In this chapter, the Passover is instituted and Israel is driven out of Egypt.
This is a fairly long chapter and it's also fairly important. There are lots of minor details which I'm going to skip over, as I want to talk about a few major things.
The description of events in this chapter is a bit nonlinear. By this what I mean is that the first passage, verses 1 through 20, is God telling Moses the regulations of the Passover for future generations. Verses 21 through 28 is Moses telling the elders of Israel how to prepare for the Passover that they are about to experience, and then verses 29 through 41 is the events of the first Passover. Verses 42 through 51 concludes with yet more rules about the Passover, for future generations. If I were to write this chapter, I would put verses 21 through 41 first, and then follow the story of the Passover with the rules governing later Passovers. This is why we read the command to eat unleavened bread before we see verse 34, which is the etiological explanation for why later Passovers must have unleavened bread. This is kindof confusing, but when you figure out what's going on it should make sense.
I should also point out that the time frame for these speeches is somewhat indeterminate, which possibly contributes to the general confusion of this chapter. The commands of v. 1-20 is not necessarily on the same day as the speech of v. 21-28. Then the further comments of v. 43-49 could be in some other time as well.
On a general note, it's interesting how specific this chapter is, how it specifies a variety of characteristics of the lamb to be sacrificed, that it must be unblemished, must be a year old and male, must be picked on this day, killed on that day, roasted and not boiled, not raw, not left over until morning, and so on. This is a sharp contrast to the vague generalities we have been dealing with so far. I mean, how many times have I said that something or other was omitted from a given passage? This is especially true in early Genesis like Genesis 4, but it's also true in later Genesis and also in early Exodus. There are lots of things that are either implied or just not stated at all and we have to read between the lines to figure out what's going on. Some of this stuff is cultural factors, but other things are actually relevant details to the story like where the mighty men of Genesis 6 come from (among many other things). Now that we have passed into the realm of specific, almost excessive, detail, this indicates we have entered the legal section of the Pentateuch. I bet you didn't see that coming. There was no announcement that we were now reading a legal code, rather than a story. The story flowed smoothly from Moses talking to Pharaoh to God telling Moses a variety of conditions about how the Israelites must celebrate the Passover in future generations.
This is highly characteristic of the Pentateuch's literary style, which melds together law, stories, poetry, genealogies in this one big bucket. Each of these has its own characteristics and purpose, but they are interleaved with abandon.
In this case, the legal section (describing regulations about the Passover) clearly fits into the context, which is the death of the firstborn of Egypt and the first Passover of Israel, but its placement here is still awkward to my modern sensibilities. We live in a time and place where people either write legal documents or they write stories, they don't mix them together. It would be as if the American constitution also included stories about George Washington camping in Valley Forge or a history of the Mayflower, which concludes with a command that all Americans must visit Valley Forge once a year to commemorate the American Revolution.
The Pentateuch is clearly written for a different time, and it is written to both give the Israelite people their history and origins and give them a legal framework to govern their lives, a legal framework that we can see is inextricably connected with their national religion as well, because many of their laws are religious laws, as here with the Passover. This passage also clearly shows that the Hebrew national identity (as sons of Jacob) is inextricably tied with their religious beliefs, as anyone who fails to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread "shall be cut off from Israel", whether that means exile or death I'm not sure, but either way it meant removal from the community.
What's interesting is that they also include a provision for foreigners or non-Israelites to join the community in the deepest way, by sharing in the Passover. If a foreigner and his sons get circumcised, they can partake in the Passover (verse 48). In this case, becoming circumcised is an allusion to the Abrahamic Covenant, which is later subsumed into the Law of Moses. There would have clearly been an expectation that the foreigner who had joined the community in such a way would follow all of the rules of the community, and not just be circumcised. This shows that, while all the sons of Israel are required to follow the LORD, not all the followers of the LORD are sons of Israel. This is somewhat encouraging to non-Israelites like myself, to whom the way to God is not closed off. The other big implication of this is that Jews can proselytize.
In the OT, we hardly ever see Jewish converts. There are no recorded incidents of intentional Jewish proselytism and only a tiny handful of converts to Judaism. Probably the biggest example of this is the life of Ruth (as recorded in the eponymous book) and the second biggest might be the prostitute Rehab in Joshua 6:25, though in Rehab's case one could debate whether she converted or simply lived in Israel as a foreigner. So in spite of this provision, Judaism remains almost universally the religion of the sons of Jacob until the NT. Importantly, this provision did not mean that the LORD could become the god of "other nations." What it meant was that the foreigner would join the nation of Israel and become part of their national and religious identity. The language of the OT shows an attitude that each nation has its own patron god and there is both a contest between gods and a contest between nations, and these contests are essentially equivalent. For instance, here in Exodus 12:12: "For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the LORD." Executing judgment against the people of Egypt is the same as executing judgment against the gods of Egypt. So under this framework the LORD is exclusive to the people of Israel, but foreigners are free to join that people.
On a side note, this practice has held to this day, with most major Jewish denominations accepting converts if those converts follow whatever rules they have set in place. We also see references to Jewish conversion and proselytism in the NT. However, just like we see documented in the OT, there is generally very little Jewish proselytism (some major denominations forbid it entirely) and statistically very few converts to Judaism.
We already saw Moses and Aaron take physical actions to symbolize the inception of a plague (such as striking the water with Aaron's staff or throwing soot into the air), and we saw Moses give the Egyptians a test whether they feared the LORD, to save their livestock or not. Now we are seeing Moses give the Israelites a test of their faithfulness, through enacting a physical ceremony which will save them from "the destroyer" (verse 23). This is why those who fail to keep the Passover are cut off from Israel, because it is a test of their obedience to the LORD.
The Passover is an extension of the Goshen Principle we have already seen, but it also introduces a new element which is the sacrifice of the lamb. This was not part of how the Israelites were protected from earlier plagues, but from henceforth their protection from the wrath and judgments of God shall be affiliated with animal sacrifice.
We have seen animal sacrifice a number of times already. The most notable (but not the only) are: the implied killing of one or two animals in Genesis 3:21, Abel's sacrifice in Genesis 4:4, Noah's sacrifice in Genesis 8:20 and Abraham's sacrifice in Genesis 22:13.
Abel and Noah's sacrifices were what I would call (in Leviticus parlance) fellowship offerings. They were simply offering a sacrifice for the reason of worshiping God. This is strange to most modern readers, but Genesis 8:21 shows that this was an act taken to please God: "The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma". I will discuss fellowship offerings in more detail when we get to the book of Leviticus, which establishes it as an ordinance in Israel.
Genesis 3:21 is more relevant to the Passover, but at the same time it is slightly more occluded. That is, Genesis 3 doesn't actually tell us that God or Adam sacrificed any animals, it just says that God covered them with skins, compared to the fig leaves they were using previously (Gen 3:7). Some commentators say, "Genesis 3:21 shows that a sacrifice was necessary to cover up the sins of Adam and Eve." I think this is pretty reasonable, even though we aren't showed a sacrifice directly, because Genesis 2 and 3 revolve around the issue of nakedness (we see nakedness also discussed in Genesis 9 with Noah and his sons), and the purpose of the sacrifice is to cover their nakedness. Nakedness and shame are basically interchangeable in the bible, and both of them are allusions to sin. So wearing an animal skin to cover one's nakedness is an allusion to animal sacrifice covering or atoning for human sin.
Abraham's sacrifice in Genesis 22 is even more relevant to the Passover, because in that chapter, Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac, when God stops him and replaces Isaac with a ram: the ram acts as a replacement or atonement for Isaac. In fact, much of the language between Genesis 22 and Exodus 12 is similar, because in both cases the emphasis is on the death of the firstborn, between Isaac and the firstborn of Egypt and Israel. In the first case, God is replacing Isaac with the ram and in the second case, God is replacing the firstborn of Israel with the sacrificed lambs. But this episode still only foreshadows animal sacrifice as a means of atonement.
The concept of animal sacrifice is relatively simple: you kill an animal in place of a human death. In a sense, you are transferring the sins of the person onto the animal, so that the animal then suffers the penalty of sin, which is death. I already explained in the last chapter how the plague of death is a reference to the curse of Adam in Genesis 3, but now we're seeing that the LORD is prescribing the ritual offering of a lamb to protect the Israelites from that death. That is, the lamb is a substitutionary atonement for the sins of the Israelites, and therefore the death of the lamb protects the Israelites from the death of Genesis 3 manifested in "the destroyer". But I wonder why this makes sense. The lamb, by its very nature, has not committed any wrongs and is not responsible for sin. I would question first, the mechanism whereby sin can be transferred from one being to another and second, the fairness and justification of selecting a lamb as the sacrifice. And the truth is that I don't have answers for either of these questions. Just like the Genesis 1:1 "God created...", we are not given a justification, a history or an explanation of what is going on or why things are like this. In other words, I would call this another one of God's Ways, like I discussed in Exodus 4, and beyond that there is really not much I can say.
One can also wonder why it is necessary for the Hebrews to celebrate the Passover every year, rather than just during the Exodus. Verses 26-27 answer this: it is a memorial, a remembrance of the original Passover. It is also a memorial to the Passover in a spiritual sense, that the Hebrews are continually "passed over" from the death of Genesis 3 every year, and so every year they celebrate their deliverance. But if this is true, then it is not actually the death of a lamb that saves them from death because as we have seen, the Goshen Principle was in action even during earlier plagues before the Passover. That is, the Hebrews were protected even before a substitution had been made. So if that is true, then what is the substitution that protected them from the earlier plagues?? What protected Lot and Isaac and Noah? They were all "passed over" in different times and in different ways, and only Isaac was substituted in any analogous way.
This is a really important point. If the original Passover, the slaying of lambs commanded here, is *after* some of the people of God have been protected from the Genesis 3 death (the best example is Noah), and the earlier plagues which symbolize that same curse, then it logically could not have been the Passover that protected these earlier people or the current Israelites from the earlier plagues. What then was the substitution or the atonement that protected the patriarchs of Genesis before the coming of Moses (for if there was no earlier atonement, then why is one suddenly now required for all generations of Israelites forever?) Perhaps the most consistent answer is that just as the plague of death here is symbolic of the greater death, the curse of Adam from Genesis 3, perhaps the Passover lamb sacrificed to protect the Israelites from this death is also symbolic of a greater sacrifice, a greater atonement that covers and protects the people of God just like the LORD covered Adam and Eve with animal skins.
Another way to put it is that if all of the future Passovers, for all the generations of Israel into eternity, are for remembrance and are reminders of a former Passover, then could it be that the first Passover celebrated in verse 28 is also a memorial and remembrance of an even greater Passover that we have not yet seen? Now that's what I call progressive revelation. But this revelation will not come into completion in the OT. We will have to wait a long time before we can bring this truth into fullness.