Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Passover, feast of the, also called feast of unleavened bread. the annual celebration of the rescue of the Israelites from Egypt. The feast began with a family supper at which a roast lamb was served and the head of the household recited the story of the last night in Egypt. This was followed by seven days in which only unleavened bread was eaten. Ex. 12:1-20 (description); 2 Chron. 35:1; Mark 14:1; Luke 2:41; John 13:1.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Passover, the, a religious festival commemorating God’s deliverance of the Jews from bondage. The English term translates the Hebrew word pesach as used in Exod. 12:13, ‘I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt’ (see also vv. 23, 27). The verb also may have the connotation ‘protect’ in Isa. 31:5, although such a sense is probably already reflective of the Exodus (Isa. 31:3). Elsewhere in the Hebrew the verb means ‘hop, skip’ (1 Kings 18:21, 26; rsv: ‘limp’) or ‘limp’ (2 Sam. 4:4; rsv: ‘lame,’ and see the noun form ‘lame’ from the same root in Lev. 21:18; 2 Sam. 9:13; Isa. 35:6). Unconvincing attempts have been made by scholars to derive the etymology of pesach from Akkadian, Egyptian, and Arabic loan words. In the Bible, the noun pesach always refers to the sacrifice (Exod. 12:27) or the attendant festival (2 Kings 23:22).

Scholars have difficulty reconstructing the origins and historical development of the Passover festival due to the relative paucity of information in the Bible and elsewhere and the differing perceptions of the literary sources and traditions that marshal the evidence. The Bible contains eight chronological references to the Passover.

Biblical References: The first is to the Passover of the Exodus (Exod. 12:1-13:16), generally seen to be a pastiche of sources, the dominant one being P, the Priestly source. Since Exod. 12 starts out with a reference to the partaking of the paschal lamb in the first month of the year (vv. 2-10), Abib (March-April; 13:4), some scholars think that the Passover was originally a spring New Year festival, similar to the autumnal Feast of Tabernacles. On the 10th of the month each family was to choose a lamb (v. 3) to be slaughtered at twilight on the 14th (v. 6). The blood was to be smeared on the doorposts and lintel of the house (v. 7), which God would see and thus spare the inhabitants from the destruction of the Egyptian firstborn (vv. 12-13). The apotropaic (protective) nature of the rite is thus indicated. After roasting, all of the flesh of the animal was to be eaten in the house that night, but only by the Israelites and their circumcised slaves; the remnants were to be burned in the morning (vv. 8-10, 43-47). The people were to eat the sacrifice hurriedly, dressed to flee Egypt (v. 11). This day would be a memorial feast in perpetuity (v. 14). From the evening of the 14th until that of the 21st the Israelite houses would be clean of leaven, and only unleavened bread, matzot, would be eaten (vv. 14, 18-20). These days too would be celebrated yearly, although there is confusion on whether it would be celebrated already in the desert (implied in v. 17?), or only upon entering Canaan (13:5-7[E], and v. 10). The 1st and 7th days of eating the matzot would be shared assemblies, with no work allowed (12:16). The festival of matzot was also conceived as a memorial to the Exodus (12:17; 13:3, 9). It is incumbent upon parents to explain the significance of these feast days to children (12:26-27; 13:8; cf. 13:14).

The next reference is to the second year of the Exodus (Num. 9:1-14, identified as P and therefore late by most scholars): the Passover sacrifice and its attendant rites are kept in the wilderness of Sinai (vv. 3, 5). Those who were defiled by a corpse (vv. 6, 10) or too far away (vv. 10, 13) would keep the Passover with matzot and bitter herbs on the 14th day of the second month. A non-Israelite who dwelled among the tribes would also be required to observe the Passover (v. 14). The lateness of this passage is evidenced by the reference to the ‘too distant way’ (v. 10), which assumes a central sanctuary (cf. Deut. 12:21; 14:24).

After entering Canaan in the days of Joshua (Josh. 5:10-12), at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho the Israelites performed the Passover sacrifice (v. 10), and on the following day they ate matzot and parched corn (v. 11; cf. Lev. 2:12). There is controversy over the dating of this passage. Those who see it as early contend that here is evidence of the unification of the Passover sacrifice with the eating of matzot within an historicized memorial to the Exodus already at Israel’s incursion into Canaan. Those who see this passage as late (influenced by Deuteronomy) understand the reference as anachronistic.

A fourth reference is to the time of the judges and Samuel. In the midst of a description of Joshua’s Passover, 2 Kings 23:22 and 2 Chron. 35:18 allude to an exemplary Passover of earlier times.

Another refers to the time of Solomon, implied by 1 Kings 9:25 and stated in 2 Chron. 8:13 (the feast of matzot) and 31:26.

A sixth reference is to the days of Hezekiah (727-698 b.c.; 2 Chron. 30:1-27, not recorded by Kings): a Passover kept by royal decree in the second month due to impurity of the priests (v. 3), which was kept by Judah and some of the remnants of the northern tribes in Jerusalem (vv. 11-13). The priests purified the people (v. 16), and the Levites oversaw the slaughter of the paschal lamb (v. 17). The Passover was succeeded by the seven-day matzot festival accompanied by praise of God and music (v. 21). Three facts have convinced some scholars of the unhistorical nature of this passage: first, Kings records no such event; second, it appears to contain elements of Solomon’s dedication and Josiah’s Passover (2 Chron. 35:1-18); and, third, Hezekiah, like Josiah later, is seen to be concerned to make reforms in the north (2 Kings 23:15-20; 2 Chron. 34:33). However, 2 Kings 18:4 does depict Hezekiah’s broad religious reforms, which would be consistent with an attempt at a proper Passover celebration.

A seventh reference is to the days of Josiah (639-609 b.c.; 2 Kings 23:21-23; 2 Chron. 35:1-19). In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, as part of his reforms based upon the newly found book of the covenant (2 Kings 23:21; cf. 22:8, 11; 23:2-3), he decreed the observance of the Passover in Jerusalem (cf. Deut. 16:2, 5-6), which is viewed by the historian as extraordinary (2 Kings 23:22-23). The author of Chronicles’ expanded account (2 Chron. 35:1-19) adds that the Levites slaughtered and flayed the thirty thousand lambs and kids for the pesach given by the king and the twenty-six hundred given by the princes, as well as the cattle for the sacrifices (vv. 6-11). The priests purified the people with the sprinkling of the blood (v. 11). The pesach was roasted, but the other animals destined for the sacrifices were boiled (v. 13). Thus, Chronicles reconciles the discrepancies between Exod. 12:8-9, which commands roasting, and Deut. 16:7, which states that the pesach should be boiled. The seven-day feast of matzot accompanied the pesach (2 Chron. 35:17). The uniqueness of the event is reemphasized (v. 18).

A final reference is to the days of Zerubbabel (Ezra 6:19-22). After the dedication of the rebuilt Temple, during the sixth year of Darius (515 b.c.; Ezra 6:15-17), the returned exiles from Babylon observed the Passover. The purity of the community is emphasized (Ezra 6:20-21), in keeping with the concern for reinstituting proper worship after the Exile. As in 2 Chronicles 35, the Levites slaughter the pesach (v. 20). The seven-day feast of matzot was kept with great joy (v. 22).

Although dates are not adduced, it is apparent that the command in Deut. 16:2, 5-7 to observe the pesach ‘at the place which the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it’ indicates a transition from the house ceremony (Exod. 12:46) to that of the Temple. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know the date of this transition, scholarly conjecture notwithstanding.

Extrabiblical References: In addition to the evidence from the Hebrew Bible, two ostraca and a papyrus refer to the meticulous celebration of the Passover in the Jewish community of Elephantine in Egypt in the fifth century b.c.

Origin and Significance: Much ink has been spilled concerning the nonhistorical prebiblical origins of the Passover. The most accepted position is that the pesach sacrifice originated in a seminomadic ceremony held in spring and fall when feeding grounds for the flock were alternated due to change of seasons. The ceremony thus would have been a petition for the deity’s protection and favor during the time of migration. Another view ties the Passover in with a spring New Year’s festival. There is considerable difference of opinion as to when the sacrifice from the flock was joined in ceremony with the offering of the first fruits of the barley harvest. The fact is, however, that the Bible knows of no such disparate origins. The historical aspects always appear together with these of agriculture and sheepherding, just as the feast of matzot is always joined to the pesach. This reality alone is evidence that all these elements came together at a very early stage of Israelite history.

The ultimate significance of the Passover, though, is not in its sociology or history, but in its unique role in the life of the Jewish people. It was and is the festival of freedom and redemption par excellence. Representative of God’s love and saving acts, it always gave the people hope in the face of physical and spiritual oppression. As a family celebration, it served as a unifying bond from generation to generation. Its strength is seen in its emergence as the most important of Jewish festivals, in its three-thousand-year continuity, and in its continuing relevance to the needs of the people, whether it be freedom from social discrimination or the acquisition of religious liberty.

The traditions of God’s love and of his saving acts prompted the nascent Christian community, according to the Gospels at the command of Jesus, to celebrate a thanksgiving (Gk. eucharistia) festival commemorating the Passover he celebrated with his disciples the night before his crucifixion (1 Cor. 11:23-26) and the saving effects of that death and subsequent resurrection (Matt. 26:17, 26-28). The centrality of that observance for the Christian faith, drawing on the Passover as the central observance of the Jewish faith, clearly shows how deeply rooted Christianity is in the historic life and faith of the people of Israel.

Bibliography Childs, B. S. The Book of Exodus. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974. Pp. 178-214. Schauss, H. The Jewish Festivals. New York: Schocken, 1977. Pp. 38-85. Segal, J. B. The Hebrew Passover. London: Oxford, 1963.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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