Passover: The Season of Our Redemption
We have just celebrated Pesach. Melodies such as "Chad gadya, chad gadya" and the smells of bubbe’s matzo ball soup reminded us that once again the calendar pages had arrived at the 14th of Nisan: a time to remember our deliverance—a time to recall our rescue from Pharaoh and Egyptian slavery. Pesach is a happy family time when we can enjoy one another, feast on delicious home cooking and then remember what God has done for our people. Most Jewish people know and love Pesach more than any other Jewish holiday; yet if being Jewish is ever to have more meaning to us than gastronomic preferences and a lunar calendar, we must take all of our holidays more seriously and learn about them from Scripture.
The First of Months: Calendar Confusion
Many of our people rarely if ever consider that Passover was also designated by the Creator as New Year’s time.
The Bible tells us that Nisan, the Passover month, is to be first. Yet Rosh Hashanah, which is celebrated in Tishri, is acknowledged as the start of the new year. Should it make a difference when Jewish people celebrate New Year’s?
The answer must be "Yes!" God established a calendar for us so that certain times and seasons might have a significance—a higher significance and at the same time a more profound significance—so that we might know and be shown that life has a meaning beyond immediacy.
God’s calendar for the Jewish people began with the month of Nisan and Passover. He created a whole feast that would cause the children to ask "Why is this night different from all other nights?" And then, noting those differences, they would discover what was important to remember about this night. Then God commanded other holidays in the Torah to punctuate our lives with times that would make us stop, look and listen.
There is something about taking Holy Scripture for what it says. If the Almighty wanted us to celebrate the new year any time, with no particular concern for a specific meaning about it, then it stands to reason that he would have either said nothing or something like, "Concerning times and seasons, I have nothing to say on the matter."
However, God says that Nisan should be "the first month of your year" (Exodus 12:2). The primacy God designated to the season of Pesach indicates that he expected us to give top priority to celebrating our redemption, and to remembering that he reached down into Egypt to rescue and lift us up from bondage with his z’roah netuyah v’yad hazakah (outstretched arm and mighty hand).
In case we missed the significance of God’s command to elevate this holiday of Pesach, even the first of the Ten Commandments is preceded by the statement that we should remember the Lord our God who "brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). Here, as in many other passages, God identifies himself to us as the God of Passover. He is not some unknown, impersonal force, but rather God who brought us out of the land of Egypt. That is how he wants to be known!
Before we consider anything else, it is our duty to remember God’s redemption! He owns us. We owe him our existence. Were it not for God’s hand, in Egypt, in Sinai, in Babylon, in Roman days—and yes, even in the days of Nazi darkness—there would be no Jewish people! We Jews exist because God, who chose us, exists.
As the Sabbath was commanded to remind us of our Creator, the Redemption and the First Commandment also speak to us of the need to commemorate the mighty deeds of our Creator and to submit to him.
Yom Kippur versus Passover: Calendar Contest
Many Jewish people perceive Yom Kippur as the holiest day of the year. On this awesome day we reflect on our sins and petition God’s forgiveness. We literally beg for his gift of atonement.
For most of world Jewry this has become the most solemn event of the year. Many of our Jewish people today are entirely secular in outlook, with little regard for religion. Yet even they become somewhat reverent as the tenth of Tishri approaches. Why is that?
The Scripture says that Yom Kippur should be the Sabbath of Sabbaths (Leviticus 23:32). God raised up Yom Kippur to be the most exalted day of the year. Yet that fall observance is not alone. It is listed in this chapter of Leviticus as one of seven feasts required of Jews. It is integrally linked with the other six. The holidays are like a chain by which God’s power tows us toward a greater understanding.
The Day of Atonement, in fact, is to be the summary of them all. In Yom Kippur we see first the heightened awareness of God, the reality of God’s redemption in our lives, and the thanksgiving we should offer to the Almighty for that great redemption. But to get it right, the whole idea of reconciliation must begin with the Passover process.
What Passover tells us about God: Holiday Revelation
Modern-day Jews can be faithful to God or can disregard God. We could hold a morbid and hopeless view of him like Rabbi Harold Kushner, who seems to believe that God is limited—that concerning our welfare, the Creator might wish to help at various times, but just might be unable to do us any good.
Whereas Rabbi Kushner seems unaware of the passages of Scripture demonstrating the unlimited power of God, the light of the message of Passover is that although we had been left in slavery, seemingly forgotten by the Almighty, he did not, and does not, forget. He is not helplessly sympathetic to our human plight. Isaiah the prophet records God’s cry, "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!" (Isaiah 49:15). We Jews are a people prone to forget God’s promises and even his actual fulfillment of them.
How long does it take?
God is not really slow about fulfilling his promises as some regard slowness. Neither is God inept. Scripture shows that God is going to do what God intends to do in his own good time.
Think of Abraham. He wandered for 38 years from the time he left his Chaldean home until God’s promise was fulfilled in the land called Canaan.
Think of Joseph. He was left in prison for two full years awaiting the exaltation that would surely come through the darkness of the imprisoned ingrate, the cupbearer to Pharaoh.
Think of David Hamelech. King David was chased in the wilderness, first by Saul and then by his sons, for innumerable years. He even hid in caves like an animal as he awaited the fulfillment of God’s faithful promise to re-establish his theocratic government through David.
The Prophet Isaiah cried out:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:2-6).
How long would it be from the time he uttered those words until that promise might be fulfilled?
God chose to be involved with us
Not only is the Eternal One beyond our time limitations, he is not ruled by our wishes. Our God is not a God who left his Jewish people alone in Egypt, nor did he abandon us in the wilderness. He did not merely provide us with instructions on how to get to the Land of Promise. Rather he is a God who gets personally involved. He is an Imminent God. We are never out of his reach.
The miracles of Passover were not the work of Moses alone or Moses with Aaron carrying on the family business. The rod was in Moses’ hand, but it was God who split the Red Sea and swept Egypt with his power. God himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart; God himself delivered us at the Red Sea. God himself provided manna in the wilderness.
God is Awesome
God’s power is unstoppable! He led the Jewish people out of Egypt "with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand." There were supernatural events attending the Exodus: the plagues, the instantaneous slaying of the firstborn, the opening of the sea, the pillar of cloud and fire that led the Jewish people. There were miraculous provisions like water coming from a rock touched by Moses’ rod. All these things happened because God intended to communicate his awesome presence.
That same God is with us today. The One who parted the Red Sea is ready to be involved in our daily lives to the extent that we give him a place there. We recite the Passover liturgy over the matzo, "Lo, this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Then we were slaves, now we are free." And in so doing, we attest to our integral link with all Jews who came before us. We are to see ourselves as having been in bondage in Egypt, and in the same way we are to see ourselves as having been redeemed from that bondage by an all-powerful Redeemer.
What Passover tells us about ourselves: Holiday Reflection Our utter need for God
As we contemplate Passover, it becomes obvious that we are a people unable to separate ourselves from the bondage that entraps us.
Were it not for the hand of God, we might still be in Egypt bemoaning our fate. While we entertain idealistic dreams about being able to change our life situations, very few have the strength to make more than small adjustments without the strength of God. We might move from one part of "Goshen" to another, but real Exodus events take the power of God. Only he can initiate the change, bring us to the place where he wants us to be and sustain us there.
We long for significant changes in the quality of being. We long to be free, but we are unable to overcome the inertia of human nature. If God does not lift us out of our life situations, and all that oppresses us, we shall never transcend the sin and selfishness that shackles us and pulls us down.
Yet how is God going to do this today? How shall we ever find rescue from the daily trivialities that bind us and the sins that beset us? Mysteriously, the means of redemption then and now have a sameness. It begins with a happening.
First, God fastens our attention on an event—the killing of a lamb. This lamb becomes an enabling sacrifice—the agency of rescue, the means of redemption.
The Passover lamb was meticulously chosen. The regulations concerning the lamb are extensive. And it was that one-year-old baby sheep that had to be sacrificed so that the Hebrew family could be spared the final plague, the slaying of the firstborn. If the family were not inside the house celebrating the Passover, or if they did not place the blood on the doorposts of their house, they would not be spared from the ravages of that plague. Redemption was incomplete without the slaughtered lamb and the appropriately applied blood.
This might seem a bit gruesome to our twentieth-century minds, but it was very ordinary in Bible times. Without the shedding of blood there would have been no redemption.
Isn’t this consistent with all of God’s covenant promises?
Even the brit milah, the covenant of circumcision, is accompanied by blood. It seems fitting then that as God was about to usher in a covenant with Moses at Mt. Sinai, he would precipitate the event with the shedding of blood through the Passover sacrifice.
A prophet of the Jewish people named Yochanon (John) used the image of bloodshed as an act of a covenant. He pointed to Jesus of Nazareth and proclaimed: "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." By using that metaphor, he linked the redemption of the Passover event to a passage in Isaiah 53 which indicated the promised Messiah would die for our sins.
In light of this, it is not surprising that Yeshua (Jesus), the one who would in fact be identified as "the lamb of God" by his followers, should die an innocent, sacrificial death. In fact, Yeshua shed his blood even as the Passover lamb had to. His death accomplished another, more lasting redemption than redemption from slavery in Egypt.
Yeshua as the lamb of God secured for us the forgiveness of sins which separate us from God. In our enslavement to sin and inability to change, we are worthy of the slaying, that is the separation of our souls from God for eternity. But through Yeshua’s sacrificial death, the Angel of Death is made to pass over.
But his sacrifice is not enough
The Passover not only had to be killed, but its blood had to be placed on the doorposts of the individual Jewish homes to save the firstborn sons. So, too, it is not enough that Yeshua died for the sins of the world. It is not enough that he was God’s provision to secure atonement for the entire human race. If they are to live, individual sons and daughters must appropriate this provision in a personal encounter with the Lamb of God.
Passover for us today
Some of the meanings of Passover are apparent and easily ascertained or derived. We are told over and over again that Passover commemorates the redemption event. But each time it is told it fastens our minds and our attention on a different facet of God’s nature. For example, one time Scripture says that he brought us out of the land of Egypt with his own right arm and thus we see the omnipotence of God, that he is truly mighty to save. At another time it talks about God in terms of the plagues and judgments upon the household of Egypt. In this, we see the facet of God as judge and dispenser of justice.
At still another time, the Passover account talks about God begetting Israel in affection and we see that God is love:
"But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 7:8).
In other words, when we look at the Passover event historically, we not only see that the Hebrew people escaped Egypt. We begin to see some of the attributes of the God of the Hebrews.
Sometimes the images are juxtaposed, i.e. sometimes the strong right arm as being God’s instrumentality is emphasized, and at other times the emphasis is upon the perfect lamb. When we look at the lamb we see that it was not merely to be food but a sacrifice—and not merely a sacrifice, but an unusual kind of sacrifice. Whereas all other sacrifices were consumed while sitting or reclining, the Israelites were to stand as if ready to go and to eat the whole feast that way.
Passover presents images upon images, pictures upon pictures, paint brushes and palates, each one painting part of a pattern that one cannot see by standing too close or by examining the strokes. The beauty of what is being depicted must be seen from a distance to allow the colors and strokes to merge. And we Jewish people have always been too close to our history to gain the true picture of what was happening.
A final word on the first of months
So we return to the question of why the calendar was changed to make new year’s be in Tishri, instead of Nisan.
Historically speaking, one of the important facets to be discerned about Passover is that life, whether it is national life or personal life, begins with redemption—a bringing out, a calling away. It is a time when the individual or the people come away from their ordinary relationship to the world and enter into a special relationship with God. Holy Scripture indicates in many places through the prophets that God wanted a new beginning for the ancient Israelites, and he wants it for you now. Whether you celebrate the beginning in the spring or the autumn does make a difference. Let your life begin with the life of the Passover lamb, new life in Yeshua, the Lamb of God.
Bob Mendelsohn is the leader of Jews for Jesus' work in Sydney, Australia. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Kansas City, but became a college drop-out when he decided to look for the meaning of life in the counterculture of the '60s. He found meaning and relevance in Jesus which caused him much trouble at home. But he says, It was worth the cost." Bob has worked for Jews for Jesus since 1979, and served as the leader of our work in Washington DC and New York City before moving to Sydney in 1998. Bob and his wife Patty both graduated from the University of Kansas and Fuller Seminary. The Mendelsohns live in Sydney near their son. Their two daughters and one grandson live in the US.