No Biblical festival has quite the cultural legacy and rich complexity of Passover. It is a holiday of interest to Jews and Christians and through the Exodus story and the narrative of the Passion of Jesus, Passover has a cultural influence beyond the borders of these two great faiths.
As Passover draws near, it will be a frequent subject on Messianic Jewish Musings. I have a modest but always growing library of books on Passover. I hope, in a decade or two, to be an expert on the subject.
This year I am reading a great new resource for lovers of Passover and its history, My People’s Passover Haggadah, edited by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow. I am sure I will refer to it a dozen times in articles leading up to Passover. It puts in one resource (two volumes) a wealth of historical and interpretative material.
In this first Passover article of 2009, I am addressing a subject that may seem less interesting to some than others. Passover articles should be about the mystique, the narrative power, or the spirituality of Passover. Yet, though the topic of this article is somewhat technical, I try to make it interesting, concise, and I hope, by the end, you feel it is a worthwhile addition to your reading as you prepare for Passover this year.
Is Passover a Late Invention in Biblical History? The Problem in a Nutshell
David Arnow, whose work I quite appreciate both in My People’s Passover Haggadah and in Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities , describes the world of Biblical scholarship’s prevailing opinion that Passover is not the ancient holy day of Israel that it seems to me. Rather, it is an invention from the days of King Josiah, bringing together two different festivals from earlier times and merging them as if they had always been one. And lying behind this lately invented festival are pagan myths and cultic festivals.
But wait, you say, Passover seems rather straightforward. In the days of Moses the Israelites slew a lamb, put blood on the door, and ate unleavened bread. God gave this event a calendrical setting for future commemoration and tradition has added to the elements of Passover since the days of Moses to what we know as the modern Passover Seder, right?
According to Arnow and what he calls the prevailing opinion of Biblical scholars, not so.
Passover, it is said, is a contradiction in the sources from the beginning. The following list represents the basic problems with a simple view of Passover’s origins:
(1) The Bible gives two contradictory dates for the celebration of Passover. Leviticus 23:5 says it is on the fourteenth day of the first month (Abib). Yet Exodus 23:15 (and others places) say it is either “on the new moon of Abib” or “in the month of Abib.” If the correct translation is “on the new moon of Abib,” then we have a contradiction in timing.
(2) The Bible gives two contradictory directives about where Passover is to take place. In Exodus 12:3 the setting is the household, while in Deuteronomy 16:2 the setting is the sanctuary.
(3) The Bible represents Passover in Leviticus 23:5-6 as two separate festivals (Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread) but only one in Deuteronomy 16:2-3 seemingly combines the two (“slaughter the Passover . . . and eat nothing leavened with it”).
(4) Finally, we learn in 2 Kings 23:1-22 that Josiah held a Passover at the sanctuary in accordance with Deuteronomy (which is assumed to contain innovations from the time of Josiah) and we read that “the Passover had not been offered in that manner in the days of the judges who ruled Israel or in the days of the kings of Israel and Judah.” Thus, the Deuteronomic Passover at the sanctuary with all Israel gathered was the first ever held.
The Problem With the Problems
While I appreciate the concise summary David Arnow provides of these problems, they betray a series of assumptions leading for a foregone conclusion, all going back to Julius Wellhausen’s theory that the Torah is a pastiche of sources from different periods (the documentary hypothesis, which in modified form is a widely-held model in Biblical scholarship still).
In my judgment, those looking for contradictions in multiple sources will find them by assuming contradictions when they do not exist. If nothing else, we should be ashamed at our low estimate of the intelligence of those who redacted the Torah in later generations. The genius of the Torah seems too great, I think, to presume these redactors would fail to harmonize such simple details. Thus, here is my response to each of the alleged problems with Passover having a unified origin in the days of Moses:
(1) There is no reason to avoid translating Exodus 23:15 and verses like it in accordance with the view that Passover is in the middle of the month of Abib (“in the month of Abib”). It is no stretch at all in Biblical Hebrew to assume that chodesh could refer to new moons as well as the period between new moons (i.e., months). Thus, the first problem only exists if the narrowest view of chodesh’s semantic range is assumed.
(2) The alleged contradiction between the household Passover of Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16 is similarly an illusion (rabbinic literature addressed this eons ago). Exodus 12:3 refers to the first Passover only while Deuteronomy 16 refers to Passover following the inauguration of the sanctuary of Israel.
(3) The idea that Leviticus 23 represents Passover as two separate festivals is exaggerated, though it may contain a kernel of truth. God’s institutions in numerous cases adopt and adapt existing cultural institutions. It is quite possible that a grain festival celebrating the early grains of barley and a pastoral festival celebrating the bounty of spring lambs both lie behind the complex Passover/Unleavened Bread festival. The alleged disunity of Passover and Unleavened Bread is only there for those who insist on finding contradictions.
(4) It is the last of the alleged problems with the unity of Passover’s ancient origins that is easiest to dismiss. In order to interpret 2 Kings 23:21-22 as saying that the first Passover held at the sanctuary occurred in the days of Josiah, David Arnow presented the following translation, “the Passover sacrifice had not been offered in that manner in the days of the judges . . . or during the days of the kings.” The Hebrew is not difficult (ki lo na’asah ka-pesakh hazzeh mimei ha-shofetim) and I would translate it, “no Passover had been held like this one since the days of the judges.” What was different or unique about Josiah’s Passover festival? Arnow and others assume it was the fact that is was held at the sanctuary. But it could quite as easily have been that it was the largest and grandest celebration in Israel’s history.
The evidence that Passover was a late invention in Biblical history is underwhelming. It is possible, of course, to doubt the validity of the Biblical account. It is possible to theorize about changes to the Biblical text made by later editors (and it would be foolish to deny that such things happened). Yet the existence of glaring contradictions in Israel’s most important festival is a rumor greatly exaggerated.