God on behalf of Israel into a common metaphor for any movement towards freedom, however, is dangerous. Too often people want the exodus without the Passover, liberation without the blood, salvation without the sacrifice and freedom without the cross. In the historic understanding of Israel, the exodus and the Passover are inseparable. The one would not have happened without the other.’

The events of Passover night defined Israel as a nation. ‘That night was to them the beginning of nationhood. It fashioned their understanding of God, framed their worldview, configured their laws, moulded their social life and pervaded their worship.’ (Tidball)

Critical scholarship tends to reject the account of the institution of the Passover as given in Ex 12. The common view is that it originated as an agricultural ceremony that expressed thankfulness for flocks and herds, and solicited prosperity and sought protection from hostile forces. But such reconstructions are historically speculative and theological impoverished. (Tidball)

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron – The initiative is with God. It is God who ‘brings out’, ‘rescues’ (Ex 3:8), ‘delivers’, ‘saves’ (Ex 14:30), and ‘redeems’ (Ex 6:6) his people.

This account reveals, according to Tidball,

  1. the faithfulness of God. Here is a fulfilment of the promise made generations before to Abraham, Gen 15:13f, and recalls in the book of Exodus more than one, Ex 2:24; 3:17; 6:5; 13:5,11.
  2. the compassion of God. The people have been treated cruelly, Ex 2:11; 5:1-21. The Lord has heard their groans and cries, and has had pity on them, Ex 2:23f; 3:7.
  3. the justice of God. He has sovereign power over all nations, and moves against unrighteousness wherever it is found.
  4. the power of God. The Lord moved against Pharaoh with ‘an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement,’ Ex 6:6.
  5. and, we might add, the patience of God. The Passover is the last in a series of ten plagues, a decisive act of judgement when all warnings have been unheeded.

The people would not only observe God’s actions: they were also to obey his word, cf. v50. The two are inseparably connected.

v2 Note how precisely the time is set. Preparations for the Passover were to commence on the 10th day (v2) of the first month (Abib, known in later times as Nisan, Ne 2:1; March-April in our calendar). The corn would be newly ripe, another reminder that the Passover represented a fresh beginning. Passover was both a New Year and a spring festival. ‘Israel’s existence as a nation began all over again and in a fresh and wonderful way when the lamb died.’ (Motyer)

The whole community of Israel – lit. ‘the whole congregation’ – this is the first use of the term in the Pentateuch, and unlies the NT idea of ‘the church’.

A lamb for his family, one for each household – ‘Representation, if not substitution, is clearly implied’ (Cole).

There is significance in the way the victim is chosen. The animal had to confirm to certain specifications. It could be taken from among the sheep or the goats, v5, but must be the best of the flock.

v4 This first Passover is to be celebrated in the family.   So also, possibly, later Passovers up until the time of the building of Solomon’s temple.  Deut 16:5f assumes settled life in the Promised Land is assumed, and the Passover is to be celebrated centrally, on the anniversary of the exodus.

A further apparent difference between the two accounts is that in Ex 12 the animal is to be roasted, whereas in Deut 16 it is to be boiled.  It is supposed that the author of 2 Chron 35:13 recognised the discrepancy, and made some effort to recognise the authority of both texts by saying that the offering was ‘boiled in the fire’.

Year-old males – the original may mean ‘born within a year’ (Cole). If the lamb was a yearling, it would have been fully grown.

Fourteenth day of the month – exactly halfway through the month, when the moon would be full.

The chosen animal must be kept for four days, to ensure that it was ritually pure and free from blemish. This is another indication of the care that was to be taken. ‘Those responsible for the sacrifice had to count the heads, assess the needs and, in a time-frame that allowed for calm deliberation, examine the animal for flaws and set it apart.’ (Motyer)

Slaughter them at twilight – lit. ‘between two evenings’ – ‘either between 3 p.m. and sunset, as the Pharisees maintained and practised; or, as the Samaritans and others argued, between sunset and dark. The earlier time, as Edersheim points out, allows more leeway for the slaughtering of the innumerable lambs, and is probably to be preferred.’ (NBD)

The blood – ‘The Passover was scarcely a sacrifice in the later sense of the word. It was not directly connected with sin, although it was “apotropaic” in the sense of averting God’s “stroke,” and a blood ritual was therefore associated with it…Although, strictly speaking, there is no thought of “atonement” here, the rationale of the blood ritual is the same: it represents a life laid down, Le 17:11.’ (Cole)

Doorframes of the houses suggests settled life.

That same night – Sacrifices were usually offered during the day, but the Egyptians would have kept the Israelites occupied then. The Israelites would also need to make a hasty departure under cover of darkness.

They are to eat the meat – ‘The sacrificial animal bequeathed life to the family not only by being a substitute that shed its blood, thus gaining the freedom of the firstborn, but by being a nutriment that supplied its energy to all the family.’ (Tidball)

Bitter berbs – to remind them of the bitterness they had experienced in Egypt.

Bread made without yeast – Yeast later became a symbol of corruption, but here its absence probably has more to do with the haste in which the meal was to be prepared and consumed, cf. v11.

‘This entire consumption of the lamb constitutes one marked difference between the Passover and all other sacrifices, in which either a part or the whole was burned, and thus offered directly to God. The whole substance of the sacrificed lamb was to enter into the substance of the people, the blood only excepted, which was sprinkled as a propitiatory and sacrificial offering. Another point of subordinate importance is noticed. The lamb was slain and the blood sprinkled by the head of each family: no separate priesthood as yet existed in Israel; its functions belonged from the beginning to the father of the family: when the priesthood was instituted the slaying of the lamb still devolved on the heads of families, though the blood was sprinkled on the altar by the priests; an act which essentially belonged to their office. The typical character of this part of the transaction is clear. Our Lord was offered and his blood shed as an expiatory and propitiatory sacrifice, but his whole Humanity is transfused spiritually and effectually into his Church, an effect which is at once symbolized and assured in holy communion, the Christian Passover.’ (Barnes)

The lamb served no other purpose than to provide Passover protection and Passover nourishment.

It is the Lord’s Passover – ‘The English translation “Passover” does not do justice to the Hebrew terminology. That the verb has to do with protection can be seen in Isa 31:5, where it is parallel to shielding and delivering. The Lord is not portrayed as “passing over” the door but as protecting the entrance from the slaughtering angel (see 12:23). The blood on the doorposts and lintel can now be seen as purifying the doorway in preparation for the Lord’s presence.’ (IVP Background Cmt’y)

‘Not in the relaxed dress of home, but in travelling attire; not at ease around a table, but with a walking-stick in hand; not in calm…but in haste.’ (Durham) ‘In other words, they were not “in slippers and dressing gown” as would befit supper, but booted, girded and ready as those equipped for the day ahead.’ (Motyer)

‘When God is feasting the Christian with present comforts, he must have this gospel shoe on, he must not set to it as if he were feasting at home, but as at a running meal on his way in an inn, willing to be gone as soon as he is refreshed a little for his journey.’ (Gurnall)

12:12 I will pass through the land of Egypt in the same night, and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both of humans and of animals, and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment. I am the LORD. 12:13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, so that when I see the blood I will pass over you, and this plague will not fall on you to destroy you when I attack the land of Egypt.

Pharaoh’s own destructive plans, Ex 1:16, are about to rebound on him.

“I will…strike down every firstborn” – Only the firstborn in each Egyptian household was killed. On the other hand, each entire Israelite household was saved, because Israel as a nation was God’s ‘firstborn’, Ex 4:22.

‘Ramesses II had a very long reign, and Merneptah, who succeeded him, was not his eldest son. Perhaps then it was Merneptah’s elder brother who died on this night.’ (Cole)

I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt – See also Num 33:4.  The contest between Egypt and Israel, Pharoah and Moses, was a contest not only of physical strength but of spiritual power.

‘Virtually every political ideology in the world has sought legitimation by reference to a spiritual, and usually transcendent, source of authority greater than itself, and Egypt was no exception. So, if God was to set his people free, he not only had to defeat Pharaoh but also had to show that the gods who held up his regime were impotent as well.’ (Tidball)

The various plagues, Ex 7:14-11:10, had served to undermine the credibility of the Egyptian gods and of the Egyptian magicians. Compare 1 Pet 1:18f, where the apostle alludes to Christ as the Passover lamb, and says that the blood has redeemed people ‘from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors’, which will include bondage to what Paul refers to as ‘the powers and authorities,’ of which Christ has made ‘a public spectacle…triumphing over them by the cross,’ Col 2:15.

Destructive plague – Scripture shows little interest in explaining the mechanics of the destruction. Whereas many today would like to find a ‘natural’ explanation for it, Scripture emphasises its supernatural nature and purpose as an act of God. Cf. Psa 78:49f.

“When I see the blood, I will pass over you” – Although the problem of sin is not far away, ‘the real issue in this chapter is that unprotected, unsheltered humanity cannot stand in the presence of the Lord the Judge…This is a single issue chapter: “How shall I, whose native sphere is dark, whose mind is dim, before the Ineffable appear, and on my naked spirit bear the Uncreated Beam?”‘ (Motyer)

‘The story of the six immediately preceding plagues proves that the Lord needed no markers or other aids to know where his people were and to exclude them from what was to take place…Therefore the blood on the doors must have had some other significance, and this is borne out by the fact that it is not “when I see you” that the Lord will pass over but when I see the blood.’ (Motyer) By the sight of the blood the Lord was ‘satisfied’, ‘propitiated’.

It was by the blood that the people were kept in safety, vv8-10, 13, 22f. Objectively, they were saved by the blood of the lamb. Subjectively, they were saved by faith, by believing and acting upon the word of God.

It is clear that the lamb is a substitute for the firstborn. Ex 12:30 informs us that in every Egyptian household someone was dead. But ‘someone’ was dead in every Israelite household too – a lamb. Note the detail with which the text describes the choice of the lamb, vv3-6. According to that passage, the lamb was to be suited to the needs of the entire household. Moreover, it was to be unblemished, v5, and therefore acceptable to the Lord (cf Mal 1:6-14).

Jesus our Passover Lamb

‘Over a millennium later…John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). A few years later, Peter says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Paul describes Christ as “our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

‘Jesus is our Passover lamb. He was sacrificed as our substitute. We all deserve to die because of our rebellion against God. But Jesus has died in our place. His blood is, as it were, daubed over our lives so that God will “pass over” us when he comes in judgment.’ (Chester)

12:14 This day will become a memorial for you, and you will celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—you will celebrate it perpetually as a lasting ordinance. 12:15 For seven days you must eat bread made without yeast. Surely on the first day you must put away yeast from your houses because anyone who eats bread made with yeast from the first day to the seventh day will be cut off from Israel.

“This is a day you are to commemorate…a lasting ordinance” – ‘Remembering is very important in the Bible. Indeed, it is a striking thing that looking back and keeping the past in mind is probably just as much stressed in the biblical record as looking forward, rejoicing in hope and living in expectation is.’ (Motyer) Cf. Ps 78; Ezr 7:10,14; 2 Pet 1:12-15; Lk 22:19/1Cor 11:23-26.

‘Within the OT scheme all the sacrifices were repetitive (rather like “repeat prescriptions” from a doctor; cf. Heb 10:1-4), and even Passover could be remembered only by repeated sacrifices. In the case of Passover, however, these repeated sacrifices had a solely commemorative function. The Passover was a “Getting out of Egypt” sacrifice and festival, and once it had achieved this, its great and sole purpose, it could only be remembered…This wonderful truth comes to full flower in Jesus and the cross. In its once-for-all aspect Passover foreshadows his offering “for all time” of the “one sacrifice for sins,” Heb 10:12. At Calvary, by “the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” everything that God required to be done and we sinners needed to have done on our behalf, was accomplished, and accomplished so finally, fully and effectively that the sins of those for whom he dies are not even remembered in heaven, Heb 10:10-18. No further sacrifice for sins is possible, Heb 10:19. Such a work of salvation needs to repetition and requires no re-presentation. It cannot be amplified; it can only be remembered.’ (Motyer)

‘Without doubt, there was much of the gospel in this ordinance; it is often referred to in the New Testament, and, in it, to us is the gospel preached, and not to them only, who could not stedfastly look to the end of these things, Heb 4:2; 2 Cor 3:13.

1. The paschal lamb was typical. Christ is our Passover, 1 Cor 5:7. (1.) It was to be a lamb; and Christ is the Lamb of God, (Jn 1:29) often in the Revelation called the Lamb, meek and innocent as a lamb, dumb before the shearers, before the butchers. (2.) It was to be a male of the first year, (Ex 12:5) in its prime; Christ offered up himself in the midst of his days, not in infancy with the babes of Bethlehem. It denotes the strength and sufficiency of the Lord Jesus, on whom our help was laid. (3.) It was to be without blemish, (Ex 12:5) denoting the purity of the Lord Jesus, a Lamb without spot, 1 Pet 1:19. The judge that condemned him (as if his trial were only like the scrutiny that was made concerning the sacrifices, whether they were without blemish or no) pronounced him innocent. (4.) It was to be set apart four days before, (Ex 12:3,6) denoting the designation of the Lord Jesus to be a Saviour, both in the purpose and in the promise. It is very observable that as Christ was crucified at the passover, so he solemnly entered into Jerusalem four days before, the very day that the paschal lamb was set apart. (5.) It was to be slain, and roasted with fire, (Ex 12:6-9) denoting the exquisite sufferings of the Lord Jesus, even unto death, the death of the cross. The wrath of God is as fire, and Christ was made a curse for us. (6.) It was to be killed by the whole congregation between the two evenings, that is, between three o’clock and six. Christ suffered in the end of the world, (Heb 9:26) by the hand of the Jews, the whole multitude of them, (Lk 23:18) and for the good of all his spiritual Israel. (7.) Not a bone of it must be broken, (Ex 12:46) which is expressly said to be fulfilled in Christ, (Jn 19:33,36) denoting the unbroken strength of the Lord Jesus.

2. The sprinkling of the blood was typical. (1.) It was not enough that the blood of the lamb was shed, but it must be sprinkled, denoting the application of the merits of Christ’s death to our souls; we must receive the atonement, Rom 5:11. (2.) It was to be sprinkled with a bunch of hyssop (Ex 12:22) dipped in the basin. The everlasting covenant, like the basin, in the conservatory of this blood, the benefits and privileges purchased by it are laid up for us there; faith is the bunch of hyssop by which we apply the promises to ourselves and the benefits of the blood of Christ laid up in them. (3.) It was to be sprinkled upon the door-posts, denoting the open profession we are to make of faith in Christ, and obedience to him, as those that are not ashamed to own our dependence upon him. The mark of the beast may be received on the forehead or in the right hand, but the seal of the Lamb is always in the forehead, Rev 7:3. There is a back-way to hell, but no back-way to heaven; no, the only way to this is a high-way, Isa 35:8. (4.) It was to be sprinkled upon the lintel and the sideposts, but not upon the threshold, (Ex 12:7) which cautions us to take heed of trampling under foot the blood of the covenant, Heb 10:29. It is precious blood, and must be precious to us. (5.) The blood, thus sprinkled, was a means of the preservation of the Israelites from the destroying angel, who had nothing to do where the blood was. If the blood of Christ be sprinkled upon our consciences, it will be our protection from the wrath of God, the curse of the law, and the damnation of hell, Rom 8:1.

3. The solemnly eating of the lamb was typical of our gospel-duty to Christ. (1.) The paschal lamb was killed, not to be looked upon only, but to be fed upon; so we must by faith make Christ ours, as we do that which we eat, and we must receive spiritual strength and nourishment from him, as from our food, and have delight and satisfaction in him, as we have in eating and drinking when we are hungry or thirsty: see Jn 6:53-55. (2.) It was to be all eaten; those that by faith feed upon Christ must feed upon a whole Christ; they must take Christ and his yoke, Christ and his cross, as well as Christ and his crown. Is Christ divided? Those hat gather much of Christ will have nothing over. (3.) It was to be eaten immediately, not deferred till morning, Ex 12:10. To-day Christ is offered, and is to be accepted while it is called to-day, before we sleep the sleep of death. (4.) It was to be eaten with bitter herbs, (Ex 12:8) in remembrance of the bitterness of their bondage in Egypt. We must feed upon Christ with sorrow and brokenness of heart, in remembrance of sin; this will give an admirable relish to the paschal lamb. Christ will be sweet to us if sin be bitter. (5.) It was to be eaten in a departing posture; (Ex 12:11) when we feed upon Christ by faith we must absolutely forsake the rule and dominion of sin, shake off Pharaoh’s yoke; and we must sit loose to the world, and every thing in it, forsake all for Christ, and reckon it no bad bargain, Heb 13:13,14.

4. The feast of unleavened bread was typical of the Christian life, 1 Cor 5:7,8. Having received Christ Jesus the Lord, (1.) We must keep a feast in holy joy, continually delighting ourselves in Christ Jesus; no manner of work must be done, (Ex 12:16) no care admitted or indulged, inconsistent with, or prejudicial to, this holy joy: if true believers have not a continual feast, it is their own fault. (2.) It must be a feast of unleavened bread, kept in charity, without the leaven of malice, and in sincerity, without the leaven of hypocrisy. The law was very strict as to the passover, and the Jews were so in their usages, that no leaven should be found in their houses, Ex 12:19. All the old leaven of sin must be put far from us, with the utmost caution and abhorrence, if we would keep the feast of a holy life to the honour of Christ. (3.) It was by an ordinance for ever; (Ex 12:17) as long as we live, we must continue feeding upon Christ and rejoicing in him, always making thankful mention of the great things he has done for us.’ (MHC)

“For seven days” – ‘The serious lesson of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread is that remembering the great, central acts of God on which our faith rests, demands a larger and more concentrated allocation of time and a more focused ordering of our schedules than is now usually the case.’ (Motyer)

“Bread without yeast” – ‘The leavening of bread was normally carried out, not by the use of yeast, or of some other special product, but by the keeping over of part of the dough from one batch of baking to the next. It is widely, and probably correctly, believed that this chain of leavening was broken once a year. This was indubitably so for the Israelite, thanks to the Passover and the week of Unleavened Bread. So it stood, not merely for the speed involved in the deliverance, but also for the new beginning.’ (Ellison)

The NT will develop a symbolism of yeast (leaven) that connects it with sin = 1 Cor 5:7f. Seen in that context, Christian s will ‘see the death of Jesus on the cross, our Passover, as a call to holiness and purgation.’ (Motyer) we should be wary, however, about importing this symbolism as it stands back into Ex 12. Sin in the life of Israel does not become a prime issue until the episode with the golden calf, Ex 32.

12:16 On the first day there will be a holy convocation, and on the seventh day there will be a holy convocation for you. You must do no work of any kind on them, only what every person will eat—that alone may be prepared for you. 12:17 So you will keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because on this very day I brought your regiments out from the land of Egypt, and so you must keep this day perpetually as a lasting ordinance. 12:18 In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month, in the evening, you will eat bread made without yeast until the twenty-first day of the month in the evening. 12:19 For seven days yeast must not be found in your houses, for whoever eats what is made with yeast—that person will be cut off from the community of Israel, whether a foreigner or one born in the land. 12:20 You will not eat anything made with yeast; in all the places where you live you must eat bread made without yeast.’ ”

‘The union of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread can be seen in the observance of the Last Supper. Christ breaks the bread and passes the cup of wine, the former being unleavened bread, the latter symbolizing the blood of the sacrificed lamb.’ (ECB)

‘This law applied equally to the sojourner, the foreigner allowed to live in their land, even though he was not allowed to eat the Passover meal itself, v45. The principle was that while no compulsion was placed on the outsider to accept the people’s religion, yet he was expected to conform to its more public expression.’ (Ellison)

12:21 Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel, and told them, “Go and select for yourselves a lamb or young goat for your families, and kill the Passover animals. 12:22 Take a branch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply to the top of the doorframe and the two side posts some of the blood that is in the basin. Not one of you is to go out the door of his house until morning. 12:23 For the LORD will pass through to strike Egypt, and when he sees the blood on the top of the doorframe and the two side posts, then the LORD will pass over the door, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. 12:24 You must observe this event as an ordinance for you and for your children forever. 12:25 When you enter the land that the LORD will give to you, just as he said, you must observe this ceremony. 12:26 When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’—12:27 then you will say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, when he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck Egypt and delivered our households.’ ” The people bowed down low to the ground, 12:28 and the Israelites went away and did exactly as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron.

The blood must not only be shed, but applied. The same point is made later, by the sprinkling of blood on the altar, in front of the curtain in the tabernacle, or on people seeking healing.’

Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning – The children of Israel were not safe from the avenging angel simply on account of their ethnic origin. They were secure only if they painted the blood of the Passover lamb on the door-frames of their houses and stayed inside until morning. It was only the lamb’s death that gave them protection in the face of divine judgement. The idea of atonement from sin may be in the background, but is not spelt out here: what is clear is that the blood of the victim protects against destruction. This looks forward to the protection that the blood of Christ will offer believers in the face of the wrath of ‘the great dragon’, the ‘ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan’: they overcome him ‘by the blood of the Lamb’, Rev 12:9,11.

‘The message is crystal clear. The blood of the lamb prevented the righteous judgement of God from falling on those who deserved it. God the judge is also God the redeemer and protector. The sacrifice of a perfect offering drew the sting of his wrath. The death of the substitute guaranteed the life of the firstborn. The God who promised to redeem them “with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement,” 6:6, does so through the Passover meal, through the visit of the angel and by changing the mind of Pharaoh.’ (Tidball)

The blood is not simply a coloured marker. It has crucial meaning attached to it, for it represents sacrificed life.

Some critical scholars see a discrepancy (which they would take as evidence of multiple sources).  Stackert: ‘ Does Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt in the middle of the night (Exod 12:29-34), or do they wait until morning to go (Exod 12:22)?’  I can see no discrepancy here, so will not pause for discussion.

The destroyer – An angel, Heb 11:28, mentioned again in 2 Sam 24:16, and God’s agent of judgement.  We are probably to conclude that this angel was a visible manifestation of God himself (a theophany).

‘To this day, at the Passover meal, the youngest child present capable of doing so asks questions about the peculiarities of the celebration. Our outward ritual of worship should be calculated to arouse our children’s curiosity; they should be capable of receiving an intelligible answer. It is encouraging that it is becoming commoner for children to be present at the Lord’s Supper, even if they do not participate.’ (Ellison)

‘Note, 1. It is a good thing to see children inquisitive about the things of God; it is to be hoped that those who are careful to ask for the way will find it. Christ himself, when a child, heard and asked questions, Lk 2:46. 2. It concerns us all rightly to understand the meaning of those holy ordinances wherein we worship God, what is the nature and what the end of them, what is signified and what intended, what is the duty expected from us in them and what are the advantages to be expected by us. Every ordinance has a meaning; some ordinances, as sacraments, have not their meaning so plain and obvious as others have; therefore we are concerned to search, that we may not offer the blind for sacrifice, but may do a reasonable service. If either we are ignorant of, or mistake about, the meaning of holy ordinances, we can neither please God nor profit ourselves.’ (MHC)

“Passover” – The word (Heb. pesah) ‘comes from a verb meaning ‘to pass over’, in the sense of ‘to spare’ (Ex 12:13,27, etc.) (NBD). Cf. the reference to God ‘not sparing’ his Son, Rom 8.

The Deliverance from Egypt

12:29  It happened at midnight—the LORD attacked 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 prison, and all the firstborn of the cattle. 12:30 Pharaoh got up in the night, along with all his servants and all Egypt, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no house in which there was not someone dead. 12:31 Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Get up, get out from among my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, serve the LORD as you have requested! 12:32 Also, take your flocks and your herds, just as you have requested, and leave. But bless me also.”

The Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt – we tend to be uncomfortable with the notion of God’s anger, and like to soften the blow of his judgement. But the text does not back off from this, and does not share out embarrassment in identifying God as one who is angry at evil.

‘The truth is that part of God’s moral perfection is his perfection in judgment. Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable Being? Would a God who put no distinction between the beasts of history, the Hitlers and Stalins (if we dare use names), and his own saints, be morally praiseworthy and perfect? Moral indifference would be an imperfection in God, not a perfection. But not to judge the world would be to show moral indifference. The final proof that God is a perfect moral Being, not indifferent to questions of right and wrong, is the fact that he has committed himself to judge the world.’ (J.I. Packer, Knowing God)

‘God’s retribution against Pharaoh “verifies that the God of Israel is a relentless opponent of human oppression, even when the oppression is undertaken by what appear to be legitimate powers.” It speaks with warning to those who preside over the houses of bondage that exist today, as much as it spoke then, and brings hope to those who suffer at the hands of oppressors. Ond day the oppressors will be dethroned and the captives will go free, as happened within recent memory when the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe fell and te racially unjust regime in South Africa was displaced. For God still remains a God who answers “with awesome deeds of righteousness”.’ (Ps 65:5) (Tidball, quoting Breuggemann)

‘This judgment, terrible though it was, evinced the equity of divine retribution. For eighty years the Egyptians had caused the male children of the Israelites to be cast into the river, (Ex 1:16) and now all their own first- born fell under the stroke of the destroying angel. They were made, in the justice of God, to feel something of what they had made his people feel. Many a time have the hands of sinners made the snares in which they have themselves been entangled, and fallen into the pit which they have dug for the righteous. (Pr 28:10) “Verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth”.’ (Ps 58:11) (JFB)

Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron in the night – This appears to contradict Ex 10:29, where Moses says to Pharaoh, “I will not see your face again.”  But, as Stuart explains, the word translated ‘summoned’ in the present verse often means ‘proclaim, send word to or inform by messenger’.

Stuart concludes:

‘The most likely scenario is that sometime after the exchange of words culminating in 10:29, Moses and Aaron returned to Goshen to organize the Israelites for the exodus (as much of the foregoing part of chap. 12 describes) and that Pharaoh’s permission was sent to him there during the waning hours of the Passover night by mounted messengers.’

“You and the Israelites” – This is the first time that Pharaoh refers to ‘the Israelites’, rather than to ‘the Hebrews’.

12:33 The Egyptians were urging the people on, in order to send them out of the land quickly, for they were saying, “We are all dead!” 12:34 So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, with their kneading troughs bound up in their clothing on their shoulders. 12:35 Now the Israelites had done as Moses told them—they had requested from the Egyptians silver and gold items and clothing. 12:36 The LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and they gave them whatever they wanted, and so they plundered Egypt.

They plundered the Egyptians – As the first part of the verse makes clear, the Egyptians were well-disposed towards the Israelites, and willingly gave them what they asked for.

‘The background for this thrice-recorded incident is the ancient promise God had given to Abraham in Gen 15:14 that the Hebrews would leave Egypt “with great possessions.” God repeated this promise to Moses: Israel would “not go empty-handed” (Ex 3:20-21) away from Egypt.

God himself favorably disposed the hearts of the Egyptians toward Israel (Ps 106:46 says, “He caused them to be pitied”). Also Moses was “highly regarded” (Ex 11:3) by the Egyptians. However, such esteem was not solely attributable to Moses’ personal qualifications, though he had garnered quite a reputation with the magicians, (Ex 8:18-19) the court officials (Ex 9:20 10:7) and Pharaoh himself. (Ex 9:27 10:16) The general populace of Egypt recognized that God was with this man and his people. Therefore a great outpouring of generosity ensued, and that is what these three texts record. All the Israelites had to do was ask. The people were so ready to acknowledge that Israel indeed had been mistreated and that God had been remarkably present with the Jewish leadership that they gave openhandedly.’ (HSB)

12:37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about 600,000 men on foot, plus their dependants. 12:38 A mixed multitude also went up with them, and flocks and herds—a very large number of cattle. 12:39 They baked cakes of bread without yeast using the dough they had brought from Egypt, for it was made without yeast—because they were thrust out of Egypt and were not able to delay, they could not prepare food for themselves either.

‘The Israelites journeyed – ‘When bondage goes, pilgrimage starts.’ (Motyer) Tidball expands: ‘The meal was to be eaten by people ready to make a journey, and once they experienced deliverance they became a pilgrim people on a journey to the Promised Land. The Passover and exodus led to their formation as a free, but holy, nation. They were a people set apart for God.’

About six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children

How many Israelites left Egypt?

According to Exodus 12:37 (NIV) the number of people leaving Egypt at the time of the exodus was ‘about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.’

Now, I have no interest in domesticating the Biblical text in order to make it easier to believe.  However, this number (which would suggest a total of around 2 million people seems improbably high, and is worth investigating in order to see if that is what the text actually means.

Many scholars recognise that this is an unrealistic number, inconsistent with the size of Egyptian cities at that time (about 5,000 inhabitants).  The IVP Bible Background Commentary comments on the implausibility of such a situation: if those leaving Egypt totalled around 2 million, then

as it traveled, the line of people would stretch for over two hundred miles. Even without animals, children and the elderly, travelers would not expect to make twenty miles a day (though caravans could make twenty to twenty-three). When families and animals move camp, the average would be only six miles per day. Whatever the case, the back of the line would be at least a couple of weeks behind the front of the line. This would create some difficulties in the crossing of the sea which seems to have been accomplished overnight, though certainly some have calculated how it could be done. (My emphasis)

Wenham (TOTC on Numbers) identifies the following reasons for regarding the large numbers given in Numbers as problemmatic:

  • ‘It is very difficult to imagine so many people surviving in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years.’
  • ‘They appear internally inconsistent.’  (Most obviously, the ratio of adult males to first-born males is about 27:1; in other words the average family had about 27 sons!).
  • There are other texts ‘which apparently acknowledge that initially there were too few Israelites to occupy the promised land all at once (Exod. 23:29f.; Deut. 7:6f., 21f.).’
  • Then there is the ‘mathematical oddity’ that ‘not only are most of the figures rounded off to the nearest hundred, the hundreds tend to be bunched: 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700 occur but never 000, 100, 800 or 900. This concentration of hundreds between 200 and 700 suggests the totals are not random as might have been expected in a census.’

According to Enns (The Evolution of Adam),

there is no positive, direct evidence for Israelite presence in Egypt or a massive departure of 600,000 men (see Exod. 12:37–38 and Num. 1:46). If one includes women and children, plus others (see Exod. 12:38), I estimate that number to be around 2,000,000. It stretches the imagination to think that a group that large, which then spent forty years wandering around the wilderness, would leave Egypt without a trace in either Egyptian literature or the archaeological record.

In his earlier commentary on Exodus, Enns expresses agnosticism on the issue.

Various explanations have been suggested:-

A literal number?  Older commentators tend to be content with the number as it stands.  This was the view of Keil.  Barnes, who agrees that the total number of persons leaving Egypt would be over 2 million, thinks that ‘this is not an excessive population for Goshen, nor does it exceed a reasonable estimate of the increase of the Israelites, including their numerous dependants.’

More recently, the Apologetics Study Bible defends a literal reading of the text, noting that Ex 1:7 states that the Israelites reproduced rapidly.  The same source suggests that if (as seems likely) the Israelites spent 215 years in Egypt, then this was sufficient time for Jacob’s 12 sons to produced the necessary number of offspring.

In the same publication (art. ‘Numbers in the Bible’), Kirk Lowery appeals to miracle:

‘The Bible records the number of men capable of bearing arms at the time of the exodus to be 603,550 (Nm 1:46). From this, it has been calculated that the entire population leaving Egypt would be about two million. Could such a number survive in the wilderness? The answer is no. Neither could a hundredth of that many survive on their own. It required God’s provision because that part of the world would have been simply unable to support large numbers of nomads, especially without modern farming methods and technology. It required God to actively intervene in Israel’s physical history in order for them to leave Egypt and subsequently survive. That is the point of the Exodus narrative.’

Geisler (When Critics Ask) defends a literal interpretation by saying that it is not necessary to conclude from the biblical data that the crossing took place in the space of 24 hours, and by suggesting that God prepared a pathway ‘several miles wide’ for the Israelites to use.

A number imported into the text from a later period?  Enns cites the work of Sarna, who thinks that the number is accurate, but that it represents the population of Israel at the time of the united monarchy.  According to Durham, Hyatt proposed a similar theory.  This was also the view of Dillmann and Albright.

A symbolic number?  According to this view, the number of 600,000 has been chosen for some (unspecified) symbolic meaning.  Or, perhaps it was used simply as a concrete way of saying ‘many’.  Both of these suggestions are unlikely, however, because the number is given more precisely as 603,550 in Ex 38:26 (cf. Num 1:46).

According to Durham, ‘Beer…proposed that the number “about six hundred thousand” was arrived at by Gematria, the equivalence of the letters of the phrase בני ישׂראל “sons of Israel” with their numerical equivalents. Such an equation yields the number 603,551, remarkably close to the 603,550 of Num 1:46, and even the 601,730 of Num 26:51 and the “about” 600,000 here.’  This suggestion, while ingenious, lacks hard evidence.

With particular reference to the census results given in Numbers, Wenham (TOTC, p73) discusses the proposal of M. Barnouin, according to which the symbolism of the numbers is related to their astronomical significance.  The length of the lunar and solar year were well known, as were the synodic periods of the planets.  So, for example, the number of Benjaminites in Num 1:37 is 100 × 354 days (a short lunar year).

In support of this theory, other texts in the OT use numbers in apparently symbolic ways.  Wenham notes:

    • The ages of the antediluvian patriarchs in Genesis may also be related to astronomical periods. Thus Enoch lived 365 years (Gen. 5:23) and Kenan’s age 910 = 10 quarter years (Gen. 5:14).
    • Furthermore, one of the promises to Abraham was that his descendants should be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5).
    • Indeed, Scripture frequently refers to the celestial bodies as God’s heavenly host (e.g. Deut. 4:19), while the armies of Israel are his earthly hosts (e.g. Josh. 5:14 and throughout Num. 1).
    • The earthly tabernacle was a replica of God’s heavenly dwelling (Exod. 25:9, 40). Both were attended by the armies of the LORD.
    • Finally, Genesis 37:9 compares Jacob and his sons (the ancestors of the twelve tribes) to the sun, moon and stars.

These census numbers then affirm the sacred character of Israel. They remind us that God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, and that the holy people of God is called to struggle for him on earth as the stars fight for him in the heavenly places…

Much of the astronomical information was already known in the early second millennium BC, and the song of Deborah, universally recognized to be one of the earliest poems in the Bible, pictures the stars of heaven fighting alongside the armed tribes of Israel (Judg. 5:20). Thus the idea that the army of Israel corresponded to the heavenly host was an old one.(Bulleting added)

A number arrived at by mistranslation?  Petrie, Mendenhall, Ellison, Humphreys, Stuart and others suggest that the underlying word (‘eleph‘) has undergone development over the centuries, from ‘tent group’ through ‘tribal division’ to ‘thousand’.  At the battle of Ai, recorded in Joshua 7, the killing of 36 soldiers is regarded as a severe military setback.  But it would hardly be a severe setback if the army were actually 600,000 strong.  In Num. 1:16 and Judg. 6:15 the same word refers to a ‘group’ or ‘clan’.

Bruckner, responding to this theory, points out that Ex 38:26 makes it clear that individual men were counted, but this objection is not conclusive.

Stuart offers a full discussion of the issue, arriving (by a slightly different route) to the same conclusion as that just noted.  This scholar notes the wide variety of meanings of eleph within the pages of Scripture.  If we are to take the NRSV as a guide, then the word can mean:

‘Thousand’ – Exod 18:21; Num 10:36; 31:4; 31:5; Josh 7:3; 1 Sam 23:23.
‘Cattle’ – Deut 7:13; 28:4,18, 51.
‘Clan(s)’ – Josh 22:14; Judg 6:15; 1 Sam 10:19; Isa 60:22; Mic 5:2.
‘Division(s)’ – Num 1:16.
‘Family(ies)’ – Josh 22:21,30.
‘Ox(en)’ – Isa 30:24; Psa 8:7.
‘Tribe(s)’ – Num 10:4.

But the word eleph also occurs in accounts of the way in which the Israelite army was organised in units of size, using words that had often been borrowed from other meanings.  So Deut 1:15 – ‘So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you—as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials.’

Stuart thinks that the reference is to foot soldiers, who were organised in family groups, or platoons (elephs) of around 12 each, totalling about 7,000 fighting men, and a population (of men, women and children) of about 30,000.

Stuart concludes:

‘Twenty or thirty thousand people is a number that easily can fit into many modern sorts of venues, from small sports stadiums to beaches to public gatherings and rallies, a fact that may help modern readers of the book visualize the entire Israelite contingent, who were often in one place at one time. It is a number that fits the facts of the book of Exodus well. Such a number of Israelites is large enough to require the miraculous provisions of food and water that the book describes; it is small enough for the whole nation to gather encamped around the tabernacle at the various places listed on the Israelite wilderness itinerary. For most occasions of listening to speeches, the men only would have gathered, several thousand or so in number, not too many to hear a speech shouted at them, especially if its words were relayed. Yet several thousand troops were formidable as a fighting force when directed at one place at a time.’

A mixed multitude – See also Num 11:4.  It would appear from this it was not only the Israelites who responded positively to God’s words and actions.  Did this mixed group of people include Egyptians?  We know from Ex 11:3 that the Egyptians were ‘favourably disposed’ towards the Israelites, and that Moses himself was highly regarded by Pharaoh’s officials and by the people.

Stuart thinks that a ‘huge ethnically diverse’ group is meant – something that few Bible readers today realise.  Stuart comments that ‘many other persons who were not descended from Abraham or Israel joined the Israelites as they left Egypt. These people had observed the miraculous work of Yahweh, Israel’s God, and had become convinced that conversion to him and life among his people would represent their best hope for the future. In this regard they were predecessors to Ruth, who declared to Naomi, “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).’  This group evidently included some Cushites, for Moses married one of their women as his second wife.

More conservatively, Cole comments that ‘these people would either be the result of intermarriage, or else kindred Semitic groups who seized the opportunity to escape.’

According to Matthew Henry, these included ‘hangers on to that great family, some perhaps willing to leave their country, because it was laid waste by the plagues, and to seek their fortune, as we say, with the Israelites; others went out of curiosity, to see the solemnities of Israel’s sacrifice to their God, which had been so much talked of, and expecting to see some glorious appearances of their God to them in the wilderness, having seen such glorious appearances of their God for them in the field of Zoan, Ps. 78:12. Probably the greatest part of this mixed multitude were but a rude unthinking mob, that followed the crowd they knew not why; we afterwards find that they proved a snare to them (Num. 11:4), and it is probable that when, soon afterwards, they understood that the children of Israel were to continue forty years in the wilderness, they quitted them, and returned to Egypt.’

12:40 Now the length of time the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years. 12:41 At the end of the 430 years, on the very day, all the regiments of the LORD went out of the land of Egypt. 12:42 It was a night of vigil for the LORD to bring them out from the land of Egypt, and so on this night all Israel is to keep the vigil to the LORD for generations to come.

Vigil – ‘the Jews kept the night of the passover holy, Ex 12:42. Our Saviour oft spent the night in prayer, Mt 14:23 26:38. We find Paul treading in his Lord and Master’s steps, ‘In watchings, in fastings,’ 2 Cor 6:5. Many a sweet spiritual junket holy David’s devout soul got in the night, when others lay in their bed: ‘My soul shall be satisfied as with mar-row and fatness,…when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches,’ Ps 63:5,6. No doubt, for a devout soul, upon some extra-ordinary occasions-so superstition be avoided and health regarded-thus to watch unto prayer is not only laudable but delectable…Happy soul, that can thus steal in the dark into the arms of his beloved, and watch for devotion while others watch to do mischief or fill themselves with impure delights (Augustinus).’ (Gurnall)

Participation in the Passover

12:43  The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover. No foreigner may share in eating it. 12:44 But everyone’s servant who is bought for money, after you have circumcised him, may eat it. 12:45 A foreigner and a hired worker must not eat it. 12:46 It must be eaten in one house; you must not bring any of the meat outside the house, and you must not break a bone of it. 12:47 The whole community of Israel must observe it.

Servant who is bought for money – ‘It may seem odd that Israelites, enslaved under the pharaoh, would themselves have slaves. Although chattel slavery existed in Israel, especially during and after the reign of King Solomon, the OT laws stand against it. The laws require the release of slaves every 7 years, assuming that any debt they owe or any cost the owner incurred would be paid by then. This was God’s law regarding slavery although it apparently was not kept uniformly in Israel’s long history.’ (Bruckner)

See Jn 19:36.

12:48 “When a foreigner lives with you and wants to observe the Passover to the LORD, all his males must be circumcised, and then he may approach and observe it, and he will be like one who is born in the land—but no uncircumcised person may eat of it. 12:49 The same law will apply to the person who is native-born and to the foreigner who lives among you.”
12:50 So all the Israelites did exactly as the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron. 12:51 And on this very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt by their regiments.

In contrast, cf. Lk 6:46.

The Lord brought the Israelites out of Egypt – The liberation came, not because of some political settlement or even because of the genius of Moses, their leader, but through the agency and power of God himself.

‘The achievements initiated by this one Passover meal were remarkably complete. They involved salvation and judgement, for where the one is available the other must be found too. They included judgement of human sin, the propitiation of God’s holiness and the unmasking of useless idols. For God’s elect people they embraced protection from evil, redemption from sin, release from oppression and dedication for service. The sacrificial ritual was exquisitely designed to achieve its end and to serve as a mirror which would reflect the many-sided splendour of almighty God. It reveals him to be judge, victor, redeemer, protector, saviour and Lord.’ (Tidball)

The NT makes explicit reference to Christ as ‘our Passover lamb’, 1 Cor 5:7: Jn 1:29,36 speaks of him as ‘the lamb of God’. 1 Pet 1:18f speaks of the blood of the lamb as the price of redemption. Rev 5:6,8,12,13; 12:11 all allude to the Passover lamb who, though slain, is alive with power. Luke clearly links the last supper with the Passover meal, Lk 22:13ff, and John makes the same linkage by recording that Jesus was condemned to death just at the time when the Passover lambs were being killed in the temple precincts, Jn 19:14. Although the death of Christ recollects the Passover, it far superecedes it too, for whereas the blood of the Passover lamb was limited in its effiecacy to Israel, the blood of Christ purchases members of all ethnic groups, Rev 5:9.