Integrating the Exodus Story into the Festivals
The exodus from Egypt was only one of the traditions that the Israelites used to explain their past. Another tradition that can be discerned in several biblical passages is the wilderness tradition, where God finds Israel in the wilderness and adopts them as his people. (I discuss this at length in my essay, “Exodus: Not the Only Tradition about Israel’s Past.”) Thus, it is likely that many Israelites and Judahites were unaware of the exodus tradition in early times.
This explains why in many cases the exodus theme is a secondary development—after this tradition became broadly accepted in ancient Israel, it was inserted secondarily into many biblical texts.
The Exodus in the Holidays
The three pilgrimage festivals (Matzot, Shavuot, Sukkot) developed a double character: an agricultural significance and a significance related to Israelite history. The festival of Matzot is related to the exodus event, Shavuot to the Sinai event (in postbiblical literature), and Sukkot to Israel’s dwelling in booths in the wilderness, following the exodus. The agricultural significance is the more basic one, and the historical meanings became attached later on to give the festival a more nationalist character.
The clearest example of this is Shavuot, since its connection to any Sinai event is never mentioned in the Bible. Exodus 23:16 calls it, “the festival of the harvest, the time of the first-fruits of that which you sow in the field (חג הקציר בכורי מעשיך אשר תזרע בשדה)”; in Exodus 34:22 it is “the time of the first-fruits of the wheat harvest (בכורי קציר חטים)”, and in Leviticus 23:15—22 and Deuteronomy 16:9—11 it takes place seven weeks after the beginning of the harvest. These texts likely refer to different times, and none refers to the Sinai event, or any other event in Israel’s history. The identification of Shavuot with the revelation at Sinai is post-biblical.
The festival of Sukkot is referred to in Exodus 23:16 and 34:22 as חג האסיף without any mention of סוכות at all. Deuteronomy 16:13 calls it חג הסכת, and it occurs “when you gather in your produce from the threshing floor and the winepress (באספך מגרנך ומיקבך).” None of these texts connects the festival with the exodus.
It is only in Leviticus 23:43 that we find that Israelites must dwell in booths at this time in order that they may remember that God made them dwell in booths when He took them out of Egypt. A closer examination strongly suggests that this explicit mention of an historical event connecting this festival to the exodus is the exception proves the rule.
Scholars have long noted that the list of מועדי ה’, sacred occasions, of Leviticus 23 comes to its original conclusion, in verse 37-38, which parallels the opening in verse 4.
ויקרא כג:ד אֵ֚לֶּה מוֹעֲדֵ֣י יְ־הֹוָ֔ה מִקְרָאֵ֖י קֹ֑דֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם בְּמוֹעֲדָֽם:
Lev 23:4 These are the set times of YHWH, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time.
כג:לג וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ־הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: כג:לד דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֨ה עָשָׂ֜ר י֗וֹם לַחֹ֤דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי֙ הַזֶּ֔ה חַ֧ג הַסֻּכּ֛וֹת שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים לַי־הֹוָֽה: כג:לה בַּיּ֥וֹם הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן מִקְרָא קֹ֑דֶשׁ כָּל מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ: כג:לו שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים תַּקְרִ֥יבוּ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַי־הֹוָ֑ה בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֡י מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם אִשֶּׁ֤ה לַֽי-הֹוָה֙ עֲצֶ֣רֶת הִ֔וא כָּל מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ: כג:לז אֵ֚לֶּה מוֹעֲדֵ֣י יְ־הֹוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם מִקְרָאֵ֣י קֹ֑דֶשׁ…
23:33 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: 23:34 Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to YHWH, [to last] seven days. 23:35 The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; 23:36 seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to YHWH. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to YHWH; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations. 23:37 Those are the set times of YHWH that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions…
The festival of Sukkot is treated in verses 33—36, just before the summarizing conclusion of verse 37(-38), and these verses make no mention of Sukkot being connected to the Exodus. It is only in the subsequent return to the issue of Sukkot in verse 39, “But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month” that we find the mention of the Exodus in relation to Sukkot. Yet this entire passage of verses 39ff. is clearly secondary. Not only is it extremely odd to return to discuss the festival of Sukkot after the chapter on the sacred occasions has come to a close. It is also odd to begin a new section with the word אך, “however.” What is more, scholars have identified other אך clauses that appear to be secondary.
The connection that Leviticus 23:43 draws between Sukkot and the Exodus is not only secondary; it is also contrived. No biblical account recalls how God made the Israelites dwell in booths; furthermore, the Bible imagines them as dwelling in tents, not in booths! Nor is it clear why such a divine act of settling the Israelites in booths would be worthy of commemorating. All this points to the exodus being a later integration into an Israelite agricultural festival, that quite possibly, was originally related to the practice of farmers dwelling in huts to stay with their produce in far away fields (see Isaiah 1:8).
Chag HaMatzot is the only festival that all the texts in the Torah consistently ground in the exodus. (I refrain from discussing here the Passover sacrifice, which is separate from the festival of Matzot in the biblical sources.) However, it seems likely that this festival too was originally grounded in agricultural concerns, especially in light of what we have seen regarding the other two festivals
Consider the two reasons for eating unleavened bread – matzah on this festival:
- In commemoration of the “bread of affliction” (Exod. 12:39) that was eaten in Egypt.
- As a symbol of the hasty exit of the Israelites from Egypt (Deut. 16:3).
Traditionally, on seder night, we speak of both of these reasons, but technically they would seem to contradict each other, calling into question the originality of both. If, as Exodus 12:39 tells us, the quick exit from Egypt forced the Israelites to make matzot rather than leavened bread, then the usual bread of the Israelites in Egypt was leavened. If, on the other hand, the regular bread eaten by the Israelites in Egypt was unleavened, why does it matter that they left Egypt in a hurry?
Regarding the first explanation, nowhere do we find a story of how the Israelites in Egypt suffered by eating matzot (cf. Exodus 16:3). Nor is there really anything particularly stressful or afflicting about eating matzot. If Lot could serve matzot to his guests as part of the feast he prepared for them (Genesis 19:3), and the woman-diviner of En-dor could serve matzot to Saul and his servants together with a fatted calf (1 Samuel 28:22—25), then unleavened bread could hardly be considered an oppressive food.
As for the second explanation, the grounding of the eating of Matzot in the hasty exodus from Egypt, this seems rather contrived. Is the quick and unprepared manner of the exodus really of such significance that it should be made into the central element that must be commemorated? Would the exodus have been less impressive had the Israelites been fully prepared for it, or if they had defiantly taken their sweet time to leave? Furthermore, almost all of the texts concerning Chag HaMatzot state in a most general way that the festival must be observed with the eating of Matzot in the month of Abib because that is when God took Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 12:15—20; 13:3—10; 23:15; 34:18; Leviticus 23:6—8; Numbers 28:17). None of these texts mentions that the Israelites left quickly and in an unprepared state, and that is why Matzot are eaten.
What, then, was the original significance of eating Matzot on this festival? One suggestion is that Chag HaMatzot was originally associated with the beginning of the grain harvest (cf. Leviticus 23:9-14, which immediately follows after the legislation of the Matzot festival). Yeast from the produce of the previous year was needed to make new leavened bread. Thus, eating Matzot at this time could thus reflect the idea of “out with the old and in with the new.” It reflects a separation from the old grain and an initiation into the grain of the new season.
The Law of the Bechor and the Plague of the First-Born
The same type of analysis may be applied to the connection between the offering of firstborn animals and the plague of the firstborn in Egypt. According to Exodus 13:11-15, all firstborn males must be offered to God (though humans and unclean animals are redeemed) in commemoration of the fact that God killed the firstborn humans and animals of Egypt when Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go.
The offering of firstborn animals, however, is a widespread practice in the ancient world. It represents the worshipper’s acknowledgment of the deity’s graciousness in providing fertility to the herd and reflects the hope that this acknowledgment will facilitate further and continued divine blessing. The requirement of giving God the firstborn cattle is also mentioned in Exodus 22:28-29; Leviticus 27:26-27; Numbers 18:15-18 and Deuteronomy 15:19-23. None of these texts draw any connection between the offering of the firstborn and the plague in Egypt.
Redacting the Plague of the Firstborn Story
In fact, it seems that the story of the plague of the firstborn in Exodus 11 had nothing to do with the practice of offering the firstborn of the cattle. This story was, however, adapted to accommodate the new use to which it was put in Exodus 13:11-15. Exodus 11:4-7 reads:
שמות יא:ד וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה כֹּ֖ה אָמַ֣ר יְ־הֹוָ֑ה כַּחֲצֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה אֲנִ֥י יוֹצֵ֖א בְּת֥וֹךְ מִצְרָֽיִם: יא:ה וּמֵ֣ת כָּל־בְּכוֹר֘ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ מִבְּכ֤וֹר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשִּׁפְחָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר אַחַ֣ר הָרֵחָ֑יִם וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה: יא:ו וְהָ֥יְתָ֛ה צְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה בְּכָל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר כָּמֹ֙הוּ֙ לֹ֣א נִהְיָ֔תָה וְכָמֹ֖הוּ לֹ֥א תֹסִֽף: יא:ז וּלְכֹ֣ל׀ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לֹ֤א יֶֽחֱרַץ־כֶּ֙לֶב֙ לְשֹׁנ֔וֹ לְמֵאִ֖ישׁ וְעַד־בְּהֵמָ֑ה לְמַ֙עַן֙ תֵּֽדְע֔וּן אֲשֶׁר֙ יַפְלֶ֣ה יְ־הֹוָ֔ה בֵּ֥ין מִצְרַ֖יִם וּבֵ֥ין יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Exod 11:4 So Moses said, “This is what YHWH says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. 11:5 Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. 11:6 There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. 11:7 But at all the Israelites, from person to animal, a dog will not bark.’ Then you will know that YHWH makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.
The words in bold insisting that the plague of the firstborn struck both humans and animals are secondary. This is indicated, first of all, by the belated reference to “all the firstborn cattle as well” at the end of verse 5. The continuum that starts from the firstborn of Pharaoh and ends with the firstborn of the female slave is coherent and complete and the addition of the firstborn animals seems anticlimactic. Will the loud wailing of the Egyptians come to a crescendo when they see that their firstborn goats have died together with their sons?
The same is true in verse seven. The verse starts off by stating that in contrast to the terrible affliction that the Egyptians will suffer, the Israelites will not even be so much as barked at by a dog. The verse then states that this includes the Israelite animals as well as people. This further comment seems quite artificial. Can the animals naturally be included within the category of בני ישראל “the sons of Israel?”
Finally, if the Israelite firstborns had to remain within their houses that were dabbed with blood in order to be spared from the plague, why weren’t the firstborn “Israelite” animals brought inside as well? Most likely, then, the animals were not originally part of the plague.
In light of everything said, it is clear why the bolded words (see above) were added. Only if the plague of the firstborn included the firstborn cattle of the Egyptians and the sparring of the Israelite firstborn cattle, could the Israelite rite of offering God their firstborn cattle be interpreted as a commemoration of the exodus.
Ritual Practice Recast in Nationalistic Terms
In all of the instances discussed above, the ritual practice in its original form was of a generic religious type. There was nothing distinctively “Israelite” about it. By turning it into a commemoration of the exodus, the rite was made historical and uniquely “nationalist.”
Caveat: Earlier Israelite (not Canaanite) Traditions
Many scholars think that the agricultural festivals discussed above were borrowed from the Canaanites and “converted” to Israelite practice via the addition of the exodus theme. This position reflects the tacit assumption that the exodus was the one, fundamental national myth that dominated Israel from earliest times. It also reflects the tacit assumption that religious rituals that are closely connected to issues of the land and its fertility must be related to the Canaanite Baal, not the “historical” God of Israelites.
The texts in question, however, even in their earliest written forms, speak of YHWH of Israel. If the exodus theme came to dominate Israel’s religious thinking only gradually, then these texts need not reflect borrowing from the Canaanites. Their focus on fertility without any historical component may reflect a relatively early conception of Israel’s God, who was not so much a warrior or liberator from political subjugation, but the owner of the land and the source of its fertility. This would also coincide well with the idea that God’s grounding act on behalf of Israel consisted in taking them out of the barren wilderness and providing them with a fertile land.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 24, 2015
January 2, 2024
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
Essays on Related Topics: