The Festival of Freedom
What was the Passover? How was it observed? Why do not Christian celebrate it?
THE deliverance of more than two million people from slavery is not something to be forgotten. Especially is this so when the deliverance comes by the hand of God in a miraculous manner. It was just such a deliverance that was experienced by the descendants of the patriarch Israel in the sixteenth century before the Christian era. At the instigation of a tyrannical ruler the Egyptians enslaved the people of Israel. Their oppressions increased with the passing of the years. There was no government on earth they could look to for help or even for a note of protest. Only a miracle could bring them freedom.
The miracle came by the hand of God through a series of plagues that was climaxed by the death of Egypt’s first-born. On that very night the Hebrews were freed from bondage and urged by the Egyptians to get out of the country as quickly as possible. That remarkable deliverance by the hand of God was commemorated thereafter by a yearly festival called the Passover. The manner in which it was to be observed was established by God the first day of the month of their deliverance.
It was at the time of the new moon nearest the spring equinox of the year 1513 B.C. that God said to Moses and Aaron: “This month will be the start of the months for you. It will be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Ex. 12:2) The time for the deliverance of the people of Israel was divinely set for the fourteenth day of this first month, which at that time was called Abib. Centuries later when the Jews returned from captivity to Babylon the name was changed to Nisan.
The Hebrews were commanded to begin making preparations on the tenth day of the month for the Passover meal. God told Moses: “On the tenth day of this month they are to take for themselves each one a sheep for the ancestral house, a sheep to a house. And it must continue under safeguard by you until the fourteenth day of this month, and the whole congregation of the assembly of Israel must slaughter it between the two evenings.”—Ex. 12:3, 6.
The animal was to be sound and one year old. It could be chosen either from the male lambs or from the goats. There was to be one animal for each household, but if a household was too small to consume a whole lamb, the closest neighboring household was to join with them in eating it.
The Hebrews measured their day from sundown to sundown instead of from midnight to midnight as we do. After the sun had dipped below the horizon on the evening of the thirteenth day of Abib the anticipated fourteenth day began. They killed their animals between the time when the sun went down and when the afterglow gave way to darkness. The killing, therefore, was done “between the two evenings,” as God had commanded, and on the fourteenth day of Abib. The lamb was prepared and eaten before midnight.
The blood of the animals was splashed upon the two doorposts and on the upper part of the doorway of each Israelite home where a group had gathered to eat the passover. This splashing was done with a bunch of hyssop. The animals were roasted whole with no bones being broken. If any meat was left over from the meal, it was burned. None was to be kept until the next day. Unfermented cakes and bitter greens were eaten with the meat. The Hebrews were prepared to leave Egypt on a moment’s notice. “In this way you should eat it, with your hips girded, sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand, and you must eat it in haste. It is Jehovah’s passover.”—Ex. 12:11.
The Passover lamb foreshadowed Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who would deliver God’s people from the bondage of sin and death. The sprinkling of the animal’s blood on the outside of the doors pictured that we have faith in Christ’s blood and publicly confess its ransoming power. As the lamb’s blood did not mean deliverance and life to those unbelievers outside the Israelite homes, so Christ’s blood does not mean deliverance to unbelievers outside God’s organization. For the Egyptians the blood on the doorposts betokened God’s vengeance. So, too, does Christ’s blood for this unbelieving world. The bitter herbs typify how the followers of Christ would suffer the bitterness of persecution and reproach from this wicked world because they are a people for Jehovah’s name and follow Christ’s example in declaring his name.
According to God’s command, not a bone of the lamb was broken. This foretold how Christ, the Lamb of God, would not have a bone broken. Psalm 34:20 also foretold it: “He is guarding all the bones of that one; not one of them at all has been broken.”
By eating the passover while being fully equipped to leave Egypt at once the Israelites pictured those today who are Jehovah’s worshipers and who are not part of this corrupt world. Shortly they are due to enter God’s new world of freedom.
When God’s angel of destruction went through Egypt that night and killed the first-born of man and beast he passed over every home that had blood from the Passover victim splashed upon the doorposts. Inside the houses the Hebrews waited for their freedom. None suffered the loss of a first-born. The destruction of Egypt’s firstborn was a picture of how the chief ones in Satan’s visible organization would become dead in God’s sight and as respects his witnesses in these last days.
The preservation of the Israelites during the angelic killing of Egypt’s first-born and then their deliverance from slavery was a marvelous demonstration of God’s power in their behalf. It was an event that was not to be forgotten, especially since it was a vindicating of Jehovah’s great name. God commanded them to remember it: “This day must serve as a memorial for you, and you must celebrate it as a festival to Jehovah throughout your generations.” (Ex. 12:14) More than forty years later when the Hebrews were about to enter the Promised Land Moses reminded them: “Let there be an observing of the month of Abib, and you must celebrate the passover to Jehovah your God, because in the month of Abib Jehovah your God brought you out of Egypt by night.”—Deut. 16:1.
From what Exodus 13:5 says it appears that the observing of this festival of freedom was to take place when the Israelites had reached the land God had promised them. The only record of its being observed while they were in the wilderness is at Numbers 9:1-5. This was in their second year out of Egypt while they were still in the wilderness of Sinai. There is no record that it was observed again until Joshua and the sons of those who had left Egypt had crossed the Jordan and were in Gilgal. After being circumcised they then began observing the Passover.—Josh. 5:2-10.
The manner in which the Passover was observed in later years was a bit different from the way it was eaten in Egypt. In the first Passover the animal victim was either a male lamb or a young goat, but after the return from Babylonian captivity the animal was limited to a lamb. Instead of eating the passover while standing with staff in hand and with sandals on, as was done in Egypt, the Hebrews in the Promised Land ate it in a relaxed position. Those celebrants who lived in the first century ate it while lying on their left side with the left elbow placed on the table and the head resting on the left hand. This position explains why the apostle John was able to lean upon Jesus’ breast when he asked a question. “There was reclining in front of Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, and Jesus loved him. So the latter leaned back upon the breast of Jesus and said to him: ‘Master, who is it?’” (John 13:23, 25) There was sufficient room between them for Jesus to have free movement of his right hand when eating.
Instead of each household eating the passover in its own house, as was done in Egypt, each gathered at Jerusalem. It was the place God had chosen. Some lodged with the residents of the city and others camped outside the walls.
Wine was not used in the Passover meal in Egypt, and its use was not commanded by God. However, it was an essential part of the celebration in the days of Jesus. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, it was supposed to indicate Israel’s joy during this festival of freedom. Only red wine was used after being diluted with water. Four cups in all were served. “These correspond to the four expressions of redemption,” states the Babylonian Talmud. These were found in Exodus 6:6, 7. A blessing was pronounced over each cup. It might be mentioned, however, that the wine was not necessarily restricted to four cups. After the first cup of wine each person in the gathering washed his hands. It seems reasonable to conclude that it was at this point in the Passover celebration that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.—John 13:1-11.
The bitter greens were dipped in a mixture of vinegar and salt water and sometimes in a mixture of dates, raisins and vinegar. This latter mixture was called haróseth. The one who was the head of the group took some herbs, dipped them in this mixture and ate them. He then handed some to the others. This was followed by the father asking his son about the meaning of the Passover.
During the celebration the “Egyptian” Hallel was sung. The first part of it was sung when the celebrants were drinking the second cup of wine. It consisted of Psalms 113 and 114. The second part consisted of Psalms 115-118 and was sung with the last cup of wine. It is thought that this was the song that Jesus and his apostles sang at the conclusion of the Memorial that he introduced after the Passover A.D. 33. That song customarily concluded the Passover.—Matt. 26:30.
OBSERVED BY EVERY MALE
Every male Israelite was required to come to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Failure to observe it resulted in one’s being cut off from the people. The only exception was when an Israelite was away on a journey or was ceremonially unclean. In such cases he was required to observe the Passover on the same day one month later. “But when the man was clean or did not happen to be off on a journey and neglected to prepare the passover sacrifice, then that soul must be cut off from his people.” (Num. 9:13) Women were not obligated to be present, but they generally were.
When a pilgrim was on his way to Jerusalem there was danger of his becoming unclean by unwittingly touching the grave of someone who had died in the open field. It was the practice that whenever anyone died in the open fields he was to be buried where he was found instead of being brought to the cemetery of the nearest town. These graves were whitened one month before the Passover in order to protect people from becoming unclean by touching them. It may have been these whitened graves that Jesus had in mind when he told the scribes and Pharisees: “You resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every kind of uncleanness.”—Matt. 23:27.
All leaven in the homes of the people was searched out and burned before the Passover began. From the fourteenth day of Nisan, or Abib, until the twenty-first day no leaven was eaten; only unfermented cakes were used. The day following the Passover, Nisan 15, was considered the beginning of the seven-day festival of unfermented cakes.
The fact that the bread was without leaven commemorated the afflictions of the people while in Egyptian slavery and also their hasty departure, during which time they ate unfermented cakes. (Deut. 16:3) Leaven here symbolizes sin and human corruption. The apostle Paul used it in that sense when he said: “Clear away the old yeast, that you may be a new lump, according as you are free from ferment. For, indeed, Christ our passover has been sacrificed. Consequently, let us keep the feast, not with old yeast, neither with yeast of injuriousness and wickedness, but with unfermented cakes of purity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5:7, 8) It was with good reason that God forbade the eating of leavened bread during the Passover or of having leaven anywhere in an Israelite home.
The Passover was a joyous festival that commemorated a great event, but at the same time it pointed forward to something that was to be still greater, and that was the sacrifice of the perfect Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. His ransom sacrifice brings release for Jehovah’s obedient worshipers from captivity to sin and death. This is a far greater victory to his name than the release of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity. It brings a much greater freedom than they received.
This remarkable release has already been experienced by many of Christ’s followers who became spiritual Israelites and were anointed by holy spirit to be spiritual brothers of Christ. Although these died, they are resurrected as spirit creatures to immortal life in the heavens. The multitudes of mankind who have eternal-life prospects on earth will receive their release from sin and death at God’s appointed time. There are a large number of people living today who will not die before that time arrives.
Christ’s death fulfilled the significance of the Passover and brought its observance to an end. Now it is his death that God’s people are to observe as a memorial. It eclipses the old festival of freedom by being a reminder of the much greater freedoms that Christ made possible for all mankind.