v.2 That is, those who had been personally rescued from death by the blood of the Passover were to be consecrated to God. It is interesting that this suggests that the firstborn killed in Egypt were the males only, not the females. It is not a point explicitly made in the history itself but seems likely.
v.3 Moses’ address to the Israelites assumes that all of these specific details had been given to him by the Lord. In vv. 1-2 only a summary of what the Lord said to him is provided, but what follows indicates that all that Moses said to Israel had first been said to him by the Lord.
v.5 “this ceremony” refers, of course, to the Passover ritual that has been described in the previous chapter.
v.9 As you know, in the inter-testamental period – that is, the time between Malachi and John the Baptist – Jews came to take this injunction (and its repetition in Deut. 6:8) very literally. They took it to mean that they should wear, strapped around their wrists and their foreheads, small leather boxes which contained passages of Scripture written on parchment. The references here seem rather to be symbolic, metaphorical.
v.13 The reason the donkey is mentioned specifically is probably because it would have been the one unclean animal likely to be found in an Israelite home. Since it was unclean, it could not be sacrificed and so a lamb or sheep would have to be sacrificed in its stead. Otherwise the owner must be deprived of the donkey’s use. There must be a sacrifice. That is the point. Donkeys were valuable beasts of burden and means of transportation in the ANE. Since a donkey was worth much more than a sheep, the sheep substitution would almost certainly have been chosen over the destroying of the donkey. [Alter, 387] This is another example, of which there are many in the liturgical regulations of the Law of Moses, that the Lord never made the requirements of the law too expensive or too difficult for his people. He made right worship accessible to everyone and while he demanded commitment, it was always made clear that their gifts to God were tokens only. He gave much, much more to them than they gave to him. As always in matters of worship we are to remember that all of this is much more for us than it is for him! He does not need our worship and we are not supplying him with what he needs as the pagans of the ANE thought they were doing for their gods.
v.14 Again and again these texts having to do with the Passover regulations emphasize the educational and commemorative function of this annual observance. It is essential that the Israelites remember where they came from, how they were delivered from their cruel bondage, and how they came to possess the Promised Land.
v.15 One would “redeem” his firstborn son by paying a certain amount of money to the priests. Part of this symbolism is, of course, the recollection of the history of the Passover and part of it is the idea that the people, generation by generation – represented as they would be by the firstborn – belong to the Lord. He has a claim on them because he has purchased them, redeemed them. As Paul will later put the logic: “You are not your own; you were bought with a price; therefore, glorify God with your bodies.”
Now what is obvious and important about all of these regulations is the way in which they are designed to fix the events of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in her mind. Moses begins in v. 3 with “Commemorate this day…” It is the ordinary Hebrew word for “remember.” Remember this day! And the regulations that follow all have this purpose: to fix in Israel’s mind the remembrance of these events by which she was delivered from bondage in Egypt.
- Removing yeast from their homes and from all their food – indeed, going to the lengths of removing yeast from the nation as a whole – is nothing but an elaborate means of forcing upon the mind the story of Israel’s hasty departure from Egypt.
- In v. 8 Moses makes a point of saying that the Passover celebration is not only to be an occasion for adults to remember their spiritual history but to teach and remind their children of it.
- And the redemption of the firstborn – those who were spared on that first Passover night by the blood of the Passover lamb – is simply another elaborate custom designed to recollect the events of the Passover night itself. That is what is said explicitly in v. 15: “This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb…” I do it because I was delivered from Egypt by the Lord’s taking the life of every Egyptian firstborn son. The custom is directly related to the history as a means of remembering it and fixing it in mind.
- Then there is the twice mentioned obligation to observe the annual Passover – first in v. 9 and then again in v. 16 – as a kind of sign that you are fulfilling the promise that God’s people made upon their deliverance from bondage. The people dedicated themselves to the Lord on account of his having delivered them from Egypt on eagles’ wings and their observance of the Passover will be the continual attestation of that loyalty and of the reason for it. “We love him because he first loved us.” [Cassuto, 153] However this language of hand and forehead is to be understood – and almost no one thinks it was intended to require the use of phylacteries, as the Jews would later think who wore the little pouches containing Bible verses on their wrists and foreheads – the general drift is clear. The observance of the Passover is a memorial, a remembrance of God’s salvation. It is intended to call to mind this sacred history.
Now, what makes this instruction, this ritual all the more important is the personalization of its meaning. We have, for example, in v. 8 the phase “because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt…” But, of course, as the years passed and the generations came and went, the individuals who would tell their sons that all of this is because of what the Lord did for me would no longer be individuals who personally experienced the exodus from Egypt. We know that this is the understanding of Moses himself because he makes a point of indicating this. He has done so explicitly already in 12:14 where he says that the Passover is to be celebrated for the generations to come. The ritual he is describing and commanding is to be observed long, long after the men and women who experienced the deliverance from Egypt themselves were dead and gone. And that is the sense here as well. In v. 10 we read of this ritual being observed year after year and in v. 14 in days to come. The long reach of the future is in view. And yet what is being remembered is what the Lord did for me in Egypt.
We find this same very important perspective in Deuteronomy. For example, just before the entrance of Israel into the Promised Land Moses summoned the people and said to them:
“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our
fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are
alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the
And then he proceeds to repeat the ten commandments. Well, the plain fact is that many of those to whom Moses was speaking that day when he said to them that the “Lord made a covenant at Horeb with you and not with your fathers” weren’t even alive when Israel was encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. We have the same thing again in Deut. 9:7. There Moses says to Israel,
“Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the desert. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord. At Horeb you aroused the Lord’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you…”
Well, again, those who had themselves rebelled at Horeb were already dead. Israel had wandered the forty years in the wilderness – or 38 years to be more precise – in order to give that generation time to die. That had been God’s judgment upon them for their rebellion. They would not enter the Promised Land. Only those who were not yet adults at the time of Horeb were still alive when Israel was poised finally to enter the Promised Land.
In these instances, a point is being made, and in a striking and memorable way, that later generations of God’s people participate in the events of redemption (and of rebellion) through memory and through faith. It is as if they had been there, as if they had been delivered from bondage in Egypt, as if they had heard God thunder at Mt. Sinai, as if God had then and there made covenant with them. They had not been there, of course, but, by faith, it is as if they were. They are God’s people and what happened at the exodus, what occurred through the Passover, happened, occurred for them.
And that is very much the point being made here in Exodus 13:1-16. Now we said two studies back that it is essential that we not confuse the event itself with its commemoration. We made a point of saying that far too often in the history of God’s people, generations of the church have cared more for Passover than for the exodus and for the Lord’s Supper than the cross. It is an all too easy but all too fatal mistake to make and has been made by multitudes of church people. Neither the exodus nor the cross ever happened again, neither took place again in the Passover ritual or the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. Those rituals commemorate, they nourish faith, they awaken memory, they are means of actualizing our faith in what God did long ago. They are means of feeding faith in the present, but it is faith in a redemption that was once for all and was accomplished long ago. It is a crucial distinction. Christ’s sacrifice is not repeated. The remembrance of it is to be repeated continually. Our faith in what Christ did on the cross is to be kept alive, so alive that it is as if we had been there ourselves, had seen our sins laid upon him, had seen him die for us, suffer for us, endure our punishment for us.
In our text this evening the emphasis falls not on that distinction between event and commemoration, important as it is, but on the way in which ritual actualizes faith in the present power and reality of ancient events. We participate in the events of our redemption – no matter how long ago they may have occurred – by memory and by faith, as these powers of memory and faith are stimulated, vitalized, and actualized in the ritual.
We have, in other words, a theology of ritual – its nature and its purpose – given us here in Exodus 13. Indeed this is the first sustained attention to ritual in the Bible. Rituals existed from the beginning – e.g. the ritual of sacrifice, but here fro the first time we are told in some detail how a ritual is to be performed and stress is laid on the importance of ritual for the life of faith. Every human society and culture has rituals and they are very important as means of conveying values and convictions and commitments as well as faith – whether Christian or not. Every religion has ritual, of course. But every culture has it also. Ritual is endemic in human life. Think of how many rituals we observe in our culture. From the birthday party – with the cake and the candles and blowing them out and the opening of presents – to standing to sing the national anthem before a baseball game, to watching fireworks on the 4th of July, to eating a large feast with our families at Thanksgiving, to decorating homes and exchanging gifts at Christmas. There are others that have become an important part of the ritual life of our society that Christians may not share, such as the way people make watching the Super Bowl a social event at which they eat certain kinds of food. Enough guacamole is consumed on Super Bowl Sunday to fill a container the size of a football field, including the end zones, to the height of four feet. Why? Does guacamole taste better on that one Sunday of the year? No, it is a ritual. Different social structures all have their rituals: the military has many rituals; so do schools; businesses; sports teams; and so on. Our life is framed by ritual in more ways than we recognize.
How human then is the fact of ritual in biblical worship. It was inevitable that there should be a divine ritual, a ceremony, an established form of words and actions employed for the worship of God and for other spiritual purposes. Ritual is both a conveyer of meaning and a preserver of it. That is why we argue about it; why, for example, there is such a stir about whether school children can say “under God” in the pledge of allegiance or whether they can have a prayer before a high school football game in Texas. We instinctively understand that rituals both express and preserve our beliefs and convey them to our children. When rituals are tampered with it is almost always because the beliefs they represent are being abandoned or changed.
Some Christian rituals – such as Passover and the Lord’s Supper – are strictly prescribed in Holy Scripture; others are only faithful representations of biblical principles. We have an established ritual for weddings (that is, we use the same words and the same acts in the same order for wedding services and have for many generations); we have a ritual for baptisms and for the Lord’s Supper. There is a ritual for funerals and for burials that is still broadly observed. But the entire worship service of a church is also a ritual, a series of acts in some order designed as one complete ceremony, rite, or act of worship and service. In this sense, the Passover as an annual feast was a ritual. Its events, even to some extent the words employed, were laid down as a requirement and then the Lord commanded that they be repeated year after year. And here, with this first rite or ritual that is spelled out in detail in the Bible we are given an insight into the nature and the purpose of biblical ritual. The nature of biblical ritual is to commemorate, to remember the mighty works of God. The purpose of ritual is to inculcate and strengthen faith in what God is and has done for his people by means of that commemoration and to convey that faith to the rising generations.
We have a large part of the rationale for a Sunday worship service here in Exodus 13 and for the Lord’s Supper as part of that service. Passover was but once a year. We know that. But Passover was not the only annual commemoration; there were several others. And both daily and weekly there were ritual commemorations of a more ordinary type. There was only the one annual Passover sacrifice, but there were many sacrifices being offered every day of the year in Israel’s worship and there was a weekly ritual of worship.
And the history of Christian worship has been a history of the weekly ritual of worship with the addition of special annual commemorations, such as those of Christmas and Easter. Nowadays Christian people may claim to be against ritual, or against liturgy – which means the same thing to them – but they aren’t against celebrating Christmas or Thanksgiving in the customary way (many of them, alas, aren’t even against celebrating the Super Bowl in the approved manner) and, what is more, when they change their worship services they simply replace one ritual with another. They don’t think that is what they are doing, but anyone can see they have simply replaced one ritual for another. Ritual is not a bad thing. It is a biblically appointed means of keeping the reality of long ago events fresh in mind and heart.
We are to remember what the ritual was designed to do: to cause us to remember and to awaken, strengthen, and actualize faith in events that happened long ago (or, for that matter in events that are to happen sometime in the future, such as the Second Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment, heaven and hell). A properly ordered ritual every Lord’s Day will have that effect upon us and upon our children – inscribe the events of salvation history and their meaning upon our hearts – and animate our faith in the meaning of those events. A good worship service, in which faithful people participate with intention, interest, and expectation, will have that double effect: it will remind and it will actualize and awaken faith in what is remembered. It will cause us to remember many things: that God is there, that he is our maker, that he has called out of the world a people for his very own, that he has redeemed that people by the blood of his own son, that he has called us to faith in his son, that he has sent the Holy Spirit into the world and into our hearts to enable us to live for and serve him, that Christ is coming again, that an eternity of heaven or hell beckons, and remembering these things, it will cause us to believe them anew, to take these facts to heart, to apply them to our daily living, to make them the principle of our existence in the world.
That is why worship is so vital to everything holy in the Bible. That is why so much attention is paid to what the church does on the Lord’s Day. That is why the Bible says in so many different ways that the public worship of the church – this Lord’s Day ritual – is the engine of the Christian life.
We are about to observe the Lord’s Supper, as we have been taught to do in the Word of God. We repeat in a highly stylized way the words and actions of the Lord Jesus as he instituted the Lord’s Supper with his disciples the night of his betrayal (in very much the same way that the Passover feast – both the weeklong feast of unleavened bread and the Passover meal itself was a highly stylized repetition of the event itself). We will all eat this Supper – again in a highly ritual way. It is not a supper in the ordinary sense of the term; it is a ritual supper, a commemoration. And its purpose is to preserve, enliven, vivify our faith in that long ago redemption that Christ purchased for us on the cross and in that coming consummation that Christ will bring with him when he comes again. There is mystery here, to be sure. The Lord uses his Word and he uses the ritual of the Lord’s Supper in our hearts and lives in ways that are not under our control. He promises to employ these instruments as means to make himself known to us, to sanctify and change us, and to bless us by deepening our love, warming our hearts, inspiring our commitment, and so on. But, whether we can tell that the Lord is working in our hearts, there is in the ritual itself an obvious logic and function. It commemorates by a kind of stylized and partial reenactment – whether in Passover, Lord’s Supper, or a Lord’s Day worship service in its entirety – the saving acts of God.
That is, by the way, the nature of our Sunday morning worship service, after all, a reenactment of the gospel and of God’s making a covenant with us his people. Every Sunday we reenact that covenant making, that salvation by which we come face to face with God in his glory and holiness; by which we see ourselves as needy sinners before him; by which we turn to Christ for forgiveness and peace with God; by which, in love, we offer ourselves to the Lord our Savior with the promise of obedience and service (signified in the reading of God’s law, in the giving of gifts, in the offering of prayers, and in the hearing of his Word with the promise to obey), we then come to his table for a feast, receive his blessing and go in peace, leave to love and serve the Lord. Every Sunday we remember our salvation, what the Lord did for us; what it means for us, and our faith, hope, and love are remembered.
And now the Lord’s Supper. We reenact the great act of our salvation, Christ’s sin-bearing on the cross in order to remember it. We take his body and blood into our bodies as a way of expressing our faith in him as our Savior and our reliance upon his death in our place for our salvation. We eat both so as to express our profound family communion with him and one another and our mutual dependence upon him for life. Then we will sing our love and thanksgiving, our commitment and promise to him – a renewal of the consecration of our lives to him in response to his saving love – and we will receive his blessing for the days to come. Then we will kneel and pray to the Lord that he would take the worship of this day and write it indelibly upon our hearts that we might live in consistency with what was just remembered, said, and done. And our children see this repeated Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, and begin to do it themselves, and soon this truth, this history, this meaning of life is in their bones.
What Exodus 13 teaches us is that Christians should understand and appreciate what they are doing and why when they come to the house of the Lord on the Lord’s Day. Then they can worship with a view to this understanding and purpose of ritual and will be more likely to get the good from it that God intends. A stronger, livelier faith and that not only for themselves but for their children.