The Passover Meal: To Understand Or To Partake?

Why does a modern Christian reader need to understand the Jewish Passover? The connection between Jesus and Passover is evident: The New Testament accounts of Christ’s death refer or allude to the preparation of the Passover lamb in such a clear way that we have absolutely no doubt that the evangelists were consciously presenting Christ and his death as their Passover sacrifice. Today, however, we will try to look at this connection in a different way: we will try to understand what was expected of those who were saved through this sacrifice of the Passover lamb.

Let’s turn to Exodus 12. In verse 8 we read:  “And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it.”  Where they eat it…  Once sheltered under the blood of the slain lamb, Israel was commanded to feed on this lamb. How was the lamb to be eaten? with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.…” So, both the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs had to be part of this feast.  What does this mean?

Bitter Herbs

The expression “bitter herbs” here renders the word “bitter,” or “bitterness” (maror). This word occurs only once more in Tanach in this particular form, but in a completely different context[1]: However, we do have several occasions in Scripture where the root mar – bitter – occurs. One of them is in the book of Ruth: after her return to Bethlehem, Naomi adopted the name Mara (bitter), as an expression of her bitter and grievous life. You probably know that the book of Ruth is the story of a righteous Gentile girl choosing Israel and her God; you probably also remember the famous words of Ruth: “your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”[2] Ruth says these words in the very first chapter of the book when she decides to keep going with Naomi—when she chooses Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God, even though at that point this choice seemed absolutely hopeless and mar, bitter, while Naomi’s second daughter in law Orpah, turned back. What was the difference between these two women—between the one who continued and the one who did not? In English, Ruth 1:18 reads: “When she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her, then she left speaking unto her.” This “steadfastly minded” (sometimes translated as ‘determined’) translates a Hebrew word‎ מִתְאַמֶּ֥צֶת – ‘making an effort’. In the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as in some English versions, this is the same word that we hear from Jesus in Luke 13:24: Make every effort to enter through the narrow door.” To join God’s people, to walk God’s path, requires an effort, and Ruth made this effort – while Orpah, with all the good intentions she had, didn’t make the effort. That’s why we have the book of Ruth, and not the book of Orpah, in our Bibles.

Now, we can go back to that ‘bitterness’ that we are supposed to eat with the lamb. I’ve written many times already that there is no better commentary on Scripture than Scripture itself. Based on this allusion to the book of Ruth, I believe that for the Christians today, maror means Israel: in the same way as Ruth chose to be with Mara and her God, those saved through the Lamb are expected to choose to be with Israel and her God. Every Jewish child knows how bitter and unpleasant the taste of maror can be – especially when one is hungry and enduring the long Seder ceremony, and can’t wait to eat some real food. It is undoubtedly an effort to eat maror, when all you want is to eat the lamb. In the same way, bitter and unpleasant can be the taste of choosing Israel in this world; it is a real effort to eat bitter herbs when all you want to do is to partake of the “Lamb” – but the Lamb has to be eaten with maror, this is what  God commanded in Exodus 12:8.  

Unleavened Bread                                     

Now we can talk about the second component of this meal: the Unleavened Bread. The powerful symbolism of Unleavened Bread originates here – it was meant by God from the very beginning, and that is why, later in Exodus the Lord says: “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread.[3] Leavened bread is a symbol of sin, and therefore the blood of the sacrifice and the leavened bread are not to be mixed. The New Testament picks up and develops this symbolism: “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”[4] 

It becomes even clearer if we see that in Leviticus 23, where all the festivals are described and commanded, there are two distinct festivals: “On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; seven days you must eat unleavened bread.”[5] We see that the Torah refers to Passover on the 14th of Nisan, and to the Festival of Unleavened Bread on the 15th of Nisan. The Feast of Unleavened Bread begins on the evening when the 14th of Nisan becomes the 15th of Nisan (Jewish days begin at nightfall, as you may know). The Passover offering was slaughtered on the 14th and eaten that night, the 15th, together with matzah at the onset of the Festival of Matzahs. Thus, even though “since the destruction of the second Temple, when the offering of the paschal lamb was no longer possible, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread became confounded in the minds of the Jews, and the terms are used by the Rabbis interchangeably, but originally and in the Divine plan they were distinct, though in the most intimate possible relation with one another.”[6]

The New Testament confirms that in Jesus’ time, these two Feasts were distinct as well. In Mark 14:1, we read: “After two days it was the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread”. And it is this Passover background we have to keep in mind when we read the famous words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us”.[7] The logic of this verse, however strange it seems from the beginning, is perfectly understandable against the background of Passover: since the Passover lamb is sacrificed, the bread is unleavened. Originally, the apostle probably refers to a very practical and traditional custom of bedikat chametz – the ceremony of “searching for leaven”. This custom existed at the time of Jesus and still exists in Jewish homes today, both in Israel and in the dispersion: on the evening before 14th of Nisan, all the likely and unlikely places all over the house are inspected lest they have any occasional crumbs. The Jewish home must be completely clean of any leaven – and on this traditional picture, Paul bases his symbolism. However, a modern Christian reader, if he knows nothing about the Jewish Passover, would likely read this verse in a symbolic sense only. As with so many other originally Jewish images and symbols, an unconscious shift from one set of meanings to another takes place here: an almost naive take-over of the Jewish symbols by the gentile Christian tradition. In order to avoid this take-over, you have to learn more about Jewish Passover and the Jewish Background of the New Testament in general – and that is exactly what our mission here is all about!

 

[1] Lam. 3:15

[2] Ruth 1:16

[3] Ex.23:18

[4] 1 Cor.5:8

[5] Lev.23:5,6

[6] David Baron, Types, Psalms and Prophecies, Jerusalem,  Keren Ahvah Meshihit, 2000, p. 22

[7] 1 Cor.5:6,7

 

CHAG SAMEACH, DEAR FRIENDS! HAPPY PASSOVER AND HAPPY EASTER! WISHING YOU JOY, PEACE, HEALTH,  AND MANY BLESSINGS DURING THIS HOLIDAY SEASON AND THROUGHOUT THE YEAR! Since this is the time of gifts here in Israel, I would like to bless you with a gift: starting from today (4/14/2022) and for 5 days, you can download my book about Hidden Messiah for free. If you’ve ever wondered why Jesus remained a hidden Messiah for the people of Israel, why wasn’t He recognized by His own, and what does this have to do with you – you will definitely enjoy this book, “As though Hiding His Face”. In order to claim your gift, click here .  

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Gladys Fox

    Thank you Dear Julia,
    Happy Passover and Easter .
    Where I live it is not quite Passover yet . I’m not Jewish so I don’t celebrate Passover ,but because of my love for Jewish people and the God of Israel and His Son I honor Passover in my own way by drinking a cup of Pomegranate wine that came from Israel and praying for the peace and safety of Israel .
    A Christian woman read Matthew 26:30 in her bible and wondered what the hymn was that Jesus and the Disciples sang .No one there could answer her . I often wonder if she even realized that none of the Christian hymns she knew and loved were not even written at that time . When I read Psalms 113-118 I am amazed by how many of the lines are what Jesus Himself could say .
    May God bring peace to the world and Bless all the innocent people who don’t want war.

  2. Bernard

    What is the difference between Passover and Easter? Is there any link?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Bernard, of course, the connection is obvious: Jesus was crucified before or during Passover (there are different opinions, as you are probably aware), therefore His resurrection day has to be connected to the Passover. However, many Christians today fail to see the direct connection between “Easter/Pascha” and “Passover/Pesach”:in order to ensure that no one connected the two, it was decided at the Council of Nicea (325 CE) that the feast of Easter/Pascha would be celebrated according to a different calendar: not on the 14th of Nisan as was originally decreed in the Torah of Moses.