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The Plagues and the Passover -- a study of Exodus 12

God provides a way out for His people no matter how lost they are.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Exodus 12:1-13

In this critical passage, we are introduced to what would become a defining identity marker for the Jewish people -- the Passover. It's a harrowing tale that points to the price of sin, the need for God's people to separate themselves from the world, and God's provision of salvation. Today, we recognize it as beautifully pointing to Jesus, the final Passover Lamb.

when I see the blood, I will pass over you. (12:13)

[This article was original a teacher supplement to help leading a lesson on these verses. I have cleaned it up for online posting.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Passover Focus. This week, we learn about Passover. You want to decide up front what kind of environment you want for the group time—treat it all very soberly as per preparing for a Lord’s Supper, or treat it like a Sunday School lesson with a more lighthearted introduction. Do what you think best for your group members.

Lighthearted Suggestion: Bad Eating Habits. Ask you group if they have any bad eating habits (the answer had better be yes, by the way). What are they? Here’s a list from a health site: mindless eating, nighttime noshing, endless snacking, skipping breakfast, eating too quickly, and eating junk food. I have the really bad habit of eating quickly while standing up (when I’m in charge of an event). Inside, I address “proper” eating habits, but I think it’s fun to point out that God “violates” several of these commands for the Passover. And of course it’s intentional—God didn’t want them to “enjoy” this meal. Think about that . . .

Meaningful Topics That Are Fun.

Important Local Festivals. Every community I’ve lived in had at least one event that the community found very important. It could be fun, but people put a lot of work into it. Vendors came in with lots of wares. Locals put up decorations. Someone went through the hard work of organizing musical entertainment. And a lot of people came out to be a part. It was important community identity building. What are those festivals around here? Obviously, Arts in the Heart of Augusta comes to mind because it’s this weekend. I keep saying that we will visit the Laurel and Hardy Festival eventually. Last weekend was Dragon Con in Atlanta. We have Freedom Blast, lots of holiday events, Blind Willie, and more. And that’s not to mention the big things that our church does here in the community. What’s the point of such festivals? It’s to remind our community of a shared identity, to put people in touch with one another, and to pass on knowledge. That’s what Passover is for the Jewish community around the world.

Favorite Meal Traditions. Do you have a favorite meal as a family? Or perhaps a tradition (whether you like it or not)? In my family, we eat crab legs on Valentine’s Day. We get a cheese ball on football opening weekend. Everybody gets to pick their meal on their birthday. Growing up, my grandma always made black eyed peas for New Year’s Day (I’ve learned that this is popular southern superstition; peas symbolize coin, and then cornbread symbolizes gold, because of course it does). We always had the same combination of casseroles for Christmas and Thanksgiving (green bean casserole, pink fluff casserole, something that looked orange and involved squash)—nothing that I would eat, of course. Do you have a favorite meal tradition? Something you look forward to? Holiday, gameday, birthday, something at work?


Icebreakers Directly Tied to the Lesson

Favorite Preparation Traditions. If you’re a foodie, this will probably overlap with the previous idea. Does your family have some favorite traditions tied to preparations? Growing up, it was Christmas lights. My dad loves to put up Christmas lights, and it became a whole-family ordeal. Kids might not appreciate traditions like this, but I’ve heard stories from friends looking back and talking about how meaningful it was when their family would board up their house for a hurricane, or go and winterize the cabin, or go and prepare a herd for auction. Then you have the fun things like getting ready for a tailgate, or the team getting ready for the big game, or getting dressed for Homecoming, you name it. Ask your group what they appreciate getting prepared for. Ask for fun things and serious things! God makes a big, big deal about getting ready for Passover—everybody plays a role. The more we prepare, the more we appreciate.

When You’re Not Prepared. If you don’t think any of those topics really get your group focused for this passage, ask them how things go in their life when they aren’t prepared. Has there been a Christmas morning they weren’t ready for? Or a Thanksgiving meal? Or—in regular life—a job, a test, a performance, a game? What about in spiritual life? Have you ever come to church not ready to be engaged? Missed out on the blessing of the Lord’s Supper because you didn’t think about it ahead of time? Things go better when we are prepared, and we have most of the control over our preparation. Again, God expected the Jews to be extremely prepared for the Passover.

The Seder Meal

Every three years or so, our church hosts a “seder meal” on the Thursday before Easter (Maundy Thursday). But it is a modified version from a Christian perspective. Because it helps Christians see how the Lord’s Supper (our new substitute for the Passover) fits into Jesus’ Jewish context, I think it is a very meaningful event. Some of you may have kept your Seder booklets from last year. If so, good for you! If not, I will summarize some chunks of it here.

Removing Yeast. Passover is the first night of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For 7 days, Jews cannot have any yeast in their homes. The reason was that they would not have any time for bread to rise during their escape from Egypt, so they could only prepare unleavened bread. Over time, yeast/leaven came to be associated with sin. Many Christian churches use unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper for that very reason, but we don’t do a symbolic yeast removal because we don’t sacrifice a Passover lamb anymore; Jesus took our sin away.


The Seder meal itself is the family dinner of the Passover. It begins with the mother lighting candles, symbolizing the presence of God. Then everyone washes their hands in a ceremonial basin. Then someone reads the Exodus story. Then a child asks traditional questions (“Why is this night different from all other nights?” “What on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?” “Why on this night do we only eat bitter herbs?” “Why on this night do we dip our herbs twice?”). (The bitter herbs symbolize the bitter and cruel slavery their Jewish ancestors experienced in Egypt. They are dipped in a saltwater mixture that symbolizes tears.) Then they share the first of four cups of wine: the cup of freedom. They drink the cup in honor of the God who can rescue from slavery. Then the father takes three pieces of bread, takes the middle one, breaks it, wraps it in a napkin, and hides it for the children to find (a symbol of the coming Messiah).

Then the family shares the Passover meal.

(1) Bitter herbs (many Jews use horseradish for this).

(2) Green vegetables (a symbol of hope, but served with a saltwater dip).

(3) Charoset—a mixture of cinnamon, nuts, and apples (symbolizing mud and straw for bricks).

(4) The second cup: the cup of justice.

Jews do not actually drink from this cup, as it represents the plagues God sent on Egypt (the Jews did not suffer the plagues). Instead, they dip 10 drops of wine on their napkins. Then they say together, “Dayenu!” (“It is more than we deserve”), and they sing and dance in celebration. Then they drink from the third cup: the cup of redemption (anticipation for Elijah to come and announce the Messiah). Then they eat the Passover lamb, something I cover in more detail on the back page. Then they drink the final cup: the cup of hope. And they eat a roasted egg symbolizing wholeness. And finally they say, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Where does the Lord’s Supper fit into this? Well, the three Gospel versions of the Last Supper can be interpreted in different ways. Here is one way that makes sense. While the group was eating the Passover lamb, Jesus interrupted them, brought out that middle piece of matzah bread, and called it His body, and gave it to each one to drink. Then, perhaps at the very end, He took the final cup and told them that it was His blood of the new covenant. There are lots of different ways this could have worked.


Part 1: Prepared (12:1-5)

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: “This month is to be the beginning of months for you; it is the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they must each select an animal of the flock, one animal per family. [They can combine small families so as not to waste any meat.] You must have an unblemished animal, a year-old male; you may take it from either the sheep or the goats.

A little context: we have skipped over the plagues (hopefully you mentioned them last week). In chapter 11, God announced the final and most awful plague, the death of all firstborn males (including of livestock). Chapter 12 is the remedy.


One purpose of this final plague is to demonstrate uncontrovertibly that God has made a distinction between the Egyptians and the Jews—follow this ritual and the angel of death will not touch your house. If any Egyptians followed those instructions, I believe they would have been spared as well, but it is important to remember that one of the plagues struck their livestock, making this a difficult task! The rest of this chapter describes how the Israelites observed the Passover; it also mentions briefly the Exodus. Please wait until next week to talk about the number of Israelites in the Exodus as well as the length of time. I will address those next week. This week needs to focus on Passover.

For this first section, you don’t need to say anything about Passover or the Lord’s Supper. The key point here is that God wants the Israelites to see the Exodus as a completely new beginning for them—so much so that they will now set their calendars by this event. Don’t spend too much time teaching the Jewish calendar (even I find it confusing)! Also point out that the Jews had also just miraculously preserved their livestock from the plague, so hearing that they must choose one for sacrifice would have definitely gotten their attention. They select it on the 10th day but don’t slaughter it until the 14th day—those 4 days were there to make sure the animal was unblemished. Watch the Bible Project video on “Sacrifice” if you have time! Very helpful.

Also point out the parallel of community/family. The family is the basic social unit in God’s world; but having every family do this at the same time built a national identity. Combining smaller families served several purposes. One, less waste. God hates waste. Two, less slacking. When you’re cooking for two, or when you’re having a service with just three, you’re tempted to cut corners. Around Jesus’ day, rabbis said 10 people minimum for a Passover. You might bring up different traditions here in America to show how we build an identity with our unique but concurrent celebrations.


Aside: Jewish Calendar

The old Jewish calendar is confusing in that they borrowed month names from the Canaanites, then from the Babylonians, then the Persians. That’s why the Bible often refers to a month by a number. It was also based on a ”lunar-solar” system where the sun marked the year, but the moon marked the month. This means there were lots of “extra” days inserted to keep things lined up.

God told the Hebrews to start their year with the month of Passover (our equivalent March/April), a feast tied back into the calving season. Then, 50 days later, they celebrated the Feast of Weeks, tied to the wheat harvest. Then, at the end of the final olive and fig harvest, they celebrated the Feast of Booths (which immediately followed the Day of Atonement). Jews later added Hanukkah and Purim to the long gap preceding Passover.

It should only make sense that God put the Jews on a calendar based on agriculture—both crops and herds. But He worked in festivals that connected those natural events to His supernatural provision. Calving became associated with sacrifice and deliverance. The Jews later associated the wheat harvest with the giving of the law (God’s provision). And the remaining harvests became associated with the wanderings in the wilderness (another kind of God’s provision). For some reason, sometime around Jesus’ day the rabbis reorganized the Jewish calendar, making Rosh Hashanah (September/October) the beginning of the year. We assume this had something to do with the Greek calendar, but because their months roughly corresponded, this simply meant renumbering them.


Part 2: Sacrificed (12:6-7)

You are to keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembly of the community if Israel will slaughter the animals at twilight. They must take some of the blood and put in on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses where they eat them.

See the bottom for more about the Passover lamb. The community/family theme continues. God commanded that His people never eat blood (there were superstitions about getting lifeforce out of it; see below); it was traditional then as now to bleed an animal after slaughtering it. “Painting” some blood on the doorposts would be an unforgettable symbol of what was happening: an innocent animal would die in place of the firstborn son who would be saved. That animal’s life, symbolized by its blood, was a price paid to turn aside the angel of death. All of those doorways with all of that blood would have been a very powerful experience (God knew which houses He would “pass over”; this was about obedience more than anything else). Of course, the real point here is to talk about Jesus—the perfect Lamb of God. Christians don’t go through a Passover celebration because we don’t need to anymore; the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus needs no repetition. What we do in the Lord’s Supper is look back on that event (remembering it with our whole heart) and look forward to the day He returns. What I would do here is ask your group to think of the “blood of Jesus” songs we sing in worship; in what ways can those songs help us comprehend how powerful the first Passover must have been to the Jews?


Aside: Blood Sacrifice

A key passage is Leviticus 17:11, “The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar”. Some people have interpreted this to mean that blood sacrifices (a sacrifice/offering the involved spilling blood) were actually designed to “release” the life of the animal (usually a lamb or bull) into the presence of God. That’s just weird. In the Bible, spilling blood is always associated with death. The Hebrews realized that when you remove the blood from a body, the body dies, therefore blood = life, but not lifeforce. So here is what the blood sacrifices (of which Passover is the chief) mean:

(1) Such a sacrifice is a divine provision. Humans cannot create life; we cannot own life. We can procreate, and we can act like owners, but that’s different. God alone gives life. When we spill an animal’s blood in sacrifice, we are giving back to God what was His. It is not a gift. (Note: this only works if we see animals at not having a soul like a human. That’s what makes Jesus’ sacrifice so utterly unique and scandalous.)

(2) But blood sacrifices are designed to pay a price. It is life of an animal paid down as payment for sin. But it is a substitutionary price. “Life for a life”. This poor animal, who had nothing to do with our sin, has now been killed to satisfy (symbolically) the punishment that our sin deserves. Hebrews 9 implies that the Jews had believed that the blood of the lamb actually substituted for them, when they should have known all along that the blood sacrifice was just a symbol—a “placeholder” while they waited for the one true sacrifice, Jesus Christ the Son of God. The Passover lamb was supposed to point them to Jesus.


Part 3: Hurried (12:8-11)

They are to eat the meat that night; they should eat it, roasted over the fire along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or cooked in boiling water, but only roasted over fire. You must not leave any of it until morning; any part of it left until morning you must burn. Here is how you must eat it: You must be dressed for travel, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You are to eat it in a hurry; it is the Lord’s Passover.

See the Seder section for more on the meal itself. All of these instructions have to do with haste. They are about to leave on a very long journey. Has anyone in your group ever had to eat quickly before going on a trip? Like a last meal before evacuating for a hurricane? I’ve done that—we wanted to eat everything we could because we knew the power would go out. But we were in a hurry! Very odd. I mention the eating habits because I think it’s important—God didn’t want them to “enjoy” this meal. This is not a sit-down-and-savor-good-lambchops meal. Their whole world was about to change. God knew that once Pharaoh’s eldest son died, he would order the Israelites to leave, and they needed to be ready to go immediately.


Aside: Good Eating Habits

Most sites about healthy eating focus on diet (more plants, less processed foods, etc.). But the physical habits can be just as important! This has very little to do with our lesson, but I thought it was fun, so this is free of charge!

(1) Sleep! Fatigue tends to overeating.

(2) Eat sitting at a table. Standing uses different core muscles, and eating while distracted lends itself to poor portion choices.

(3) Give up second helpings.

(4) Eat a planned meal every few hours (starting with breakfast) to cut down on the impulse hunger splurges. (Most “snacking” is of unhealthy foods. And skipping meals tends to slow the metabolism.)

(5) Practice stress management. Stress leads to “cope” eating, as well as poor digestion.


Part 4: Delivered (12:12-13)

I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both people and animals. I am the Lord; I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. The blood on the houses where you are staying will be a distinguishing mark for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

These words simply summarize everything we’ve been saying these past few weeks. God had no rival; it’s not as if He needed to conquer any of Egypt’s false gods. But the Israelites needed to see and understand that, which is why the plagues were necessary. As before, distinguishing between Egyptian and Jew would validate to the Jews what God had been saying through Moses. “Distinguishing mark” means “sign”—the sun and moon were called “signs” to mark the seasons. The rainbow was a “sign” of the covenant. The word also applies to miracles which God used as signs of His power. In many ways, the blood was a miraculous sign in that it was able to “ward off” the angel of death (there are still a lot of superstitions to this effect). How do you think the Israelites would have felt at midnight when they started hearing (from a distance) the awful wailing of parents whose oldest son suddenly died? And realized that every crazy thing Moses said was true? A mixture of terror, wonder, fear, awe, adrenaline? What do you think?

Let me close with another plug for this new Daily Discipleship Guide resource that you have access to. Here are the 5 devotion titles that follow the lesson: Monday—Our history is defined by God; Tuesday—Sacred commemoration reaffirms our commitment to God; Wednesday—Our redemption comes through the spotless Lamb of God; Thursday—God’s people must be ready to follow Him at a moment’s notice; Friday—Jesus’ death delivered us from judgment. Would anyone in your group want to have a daily devotion based on the Sunday School passage? Let me know!

Christians do not celebrate Passover. Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper as our new commemoration of Him, and we gather in worship to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection every Sunday. Our next Lord’s Supper is October 22; what do you need to do to prepare for it? How can you better prepare for worship every Sunday? (How seriously do you take worship at all?) What actions and traditions in your family demonstrate your faith in God and commitment to Jesus? What traditions do you need to start in your family to make your faith and service more significant? When you realize that Jesus was the Lamb of God for your oldest son (and everybody else in your family), does that help you appreciate what Jesus did? Make sure to point out that salvation is personal! You have to trust in Jesus for yourself for His sacrifice to “apply” to you.


Closing Thoughts: The Passover Lamb

In today’s PETA and ASPCA world, animal sacrifices seem cruel and barbaric. (I won’t arque that animals should be mistreated or tortured! I love animals and have a hard time putting one down even that’s suffering. But let’s not forget that Americans kill more than 40,000,000 cows for food every year. The Hebrew sacrificial system was no more “barbaric” than that.) But animal sacrifices served a key role in God’s relationship with humanity, and the Passover lamb was quintessential (because every family had to offer one, unlike the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement). Because the lamb was a year old, the family had had time to bond with it. They are adorable, and absolutely trusting. It would be a true emotional investment on the part of the Jewish family to sacrifice this beautiful lamb.

As we know today, the Passover lamb pointed to Jesus. The parallels are striking! Jesus was born in Bethlehem on the very fields were many of the Jerusalem-bound lambs were born. The Passover lambs were supposed to be selected on the 10th day of the month—which is Palm Sunday, the day that many Jews hailed Jesus as their King. Families had four days to inspect their lambs. Jesus taught in full display in the Temple complex from Monday to Thursday, and none of the religious leaders could find any fault in Him. (!) And guess when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem? Yep, on Friday afternoon (the day we call Good Friday).

Since the Temple’s destruction, Jews have not offered blood sacrifices. Today, apparently most Jews recoil at the thought.


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