The Passover Lamb
This is our last installment of the Lamb series, and here we will talk about the Passover Lamb. Like the Akedah, Passover holds a unique place in the Jewish tradition, and in order to properly understand the spiritual meaning of the New Testament symbols, we cannot ignore the fact that the Jewish Passover, as it was understood at the time of Jesus, provides not merely the background, but the very foundation of the New Testament soteriology.
It is here that we find for the first time the image of the sacrificial lamb as a basis for salvation. The slain lamb in Exodus, with whose blood the doorposts were stained, was the symbol, the promise and the basis for Israel’s salvation from Egypt. The Lamb looking as though it had been slain, from the book of Revelation, is perceived as the symbol, promise, and basis for the salvation brought to the whole earth. Is there a connection between these two lambs?
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. The piercing of Christ’s side in John 19:34 recalls the Mishnah prescription to “slit the heart and let out its blood”. The Gospel of John gives the death of Jesus as occurring precisely at the time of the slaughtering of the Passover sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Verse 36 in John 19: “Not a bone of him shall be broken” is a very clear Passover reference. All this indicates how completely the New Testament writers looked upon Christ’s death as a Passover event—as a Passover Lamb sacrifice.
No less revealing is the verse we find in the first epistle to Corinthians (though, as I previously mentioned, there is no word “lamb” in Paul’s letters): “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” Undoubtedly, while writing, Paul had in mind the Passover sacrifice, and the logic of this verse, however strange it might seem from the first reading, is perfectly understandable against the background of the Passover sacrifice: since the Passover lamb is sacrificed, the bread is unleavened. It’s very likely that the apostle refers here to the custom of bedikat chametz – the ceremony of the “searching for leaven,” which existed in 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 words our Passover undoubtedly refer to the Passover lamb, which was to be sacrificed and eaten in remembrance of the Exodus and which was also a memorial of the Aqedah lamb. Most scholars agree that “the association of the Aqedah with Passover was established well before the beginning of the Christian era”. This means that the bond between the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice of Isaac was almost inevitable, once the association of Jesus with Passover had been established. However, we have to realize that the only readers of this verse for whom this fact—that our Passover means Passover lamb—was self-understandable and obvious, were Jewish followers of Jesus. For a gentile Christian reader there was nothing self-understandable in the identification of the Passover (or Pascha, as it is often translated), with the lamb. Yes, the word sacrifice still brings into this verse the image of the Lamb which was slain, and thus a gentile reader, knowing nothing about the Jewish Pesach and Aqedat Itzhak, would read Paul’s verse through the eyes of the developed Christology: Christ is the Lamb which was slain and in whose blood the elect, being saved and purified from sin (which is the leaven), became the unleavened bread. As with so many other originally Jewish images and symbols, we witness here an unconscious shift from one set of meanings to another—an almost naive take-over of the Jewish symbols by the gentile Christian tradition.
We can sum up our discussion now and to try to comprehend this absolutely different perception of the image of the Lamb by Gentiles and Jews. When a first-century Jew referred to someone as a “Passover Lamb,” he implicitly applied to this person an entire collection of implications, connected both with the Aqedah sacrifice and with the Exodus. Thus, in saying that Jesus was the Passover Lamb, he knew that the saving virtue of the Passover lamb proceeded from the merits of the very first lamb, bound on mount Moriah. But as the new Jewish belief started to become a gentile religion, the process of cutting off this “Lamb” tradition from its original meaning began. Very quickly, all the details of the original Jewish Passover had lost their original meaning for the gentile believers and became just part of the religious code of the new Christian theology. By the time Christianity became established, this process had been completed. While for the first Jewish believers, the whole comparison to a Passover lamb was meaningful only because of the already existing image of the Passover sacrifice and its connection to Aqedat Itzhak, for gentile Christians, the image of “the lamb” would bear no other meaning except for the Christ, who is sacrificed for us. When in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb,” he referred to the Paschal Lamb of Passover sacrifice, with its atoning power based on the first and exclusive sacrifice—Aqedat Itzhak. Yet the significance of this original allusion disappeared completely for generations of Christian readers. The image of the Lamb, as it was developed in later Christianity, would hardly recognize its Jewish ancestors.
 Rev. 5:6
 See Ex.12:46
 1 Cor.5:7
 Geza Vermes, Redemption and Genesis XXII,p.215
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