We are still in the middle of that weeklong celebration that has come to be known as Pesach, or Passover. This is a good time to analyze the last days of Jesus – and to see that they are understood much better when seen through the Hebrew Bible and against the Jewish background. Here are just a few examples.
Passover Lamb coming to Jerusalem
Today, Christians all over the world know that the Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Passion Week, but do you know why Jesus was entering Jerusalem on that particular day? We can find an answer in the first verses of Exodus 12, where God instructed that the lamb that was to be slain on the eve of the Exodus, had be separated four days beforehand:
In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb… Your lamb shall be without blemish… And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.
So, on the 10th of Nisan, the Passover lamb was chosen and set apart and preparations began for its slaughter. This is the reason Jesus had to enter Jerusalem on Sunday the 10th of Nisan – the very same day when the perfect lamb was to be selected and set apart.
In the days of Jesus, the Temple stood in Jerusalem and the whole system of sacrifices was still active. The author of Hebrews highlights the important aspects of the sacrifices under the Levitical system, placing them in sharp contrast to the New Testament perfect sacrifice. The bloody reality of the slaughtered on the altar sacrifices was probably very traumatic for many people: the suffering screams of the animal, the blood, the smell of burning flesh… You have to understand this background, in order to understand the sharp contrast with the New Testament’s description of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, the Perfect Lamb of God. There is a point in the book of Hebrews that would speak especially powerfully to the contemporaries: imagine the frustration of knowing that you have to watch these bloody animal sacrifices again and again, because you will undoubtedly sin again. The animal sacrifices had to be made repeatedly, the author of Hebrews writes, “while Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins”.
Before his entrance to Jerusalem, something very important happens to Jesus: something that definitely belongs to His suffering, to His agony, to His pain – and in this sense belongs to His Passion week, even though it happens before the week itself. What do I mean? In Luke 19, we read that when Jesus approached Jerusalem: “He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” This episode is of crucial importance for those who want to understand His heart. Do you remember how many times Jesus weeps in the Gospels? Years ago, my book about God’s tears over Israel’s suffering (“If you are the Son of God…”) started from the realization (revelation) of this simple and obvious fact that I had never before considered: in the entire New Testament, Jesus weeps only twice – once here over Jerusalem, and once over Lazarus (“Jesus wept”). The lessons to be learned from this juxtaposition are immensely profound. Of course, it’s impossible to cover it all in one post – I wrote a whole chapter in my book about this juxtaposition – however, it is essential for us not to overlook this scene. Jesus knows that his own people will become “enemies for your sake” – and he weeps openly over all the torment to be unleashed on Israel in His name.
The Room for the Last Supper
Jerusalem was swarming with people who had come for Passover. Every house had additional guests, and every room was packed, yet Jesus seemed strangely unconcerned about a place to eat the Passover meal. Confidently He told His disciples, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters.” How did Jesus know they would meet a man with a water jar?
A man with a water jar was a very unusual sight, as this was ordinarily women’s work. Why would a man be carrying a water jar in Jerusalem?
The only group of Jewish men that traditionally did carry water jars were Essenes. Since Essenes were mostly celibate, their men did women’s work. Essenes had their communities, not only in Qumran but in various towns. They also had a community in Jerusalem. Josephus tells us that one of the gates of Jerusalem was called “the Gate of the Essenes”. Apparently, it was through this gate that they entered the city.
A man carrying a water jar could only have been an Essene. From Jesus’ words, his disciples understood they had to enter Jerusalem through the Essene’s gate. Since Essenes used a different calendar, their guest rooms were still available. That’s why the Teacher knew that a room would be available for the Last Supper.
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
We read in the Gospels that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, “the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:
“Hosanna to the Son of David! … Hosanna in the highest!”
What is the meaning of these words in Hebrew? What did people understand about Jesus, and what did they think about Him when He was entering Jerusalem that made them shout these particular words?
The English word “Hosanna” transliterates Hebrew Hoshia Na (הֹושִׁיעָה נָּא – Literally: save, please). This word is taken from Psalm 118, one of six psalms (113-118) of the so-called Hallel (Hebrew: Praise), the songs of praise and thanksgiving. There are special occasions when we have an additional obligation to praise God – and on these special occasions, we recite special psalms, known as Hallel.
Psalm 118:25 reads: “Save now, I pray, O Lord”; אָנָּא יְהוָה הֹושִׁיעָה נָּא . According to the Jewish sages, one of the most fundamental themes of Hallel is acknowledging the source of salvation. Psalm 118 was recited on the way to the Temple and in the Temple on Passover Eve, Erev Pesach, at the time of the slaughtering of the Passover sacrifice (“korban Pesach”). Jesus entered Jerusalem as the ‘Ultimate Sacrifice,’ as the Passover Lamb, and these words from Psalm 118 not only confirmed that but also acknowledged Him as the source of salvation. Understanding the Jewish Hallel enables us to comprehend more fully the words from Matthew – “Hosanna to the son of David”.
I would like to remind you, dear friends, that eTeacher offers a wonderful course, Jewish Background of the New Testament. . As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information! Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them here.