The Feast of Unleavened Bread | Exodus 12:43-51, 13:3-10

After finally recounting the events of the tenth plague and the exodus, it may seem odd that we again find ourselves reading about the sacrifices and feasts that Israel would be required to keep. However, as we said of Moses and Aaron’s genealogy in chapter 6, the authorial intent behind writing Exodus was not to compose a modern drama; instead, the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to write Exodus primarily as theological instruction. So, while we may feel like the dramatic tension of the story is brought to halt by our present passage, dramatic tension was never the main point. In terms of theological instruction, however, the record of the Passover being sandwiched between two sets of instructions for how to commemorate it each year draws even more emphasis upon just how significant Passover night and the exodus truly were to the people of Israel.

PASSOVER & CIRCUMCISION

Verses 43-50 deliver further instructions regarding the Passover meal, specifically telling us who is able to eat it. This was important knowledge to have since we read previously that a mixed multitude left Egypt with the Israelites. These Gentiles had evidently decided to follow Yahweh and His people after witnessing His sovereign power through the plagues. What then was their status of inclusion, and what level of participation would they have among the Israelites? Furthermore, at what point, if any, would they come to be treated as Israelites themselves?

Before answering those questions, we must first remember that the Passover meal was for all the congregation of Israel. All Israelites must partake of the Passover meal or be cut off from Israel. The Passover meal, therefore, was a mark of distinction between Israel and the other nations. Our present text drives that point home by specifically noting that no foreigner would be allowed to eat it. If Passover meal was to be a special meal of remembrance between the LORD and those whom He redeemed, then the unredeemed had no part in the Passover memorial.

Nevertheless, the LORD had no intent of making Israel into the isolated people of God that the Pharisees came to understand of themselves later. Instead, God made this provision: If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. We might think of circumcision as a high bar of entry into the covenant community, but this provision was abundantly gracious. Notice that the circumcised sojourner was not merely permitted to eat the Passover meal; no, he was to be treated as a native of the land. He was to be treated as any other Israelite; indeed, he was to be treated as an Israelite himself.

We who live in the United States might not appreciate at first glance just how gracious and how odd this inclusion was and still is. Despite certain rabid zealots who insist that the U.S. is lacking in diversity, one of the reasons why immigration is so high to the U.S. is that a naturalized citizen is an American through and through, which is still not true around much of the rest of the world. Even if I successfully become a citizen of Japan or France, I never really become Japanese or French myself. That ethnic status would perhaps be granted to my children or even grandchildren. It was, therefore, extremely gracious for God to provide a means by which foreigners could come to full inclusion among the people of God and to memorialize the Passover as their own adopted history.

Ryken notes:

These regulations show that God has always offered salvation to everyone. No one has ever been excluded from coming to God simply on the basis of race. Even in the Old Testament, God provided a way for outsiders to come into his family and receive his saving grace. The way to come was by faith in the God of Israel, and circumcision was the public way of trusting in his promise of salvation. Already in the Old Testament God was declaring his glory to the nations. His people—both native-born Israelites and a “mixed multitude” of others—were saved by grace through faith.[1]

Of course, we see a similar principle at play today in the correspondence of the Lord’s Supper to the Passover and baptism to circumcision. Like circumcision, baptism is now the initiation rite of the new covenant, the external testimony of our faith in God’s salvation. Fittingly, both circumcision and baptism are onetime events, testifying that Christ died once for all of our sins. Like the Passover, the Lord’s Supper is a continual rite, testifying not only to our full justification before the Father but also of the sustaining grace that Christ’s Spirit is continually working within us. It is fitting, therefore, to withhold the Lord’s Supper from those who have not yet been baptized, since those who have not been initiated into the covenant community should not be able to eat the communal meal.

REMEMBER THIS DAY

As we again see beginning in verse 3, the Passover meal was linked inseparably to the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This has led many commentators to ask whether the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread constituted one united feast or two distinct feasts.

The answer seems to be yes.

The Passover was a distinct meal in its own right, yet it also began the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was testified to through the eating of unleavened bread at the Passover meal. While not a perfect analogy, we can see something similar in the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper. Both are distinct from one another, the cup representing the blood of Christ that restored our communion with the Father and the bread representing the body of Christ, which we are now members of within the church. Yet both together constitute the Lord’s Supper. The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are similarly united.

Again, we are told that the purpose of this feast was for remembrance: Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the LORD brought you out of this place. Whenever God brought them in the land that He long ago promised to their ancestors, they were to keep this feast at the same time each year in order to remember their marvelous deliverance by the hand of the LORD.

Specifically, the eating of unleavened bread was to keep their separation from Egypt fresh in their mind. After living in Egypt for 430 years, it is no surprise that many of the Israelites came to worship the Egyptian gods and likely began to live as Egyptians, at least as much as was possible for slaves. Indeed, we will see the Israelites throughout their wilderness years crying out to return to Egypt.

But the appeal of Egypt did not stop there. Even though the height of Egypt’s power mysteriously tapered off around the time of the exodus (yet secular historians reassure us that the exodus story is purely fictional!), Egypt remained a powerful player on the world scene. In other words, the ruin of Egypt during the exodus appears to have severed Egypt’s unchallenged dominance, yet the north African kingdom remained a force to be reckoned with. This was why Assyria’s later conquest of Egypt was such a shocking event. Yet because of Egypt’s continued strength, the kings of Israel were repeatedly rebuked by the prophets for trusting in an alliance with Egypt for their protection rather than trusting in the LORD to defend them. By the way, this made the LORD’s defense of Jerusalem at the prayer of Hezekiah so poignant, for God slaughtered the Assyrian army by night and defended Jerusalem from the assault that not even Egypt could withstand.

My point is that Egypt continued to represent a place of familiarity and security to the Israelites long after their settled Canaan. Again, this is likely why the LORD had to thrust them out of Egypt. Despite the harsh and bitter slavery, they loved Egypt. And we should not wonder at how such a thing could be so. We too love our captor. If not forcefully brought out of our sin by the leading of the Spirit, we would not do so. Of course, we know that our sin is destructive to both us and others. We know that it will actively drag us down into the grave, yet we love it so. Just as the Israelites received literal bread from heaven and yet longed for the food of Egypt, even we who have tasted Christ, the bread of life Himself, continue to be lured by the fading pleasures of this world. I believe C. S. Lewis wrote no truer words than when he said:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[2]

The discontinuity displayed through the unleavened bread was meant to essentially remind the Israelites of their break from Egypt. Even as they began to dwell in the land flowing with milk and honey, they needed to be constantly reminded that Egypt was the house of their slavery, not of their joy.

The Lord’s Supper should be such a reminder for us as well. By it, we should “taste and see” the goodness of the LORD (Psalm 34:8). As we remember the sacrifice of Christ, our Passover Lamb, through the bread and cup, we should rejoice that in Christ the words of David are ever true: “You make know to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Only such delight will truly break sin’s seduction over our hearts.

Once again, God also intended their remembrance to be multigenerational. You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ The LORD was building a day intentionally into their yearly rhythm for teaching their children about their salvation from Egypt.

It made for a wonderful testimony. It was personal, given in the first person. Every Israelite needed to make a personal appropriation of the salvation God provided for all Israel. At the same time, it was a God-centered testimony. It was all about what God had done in history to save his people. Every Christian should be ready to give the same kind of testimony, one that is both personal and Christ-centered. We should be ready to say, “I want to tell you what Jesus Christ has done for me. He died on the cross for my sins and gave me a whole new life.”[3]

Interestingly back in verse 26, the LORD specifically noted how parents should respond whenever their children asked about the purpose of the Passover. Here, however, He commands the parents to simply tell their children whether they inquire or not. And both are equally true of parenting. A child asking “why” is a uniquely potent moment of discipleship, since the child is initiating the conversation and is expressing interest from the very beginning. Nevertheless, parents should not wait around for those golden moments. Instead, we should actively instruct our children day in and day out, knowing that not every word will stick.  

Indeed, Christian parents today should not neglect to similarly use the weekly rhythm that we have in gathering together on the Lord’s Day for this very purpose. It is a wonderful opportunity to express our own testimony to our children if they ever ask us why we go to church every week. We can say something along the lines of, “Jesus died on the cross to saved me from my sins, so every week I go to church to worship Him with God’s people.” Yet even if they do not ask, we should still be active to instruct them, taking particular advantage of our weekly gathering to worship.

THAT THE LAW OF THE LORD MY BE IN YOUR MOUTH

Notice in verse 9 how this feast was meant to serve the Israelites: And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt. These words should have a familiar ring in our ears, for they are quite similar to one of the most significant passages in the entire Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

These verses are a foundational text for, at least, three reasons. First, it provides the great confession of the Old Testament: “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (v. 4). Second, it gives God’s people the greatest commandment: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 5). Third, it emphasizes the necessity of teaching those first two truths to the next generation.

There are many Jews, such as the Pharisees, who took these commands to have God’s Word bound on their hand and between their eyes (meaning the forehead) quite literally, wearing phylacteries that contained passages of Scripture upon their hands or forehead. Yet that was not the point at all. Having a sign upon one’s hand and between the eyes meant that it was always visible, that it was ever-present. So was the Feast of Unleavened Bread itself to be. It was an annual sign, an annual reminder, that the LORD rescued them from Egypt with a strong hand. It was also an opportunity for God’s law to be in their mouth, for them to recount their salvation for both themselves and their children.

Interestingly, I believe that Revelation gives us the opposite of this. Revelation 13:16 tells us that the beast marks his own “on the right hand or the forehead.” While many are in constant speculation over how this mark will be administered, I believe it best to be read as being just as symbolic as the sign upon the Israelites’ hands and foreheads in both verse 9 and Deuteronomy 6. Indeed, while warning us of the spirit of the antichrist that was already among the church in his day, John tells us that “they are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5). Thus, the mark of the beast seems to be worldliness, being marked by the world more than by the Word.

We see this distinction in Psalm 1 as well. The blessed are like trees deeply rooted beside streams of water because they delight in and meditate upon God’s law. The wicked, however, are like chaff that the wind drives away because they are not rooted in the Scriptures; instead, they walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, and seat in the seat of scoffers. In other words, the blessed man is marked by his or her saturation in God’s Word, while the wicked are marked by their fellowship with the world. And we could make the point regarding the wise and the fools within Proverbs.

Indeed, our brothers and sisters around the world and throughout the centuries have known what it means to be ostracized from society for receiving its mark. Christians in Muslim countries today face this for not confessing that there is no god but Allah and that Mohammad is his prophet. Yet the mark being administered is not always so blatant. Here in the U.S., it is not persecution that threatens us to conform but pleasure. We are easily indoctrinated by the dogmas of the world through the entertainment that we consume, and we more zealously disciple our children into the stories of the world rather than God’s work of redemption within His Word.

Of course, none of this is to say that God’s people should isolate themselves from the world. Indeed, God gave the Israelites the land of Canaan for good reason. It stood at the crossroads between Africa and Asia. If He desired to keep them isolated from the nations, there were plenty of other fertile lands that He could have given them. Yet the LORD was intent on making them a kingdom of priests and light for the other nations. They were to be in the very center of other nations yet distinct from them for they were to be a people with the law of the LORD in their mouths. So, ought we to be. We should not seek to be removed from the world (as if that were even possible!), yet we should not be like the world. We must be people of the Word.

Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17:14-19 captures this point far better than I am to do, so I will leave you with the charge to meditate upon it slowly throughout this week:

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.


[1] Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 362.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 26.

[3] Ryken, Exodus, 366.

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