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The cycle of Temple-festivals appropriately opens with 'the Passover' and 'Feast of Unleavened Bread.' For, properly speaking, these two are quite distinct (Lev 23:5,6; Num 28:16,17; 2 Chron 30:15,21; Ezra 6:19,22; Mark 14:1), the 'Passover' taking place on the 14th of Nisan, and the 'Feast of Unleavened Bread' commencing on the 15th, and lasting for seven days, to the 21st of the month (Exo 12:15). But from their close connection they are generally treated as one, both in the Old and in the New Testament (Matt 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:1); and Josephus, on one occasion, even describes it as 'a feast for eight days' (Antiq. ii. 15, 1; but comp. iii. 10, 5; ix. 13, 3).
There are peculiarities about the Passover which mark it as the most important, and, indeed, take it out of the rank of the other festivals. It was the first of the three feasts on which all males in Israel were bound to appear before the Lord in the place which He would choose (the two others being the Feast of Weeks and that of Tabernacles [Exo 23:14; 34:18-23; Lev 23:4-22; Deut 16:16]). All the three great festivals bore a threefold reference. They pointed, first, to the season of the year, or rather to the enjoyment of the fruits of the good land which the Lord had given to His people in possession, but of which He claimed for Himself the real ownership (Lev 25:23; Psa 85:1; Isa 8:8; 14:2; Hosea 9:3). This reference to nature is expressly stated in regard to the Feast of Weeks and that of Tabernacles (Exo 23:14-16; 34:22), but, though not less distinct, it is omitted in connection with the feast of unleavened bread. On the other hand, great prominence is given to the historical bearing of the Passover, while it is not mentioned in the other two festivals, although it could not have been wholly wanting. But the feast of unleavened bread celebrated the one grand event which underlay the whole history of Israel, and marked alike their miraculous deliverance from destruction and from bondage, and the commencement of their existence as a nation. For in the night of the Passover the children of Israel, miraculously preserved and set free, for the first time became a people, and that by the direct interposition of God. The third bearing of all the festivals, but especially of the Passover, is typical. Every reader of the New Testament knows how frequent are such allusions to the Exodus, the Passover Lamb, the Passover Supper, and the feast of unleavened bread. And that this meaning was intended from the first, not only in reference to the Passover, but to all the feasts, appears from the whole design of the Old Testament, and from the exact correspondence between the types and the antitypes. Indeed, it is, so to speak, impressed upon the Old Testament by a law of internal necessity. For when God bound up the future of all nations in the history of Abraham and his seed (Gen 12:3), He made that history prophetic; and each event and every rite became, as it were, a bud, destined to open in blossom and ripen into fruit on that tree under the shadow of which all nations were to be gathered.
Thus nature, history, and grace combined to give a special meaning to the festivals, but chiefly to the Passover. It was the feast of spring; the spring-time of nature, when, after the death of winter, the scattered seeds were born into a new harvest, and the first ripe sheaf could be presented to the Lord; the spring-time of Israel's history, too, when each year the people celebrated anew their national birthday; and the spring-time of grace, their grand national deliverance pointing forward to the birth of the true Israel, and the Passover sacrifice to that 'Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.' Accordingly, the month of the Passover, Abib, or, as it was called in later times, Nisan, * was to be unto them 'the beginning of months'--the birth-month of the sacred, and at the same time the seventh in the civil year.
* Abib is the month of 'sprouting' or of 'green ears.' Esther 3:7; Nehemiah 2:1.
Here we mark again the significance of seven as the sacred or covenant number. On the other hand, the Feast of Tabernacles, which closed the festive cycle, took place on the 15th of the seventh month of the sacred, which was also the first in the civil, year. Nor is it less significant that both the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles fell upon the 15th day of the month; that is, at full moon, or when the month had, so to speak, attained its full strength.
Origin of the Name
The name of the Passover, in Hebrew Pesach, and in Aramean and Greek Pascha, is derived from a root which means to 'step over,' or to 'overleap,' and thus points back to the historical origin of the festival (Exo 12). But the circumstances in which the people were placed necessarily rendered its first celebration, in some particulars, different from its later observance, which, so far as possible, was brought into harmony with the general Temple practice. Accordingly, Jewish authorities rightly distinguish between 'the Egyptian' and the 'Permanent Passover.' On its first institution it was ordained that the head of every house should, on the 10th of Nisan, select either a lamb or a kid of the goats, of the first year, and without blemish. Later Jewish ordinances, dating after the return from Babylon, limit it to a lamb; and it is explained that the four days previous to the slaying of the lamb referred to the four generations that had passed after the children of Israel went down into Egypt. The lamb was to be killed on the eve of the 14th, or rather, as the phrase, is, 'between the two evenings' (Exo 12:6; Lev 23:5; Num 9:3,5). According to the Samaritans, the Karaite Jews, and many modern interpreters, this means between actual sunset and complete darkness (or, say, between six and seven p.m.); but from the contemporary testimony of Josephus (Jew. Wars, vi. 9, 3), and from Talmudical authorities, there cannot be a doubt that, at the time of our Lord, it was regarded as the interval between the sun's commencing to decline and his actual disappearance. This allows a sufficient period for the numerous lambs which had to be killed, and agrees with the traditional account that on the eve of the Passover the daily evening sacrifice was offered an hour, or, if it fell on a Friday, two hours, before the usual time.
Institution of the Passover
In the original institution the blood of the sacrifice was to be sprinkled with hyssop on the lintel and the two doorposts of the house, probably as being the most prominent place of entrance. Then the whole animal, without breaking a bone of it, was to be roasted, and eaten by each family--or, if the number of its members were too small, by two neighboring families--along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, to symbolise the bitterness of their bondage and the haste of their deliverance, and also to point forward to the manner in which the true Israel were in all time to have fellowship in the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7,8). All who were circumcised were to partake of this meal, and that arrayed as for a journey; and whatever was not consumed was to be burnt on the spot. These ordinances in regard to the Passover were afterwards modified during the journey in the wilderness to the effect, that all males were to appear 'in the place which the Lord shall choose,' and there alike to sacrifice and to eat the lamb or kid, bringing at the same time also another offering with them (Exo 34:18-20; Deut 16:2,16,17). Lastly, it was also ordered that if any man were unclean at the time of the regular Passover, or 'in a journey afar off,' he should celebrate it a month later (Num 9:9- 11).
Directions in the Mishnah
The Mishnah (Pes. ix. 5) contains the following, as the distinctions between the 'Egyptian' and the 'Permanent' Passover: 'The Egyptian Passover was selected on the 10th, and the blood was to be sprinkled with a sprig of hyssop on the lintel and the two door-posts, and it was to be eaten in haste in the first night; but the Permanent Passover is observed all the seven days'; i.e. the use of unleavened cakes was, on its first observance, enjoined only for that one night, though, from Israel's haste, it must, for several days, have been the only available bread; while afterwards its exclusive use was ordered during the whole week. Similarly, also, the journey of the children of Israel commenced on the 15th of Nisan, while in after-times that day as observed as a festival like a Sabbath (Exo 12:16; Lev 23:7; Num 28:18). To these distinctions the following are also added (Tos. Pes. viii): In Egypt the Passover was selected on the 10th, and killed on the 14th, and they did not, on account of the Passover, incur the penalty of 'cutting off,' as in later generations; of the Egyptian Passover it was said, 'Let him and his neighbor next unto his house take it,' while afterwards the Passover-companies might be indiscriminately chosen; in Egypt it was not ordered to sprinkle the blood and burn the fat on the altar, as afterwards; at the firs Passover it was said, 'None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning,' which did not apply to later times; in Egypt it was slain by every one in his own house, while afterwards it was slain by all Israel in one place; lastly, formerly where they ate the Passover, there they lodged, but afterwards they might eat it in one, and lodge in another place.
Scripture Records of the Feast
Scripture records that the Passover was kept the second year after the Exodus (Num 9:1-5), and then not again till the Israelites actually reached the promised land (Josh 5:10); but, as the Jewish commentators rightly observe, this intermission was directed by God Himself (Exo 12:25; 13:5). After that, public celebrations of the Passover are only mentioned once during the reign of Solomon (2 Chron 8:13), again under that of Hezekiah (2 Chron 30:15), at the time of Josiah (2 Kings 23:21), and once more after the return from Babylon under Ezra (Ezra 6:19). On the other hand, a most significant allusion to the typical meaning of the Passover-blood, as securing immunity from destruction, occurs in the prophecies of Ezekiel (Eze 9:4-6), where 'the man clothed with linen' is directed to 'set a mark upon the foreheads' of the godly (like the first Passover-mark), so that they who were to 'slay utterly old and young' might not 'come near any' of them. The same symbolic reference and command occur in the Book of Revelation (Rev 7:2,3; 9:4), in regard to those who have been 'sealed as the servants of our God in their foreheads.'
But the inference that the Passover was only celebrated on the occasions actually mentioned in Scripture seems the less warranted, that in later times it was so meticulously and universally observed. We can form a sufficiently accurate idea of all the circumstances attending it at the time of our Lord. On the 14th of Nisan every Israelite who was physically able, not in a state of Levitical uncleanness, nor further distant from the city than fifteen miles, was to appear in Jerusalem. Though women were not legally obliged to go up, we know from Scripture (1 Sam 1:3-7; Luke 2:41,42), and from the rules laid down by Jewish authorities (Jos. Wars, vi. 9-3; and Mishnah Pes. ix. 4, for ex.), that such was the common practice. Indeed, it was a joyous time for all Israel. From all parts of the land and from foreign countries the festive pilgrims had come up in bands, singing their pilgrim psalms, and bringing with them burnt- and peace-offerings, according as the Lord had blessed them; for none might appear empty before Him (Exo 23:15; Deut 16:16,17). How large the number of worshippers was, may be gathered from Josephus, who records that, when Cestius requested the high-priest to make a census, in order to convince Nero of the importance of Jerusalem and of the Jewish nation, the number of lambs slain was found to be 256,500, which, at the lowest computation of ten persons to every sacrificial lamb, would give a population of 2,565,000, or, as Josephus himself puts it, 2,700,200 persons, while on an earlier occasion (AD 65) he computes the number present at not fewer than three millions (Jew. Wars, vi. 9, 3; ii. 14, 3). *