Vital Commentary: Exodus 12:29-51

This commentary struck me as so vital to our understanding of history in the Bible and also issues of such great importance to our communities in Messianic Judaism, Christianity, and Judaism today. The commentary is necessarily brief. If commenters request it, I’d gladly explain more about the sexagesimal numbering system, about history and text issues, and about the details of the alien vs. native born in vss. 43-49. Find it after the jump.

EXODUS 12:29-51 The 10th Plague (29-36), the Exodus (37-42), who may eat the Passover (43-49), summary (50-51).

NOTES: A lot of issues vital to the history of Israel and to modern understandings of Jewish identity and the meaning of Passover are bound up in this section. Why is it noted that the Israelites bound up their dough before it was leavened? How does this correlate with the instructions already given previously to eat unleavened bread with Passover? Do we have two conflicting origin stories for the festival of Unleavened Bread? What should we make of the report of 600,000 Israelite men when we know that populations of cities were so small in that time period? The notion of 2 million Israelites cannot be historically accurate. What are we to make of the time period of 430 years since it does not compare well with other mentions of time in Genesis 15 and the genealogy of Exodus 6? And, finally, what does the section in 12:43-49 tell us about Jewish identity today?

Concerning the first question, the origin of the custom of unleavened bread, Sarna and Cassuto both note the problem that there seem to be two origins suggested in Exodus. In 12:8, Israel is already commanded to eat unleavened bread with the Passover on the first night in Egypt. Yet, now in 12:34 we seem to have another origin rationale, which is referred back to in later scriptures. Sarna says “the present rationale is a reinterpretation . . . of a preexisting practice.” Cassuto reads it all in harmony. Since the Israelites had made bread without leaven the night before, they have no leavened dough to use as a starter when the Exodus sets out. Therefore they put the dough in containers bundled in their clothing so the body heat night speed fermentation (but to no avail). Thus, there is a double explanation: it was preexisting as a custom and it also reflected the difficulty of the journey.

As for the number 600,000, it is simple to explain why this number is impossible. Estimates of Pharaoh’s army put it at 25,000 soldiers. Towns in Canaan like Jericho could house a few hundred soldiers within their walls. The entire population of Canaan was probably less than 2 million. The number of Israelites is far out of keeping with reality. Two possibilities commend themselves and can only be mentioned briefly here: (1) later scribes confused the word elef (troop) with the word for thousand and the numbers got confused in transmission, or (2) Cassuto’s theory about the sexagesimal system, a Babylonian numbering system based on the number sixty (see Cassuto on Exodus).

The same issue applies to the 430 years. It is an ideal number: six periods of sixty with seventy added (6 X 60 + 70). Cassuto demonstrated how the number could be arrived at. It is a stylistic number, not fitting with our modern notions of historical reporting (which did not matter to ancient peoples). Who would have counted the years? Chronology was not an issue for them.

Finally, in 12:43-49 we find that only circumcised members of the tribes could eat the Passover (meaning the sacred meat of the lamb, not talking about non-Jews eating a Passover Seder, which is perfectly allowable). Resident aliens (sojourners, gerim, etc.) were not full members of the covenant people unless they submitted to circumcision and thus joined the people of Israel (as did Caleb and others, apparently). This text is one of the bases for differentiating between Jewish and non-Jewish people today with regards to covenantal roles and responsibilities in the community of Yeshua.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, History, Judeo-Christian, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Vital Commentary: Exodus 12:29-51

  1. Carl says:

    Given that the circumcision spoken of here is ritual (and not merely medical) circumcision, “This text is one of the bases for differentiating between Jewish and non-Jewish people today with regards to covenantal roles and responsibilities in the community of Yeshua.”

    This is spot-on, Derek. I’ve been making the same point in private conversation for a number of years.

    Your observations correlate with implications of Galatians 5:2-3: “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised [in order to be justified by law], Messiah will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.” Ritual circumcision is the act in which the obligations and distinctions of Torah are brought to full measure; it is the entrance to the Jewish people, not the entrance to heaven.

  2. James says:

    Your observations correlate with implications of Galatians 5:2-3: “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised [in order to be justified by law], Messiah will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.” Ritual circumcision is the act in which the obligations and distinctions of Torah are brought to full measure; it is the entrance to the Jewish people, not the entrance to heaven.

    I agree with your point and I don’t support non-Jews undergoing the brit milah, but my understanding of Paul’s words in Galatians 5 is that he’s using “circumcision” as a sort of “shorthand” for conversion to (Messianic) Judaism, saying that non-Jewish believers will find no value in conversion if they do so out of the belief that being Jewish is required for justification.

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