The Passover celebration is one of the cornerstones of Jewish observance. The rousing tale of Moses the Deliverer and the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt contains all the elements of Jewish history: God’s promise, Israel’s somewhat reluctant obedience, and a faithful servant to inspire them and lead them forward.
As we see from the Book of Exodus, Passover reaches back into ancient times. However, as the centuries have unfolded, the Passover has developed in many ways and in many places. Wherever the Jewish people have formed communities, Passover traditions have been established as each one adds the particular flavors of its respective culture.
Passover – A Brief History
The exact date of the Exodus is a matter of some debate for historians have different views. Conservative scholars assert that it occurred in the 1400s BC during the reign of Thutmose III or Ahmose, the founder of the 18th dynasty. Some scholars place it even as early as 2200 BC. But no one really knows with certainty who the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) actually was.
Scripture records the first Passover celebration in Exodus 12. There, we find the essential elements that form the basis of the modern-day Seder (Order of the Passover Meal). They are the sacrificial lamb, the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8).
Along with the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), Passover is one of the three festivals mentioned in Deuteronomy 16 that must be celebrated in Jerusalem. It is observed for seven days in Israel and eight days everywhere else, beginning on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which comes in either March or April.
Passover in the Hebrew Scriptures
Scripture shows us the spotty record of Israel’s kings and its people in the area of faithfulness. Suffice it to say that after David and Solomon, idolatry and other pagan practices were not uncommon. However, around the year 619 BC, in the reign of King Josiah, things took a turn for the better. Josiah instituted widespread religious reform, and returned to the true faith of the God of Israel.
The sign of the national repentance Josiah had inaugurated was none other than the celebration of Passover. Scripture records, “There had been no Passover kept in Israel like that since the days of Samuel the prophet; and none of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as Josiah kept, with the priests and the Levites, all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 35:18).
Alas, Josiah’s reforms did not last, and God permitted first the conquest of the Northern Kingdom in about 721 BC and then the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC. During the Babylonian Exile, without the Temple in which to sacrifice, Passover began a transformation that led to some of the additions to the Passover Seder that have survived to this day. The presence of the egg on the Passover seder plate, for example, is thought by some to have been added through the influence of the cult of fertility emphasized by the Persians. Today, the Jewish people view the egg as a symbol of the sacrifice that cannot be offered in the absence of the Temple.
Passover at the Time of Jesus and Beyond
Passover at the time of Jesus was a major event–bigger than the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Fourth of July combined! During normal times, Jerusalem then had a population of about 25,000-35,000 people. Joachim Jeremias, a noted scholar, asserts that the population of Jerusalem would grow by another 150,000 at Passover. The Talmud describes Passover as a festive time in Jerusalem, when travelers came from every far-flung Jewish community in the world. Accommodations were hard to find, and people stayed in nearby villages or else camped out in the countryside.
Who was responsible for the expansion of the Passover service and the creation of the Seder-the order of the Passover service? It was the Pharisees. Before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year AD 70, the Pharisees began to implement changes–some of which we find in the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper and which exist to this day. The cups of Passover wine, the reclining at table, and the dramatic telling of the story of Exodus at length all stem from the Pharisees’ innovations of the time. In time, the asking of the Four Questions and the liturgy of Scriptures read at Passover would also take their standard place in the ceremony.
The destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish Wars and the devastation of Jerusalem vastly altered Passover observance. The Lamb could no longer be sacrificed. Emphasis was placed on other aspects of the observance, such as the Haggadah (the telling of the story), the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs. These elements had been there from the start. Now, they serve to remind the Jewish people of their long and painful history from the time of Moses.
Passover Around the World
The Passover celebration is similar to many other aspects of Jewish life. It borrows from the traditions of the cultures that surround it and reinterprets them in such a way as to tell the unique story of Jewish struggle, survival and hope.
And, as with many other Jewish holidays, food plays a major role. Jewish people from around the world have developed a number of differing culinary traditions. For example, the Sephardic Jews, who trace their roots to Spain and North Africa, eat lamb at Passover, whereas the Ashkenazi Jewish people from Eastern Europe do not. There are many Passover cookbooks with hundreds of recipes from around the world that the adventurous cook can try out.
Passover’s message of freedom and endurance speaks to all people. Even more importantly, it is a dramatic and compelling example of how Jesus the Messiah fulfills the message of the prophets. He is truly the Lamb of God, who died for our sins–once and for all–so that through faith in Him, we will join Him as He reigns in the Kingdom.