Light from the Sidra

Pesach 1 (Passover)

Torah: Exodus 12:21-51; Numbers 28:16-25. Haftarah: Joshua 5:2-6:1

‘For he calls himself a Lamb…’

A few weeks ago, I received a letter dated 15th March 1931. The date wasn’t a typing error, the letter came to me via a friend who had been sent it by a friend whose wife found it among her deceased father’s effects. The person who sent the original letter had attended a meeting at which the speaker was the son of a rabbi. He was so excited about what he heard that he wrote to his friend to tell him all about it. The speaker, Mark Kagan, had been explaining the meaning of Passover to a church group and told them a story how, when he was a boy, just before Passover one year he took the blood of a lamb his father had slaughtered and daubed its blood on the lintel and door post of an outhouse at the back of the garden to see what the dwellings of the Israelites in Egypt would have looked like. The story puzzled me because, apart from some Sephardic Jews, the Jewish people today don’t eat lamb at Pesach. Nevertheless, whatever the explanation, the blood on the lintel and the doorposts formed a cross. Kagan’s father was furious that his son had painted a cross on the outhouse door and promptly thrashed his son.

How ironic! The mark of a cross painted with the blood of a lamb on the doors of Israel saved the nation from the wrath of their heavenly Father but blood on the door of a Jewish home at the end of the nineteenth century provoked the wrath of a young Jew’s earthly dad! Imagine the entire nation of Israel protected from the wrath of God inside homes painted in blood with the mark of a cross!

Israel’s redemption from Egypt focussed on a lamb and it’s blood. The final plague on Egypt was the death of the firstborn and, God told Moses, at midnight he would slay the first-born in Egypt. Israel was in Egypt also and the Israelites were, in their own way, also worthy of death. So, in a even greater display of mercy to Israel, God allowed the people to substitute a lamb for their firstborn. Everyone in Egypt deserved to die but in mercy God killed only the first-born of Egypt: ‘For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour; I gave Egypt for your ransom [redemption price], Ethiopia and Seba in your place’ (Is. 43:3).

The lamb, however, was not only the central focus of Passover but is also the central focus of the Bible, and tracing the theme of ‘the lamb’ through the Scriptures is one of the most enriching studies we can undertake. From its earliest chapters we observe a very clear unfolding and development of the remarkable theme of the lamb in the Tanakh.

The Lamb of Divine Prerequisite

Since the time of man’s first disobedience, when Adam plunged the creation into misery, mankind has needed a lamb to approach the presence of God. In the first recorded act of worship in Gn. 4, Cain and Abel brought their respective offerings to God. Cain offered the produce of the ground, which was under a curse (Gn. 3:17), while Abel sacrificed a lamb. No doubt the brothers were both sincere in their worship but God must be approached only in the way he prescribes. There is no room for human ‘creativity’ in the service of the Creator, and Abel’s lamb was accepted by God while Cain’s fruit was rejected. From the first recorded act of worship in human history we learn that God must be approached through the offering of a lamb.

The Lamb of Divine Provision

The lamb as a prerequisite for the worship of God was an established principle from the dawn of history. It was a principle understood by Abraham who, wherever he went, pitched his tent and built his altar (Gn. 12:8; 13:12). It was also understood by his son Isaac because in Gn. 22, as Abraham and his beloved son climbed one of the mountains of Moriah to worship God, Isaac asked where the lamb was. In reply, Abraham spoke prophetically that God would provide a lamb but when God called him to spare his son he provided a ram as a substitute. There are rabbis who believe Abraham actually killed Isaac. The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, which is essentially a Midrash on the Exodus links the binding of Isaac to the Passover. Rabbi Ishmael interprets the words, ‘And when I see the blood, I will pass over you’ to mean when God saw ‘the blood of the binding of Isaac.’

According to Yeven Metzulah 15, ‘Since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the righteous are seized by death for the iniquities of the generation.’ Orthodox Jewish historian Rabbi Berel Wein, commenting on the 17th century massacres in Eastern Europe, notes that ‘the stories of Isaac and of Nadav and Avihu… served to reinforce this basic concept of the death of the righteous as an atonement for the sins of other men’ (The Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era).

But Isaac was not sacrificed. As a prophet, Abraham saw beyond the ram in the thicket. God would yet provide a lamb as a sacrifice, which is why he called the mountain ‘Adonai Yireh’ – ‘in the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’ Mount Moriah was the future temple mount where lambs would be sacrificed daily. Genesis Rabbah 56:3 says, ‘Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering (XXII, 6)—like one who carries the stake [on which he is to be executed] on his shoulder.’ Two thousand years after the father of the Jewish nation offered his son on one of the mountains of Moriah, another beloved Son would carry a stake on one of the mountains of Moriah. But there was no substitute for him. He was the prophesied Lamb of God, the Lamb of Divine Provision a substitute not only for Israel but also for the world.

The Lamb of Divine Protection

The book of Exodus is the account of Israel’s redemption from Egyptian slavery by the mighty hand of their God. Central to the redemption was a lamb. Nine terrible plagues had left Egypt ruined but Pharaoh refused to let Israel go and the Lord, Israel’s redeemer, unleashed one final plague that would break the stubborn will of his people’s oppressor; he would destroy the first-born of all Egypt. The means of protection for Israel was the blood of lambs daubed on the doorposts and lintels of their dwellings. When God poured out his wrath on Egypt he would pass over the homes on which he saw the blood, leaving the first-born of those houses unharmed.

Every house where the angel of the Lord saw blood was a haven of safety for the first-born. Outside the protection of the blood-marked house was certain death, whether in the home of the humble artisan or the palace of Pharaoh. ‘Messiah our Pesach is sacrificed for us’ says the First Letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament (1 Cor. 5:7), the Lamb of Divine Protection from the wrath of God. Likewise, the First Letter of Johanan explains that the shed blood of the Messiah provides the means of forgiveness and acceptance with God (1 Jn 1:7).

The Lamb of Divine Perfection

The sacrificial system that existed from the beginning of and was incorporated into the worship of Israel provided only a temporary covering for sins until the provision of the ultimate and final sacrifice of the Lamb of God foretold by Abraham. If the lambs offered by the Jewish people for a millennium-and-a-half had truly been able to remove the guilt of sin, there would have been no need for further sacrifices. The fact that lambs had to be slaughtered day after day, festival after festival and year after year testified to their inability to atone for sin. Nevertheless, the sacrificial victims had to be free from all physical defect (Lv. 22:17-25). The Lord’s contention with the Jewish people in the time of Malachi was that the priests presented to him lambs so inferior the priests would not have had the audacity to set them before the rulers. When the Messiah appeared, although there was nothing to set him apart physically from His fellow Jews, he nevertheless possessed a moral perfection and freedom from any inward blemish in thought, word or deed that set Him apart as ‘a lamb without blemish and without spot’ (1 Peter. 1:19).

The Lamb of Divine Propitiation

The book of Isaiah is one of the most remarkable books in the Tanakh. The message of the first 39 chapters of the book mainly focuses on God’s anger against his wicked and disobedient people. From chapter 40 onward, the overarching theme is one of comfort for the Lord’s people because their iniquity is pardoned (Is. 40:1-3) but the highest and most sublime point in the last 27 chapters of Isaiah is 52: 13 – 53:12 in which the Righteous Servant of the Lord is ‘led as a lamb to the slaughter’ (v.7) to be an atoning sacrifice, an Asham.

Leviticus 5 consists of instructions relating to the Asham, or ‘Trespass Offering’ offering, When someone concealed knowledge under oath in court (Lv. 5:1), touched an unclean thing (Lv. 5:2-3), swore falsely (Lv. 5:4) or embezzled holy things (Lv. 5:14-16) they had to confess their sin and offer a lamb as an atonement for their sin. In Is. 53:10, God says he will make a man a ‘sin offering’. The Righteous Servant, Israel’s perfect representative, was going to be the lamb of divine propitiation. The Servant would take on himself the wrath of God. Israel’s God would lay on his Servant the sin of Israel in the way sins were laid on the lambs, goats and bulls offered in the temple. The Servant’s sufferings would propitiate, or turn away, the wrath of God from his people in the same way that the blood of the Passover lamb averted the death of the first-born in Egypt. In a sense, Is. 52:13 sums up the entire message of the Hebrew Scriptures: ‘Behold My servant.’

A couple of years ago, a Hasidic Jew asked me why I read the Tanakh. ‘Because it’s the Word of God,’ I responded.

‘But why do you want to read the Word of God?’ he shot back.

‘Because it tells me what to believe and how I should live.’

‘But the Tanakh is for the Jews.’

‘That’s true but in it God speaks to the Gentiles also. In Yeshayahu [Isaiah] 45:22, God says. “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” I want to be saved, so I’m looking to your God.’

The God I’m looking to is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The New Testament I read, as well as the Tanakh, was written by Jews, and its message is exactly the same as that of the Torah and the Prophets because it commands me to look to Jesus the Messiah, ‘the author and finisher of our faith’ (Letter to the Hebrews 12:2).

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