My dear readers, as we draw closer to the Passover and Easter season, we are back to our “Unlocking the New Testament” series. In these Passover reflections, you will see that the description of the last days of Jesus is much better understood when seen through the Hebrew Bible and against its Jewish background.
THE ROOM FOR THE LAST SUPPER
Jerusalem was swarming with people who had come for Passover. Every house had additional guests, 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.
Today, Christians all over the world know that Palm Sunday is the beginning of 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, be separated out 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.
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 the Psalm 118 not only confirmed that, but also acknowledged Him as the source of salvation. Understanding this background of the Jewish Hallel enables us to more fully comprehend the words from Matthew – “Hosanna to the son of David”.
WASHING THE FEET
He loved His own to the end
In Genesis 18, when the Lord is about to announce the birth of the son of the covenant to Abraham, three men come to his tent and Abraham offers them water to wash their feet. In John 13, when the Lord is about to announce the new covenant to His disciples, He Himself washes their feet. Why did Jesus do that? Was it a Jewish custom? John 13 takes on even deeper meaning when understood against its Jewish background.
The washing of the feet was the first act upon entering a tent or a house after a journey. Usually, the host provided the water, and the guests washed their own feet. Sometimes in the richer houses, the washing was done by slaves. With all his exemplary hospitality, Abraham didn’t wash the feet of his guests – it was probably not a proper thing to do. Instead, he said, You will wash your feet (rahzu).
From Genesis 18, we see that it was not customary for the host to wash the feet of his guests. Thus, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, it could not be explained as necessity or custom. John said that Jesus “loved His own to the end”:in washing their feet, He exemplified the most vital components of the New Covenant – love and humility. This act, so powerful in itself, becomes even more meaningful when seen against its background.
What Jesus did on the last evening of His life, went far beyond the traditional customs – but we can only understand this when we know these customs. Understanding the Jewish background of the NT helps us, not only better comprehend those words and deeds of Jesus that belong to this background, but also to grasp the full meaning of those words and deeds that went beyond the traditional ideas and customs.
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