Moshe said to the people, "Remember this day, on which you left Egypt, the abode of slavery; because Adonai, by the strength of his hand, has brought you out of this place...For seven days you are to eat matzah, and the seventh day is to be a festival for Adonai...On that day you are to tell your son, 'It is because of what Adonai did for me when I left Egypt.'"
-from Exodus 13:3-8
This holiday involves more Hebrew vocabulary than others. Pesach means "pass over". Matzah refers to the unleavened bread. Seder means "order", and refers to the special, ritual meal held on the first and second nights of this seven-day appointed time. During the seder, things are done and foods are eaten that help make memorable the bitterness of slavery and the joy of freedom.
In scripture, the word pesach is not the name of a holiday. It refers to the lamb sacrificed on the 14th of Nissan, just before sunset, and also to the related observation of eating the lamb that evening. The holiday itself is always called Matzah (see verses in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Ezra, and 2nd Chronicles). But modern Jewish culture uses the word Pesach to refer to the holiday.
So glad you asked! The purpose of Pesach is twofold: first, a remembrance of God's freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; second, an opportunity to tell this story to our children and others who do not know it. By asking what Pesach is about, you sustain the holiday's reason for existing! Anyway, on with the story, called the Story of the Exodus...
Long ago, the Israelites were living in Egypt, in a land called Goshen. Originally seventy relatives—Ya'akov (Jacob), who was also called Israel, and his sons and their families—the Israelites had become numerous. A new Pharaoh came to power, who did not remember how Yosef son of Ya'akov had once saved Egypt; this new Pharaoh feared the Israelites would rebel against him, so he made the Israelites slaves.
Still afraid, the Pharaoh ordered the two midwives of the Israelites to kill all the male babies they delivered. The midwives would not, so Pharaoh ordered his own people to kill all the boys born to the Israelites.
Then Moshe (Moses) was born. Although he was born within the family of Levi, son of Israel, he was raised as the son of the Pharaoh's daughter. At the age of forty he tried to free one Israelite slave, by his own strength, and failed. He fled, and became a shepherd in the wilderness of Midyan. He married Tzipporah, daugthter of Yitro, a priest of Midyan.
At the age of eighty, while tending the family sheep, Moshe saw a bush that was on fire but not burning up. Adonai spoke to Moshe, and said, "I have come down to rescue my people from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that country to a good and spacious land...Therefore, now, come; and I will send you to Pharaoh so that you can lead my people, the descendants of Israel, out of Egypt." (Exodus 3:8-10) Moshe was hesitant. God was angry at that, but used Moshe anyway. The first miracle of the Exodus, often overlooked, was how the Israelites accepted Moshe and his brother Aharon, and their anointing from God (Exodus 3:18, 4:31).
[Skip ahead to chapter six of the book of Exodus.]
Adonai spoke again to Moshe, clarifying his promises. During the seder meal, four cups of wine are used to commemorate the four promises God made: sanctification (being set apart), deliverance (rescue), redemption, and being made a part of God's kingdom.
"Therefore, say to the people of Israel: 'I am Adonai. I will set you apart from the forced labor of the Egyptians, rescue you from their oppression, and redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God."
(Since the nation of Israel was reborn in 1948, a fifth cup has been added to commemorate the promise of the land in verse 6:8).
God then worked miracles and freed the Israelites. There were ten plagues. The first nine plagues allowed Adonai to show himself more powerful than the Egyptian's gods, both minor (the first plague, against the god of the Nile) and major (the ninth plague, against the god of the sun). The tenth plague was retribution for Pharaoh's decree to kill the Israelite sons.
Pharaoh hardened his own heart after the first, second, third, fourth and fifth plagues (Exodus 7:22, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, 9:7). Then God, having given Pharaoh enough chances, hardened Pharaoh's heart after the sixth (Exodus 9:12). After the seventh plague God gave Pharaoh one more chance, but Pharaoh again hardened his own heart (Exodus 9:34). Then God hardened Pharaoh's heart permanently (Exodus 9:35, referring to 10:20, 10:27, and 11:10 at the conclusions of the final three plagues). Adonai had known this would happen, and had prophesied to Moshe,
"I will make Pharaoh hard hearted. Even though I will increase my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my armies, my people the sons of Israel, out of the land of Egypt with great acts of judgment. Then, when I stretch out my hand over Egypt and bring the people of Israel out from among them, the Egyptians will know that I am Adonai."
-Exodus 7:3-5 (see also 9:16, 11:9)
As the Israelites left Egypt, many Egyptians went with them (Exodus 12:38). They had seen the power and authority of the God of the Israelites, and joined themselves to his people.
Even after leaving Egypt, the Israelites and those with them were not quite free. Pharaoh decided to bring them back (Exodus 14:5) and led his army in pursuit. The angel of God and the pillar of cloud that showed God's presence defended the people of God until all were safely across the Red Sea (Exodus 14:19). At dawn, when Pharaoh and his army again pursued the people of God, the Red Sea overpowered them.
Finally, the people of God were safe: not only free from slavery and the land of their slavery, but through the water where the armies of the enemy could not touch them. They sang for joy:
Yah [short for Adonai] is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.
This is my God: I will glorify him; my father's God: I will exalt him.
Fifty days later, at the foot of Mount Sinai, God entered into a covenant relationship with his people. This was the final step in the transition: the Israelites had been slaves of Pharaoh in the nation of Egypt, but now they were servants of God and their own nation.
Pesach is prophetic in many ways!
Each of these will be discussed below.
The sequence of events through which God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt parallels the sequence of events through which God offers to free each individual from the evil inclination:
|Event from Israel's Salvation from Egypt||Event from Personal Salvation from Sin|
|(1) With miraculous signs, God demonstrated that Moshe and Aharon spoke with his authority as they demanded freedom from slavery for the Israelites||(1) With miraculous signs, God demonstrated that Yeshua spoke with his authority as Yeshua proclaimed freedom for everyone from slavery to the evil inclination.|
|(2) Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt, resisted granting this freedom.||(2) Our pride, ruler of our non-spiritual self, resists any desire we have to give up our claim to ourselves|
|(3) God himself, once Pharaoh's stubbornness was overwhelmed, led the Israelites out of the place of their slavery.||(3) God himself, once our pride's stubbornness is overwhelmed, draws our spiritual self out of slavery to the evil inclination and into relationship with God.|
|(4) Pharaoh's army attacked the Israelites as they departed.||(4) Habits and ways of thinking from our past way of life attack us even after our initial salvation.|
|(5) The Israelites, through the waters of the Red Sea, finally reached a place where Pharaoh could not touch them.||(5) After identifying with Yeshua's death and resurrection by the ritual of immersion in water, we receive extra spiritual protection to help our new, infant spiritual life grow.|
|(6) The Israelites entered into a covenant relationship with God that identified them as his nation.||(6) As we spiritually mature, we understand and accept the covenant Yeshua established, and walk as citizens of the Kingdom of God.|
Currently, no lambs are sacrificed at Pesach. The seventeenth chapter of Leviticus mentions several times that sacrifices are only to be made at the tabernacle (later the Temple) of God. Since the Temple has not stood since the year 70, no sacrifices have happened since then.
However, a central image of Pesach was and is the sacrificial lamb. The seventeenth chapter of Leviticus also teaches that atonement only happens with the shedding of blood. The Pesach lamb was how God made the Israelites set apart for him, before leading them out of Egypt.
In many ways, this Pesach sacrifice was a traditional sacrifice. The ritual's instructions are given in the twelfth chapter of Exodus. The animal could be a lamb or a goat, but in both in both traditional Jewish and Christian literature and imagery the lamb predominates. The male head of a household would inspect the lamb to make sure it was unblemished. Then he would bring the lamb to the Temple, where he would sacrifice it, assisted by the Temple's priests.
However, other parts of the ritual are quite unlike any other ritual the Torah describes. All the details foreshadow the sacrificial death of Yeshua.
|(1) On the tenth day of the month of Nissan, the family brought a lamb to their home. They inspected it for four days, making sure it was suitable.||(1) On the tenth day of the month of Nissan, Yeshua entered Jerusalem. (Christians call this day Palm Sunday.) Yeshua was questioned by the people of Jerusalem for four days.|
|(2) The lambs were to be sacrificed at dusk. Because of the great number of lambs sacrificed in Yeshua's day, the sacrifices began earlier in the day at ended at dusk.||(2) Yeshua was crucified before noon, at the same time the Pesach lambs were being sacrificed. At noon, darkness covered the land. This could not have been an eclipse since the 14th of any Jewish month is a full moon. At dusk Yeshua died.|
|(3) Some blood from the sacrificed lamb was brought back to the home, and put on the sides and top of the front doorposts.||(3) The blood from Yeshua's head and hands marked the cross in the same pattern as the blood marks on the doorposts.|
|(4) The blood is a sign: God passed over the houses it marked when he slew the firstborn of Egypt on the first Pesach.||(4) The blood is a sign: Yeshua is the final sacrifice, by which the sins and iniquities of the world have atonement. Those who accept this forgiveness will be passed over on the Day of Judgment when all those with iniquity are judged unfit to be in God's presence forever.|
|(5) Each individual Israelite had to obey God and staywithin a home marked by the blood. Any who left their home would not have been protected.||(5) Each individual today is required to personally accept the atonement of Yeshua's sacrificial death. Being a believer is not a matter of ancestry or upbringing. "Belief" as scripture defines it requires obedience. Merely intellectually acknowledging Yeshua's sacrifice does nothing spiritually.|
|(6) None of the lamb's bones were to be broken during or after the sacrifice.||(6) None of Yeshua's bones were broken.|
|(7) Only people who were circumcised could eat the sacrificial lamb.||(7) Only people with circumcised hearts can accept the atonement of Yeshua's sacrificial death. (In other words, some people may be blinded by pride, falsely claiming to be believers but still slaves to the evil inclination.)|
|(8) The holy day of First Fruits is the Sunday after the Pesach sacrifice. On this day the first fruits of your harvest were given to God, showing your trust in his provision.||(8) On First Fruits, Yeshua rose from the dead, the first fruit of the new life God now makes available to everyone. Yeshua's resurrection allows us to trust that God will provide for us after we die: indeed, Yeshua called it sleeping, not death, and he claimed to give Eternal Life.|
Two notes about above comparisons:
First, Deuteronomy 30:6 speaks of circumcised hearts, defining it as "love[ing] Adonai your God with all your heart and all your being". Although Christians may think their culture invented the imagery of a circumcised heart it is Jewish and from the Torah.
Second, You may have noticed, reading the comparison above, that Yeshua was crucified on a Thursday night. This is contrary to the incorrect but traditional teaching that the crucifixion happened on a Friday night. Some knowledge of the Jewish customs of the time allow an clear explanation.
To determine when the month would start, some men would go atop a hill and try to see the moon. The month started the first night that a sliver of the new moon could be seen. However, there remained a worry: what if some moon was visible the previous night, but due to clouds or poor eyesight it was not seen? In other words, what if a month's counting was starting a day late?
That worry caused an interesting Pesach tradition to start: two seders were celebrated, one on the scripturally commended evening (the 14th) and one the evening before. Pesach was such an important holiday that this extra work was done to make sure that even if the month's counting started a day late Pesach would still happen on the correct evening!
(Today, there are still traditionally two seders, but they happen on the evenings of the 14th and the 15th. With modern astronomy, there is no concern that the month's counting is incorrect. But the tradition of the second seder had become dear to the Jewish people.)
Thus, Yeshua's triumphal entry was on a Sunday. His last supper was a seder on a Wednesday night. His crucifixion was on a Thursday afternoon. He was three nights and three days in the tomb (Matthew 12:40). Sunday morning he rose from the dead.
Many people believe that the different gospels give conflicting accounts of Yeshua's crucifixion. Was Yeshua crucified on a preparation-for-the-seder day, and how could that be if the evening before was a seder? The accounts do not conflict once the context is known.
(A related confusion is John 19:31, which says that after Yeshua's crucifixion was a sabbath. This does not mean that the crucifixion happened on a Friday because the next day was Saturday. Scripturally, Shabbat refers to any holy day that is a day of rest, such as the first day of Pesach. So the Shabbat was the 14th of Nissan, the first day of Pesach and evening of the second seder. The day began that evening, following the Jewish calendar.)
First, a few paragraphs to introduce the afikomen to people unfamiliar with it or its history.
In Yeshua's day, it was traditional that the last thing eaten on the nights of the seders was some of the sacrificial lamb. Why? So that the taste of the sacrificial lamb would remain all evening, a remembrance of God's wrath passing over the Israelites.
Yeshua broke this tradition when he ended the seder with again eating matzah and drinking wine. He explained himself by saying that he was the fulfillment of the sacrificial lamb: the matzah represented his body, and the wine his blood. It was the "taste" of him that should remain, a remembrance of God's wrath passing over those saved from the final judgment.
Traditional Judaism also needed a new tradition after the Temple was destroyed. With no sacrificial lamb, what should be eaten last? The rabbis decided two things. First, lamb would not be served at the seder meal, so no one would mistakenly think they were eating sacrificed lamb. Second, matzah would be the last food eaten that evening.
A traditional has started (let us know if you know when, we don't!) called the afikomen. Three matzahs are on the table during the seder, in a special divided pouch. During the seder, the middle matzah is removed and broken. One part, called the afikomen, is hidden. At the end of the seder, a child searches for the afikomen, and after finding it gets a gift.
The metaphor is so clear that it is ironic that traditional, non-Messianic Jews all over the world do this ritual each seder! Yeshua, part of a three-personality God, comes to earth. He is broken and buried. Those who find him receive the gift of Eternal Life. Halleluyah!
Pesach is celebrated with a seder meal—or often more than one! Many people follow the tradition of doing a seder on the first two nights of Pesach, often using one night for a family seder and the other night for a congregational seder. A fewer number of people also do a seder on the last (seventh) night of Pesach, as a way to say farewell to the holiday.
First Corinthians 5:7-8 says that celebrating Pesach is appropriate for any believer of Yeshua.
Exodus 12:16 tells us to have some sort of holiday gathering on the last day of Pesach.
Before Pesach begins, some celebration happens as people remove the leaven from their homes. To some extent this is a chore, but it can also be done in a celebratory manner. During all seven days of Pesach no leaven is eaten or kept in the home.
The command to teach our children about the Exodus is repeated three times (Exodus 12:26, 13:8, and 13:14). Today this is often done dramatically with a play. Some families and congregations include a play as part of their seder; others may do a play later during the week of Pesach.