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[JSOT 82 (1999) 45-55]


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Passover appears in a variety of texts in the Old Testament. It is a con-

cern of some narratives, instructions, lists and laws. In narratives there
are the Passover in Egypt before the exodus,1 the Passover on Sinai,2 the
Passover immediately after entering Canaan,3 the mentioning of Pass-
over within the context of the account of Solomon's reign,4Hezekiah's
Passover,5 Josiah's Passover,6 and the Passover after the return from
exile.7 The legislative texts all come from the Pentateuch with the
exception of the one in Ezekiel.8
Until recently, it was believed that the investigation of the four gen-
erally recognized biblical sources9 is the most reliable method to gather
some knowledge about the original character of Passover. Scholars
invested an incredible effort on comparing descriptions of Passover
from various sources and analysing particular words used in those
descriptions. The result was a number of explanations the versatility of
which already speaks against the employment of method of literary
criticism in establishing the true character of Passover. Passover

1. Exod. 12.
2. Num. 9.4-6.
3. Josh. 5.10-12.
4. 1 Kgs 9.25; 2 Chron. 8.12-13.
5. 2 Chron. 30.
6. 2 Kgs 21-23; 2 Chron. 35.1-19.
7. Ezra 6.19-22.
8. Ezek. 45.21-24.
9. The Yahwistic (J), the Elohistic (E), the Deuteronomic (D) and the Priestly
(P) traditions.
46 Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999)

appeared both as pastoral and agricultural ritual, apothropaic rite,10

thanksgiving festival,11 harvest festival,12 sanctification ritual13 and rit-
ual drama.14
Segal's objection to the literary criticism that words and phrases are
always employed as the context requires and that they are not 'stock-in-
trade' of individual sources15 strikes at the core of the source hypothesis
and certainly provides us with a good argument for its rejection. This
warning by Segal from the early sixties today has been further
substantiated by theories which dispute the traditional notion that J is
the oldest stratum in the Old Testament.16 In relation to Passover, these
theories raise doubts as to whether J's description of Passover can be
held to be the oldest version of the festival and accordingly whether the
J version can be taken as a firm starting point in a quest for its pagan,
pre-Yahwistic prototype.
Thus the question of discovering the original character of Passover
poses itself in the first instance as a question of finding the appropriate
method to read and interpret the biblical text. Until recently, the major-
ity of biblical scholars tended to regard the Bible as a truthful source of
information, in particular the so-called historical narratives which deal
with the early history of the Israelites. However, today there is a grow-
ing number of theories which maintain that the material in the Old
Testament constitutes a sacred history which does not have much in
common with the real history of Israelites.17 The main narratives in the
Bible which are concerned with the early history of the Israelites are
seen and interpreted as retrojective ideological constructions.18
Regardless of whether the legends of the sacred history have any real
value for an historian or not, what is beyond any doubt is that stories in
sacred books are always told in symbolic language.19 Origen and Mai-
monides, whose times did not know the rigid scientism that has been

10. De Vaux 1965: 484-93; Kraus 1966: 46-49.

11. Wellhausen 1895: 83-94.
12. Beer 1912: 9.
13. Pedersen 1959: 398.
14. Mowinckel 1922: 37-40.
15. Segal 1963: 91.
16. Thompson 1975; Van Seters 1975; Schmid 1976.
17. Leach 1983: 8-29.
18. Garbini 1988.
19. Eilberg-Schwartz 1990: 115-41.
PROSIC Passover in Biblical Narratives Al

dominating the studies of Old Testament since the nineteenth century,

were both aware of this way of reading the Bible, claiming that some of
the biblical stories pose unbridgeable obstacles when one follows only
their narrative meaning.20 In Philo's interpretation of the Old Testament
there is always the 'literal' and the 'deeper meaning' of the biblical
text;21 even the prophets speak of riddles, allegories and parables as a
means of wisdom.22 Exactly because the biblical text is also a symbolic
text I believe that instead of accounting and classifying differences in
the Passoverritualas they appear in various sources, it is more fruitful
to start the investigation of its original character with an analysis of its
symbolic connotation within the context of certain narratives where its
celebration is mentioned.
The second reason for choosing to investigate the symbolism of the
biblical Passover stems from the fact that important religious traditions
are never easily abandoned and that new religions usually inherit the
outstanding moments of their immediate predecessors. That heritage
very often assumes a symbolic form and we might add that its incorpo-
ration into the new theology in such a form is one of the links that sur-
mounts the gap between the new and the old, since as a thing which can
be recognized and understood, it alleviates the process of accepting the
new theology. We can take Christianity as an example, which incorpo-
rated many of the pagan religious traditions, but with new explanations
which were moulded according to its own theology. The pagan festival
dedicated to the re-birth of the Sun and usually held at the winter sol-
stice, Christianity translated into the birth of Jesus Christ. Another
prominent example is the Virgin Mary, which was the Christian rendi-
tion of the Great Mother. To paraphrase Goodenough: theology is for
the few: symbols are for all, intellectuals and childish alike.23 In this
respect Yahwism was not an exception. Following Leach's suggestion
that religious texts contain mystery which is still decodable from the
text itself,24 we might as well conclude that in the case of Passover our
taskisto establish whether its mentioning as part of certain historical

20. Origen, On First Principles, especially Book IV, Chapters 2 and 3. Mai-
monides, The Guide to the Perplexed, especially the Introduction and Part I, Chap-
ters 2 and 5.
21. Philo, Works.
22. Prov. 1.6; Ezek. 17.2; 24.3; Hos. 12.11 (ET v. 10); Dan. 5.12; 8.23.
23. Goodenough 1988: 49-51.
24. Leach 1983: 3.
48 Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999)

narratives has any symbolic function and whether that particular func-
tion can be seen as a projection of the original purpose and meaning of
As Fohr notes, there is always a possibility to object to this approach
on the ground that we are actually equating the stories with what we
think is their symbolic meaning. However, as he suggests, one should
never forget that what a symbol was to the people of Israel a couple of
thousands years ago does not have to be a symbol for us.25 Among the
three monotheistic religions that developed and managed to survive in
the Near East, Yahwism paved the way for the others. It appeared in a
world where other religious formulae other than polytheistic were
simply non-existent. As in the case of its predecessor, Akhenaten's
monotheistic cult of the Sun disc, as a spiritual and religious phe-
nomenon, Yahwism was a divergence from the contemporary spirit of
the age and contemporary Weltanschauung. And that Weltanschauung
was marked by particularized polytheistic comprehension of the world,
where every significant human activity and every natural phenomenon
had their divine patron, while the vivid and dynamic mythological
constructions projected the ideas about the world and the cosmos. That
was the native soil from which Yahwistic monotheistic principle
emerged and consequently, everything that was as a symbol included in
its theology had to mean something for the people of that time; in short,
it had to mean something within the pagan framework of reasoning.
So what then are the occasions in which Passover is mentioned? In
the book of Exodus it is mentioned in connection with the tenth
plague.26 The Passover on Sinai happens after all the laws of Yahweh
are declared and the Tabernacle finished.27 One can argue that the Sinai
celebration does not constitute an event since it is a part of the regula-
tions on second Passover. However, although the rules on the second
Passover are dominant, they are nevertheless presented within the con-
text of a certain story. The preparations for the Passover actually start
on the first day after Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle. Every
following day is separately accounted for, with elaborate descriptions
of offerings for the altar, brought by twelve tribal leaders. On the thir-
teenth day, Lvites are consecrated as a substitution for sparing the
Israelite first-born in Egypt. Just after that, on the fourteenth day, comes

25. Fohr 1986: 11.

26. Exod. 12.
27. Num. 9.4-6.
PROSIC Passover in Biblical Narratives 49

the celebration of Passover, as the event that crowns the whole of the
preceding ceremonial presentation of offerings. It is evident from the
general framework of the narrative that the celebration of Passover is its
integral part and that it certainly has a definite purpose. That purpose,
on the other hand, does not serve as an introduction to the regulations
on second Passover. In fact, within the context, the regulations seem to
be secondary, since they are very awkwardly interpolated with an appa-
rent discrepancy between the question asked by the people and the
answer Moses gives them.28
After the Passover in Sinai comes the first Passover in Canaan,29 fol-
lowing the miraculous crossing of the Jordan and the arrival of the
Israelites in the 'promised land'. In the accounts about the construction
of the temple, Passover is mentioned along with other cultic ceremonies
as a conclusion to the works on the temple.30
Hezekiah's Passover comes after re-sanctification of the Temple and
the long period of kings who worshipped other gods.31 Josiah's Pass-
over follows the religious purge which eradicated pagan idols, sacred
places and priests.32 Finally, there is the Passover celebration held after
the people returned from the exile and the Temple was rebuilt.33
In all these situations, the Passover celebration is differently
described. In the book of Exodus it is presented as a rite with the main
function of enabling Yahweh to recognize the homes of Israelites and
pass over them in his deadly mission. The focus is on the handling of
blood which is poured in the basin and sprinkled onto the houses with a
bunch of hyssop. The inhabitants of the house are to remain for the rest
of the night in the house. There is no mentioning of the unleavened bread.
The Passover held immediately after entering Canaan presents a com-
pletely different picture. People must be circumcised before they are
allowed to observe the festival. The celebration is kept on the evening
of the fourteenth day of the month, and in a sacred place. The next
morning they eat unleavened cakes and parched grain. Manna ceases.
The Bible does not give any details about the Passover kept in Sinai
except that it is kept on the fourteenth day of the first month in the

28. Num. 9.6-11.

29. Josh. 5.10-12.
30. 1 Kgs 9.25; 2 Chron. 8.12-13.
31. 2 Chron. 30.
32. 2 Kgs 21-23; 2 Chron. 35.1-19.
33. Ezra 6.19-22.
50 Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999)

evening. People who at the time of its observance are in touch with
dead bodies are banned from the festival.
As in the book of Joshua, Solomon's Passover/Unleavened Bread is
kept in a sacred place, the Temple. In the account of Chronicles, its cel-
ebration is mentioned in conjunction with the sabbaths, new moons and
the other two big annual feasts, Weeks and Tabernacles. The three
occasions on which Solomon burnt offerings, mentioned in 1 Kings, are
generally regarded as an allusion to the three annual feasts. However, it
should be noted that in Solomon's Passover the king has a notable role
in burning the offerings and that the offerings are burned on the altar.
Hezekiah's and Josiah's Passovers are elaborately described, with
many details about the Temple practice which include holy assembly,
royal contribution of Passover lambs, killing of the sacrificial victims,
sprinkling of blood, eating of unleavened bread, singing and ritual
sanctification. In both accounts, the accent is on cleanliness and the
Lvites are assigned the job of killing the sacrificial animals. In the
account of Josiah's Passover, observance of the feast of Unleavened
Bread is separately mentioned, while Hezekiah's Passover takes place
in the second month and instead of seven it is kept for fourteen days.
In the Passover of the returned exiles, the accent is also on cleanli-
ness and, again, the Lvites are the ones who kill the Passover lamb on
behalf of the rest of the community. The feast of Unleavened Bread is
kept for seven days.
The first impression is that among all the recounted events and
Passover descriptions, apart from the Yahwistic ideological message,
there is not a single element that can be identified as common to all of
them. Some of the events seem to be related to the history of the cult,
like the law declaration on Sinai, building of the Temple and Josiah's
and Hezekiah's religious reforms. Others, such as the exodus, entering
into Canaan and the return from exile, seem to be related more to the
mundane history of Israelites. Also, the descriptions of Passover sig-
nificantly vary from occasion to occasion and it is evident that in some
cases the final compilers either overemphasized some of its features or
even designed new ones in an effort to achieve congruity with the
nature of the circumstances that precede the actual celebration.
However, all these differences are differences of detail, and as the
critics of the positivistic method would remark, as long as we are inter-
ested in trees we will not be able to see the forest. Precisely at the level
of general structure of these events a constant repetition of the same
PROSIC Passover in Biblical Narratives 51

structural elements appears. In short, they all follow the same structural
First of the structural elements that is constantly repeated is certainly
the mentioning of Passover as part of the narratives. Its inclusion is
undoubtedly not accidental since it serves as a common designator
which in some sense separates those particular legends from other events
in the sacred history of the Israelites. That, on the other hand, makes it
possible to assume that the meaning of Passover goes beyond the plane
of the clearly perceptible and that it is not limited just to the theologi-
cally declared meaning, the meaning of commemoration festival.
In all of the occasions, the Passover celebration appears as an inter-
mediary element between the two stages in the history of the Israelites.
After the exodus, it concludes the period in which they were slaves and
introduces the period of freedom. On Sinai, it comes after all the laws
of Yahweh are declared and the Tabernacle is erected, thus inaugurat-
ing the new life governed by the ordinances of the covenant with Yah-
weh. The Passover in Canaan closes the period of destitution during the
wandering in the wilderness and inaugurates the abundance of the new
homeland. Solomon's Passover finishes the period of the Tabernacle as
Yahweh's dwelling place and begins the era of the Temple. Both Heze-
kiah's and Josiah's Passovers end the epochs of faithlessness and come
as a sign that the covenant with Yahweh and his rule is re-established.
Passover in Ezra closes the period of exile and introduces the new life
in Israel. It is more than clear that the conditions mediated by Passover
are fundamentally different, and that they stand in an antithetical cor-
relation. Thus we have the opposites between 'death/life' and its deriva-
tive 'slavery/freedom' (exodus), 'wanting/abundance' (Canaan), 'non-
existence of law/establishment of law' (Sinai), 'temporary sanctuary/
permanent sanctuary', 'worship of many/worship of one' (Hezekiah,
Josiah) and 'exile/homeland' (return from exile).
Such a structure which consists of binary oppositions is, on the other
hand, usually ascribed to myths by structural anthropologists.34 Genesis,
which is generally believed to contain the majority of mythological
material preserved in the Bible, abounds in explicit examples. God cre-
ates heavens and earth, day and night, dry land and seas. Cain and Abel
are respectively farmer and shepherd. When the flood is over, making a
vow that he will never again send another flood, God says that while

34. Lvi-Strauss 1955.

52 Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999)

the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and
winter, day and night, shall not cease.35
Biblical stories with Passover as their integral part follow the same
pattern, though not in an explicit form and not as suggested earlier, with
respect to their details and fractions, but more on the plane of their con-
notative meaning and in view of their general outline. That however
does not necessarily mean that they are myths and that, as myths, they
do not have anything to do with historical truth. One may argue that
some of the stories are certainly neither myths nor ideological projec-
tions, but undeniable historical facts, like the return from the exile.
However, such an argument would be relevant if the biblical text was
historiography in the sense that we usually ascribe to it: as a discipline
that conforms to the contemporary way of rationalizing events in his-
tory and to the requests of scientific research. The point is that what we
are dealing with in the biblical text is some kind of national historiog-
raphy, but that historiography is of the kind which still does not make a
clear cut between mythical and real.36 It both transforms mythological
figures and events into historical ones and assigns mythological quali-
ties to historical figures and events.37 Such national history where the
mythical and the real are so closely intertwined clearly demonstrates
that in matters of rationalizing events Bible as historiography still per-
tains to the mythological pattern of thinking. The events described in
our stories, regardless of their historicity, were also moulded according
to that pattern and show a structure proper to myths, because they were
perceived and felt to be of mythological proportions for the history of
Israelites and the associated, inseparable history of Yahweh.
In the structuralist analysis of myths, beside the binary oppositions
there is another, third category with a function which parallels that of
Passover in our stories: it mediates between the opposed conditions.
According to Leach, exactly this 'middle ground' between the two
oppositions is 'typically the focus of all taboo and ritual observance'.38
In myths, this third category is usually represented by contradictory
beings who possess qualities of both antipodes, such as virgin mothers
or dying gods. In biblical stories where Passover is mentioned, there is

35. Gen. 8.22.

36. Johnstone 1990: 31-36.
37. Goldziher 1967: 250-58; Fishbane 1985: 356-57.
38. Leach 1969: 11.
PROSIC Passover in Biblical Narratives 53

not a single reference to any such being, unless we take 'the destroyer'
from Exodus as being contradictory, since its involvement means both
death and life, death for the Egyptians, and indirectly, by passing over
marked houses, life and freedom for the Israelites. However, regardless
of the fact whether 'the destroyer' can be taken as a relic from the
original myth or not, it is evident from the general structural pattern of
biblical stories, in which its observance is mentioned, that Passover as a
ritual covers some kind of a 'middle ground' and that in that role it was
included in the mythologized events of the history of the Israelites and
the cult of Yahweh.
In the context of narratives, that role of mediation entails several
functions. It serves to differentiate and separate the conditions, thus
stressing their contrasting qualities, then to ease the transition from one
to another stage and, finally, to advance the new condition. However,
the distribution among these functions is not even, and sometimes there
is more stress on separation, sometimes on the transition and sometimes
on the new conditions. In the Passover in Egypt the accent is obviously
on separation (marking of the houses). In Hezekiah's and Josiah's
Passovers, the more prominent part is allocated to its transitional func-
tion (both stress the length of the festival, with Hezekiah's Passover
even celebrated for two weeks, which is divergent from the usual prac-
tice), and advancement of the new condition (both were specially joyful
celebrations), while the focus in the first Passover in Canaan is on the
advancement of the new conditions (eating of the produce of the new
land). Usually such manifold yet still dialectically interrelated functions
are associated with various types of rites of passages.39 Their main pur-
pose, according to Van Gennep, is to enable the passage from one
defined condition to another, which is equally defined.40 As we have
seen, the same purpose is allocated to Passover in our stories, although
never in an explicit form. It appears as an implicit sign, a symbol,
which in the mythological pattern of understanding the world and
events signifies a change of conditions. The reasons as to why precisely
Passover was chosen to symbolize the crucial changes in the history of
Israelites probably stem from the great relevance which as a rite of pas-
sage Passover had had among the Israelites in the pagan context; it
could have been the rite of passage par excellence, the ultimate rite of

39. Van Gennep 1960: 11.

40. Van Gennep 1960: 3.
54 Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999)

passage, parallel to the Babylonian New Year festival, as Segal sug-

gests, or other important seasonal rites of passages such as the Egyptian
Osirian festivals or the Greek Eleusinian mysteries.


Anderson, Bernhard W.
1978 The Living World of the Old Testament (London: Longman, Green & Co.,
3rd edn) (published in America as Understanding the Old Testament
[Philadelphia: Westminster Press]).
Beer, G.
1912 Pesachim (Ostern): Text, bersetzung und Erklrung (Giessen: Alfred
De Vaux, Roland
1965 Ancient Israel (trans. John McHugh; NewYork: McGraw-Hill), .
Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard
1990 The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and
Ancient Judaism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).
Fishbane, Michael
1985 Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Oxford University
Fohr, S.D.
1986 Adam and Eve: The Spiritual Symbolism of Genesis and Exodus
(Lanham, MD: University Press of America).
Garbini, Giovanni
1988 History and Ideology in Ancient Israel (trans. John Bowden; New York:
Goldziher, Ignaz
1967 Mythology among the Hebrews and Its Historical Development (trans.
Russell Martineau; New York: Cooper Square Books [1877]).
Goodenough, Erwin R.
1988 Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (Bollingen Series: Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, abridged edn).
Johnstone, W.
1990 Exodus (OTG, 3; Sheffield: JSOT Press).
Kraus, Hans-Joachim
1966 Worship in Israel: A Cultic History of the Old Testament (trans. Geoffrey
Buswell; Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
Leach Edmund
1969 Genesis as Myth and Other Essays (Cape Editions, 39; London: Jonathan
Leach, Edmund and Alan D. Aycock
1983 Structuralist Interpretation of Biblical Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press).
PROSIC Passover in Biblical Narratives 55

Lvi-Strauss, C.
1955 The Structural Study of Myth in Myth: A Symposium (ed. T. A. Sebeok;
Philadelphia: American Folklore Society).
Mowinckel, Sigmund
1922 Psalmenstudien (Oslo: Skrifer utgitt av Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi
i Oslo), .
Pedersen, Johs
1959 Israel: Its Life and Culture (London: Oxford University Press), -IV.
Schmid, H.H.
1976 Der sogenannte Jahwist (Zrich: Theologischer Verlag).
Segal, J.B.
1963 The Hebrew Passover: From the Earliest Times to AD 70 (London:
Oxford University Press).
Van Gennep, Arnold
1960 The Rites of Passage (trans. Monika . Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee;
Chicago: University of Chicago Press [1908]).
Van Seters, J.
1975 Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press).
Thompson, Thomas L.
1975 The Historicity of Patriarchal Narratives (BZAW, 133; Berlin: W. de
Wellhausen, Julius
1885 Prolegomena to the History of Israel (trans. J. Sutherland Black and
Allan Manzies; London A. & C. Black).


This article attempts to reveal the function of the pre-Yahwistic Passover. Rather
then applying the usual methods of analysing the biblical text, the author applies the
method of structural anthropology in an attempt to penetrate beyond the conspicu
ous plane of the stories. The aim of this study is to establish the symbolic function
of mentioning Passover observances in the retellings of biblical events.
^ s
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