The following article appeared in the April 1989 issue of the ACD Newsletter. Dr. Dorothy’s insight is refreshing and his message timeless.
by Charles V. Dorothy, PhD
Are you aware of the recent debate about what day is the proper time for “keeping” the Passover? Are you in doubt or troubled by conflicting opinions about “the original,” or “the biblical Passover”? If not, have you wondered whether you know the right day for memorializing Pesach/Lord’s Supper? Either way, you are not alone. This article will help liberate you from the bondage of complicated calendar calculations, and from the Egypt of our day – religious dogmatism and spiritual confusion.
Sometime between 1200 and 1500 B.C. Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, “This shall be the beginning of months to you…” – thus a new era opens; and, “…It is Yahweh’s Passover” – a feast is instituted (Ex 12:1, 11). But the exact year of this era of freedom, and of the first terrifying Passover night is not known. In spite of bold efforts by Bible believers to establish an iron-clad chronology, and in spite of the best efforts of historians, archaeologists and biblical scholars to date the Exodus, we do not know what year that epoch began, or when that original Passover was. We simply do not have the data to fix the date.
The most widely accepted (estimated) dating for the Exodus centers around 1230-1220 B.C. – the “late dating.” Recently a few scholars have opened up the discussion once again by arguing for an “Early date” – somewhere closer to 1400 B.C.
Dates Don’t Matter
Let the scholars debate. After all, these difficult questions are matters of history, archaeology and ancient Near East studies. And not only are these questions best left to the specialists, they are also ones which involve more that hard facts. They involve “weight of evidence,” judgment calls, and interpretations. Rest assured, the debate will continue.
And let others debate too – these preachers and lay interpreters who sound scholarly by raising the complicated matters of ancient calendar reckonings, Egyptian history and biblical interpretation. But make no mistake: a person is not scholarly simply because he or she raises difficult questions. Neither are they necessarily correct because they quote reference sources, even when those sources may be the best ones. For technical points such as the date of the Exodus and the day of Passover, one needs not only a working knowledge of Hebrew (and perhaps Egyptian hieroglyphic), but advanced training in Bible, history and the ancient Near East. If this training is lacking, errors will likely be made.
Where does that leave the rest of us, most of whom are non-professionals? Happily, it does not leave anyone in real trouble. At worst, it may leave you wishing you could know the answer… but then, the professionals wish that too! You are not in trouble “where you live,” that is, in your Christian life, because at that level dates do not matter.
What Does Matter
What does matter, immensely, is the meaning and significance of Passover. It matters much how we understand the message behind the problem of dates, rituals and ceremonies. It also matters much how we respond to that understanding. The true understanding of Passover/Lord’s Supper involves much more that dates and rituals. It literally involves our relation to, and with God. It involves the very presence of Christ in our lives.
Our relation with the Creator God who liberated his people is the most important truth of either Passover (Heb. Pesach) or Lord’s Supper/Communion. Supporting that relationship with God, or helping us to capture that presence of Christ is the primary thrust of this article. To help us “capture” that divine presence, a secondary level will discuss which one of several biblical Passovers, if any, can be repeated. In fact, we also need to investigate in what way the so-called Lord’s Supper can be repeated.
So that we may capture the primary Passover message, here follows a brief look at the different celebrations of biblical Passovers. Instead of thinking about the “proper” day or hour, keep in mind this question: how does God wish us to repeat this Passover ceremony?
The “Passover of Egypt”
Read again Exodus 12 and 13. Here is the story of the first Passover, the one Jews call the Passover of Egypt. The Israelites prepare days ahead of time by setting aside a lamb for sacrifice on the tenth of the month. On the 14th, “between the two evenings,”1 the lamb is slain/sacrificed, its blood smeared over the doorposts of the homes of the faithful, who eat in haste while waiting inside, staff in hand, ready to travel, until the firstborn of the land are killed. After midnight, Israel begins to leave Egypt.
This awe-inspiring night could be the night of the 14th, 24 hours before Israel actually began to march out of slavery. However, a more natural way to understand the story is that the lamb was eaten on the evening of the 15th, the same night they began to march – a night of “watchings/vigils” (Heb) or “to be much observed” (KJV), Exodus 12:42. At least that is how the Jewish authorities were interpreting Exodus 12 in Jesus’ day. Either way, the text, as it stands, must be interpreted. For this reason, the Rabbis emphasize the phrase “to you” in 12:2,
and deduce from it that the exact fixation of the Festivals is in the hands of Israel and his ancient religious guides. In Biblical and early Talmudic times, the Sanhedrin fixed the new moons by actual observation, and the dates were announced by messengers from Jerusalem to surrounding countries.2
Not only dates, but important details of how to carry out the ritual commands of Exodus 12 either are not in the text, or need to be explained by a living authority. It is best to admit that there is more than one way to understand Exodus 12. It is also best to admit that no one knows the exact limitations of the Hebrew phrase “between the two evenings,” – a phrase which some apply to the 14th, and others see as the 15th. As if dates are the main message! It would be helpful, and more Christ-like, if more Christians could 1) admit that neither interpretation, 14th or 15th, necessarily makes the interpreter him/herself more righteous, and 2) focus on the magnificence of the meaning for us today.
More importantly, we should understand that God wants a responsive heart in his children – wants love and worship from sons and daughters, not calendar calculations, not atomic-clock perfection. God is not grading us on our understanding of Hebrew, nor of dates and doctrine, for that matter.
Now what of this “Passover of Egypt” and our question – can the Exodus 12 ceremony, with its sacrifice, blood stained doorposts and frightened slaves huddling in their huts be duplicated today? The answer seems clear: by its very nature, it cannot be repeated.
From the Wilderness to the Land
Apparently no Passover was observed during the forty years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. When the second generation of freed Israelites cross over the Jordan, that is, enter the Promised Land,3 Joshua circumcises the males (Jos 5:3) and all the faithful keep the first “Passover of the Land” at Gilgal (5:10).
The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land…(5:11).
Eating the grain of Canaan means that the wave sheaf was cut that same day, if the law of Leviticus was followed. During this time, Israel was marching around Jericho, which apparently fell on the last day of Unleavened Bread. No matter how we explain this unique Passover, it cannot be repeated. But think, if you can identify with God’s people here, what a rich inheritance God was bequeathing his children!
The Passover of Reunification
Now read the story of Hezekiah’s Passover in 2 Chronicles 30. The ten tribes of (northern) Israel had been defeated by Assyria. At king Hezekiah’s invitation, remnants of the northern tribes came down to Judah (the southern kingdom) and kept a seven-day Passover in the second month. Several hundred years of inter-tribal rivalry, at least for some of the displaced persons of the north, turned into tribal cooperation – reunion. This festival was so successful that the people decided to keep another seven days! “So there was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon… there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem” (v 26).
How can this unusual Passover be repeated? The rejoining of (parts of) two nations, along with other regular features of Hezekiah’s feast, cannot be fully recaptured. But the joy and the marvelous message of that unique festival are not locked into the past.
Josiah’s Passover of Renewal
Apparently Hezekiah’s program did not last long. Less than one hundred years later, in 621 B.C., Josiah initiated a sweeping reform.
The king gave this order to all the people: “Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” Not since the days of the judges who led Israel, nor throughout the days of the kings of Judah, had any such Passover been observed. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was celebrated to the Lord in Jerusalem (2Ki 23:21-23).
Neither can this specially solemn celebration be repeated. If you wish to grasp the power of this Passover, read 2 Kings 22-23 (passages in Jeremiah and any volume on OT History will help).
Passover Continues Developing
In 70 A.D., the Temple – an essential element in the observance of Passover – was destroyed. Never again could an Old Testament Passover be exactly repeated. At some time in the continuing evolution of Passover celebrations, Judaism added the element of setting a table place for the prophet Elijah, and other commemorative items. Some of those items derive from Exodus 12, others come from much later times. The resulting modern Jewish Passover thus combines elements from several different Passovers of the past. It turns out to be an interesting, sparkling event which emphasizes both the spiritual element of deliverance and the social feature of family solidarity.
Of course Christians will be more interested in the Passover of the Gospels, and the institution of the so-called Lord’s Supper, also by tradition called Communion or Eucharist.
What about the Last Supper? Was it in fact a Passover, a “proper” one, or was it taken a day early in order that Jesus might offer himself as a sacrifice – as the true Lamb of God?
If one interprets that the 14th is the correct day, and therefore the Jews were one day off in Jesus’ time, here is the net result. Jesus’ Last Supper fulfills the Passover command legally, but his death as the symbolic Lamb of God misses the symbolism by almost a day. If on the other hand, one interprets that the 15th was originally the correct day, then Jesus does not quite legally observe Passover, but his death occurs precisely as lambs are being sacrificed – the symbolism is perfect. One gains and loses either way; and it bears repeating: either way is an interpretation – not a revelation from God.
In light of our present knowledge, it appears that God would allow a celebration on either day. That is because the day is much less important than the meaning behind it. God’s action for his people holds the power, not the day itself! But before we apply that principle to the abiding symbols of the Christian Passover, we must finish the secondary investigation with a note about Jesus’ final supper/celebration.
What about the actual ceremony with the Twelve in the upper room? That portentous evening was the beginning of Jesus’ last physical 24 hours on earth. As the reclining disciples ate – either a regular or an anticipatory Passover meal – Jesus washed their feet. He then gave a final discourse and all went out to the Garden, etc., on his way to pay the price for all humankind. How can that ever be repeated??
Summary. At this secondary level we have exposed some often overlooked facts: 1) Exodus 12 can be understood more than one way; 2) not all biblical Passovers are the same; 3) each Passover ceremony, then and now, carries the ancient, core message, and may carry its own special meaning; 4) no OT Passover is precisely repeatable; 5) even Jesus’ Last Supper has unique elements we cannot duplicate; 6) since Jesus injected new elements into an already changed/developed Passover, our modern service would end up being a blend of biblical Passovers — some kind of combination ceremony. Why? Because we can not repeat the context of the Exodus, the surroundings of Jesus’ day nor can we duplicate everything Jesus did. Wouldn’t we finally come out with a blend of biblical Passovers even if we could somehow uncover all the unknown elements of the original Event?
And finally 7): while the purpose of this article is not to pick or support either interpretation of Exodus 12, nor to criticize the practice of any group, it seems reasonably clear that Christians do well in celebrating on the eve of the 14th (one day before the annual Sabbath of the 15th), because the Master did so – whatever his reasons, however he understood it. It should also be clear that we cannot keep that which cannot be duplicated. Therefore, we choose the verb celebrate.
The Primary Part of Passover
Now we return to the magnificent meaning conveyed in the sacrifice of Passover and in the symbols Jesus instituted the night before his death. Is that night not one of weighty watching, of deep introspection, of seeking the presence of God in our lives?
What Christians are told to do (Lk 22:14ff; 1Co 11:17ff) is to celebrate the symbols of bread and wine, “in remembrance of me.” Many questions surround even these apparently simple words, this apparently straightforward command. Scores of books and articles debate various aspects of this ceremony, which does not even have a clearcut biblical name. Worse, some Christians nit-pick, criticize and recriminate other Christians regarding details of this solemn, yet joyous ceremony. Yet of all occasions, the Christian Passover should be the most unifying, the most ecumenical, the most interdenominational – and in view of Christ’s global sacrifice – it should be the furthest from human criticism.
Again, the task here is not to rehearse all the historical, linguistic and theological aspects of these questions. It should already be clear that God must not be very concerned about the dating and the details of Passover, otherwise he would make sure the requirements were crystal clear.
Whenever we “remember,” memorialize, the profound meaning of the Christian Passover, we both look backwards to the freedom flowing from the Exodus, and forward to the day when Jesus himself will celebrate, commemorate, this feast in the Kingdom of God – mysterious as that may be…
What is less mysterious about this crucial feast is the following. The Christian Passover primarily highlights our opportunity to recapture our God-given freedom: Exodus 12 brought freedom from physical bondage (multiple do’s and don’ts; burdensome and costly sacrifices), and from the spiritual slavery to sin and death.
The beginning of months in Exodus 12 intends to celebrate a whole new era of freedom for Israel. The Christian Passover, built on the Exodus experience, offers us a magnificent moment to come into the very presence of God and his Son. Of course that Presence never really leaves; nevertheless the Passover offers the Presence in a dynamic way – if our hearts beat for it.
What is the message of the Christian Passover? What could it mean to you? In the final analysis, you are the one who must “remember;” you decide how the celebration will change your life. As a suggestion try Hebrews 11:28-29 and 1 John 3:13-14: we cross over from death into life. Try freedom, release, liberation, new hope, a restored personal dignity, a whole new life serving and rejoicing in God.
1. “Between the two evenings”
This phrase could cover the 60 to 90 minutes of twilight after sunset (as the Talmud defines it); or possibly it could begin even earlier in order to accommodate the massive work of Passover sacrificing (as in Josephus’ time?). The truth is, the Bible does not define the term and we do not know its length.
2. J. H. Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London: Soncino Press, 1972) 254.
3. This expression does not occur as such in the Hebrew; there the land is qualified in various ways, such as “flowing with milk and honey,” or “which Yahweh swore to give…” etc.
Dr. Charles V. Dorothy (1934-1996) for 15 years served as Director of Biblical Studies and Research for the Association for Christian Development (ACD). He taught at several colleges and graduate schools including Fuller Seminary, Faith Lutheran Seminary, and Ambassador College. During his distinguished academic career, Dr. Dorothy earned two PhDs, numerous Master of Theology degrees including one from Fuller Theological Seminary where he was taught by world renowned Semitist Dr. William S. LaSor. While earning his PhD in biblical studies at the prestigious Claremont Graduate School he had the rare opportunity to be tutored by Professor James A. Sanders, respected by scholars world wide for his pioneering work and his Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center for Preservation and Research. Dr. Dorothy was fluent in the biblical languages and became a specialist in ancient Semitic tongues. As many of his students recall, he was also fluent in the Romance languages, especially his beloved Espanol. Among his biblical specialties were the inter-testament period, Dead Sea Scrolls, and early Christianity. In 1997, his final work, The Books of Esther, was published by Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, England.
A complete list of Dr. Dorothy’s articles and tapes is available from ACD ( PO Box 4748, Federal Way, WA 98063; 253-852-3269).