The Passover Lamb

The Passover is an important celebration in ancient Israel that is largely overlooked by Christians today as ancient history.  Nevertheless there is much that we can learn from the first Passover that applies to Christians still today.

The first Passover came as a part of the tenth and final plague upon Egypt that would deliver freedom to God’s people who were held in captivity.  Exodus 13 addresses the Israelites and gives them instructions on what is going to happen.  Although this day would be the worst in the history of Egypt, it would be a day of celebration that the Jews celebrate to this very day, thousands of years later.

1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

There are three times each year that the Israelites were called together to celebrate – the Passover, the feast of weeks (which is when Pentecost took place), and the feast of tabernacles which follows the Day of Atonement.  While sacrifices are a part of all three celebrations in the Passover and the Day of Atonement blood sacrifice is central to what takes place.

On the Day of Atonement a sacrifice was made on behalf of all the people of Israel.  But it hasn’t been instituted yet in Exodus.  As opposed to the Day of Atonement, the Passover is a very personal matter.  Each family must sacrifice a lamb.  This is not something that is bought at a market and is ready to eat.  This is a lamb that the family has raised for the last year.  The father would personally have to slaughter the lamb.  The blood from the slaughter – on this first Passover – was used to cover the doorpost of the household.  In the following years the lamb was slaughtered in remembrance of what the Lord did when the Israelites left Egypt but as they place the blood on their doorposts, during this first celebration, they are literally covered by the blood of the Lamb as we like to say in Christian circles.

The Passover is an important celebration that wasn’t to be taken lightly.  In the book of Malachi the Israelites are reprimanded because they were bringing worthless sacrifices.  They sacrificed crippled and diseased animals that had no value to them.  In Jesus’ day the priests had made a mockery of the system because they had to approve of each lamb that was sacrificed.  Often they would reject the lamb that a family had brought from afar and force them to purchase a lamb from the temple at exorbitant prices.

The unblemished lamb is a picture of the sinlessness of Jesus.  Sacrificing anything else is the equivalent of saying that Jesus didn’t have to be perfect or that God accepts sin.  Aside from the general taking advantage of people, the priests of Jesus’ day turned the sacrifice into an issue of money and made salvation available for purchase, but worst of all, only through them.

The Passover points to a personal need for Jesus.  Just being an Israelite didn’t save anyone on the night of the Passover.  Only those who were covered by the blood of the lamb on their doorposts were spared on the night of Passover.  Were there some Israelites who didn’t take part in this or who didn’t believe it?  The answer is most likely yes.  The angel of death passed through all of Egypt and it didn’t discriminate based on nationality, it struck down the first born male of every household that didn’t have the blood on the doorposts.

There is some archaeological evidence that suggests that there were hurriedly dug graves in the region of Goshen – where the Israelites were – that date back to around the time of the Exodus.  It’s likely that not all of the Israelites listened and they had to hurriedly bury their family members before they left Egypt.

Exodus 13:14-28 gives instructions for not only the night of the Passover but also the week surrounding it.  The entire time was a festival known as the feast of unleavened bread.  Unleavened bread is bread made without yeast in it.  It is an important reminder of the Passover.

There are two significant reasons for using unleavened bread in this festival – one practical, the other theological.  For practical reasons, yeast takes time to rise before you bake it.  This is a remembrance that the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for yeast to rise.  When God acts, He does so according to His timetable which may be years or at a moment’s notice.

The theological issue with yeast is that it is a picture of sin.  The modern equivalent to this is an apple.  You’re probably familiar with the phrase “one bad apple.”  The entire phrase is that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.  If a rotting apple is next to apples that are fine, then the rot will spread to the apples that are fine more quickly than if the apples are left on their own.  Yeast works similarly.  It spreads quickly.  If there is even a small bit of yeast, it will quickly grow and spread over everything.  This is the way that sin works as well.  If we clean up our life but leave just a bit of sin left, that sin is going to grow and spread and soon we’ll be consumed by sin again.  As the Israelites left Egypt to go and worship the Lord they were to rid of their lives of sin.

As Christians we know that Jesus was crucified on Passover.  But He also celebrated Passover the night before with His disciples in what we know as the Lord’s Supper.  This isn’t a mistake by the biblical writers.  By Jesus’ day there were so many Jews who came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover that it was impossible to sacrifice all of the lambs on one day.  As it was blood flowed like a stream from the temple mount where the sacrifices were performed.  As it became impossible to do all of the sacrifices in one day the northern Jews from Galilee celebrated the Passover feast on one day and the southern Jews celebrated the Passover the following day.  So Jesus was able to celebrate the Passover with His disciples and hang on the cross the following day as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered as well.

The Lord’s Supper that we as Christians commemorate was the celebration of the Passover that was initiated in Egypt.  It too was the result of blood sacrifice.  Of course Jesus was the Passover lamb.  Like the previous lamb, He too was spotless and perfect.  We celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to remember Jesus’ sacrifice, His body broken and His blood shed.  The Passover was a commemoration of the day that the Lord rescued the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh but it also looked forward to Jesus.  In Exodus, the people were saved from physical death thanks to the sacrifice of the lamb.  In Jesus we are also covered by the blood of the lamb as we are saved from spiritual death.

The Sacrifice of Isaac

Isaac was born to Abraham at a very old age.  Abraham was 100 years old at his birth while his wife Sarah was just a young 90 years old.  Isaac was the child that God had promised Abraham 25 years beforehand when he called him to leave the land of Ur and to go to a place that he would be shown.  God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and they would possess a tremendous amount of land.

Abraham’s positive response to God by picking up everything and going to a place he had never been didn’t mean that there weren’t bumps along the way.  After about ten years of waiting on the Lord, Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands.  Sarah gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child for her and Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old.

Another 13 years pass and God speaks to Abraham and essentially tells him that the time has arrived for Him to begin fulfilling the covenant.  While I believe most people would understand considering the circumstances, Abraham had jumped the gun by 14 years.  Even though Ishmael is not the son that God had promised, God promises to make him into a great nation as well.  But Isaac would be the son of promise and the covenant that God had made to Abraham would be fulfilled through him and not Ishmael.

This sets the stage for Genesis 22 where God speaks to Abraham and asks for a sacrifice to be made.  God doesn’t ask for just any sacrifice but he asks that Abraham sacrifice his only son.  There is an obvious parallel here between the sacrifice of Isaac and God sacrificing His only Son.  One can imagine the great difficulty Abraham must have had when he was asked to give up his only son.  But God the Father must have had the same difficulty in giving up His only Son.

One might try to argue that God knew what would happen to Jesus and the decision to sacrifice His Son was easier for this reason.  There was obviously no faith required on God’s part.  But this also meant that God sent His Son into the world knowing exactly what Jesus would endure in life and in death.

While Abraham was certainly ready to sacrifice his son, he also expected to receive him back from the dead.  Abraham’s faith had grown since the time that he and Sarah had taken matters into their own hands and Ishmael was born.  Abraham knew that God’s promise was fulfilled through Isaac and that even if Isaac was sacrificed he couldn’t remain dead because there was a covenant between him and God.

Hebrews 11:17-19 tells of Abraham’s faith:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

Abraham is told to go to the region of Moriah and he will make an offering on a mountain that God will show him.  As one may expect, this area is not a random selection by God but rather a very important place.  Mt. Moriah is one of several mounts that make up, or rather will make up after Abraham’s time, the city of Jerusalem.  So Abraham is instructed to travel to the site where Jerusalem will be in order to make the sacrifice.

But there is more significance than this.  Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon’s temple will be located and the sacrifices for sin would be performed.  It will be the location of the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the temple where the Ark of the Covenant resides and the presence of God Himself will be.

Through no coincidence I am sure, Mt. Moriah is also likely to be the place that Jesus hung on the cross.  You might wonder how that could possibly be if the temple was there but there are two very easy ways that this could be the case.  The first is that Solomon’s temple was destroyed.  Where Herod’s temple was built centuries later was not necessarily the exact same spot where Solomon’s temple had been.  The other easy explanation would be that while the temple was big, so are mountains and the temple and the spot of the crucifixion could have been on the same mount.  Realistically though, it is more likely that Herod’s temple was not in the same location as Solomon’s.

When the time comes for the sacrifice Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice was.  I can only imagine that Abraham had to look away with tears in his eyes when he told his son that God would provide the sacrifice.  Of course Abraham is prevented from actually sacrificing his son and God provides a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac.

If Mt. Moriah is where Jesus would also hang on the cross, then Genesis 22:14 provides a bit of prophetic foreshadowing.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

Quite literally on that mountain it was provided, Jesus being the once for all sacrifice.  Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son as an offering to God but instead a ram was provided as a substitute.  While Solomon’s temple stood on Mt. Moriah sacrifices were made year after year as an atonement for sin, in order to cover up the sins of the people.  And then finally Jesus was provided as the once for all sacrifice for sin.  No more sacrifices were needed.  The blood of Jesus didn’t just cover up sin like the previous sacrifices did.  Instead it washed it away completely.  God provided it all on Mt. Moriah.

Cain and Abel: A Lesson in Worship

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the more tragic stories of the Bible because Abel’s death seems so needless.  The story is more than just an intense sibling rivalry however.  To view it as just a matter of jealousy or the first murder in the Bible is really missing the point.

The story of Cain and Abel is in Genesis 4, immediately following the fall of man.  One way of looking at this story is to see how quickly sin grows and escalates.  Yeast is used in the Bible as a picture of sin because of the way it grows and this is definitely what Genesis 4 shows.  Even though a number of years pass for Cain and Abel to be born and grow into men, the narrative of Genesis goes from a relatively innocent sin of eating forbidden fruit to murder in the following chapter.

The real story of Cain and Abel is a matter of worship however.  And it is a very important matter that I believe the church doesn’t always get.  Take a look at verses 2-4 of Genesis 4.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.

If this were the first time you read this passage, you might not think that there was anything wrong here.  Cain and Abel both brought an offering to the Lord in accordance with their occupation.  But there are two things wrong with Cain’s sacrifice.

We’re not told in Genesis 4 why Cain’s sacrifice is wrong, but we know elsewhere in the Bible that sacrifices involve the shedding of blood.  This may seem barbaric to our modern sensibilities but all of the blood sacrifices pointed to the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross.  It is reasonable to believe that Cain and Abel both knew that an acceptable sacrifice was a blood sacrifice because this is the sacrifice that was established in Genesis 3 after the fall of man.

Adam and Eve’s fig leaves did not cover their spiritual nakedness even though it may have physically covered their bodies.  God had to provide the skin of an animal to cover them which meant that blood had to be shed to cover their nakedness.  Cain and Abel would have known this story and it is likely that all sacrifices were to involve the shedding of blood.  So that being the case, Cain’s sacrifice is not acceptable to God.

We often like to tell God how we’re going to worship Him rather than listen to how He demands to worship.  It’s not an audible thing but in our actions and attitudes we tell God that we’re not getting up too early to worship, because Sunday is our only day off.  Or maybe we declare that we can only give a certain amount of money because money is tight and bills are due and God understands.  Or maybe we tell God that we aren’t going to attend a church that sings boring hymns or we aren’t going to attend a radical one where people raise their hands.  We often tell God how we will and won’t worship Him rather than seeking out how He desires to be worshipped.

There is another thing that makes Cain’s sacrifice unacceptable however.  It is subtle but the text tells us that Cain gave some of the fruits of the soil.  Later on God established a sacrifice known as firstfruits but this is not the case here.  This isn’t the first of Cain’s harvest.  It’s not said or even implied that it’s the best of the harvest.  It’s probably the leftovers.  It’s probably whatever would have otherwise gone to waste anyway.  It is just some fruit.

Now compare that sacrifice to Abel’s.  Abel did bring the firstborn of his flock and it is the best portions, the fat portions.  It isn’t a sickly animal that he had no use for, instead it is the best that he had.

Attitude matters as much as what we give.  Paul tells us to be cheerful givers.  I believe in a ten percent tithe and I believe that God blesses those who do so.  But people should give to the Lord because they want to do so and not because I instructed them to do so.  If you give ten percent to church because you feel obligated to do so, you’re not going to be blessed as if you gave it freely.

So God confronts Cain about his sacrifice.  Picking up in the middle of verse 4 it says:

The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,  but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

It is implied here that Cain has done wrong with his sacrifice.  His sacrifice is not acceptable and he knew it.  As I already said, I think that Cain knew that the physical substance of the sacrifice was not what God wanted but I also believe that the attitude towards the sacrifice is not one of thanksgiving.  It is a begrudging sacrifice that is probably just given out of a sense of duty.

The story ends unhappily.  Cain kills his brother Abel.  There is probably jealousy involved and there is undoubtedly anger as well.  Cain has no reason to be angry with his brother because Abel gave a proper sacrifice.  God didn’t play favorites with Abel so there is no reason to be jealous.  If Cain had done as he should have done, he would have been accepted by God as well.  But he didn’t and he is cursed and given a mark so that no one kills him.

I’ll very briefly address two areas of controversy in this passage before I close.  We have no idea what this mark is.  Some people have said that God made Cain black as his mark and therefore dark skinned people are descendents of Cain.  I’ll just say that there is no reason to conclude that based on this passage.  It would in some way explain the hardships that dark skinned people have endured if they were in fact cursed but that would also somehow excuse the atrocities that they have suffered at the hands of light skinned people as we would say they somehow deserved it.  So, I think that to say Cain’s mark is one of skin color is a dangerous assumption that shouldn’t be made.

The other question that people like to ask is “where did Cain get his wife?”  Of course the question is valid for all of the early generations that are descended from Adam and Eve.  We are only told of three children that Adam and Eve had but they undoubtedly had many.  Given their supernaturally long lifespans, God may very well have extended Eve’s child bearing years and it is at least possible that she had hundreds of children.  That’s purely speculation on my part.  And of course those children would have children and could have started to do so as soon as puberty began.  Mathematically there could be a sizeable population in a short number of years.

Genetics is the real issue though.  It is immoral, illegal, and disgusting to have sex with a relative today.  But in Cain’s day it was a different culture and we see this even later on in Genesis.  More importantly though, there is a reason why relatives can’t have children with one another today.  Our genetics are too similar and birth defects are likely.  Adam and Eve carried the genetics for the entire human race however.  One child may be born with blond hair and blue eyes while the next may have a dark complexion with dark hair and brown eyes and the third child may have a fair complexion with red hair and green eyes.  Adam and Eve’s children would have been genetically diverse unlike our children today.  So even though the thought of marrying a sister or cousin makes us cringe today, it wasn’t immoral then and there wouldn’t have been the harm that we have today.