Studies in Exodus 11:1-12:51


Exodus 11:1-12:51

Download sermon

We have before us this evening one of the pivotal texts in all of Holy Scripture.  It is so for at least two reasons.  First the Passover, as an historical event – the deliverance of Israel from the divine wrath that was that night being visited upon Egypt and this as the means of her deliverance from bondage and slavery to new life in the Promised Land – is the defining redemptive event of the Old Testament.  For this reason it served as the great anticipation of the eternal redemption that is in Christ.  Paul will say, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.” Second, the Passover, as a feast, a commemorative celebration of the exodus redemption – became the highpoint and so the paradigm for Israel’s worship. And, as we all know, it was the Passover meal that the Lord Jesus, the night of his betrayal, turned into the Lord’s Supper.  It is fascinating and very important that the two foci of the Passover – the historical event itself and the celebration of that event in a subsequent annual feast – are woven together seamlessly in the Exodus narrative itself.  You will notice as we read that we come first to an account of what is to happen, then immediately we hear the Lord’s instructions to commemorate the history with a feast, and then we return to the event itself and the narrative of the Passover and the exodus.  The history itself and its commemoration in an act of worship are given an equal place in the narrative.

Once again, we have a lengthy reading tonight, but necessary to get the entire text before us.

Text Comment

v.1       This last plague will produce such a desire on Pharaoh’s part to see Israel away from Egypt that, more than simply allowing the Israelites to leave, he will drive them out of his country, laden down we next learn with Egyptian wealth.

v.2       As a demonstration of how completely the Lord has changed Pharaoh’s mind and brought his resistance to an end, the Israelites are instructed to make what would seem on its face to be an absurd request and are told that the Egyptians, far from resenting the request, with respond to it generously.  “The Lord will make them willing in the day of his power.”

v.3       A further statement of Yahweh’s complete control over the situation.  The Bible does not say and it is probably not necessary to assume that this “plundering of the Egyptians,” as it will be called in 12:36, is some form of repayment for the service the Israelites had rendered the Egyptians as slaves.  The fact is, the Israelites asked, they didn’t demand, and the Egyptians gave willingly.  Here the Egyptians are represented as well disposed to the Israelites.  This is by no means the only place where positive things will be said about the Egyptians in the Bible.  Indeed, there is the wonderful passage in Isaiah 19 – which I had never noticed until it was pointed out to me by an Egyptian Presbyterian pastor – in which the Lord refers to Egypt as “my people.”  The Scripture always has in view the salvation of the nations.  And, God’s grace being what it is, past sins are never a barrier to future grace.

v.4       We are to understand what follows as words that Moses spoke to Pharaoh himself.

v.5       To this point every plague that has befallen Egypt has been an intensification of misfortunes and troubles that were familiar to her.  Even hail, while rare, was not entirely unknown in Egypt.  But this tenth and final plague is altogether different.  It is a blow that has nothing to do with Egypt’s geographical and climatic situation.  It is not caused by natural forces at work in the Nile River valley.  It is immediately and unmistakably  the direct judgment of the Lord.  As we will read in 12:23, the destroyer will enter their homes and strike individuals down. No Egyptian nature worshipper could explain this judgment as coincidental.  The Lord, when he comes to the act by which he delivers his people from slavery, acts in a way that utterly defies any other explanation.  The same point will be made of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus in the preaching of the early Christians.  If the first nine plagues were characterized by the divine use of natural forces common to the area, this tenth and decisive miracle was not.  This is the emphasis of the language the Lord uses:  “I will go throughout Egypt…” It was divine wrath specifically visited upon a distinct class of men and animals and, once again, wrath that distinguished the Lord’s people from others.  The saving act of wrath and redemption – such as was the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ – stands utterly apart as a work that can be explained in no other way but as a work of divine power, divine judgment, and divine grace.  Humanly speaking it is this characteristic of the final plague, its self-authenticating power, that sets it apart in Pharaoh’s mind and makes him determined to be rid of the Israelites immediately.

The phrase, literally “maid-servant behind the mill,” is a common phrase in Egyptian literature and means, “the poorest of the poor.”  [Cassuto, 133]

v.7       In the Egyptian towns one will hear the wail of mourning everywhere.  The calm and quiet night in the Israelite settlements will not be disturbed by so much as a barking dog.  When the Lord sets out to demonstrate his power and grace, he demonstrates it!  And what is the distinction that he wishes to demonstrate?  The distinction between the Lord’s people and those who are not.

v.8       Remember, Moses is saying this to Pharaoh!  His own counselors will come and bow at Moses’ feet.  The interview ends with Pharaoh as implacable as ever and Moses angry at his foolish implacability.

v.10     The last two verses are a recap of all the preceding material concerning the first nine plagues, an explanation as to why they did not prevail upon Pharaoh and justification for what is about to happen.

Now Pharaoh is forgotten and we find ourselves in the midst of the Israelite community.  Only after the instructions for that first Passover night are given (vv. 1-13) and for its perpetual celebration in Israel (vv. 14-28) do we return to the narrative of the exodus itself.  Be thinking as we read how in the New Testament also the events of the Passover night that the Lord shared with his disciples became the pattern for the church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper.  We have both in our narrative:  the original event and the commemoration, as we have, for example, in Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11.

12:2     As a way of emphasizing the importance of the Passover/exodus, its celebration in perpetuity is to commence the Israelite year.  This month, later identified as Abib (23:15) and later called by its Babylonian name, Nisan, was in the Spring, our March/April. What is interesting about this statement is that later Israelite practice made the Autumn month of Tishri the first month of the year.  It is possible that there was, as there is now, a different calendar for liturgical purposes than for civil purposes.

v.3       Lamb or kid, in fact, as we learn in v. 5.

v.6       The two rules were that the lamb was to be consumed entirely, or as nearly so as possible and that the animal must be without defect and cared for conscientiously from the time of its selection on the 10th day to the time of its slaughter on the 14th.  No one knows for sure the purpose of this four day interval.

v.7       This blood, of course, as we will see, will mark the house as an Israelite house and protect its inhabitants from the judgment of the Lord.  This is explained in v. 13.

v.8       The “bitter herbs” are usually taken to recollect the bitterness of Israel’s toil as slaves in Egypt.  In Exodus 1:14 we have already read that “their lives were made bitter with hard labor…”  The unleavened bread is a symbol of the haste with which Israel left Egypt; there was no time to wait until the dough had risen.  This is suggested in v. 11 and made explicit in later texts such as Deut. 16:3.

v.12     Once again the focus is not only on the people of Egypt but upon their gods, their system of false worship.  Yahweh is the Lord and what is to follow will demonstrate that beyond doubt.  The gods of Egypt will be shown up to be impotent, irreal in fact.

The firstborn was the father’s heir, the most favored son, the promise of the family’s future.  Thus to strike down the firstborn son was a particularly severe blow.

v.14     Now we turn to the celebration that would perpetuate the memory of Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  That is what is said here, literally, “this day shall be for you a memorial day.”  We can’t help but think of the Lord’s words, “This do in remembrance of me.”  Now, what follows concerns only new features of this celebration. It is understood that the memorial celebration will include the slaughter of the Passover lamb, its being roasted and eaten together with bitter herbs and unleavened bread.  These acts are not specifically mentioned.

v.16     The festival will not be one day only but an entire week.  Worship services will be held on the first and last days of this week.   And the removal of all leaven will be a feature of the celebration together with eating unleavened bread throughout that week.

Many have wondered how we get from the Passover instructions of the earlier part of the chapter to a seven day feast of unleavened bread.  One suggestion is that, just as the slaughter of the Passover lamb has connections with animal sacrifice practiced long before the Passover itself, so, perhaps there was also some previous harvest celebration that is now being incorporated into the Passover ritual.  The other two main feasts of the Israelite calendar, Weeks (or Pentecost), 7 weeks after Passover, and Tabernacles in the Autumn originated as harvest feasts before they were incorporated into the commemoration of Israel’s salvation.

v.20     The stern emphasis on the removal of all yeast for the entire week and the prohibition of eating anything with yeast in it upon penalty of banishment has seemed to many too severe to explain simply as a recollection of Israel’s haste in leaving Egypt.  Insofar as this grain at the feast of unleavened bread in the early spring will be newly harvested and ground, it may well be that the emphasis here is falling on the purity of grain that is being offered to the Lord and eaten in his presence.  It is grain pure and simple, nothing added.  I’m not sure what to think about this.

v.21     Again, as is typical, Moses now repeats the instructions, omitting some of the more obvious ones and adding a few new details.

v.22     This instruction about staying inside all night applied to the first Passover but not to subsequent ones.  Remember the Lord left the room where he and his disciples had eaten the Passover and went to Gethsemane.

v.25     We are already looking forward to the Promised Land.

v.29     We go still lower than the servant girl behind the mill.  The Lord’s judgment will fall even on the prisoner in his dungeon.

v.30     It is a very un-royal thing to be forced to get up in the middle of the night.

v.32     In other words, Pharaoh is adding no conditions, imposing no restrictions.  Israel is free to go and not come back and to take with her all that is hers.  There is a final capitulation:  he seeks a blessing from Moses’ god, not from his own.

v.33     What is next after the death of their firstborn but that they all should die!

v.35     Slaves would not have the kind of clothing the Israelites would need on their journey, so they asked the Egyptians for proper clothes; something more than the simple attire that slaves are depicted as wearing in paintings from the period.

v.37     After the long build-up to this point, the actual exodus is described in just a few verses, an understatement the more powerful for its terseness.  When the time had come, the Lord acted, and Israel was free.  Simple as that.

Unfortunately, no one knows for sure where either of these two places were located.  Rameses was an Egyptian city; Succoth an Egyptian border town.  It is now impossible to plot the route precisely.

600,000 fighting men would produce a total number of between 2 and 3 million.  This has been thought to be too high a figure even by many Bible-believing scholars, who are simply taking the evidence of the wilderness and conquest narratives as their basis.  They have suggested that the number translated thousand should be understood as a designation of a unit of indeterminate size and that the number might be actually much smaller.  It is hard to say and we certainly needn’t rule out the larger number.

v.38     The “many other people” will explain the reference to foreigners later in vv. 43ff.

v.39     This detail about the unleavened loaves reinforces the haste with which Israel left Egypt and explains the eating of the unleavened bread in the perpetual Passover celebration.

v.41     We said earlier that the reference to Israel as the Lord’s divisions indicates that Israel was seen as the Lord’s army, his fighting force.

v.43     Now we return to the regulations governing the perpetual observance of Passover as a commemoration of the Passover by which Israel was delivered from Egypt.

v.44     That many became Israelites by theological conviction rather than biological descent is a fact often referred to in the OT.  By circumcision the slave as the foreigner became a member of the covenant community.

v.46     Of course, this regulation was altered after the creation of a central sanctuary in the Promised Land.  Then the Passover sacrifices were slaughtered at the sanctuary and eaten there or nearby.  When those regulations were laid down in the Law of Moses, only the adult men were required to attend the Passover celebration at the sanctuary.

v.47     In other words, it must be only the community of Israel but the entire community of Israel.  The observance of Passover is not voluntary.  This is the origin, as you may know, of the rule of Christian worship that one must be baptized in order to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  One must be a member of the covenant community before he can participate in the covenant meal.  But, being a member of the covenant community, he or she must participate in the Lord’s Supper.  We are not free to choose to abstain.

v.51     Again, a recapitulation completes the narrative.

There can be no doubt about the importance of the Passover in the history of Israel or the teaching of the Bible as a whole.  The history of the Passover begins with the Lord telling Moses that its celebration is to begin the Israelite year.  There is a sense in which the Passover marks the origin of Israel’s national life, leading as it did to the renewal of her covenant with the Lord at Sinai.  It was the commemoration of Passover that was to become the chief feast of Israel’s calendar.

Later, without question the New Testament understands the death of Christ as the fulfillment of the Passover, the event which the Egyptian Passover anticipated and typified.  John the Baptist identified Jesus as the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  It is during the feast of Passover that Jesus was crucified and, the night before, he turned the Passover feast that he shared with his disciples into the new commemoration of his death, our Lord’s Supper.  Paul, of course, makes the point explicitly in 1 Cor. 5:7-8:  Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”

It requires no great feat to tie the two events together.  Here in Egypt God is a judge.  He passes through Egypt exacting punishments.  As he says in 12:12, “I will pass through Egypt…and I will bring judgment…”  That judgment was averted, however, from everyone who was protected by the blood of the lamb that had been slain or sacrificed.  You wonder if there were some Egyptians who did as they saw the Israelites doing and so spared their firstborn.  The Israelites were not to leave their homes that night, they were to shelter under the blood.  And the commemoration of this event in the annual Passover ritual, as we read in 12:27, is precisely to fix in mind and heart the redemption of Israel from the judgment of the Lord and her deliverance from bondage by that means.  There is a simple and perfectly clear principle at work here:  redemption through substitution.

Christians have never had any difficulty understanding how Jesus Christ is the true fulfillment of the Passover.  The God and Savior of the Passover and the God and Savior of the cross are the same.  Indeed, as the New Testament will often make clear, God the Son who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, was and is the God of the Exodus.  It was he who visited judgment on the Egyptians – as he will visit judgment on the whole world at the end of the age – and it was he who passed over the Israelite homes.  It was also he who provided the means for Israel to avert the judgment being visited upon others by giving them instructions about killing a lamb and daubing the blood of the lamb on their lintels and doorposts.  The divine judgment was destructive.  It was no mere slap on the wrist.  It meant death for those who suffered that judgment.  But not all who might have suffered this judgment did so.  The people of God were delivered from this judgment by a substitution.  The only homes that were spared were those in which a lamb had died, a lamb’s blood had been shed.  Blood is everywhere in the Bible a symbol of life given up in death.  To put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of the house was to demonstrate in a public way that a lamb had been killed in that house.  What is more, the lamb’s blood had to be sprinkled after it was shed.  There had to be an individual appropriation of the blood for it to serve the purpose.  It was not enough simply to kill the lamb.  One had to take its blood and put it on the door posts of one’s home.
And, then, there is this.  Once God had saved his people in this way, they became his servants, his soldiers, his hosts – they leave Egypt to serve the Lord, to make their pilgrimage to the Promised Land.  But before they leave they brought to a feast.  The Christian life is a feast, so to speak, with the Lord’s Supper as the ritual expression of this fact.  The great event ends in celebration, the annual feast at which God’s people remember how they were redeemed from bondage.  [Cf. John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 139-141]

Or, put it this way.  What the Passover teaches, and what we are taught when Christ is set forth as the fulfillment of the Passover, the great redemption of which the Egyptian Passover was the great Old Testament anticipation, is that our salvation lies behind us in one great redemptive event.  We are to remember – and the Lord’s Supper is a means of helping us do that – we are to remember what happened long ago, for our salvation was accomplished then.  The focus falls on what happened in history when the lamb of God was slain for the salvation of the world.  This may seem simple enough, but, in fact, it has proved a very difficult thing for the church to remember.

There has long been taught in some biblical scholarship the notion that the annual Passover sacrifice and feast was not simply a commemoration of the Passover event itself but a new actualization of it:  a cultic way of repeating, of re-enacting the original event and so reproducing its impact and effect.  Inevitable as this tendency of thought seems to be in the religious mind, it does not surprise us to learn that Israel succumbed to this way of thinking time and time again in her history.  She came to think, under the influence of the pagan religious ideas around her – for this is the way pagans think – that the cultic event of the Passover (and other sacrifices besides) were a kind of talisman, warding off the divine anger and averting God’s judgment.  Instead of thinking of God’s redemption as a past event that leads to freedom and that this freedom is to be practiced in the love and service of the Lord – instead of thinking of the Passover as something to believe and of that faith as leading to love and good works – she trusted herself instead to the constant repetition of the sacrifices themselves.  Instead of remembering what the Lord had done and living gratefully in the remembrance of that redemption (the annual Passover and the other sacrifices being means to strengthen that faith and remembrance), she trusted herself to the sacrifices themselves as if each were a new event by which God was newly pleased and his judgment newly averted.  In this way the annual Passover feast became more important than the Passover itself, the re-enactments more important than the original event.  At first, a subtle, but at last a deadly error.

But that is not the Bible’s view of the Passover as an annual feast.  In the Old Testament the Passover was unmistakably a commemoration, not a re-enactment that actualized the redemption all over again.  One striking demonstration of this is that the protective blood was never again sprinkled or daubed on the doorposts and lintels.  Never again was it required that Israel remain indoors at home throughout that night.  Those features had been the crux of the original Passover, the Passover of salvation history, the Passover of Egypt.  But they were not part of the commemoration.  Their abolition, their absence in the annual ceremony “was as eloquent as the cry, ‘It is finished!’” from the cross.”  [Kidner, Psalms, i, 15]

It is important for us to understand and appreciate this point because it goes a very long way toward explaining what we find so wrong in the Roman Catholic system and why we judge the Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper so dangerous.  It is here, in the interpretation of Exodus 12 and all subsequent texts that derive their meaning from it, that we find the reason why Christendom has for so long been divided into two parts. It is interesting, by the way, that this is a sore point with the recent converts to Roman Catholicism from Protestant and Reformed churches such as the PCA.

Some time ago I received a letter from one such young man who was taking exception to what I had said in a sermon – a sermon he had read on the church’s website – in which I had made reference to this standard Protestant and Reformation objection to the Roman Catholic view of the Mass.  He wrote that I had misunderstood Roman Catholic teaching and that the Roman Catholic teaching of the Mass was emphatically

NOT what you…have said it is, a “repeated and continued” sacrifice, but is rather a making present of the “once for all” sacrifice that, because it transcends all time and space, is for us today just as present as it was on Calvary 2000 years ago. This was the biggest of the many questions I had on my way back to the Church, and
once I heard it explained accurately, and learned that this is what the Church has always taught, it made perfect sense. I would invite you to look deeply into this matter.

I wrote this back to him, quoting from the official Roman Catholic documents such as the Canons of the Council of Trent.

Once it is taught that “this sacrifice is truly propitiatory” and that “the same Christ is immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross…” and that “the Lord is appeased by this sacrifice” and “the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different” and “if anyone saith, that in the mass a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God…anathema sit” no Protestant [Bible reader] is going to be satisfied with the [typical] assertions [made by Roman Catholics defending their church’s doctrine against Protestant objections]. This is not the way the Bible speaks about the Lord’s Supper, it is not the way we are taught to understand its working. No one working only with the materials furnished in the Bible would develop the RC view. Indeed, it seems very close to that theory of a sacrifice against which the prophets made their great protest. The RC writers who sound the best to me are, of course, the ones who are writing with a view to Protestant objections. But I am not inclined to believe that the Reformation protest was, somehow, based on a gigantic misunderstanding. Both sides knew very well what they were teaching, what they meant by the words they used, and the differences they found both sides judged to be fundamental. You will regret, but perhaps understand, that I find the RC teaching on the Mass not only impossible to believe but deeply, profoundly unattractive to a biblical mind.

I could have said much more.  In an encyclical published in 1935 Pius XI taught that the Mass was not only a real sacrifice of Christ again but that it demonstrated the “ineffable greatness of the human priest” because he “has power over the very body of Jesus Christ.”  The priest first “makes [Christ’s body] present upon our altars” and then “in Christ’s name offers it a victim infinitely pleasing to the Divine Majesty.”  In 1947, in another encyclical, Pius XII affirmed that the sacrifice of the Mass “re-enacts” the sacrifice of Christ and that “on our altars [Christ] offers himself daily for our redemption.”  [Cited in Stott, Cross of Christ, 265]

But that is not the teaching of the Bible.  The Passover was a once for all act by which Israel was redeemed, an act that was then commemorated and remembered in an annual feast.  In the same way, the cross of Christ was a once-for-all act of redemption that is commemorated and remembered in the Lord’s Supper. Our faith in the Lord who died once and for all on the cross is renewed and refreshed in the Lord’s Supper.  The Lord’s Supper is not the cross over and over again.  It commemorates and remembers the cross that once and for all delivered us from our bondage to sin and death.  We sometimes are careless with our language.  I remember a prayer offered by a Christian worker in Tacoma at one of the meetings of the Billy Graham crusade held here some years ago.  He prayed that people might believe and be redeemed.  But no one is redeemed when he believes in Christ.  We are not redeemed by believing in Christ.  Redemption happened a long time ago, when Christ died on the cross.  The price was paid then, the punishment was borne in our place then.  People who believe in Christ for the first time today obtain for themselves the benefits of that redemption, but the redemption itself took place a long time ago.  It is this fact, and it is this teaching that is the foundation of our conviction that Jesus Christ is our Savior and his death our Salvation.  It is what he did, not what we do or what a minister does, that delivers us from bondage to sin and death and sets us on our way to the Promised Land.  Do not suppose this point is too simple. Fact is there are today and have been through the centuries vast multitudes of church people who have cared more for the Lord’s Supper than for the cross; huge numbers of people who counted on their participation in the Mass, or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper than on the once-for-all death of the Son of God. Passovers not the Passover was or is what matters to them. But this is a fatal mistake.

There is basic, fundamental theology here in Exodus.  The pattern of redemption and the life of faith that follows it is laid down here that we will find in all further teaching about our deliverance from the judgment of God.

The angel of the Lord, the destroyer, will bring his deadly judgments again.  The wrath of God awaits at the end of the age.  “Just as man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people…”  [Heb. 9:27-28]  The question for every human being is this:  is the blood of the lamb of God covering my life?  Will the avenging judge pass over me because he sees that blood?  That blood is appropriated by faith in Jesus Christ the Passover Lamb.  It is not enough that the blood was shed.  It must be sprinkled on my house.  It must be appropriated by the individual and the individual home.  That is what is meant by faith in Jesus Christ.  Have I taken that blood and sprinkled it on my doorpost?  Have I taken Jesus Christ and his cross for myself and for my salvation?  Then, and only then, do we come to the Lord’s Supper to have our faith in that blood, shed once-for-all, renewed and refreshed as we remember what he did for us and suffered for us – “this do in remembrance of me” – and as the Lord Christ, by his Holy Spirit uses our eating and drinking to refresh our faith in him.

A long ago redemption and a feast by which we remember it and live in glad recollection of it.  A life of service to God offered in gratitude to the one who delivered us from bondage.  That is the Christian faith and it is all here in Exodus 12.