The Origins of the Biblical Pesach
Introduction: Non-Jewish Influence on Chanukah
On Chanukah we bring out dreidels, sufganiot, latkas, and, of course, a menorah to light Chanukah candles, but only that last item comes from rabbinic halacha. The first three customs developed over time in Europe. For example, the dreidel originated as a German gambling game. Even the four Hebrew letters, נ, ג, ה, ש – which ostensibly stand for the Hebrew phrase, נס גדול היה שם (a great miracle happened there), are really just shorthand for the Yiddish instructions: nisht (nothing), halb (half), gants (all), and shtel ayn (put in).
That was Europe; in America, Chanukah falls smack in the middle of the Christmas season when corporate America heads back into the black on account of all the gifts, decorations, and trimmings purchased for “decking the halls.” Some Jews have felt the need to keep up with the Joneses, so they too purchase presents, decorate their houses with lights, and make jokes about Santa’s back-up: Hanukah Harry. All of these things have become, for many, part of the modern American Chanukah experience.
Perhaps the best example of the phenomenon is the Chanukah bush topped with a Jewish star, a clear and striking example of how some Jews incorporate their Christian neighbors’ religious practice into their own Jewish celebration.
Pesach’s Problematic Past
Chanukah is not the first Jewish festival to incorporate non-Jewish elements. The holiday of Pesach, the foundational holiday of the Jewish people, also incorporates non-Israelite rituals.
The Passover described in Parashat Bo does not reflect how we celebrate Passover today. This parashah describes two different holidays, the ritual of Pesach and the festival of Matzah, which were later combined. More significantly for this essay, if we look carefully at the description of Pesach within the parasha we find that the pesach ritual itself is derived from an original, probably pagan ritual. Although the biblical authors try to cloak this connection, scholars can still see the traces of the older ritual and its meaning.
The Early Stages of the Pesach Ritual
It is commonly held that the section in Exodus 12:21-23 describes the older pagan rite.
שמות יב:כא וַיִּקְרָ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה לְכָל זִקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם מִֽשְׁכ֗וּ וּקְח֨וּ לָכֶ֥ם צֹ֛אן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶ֖ם וְשַׁחֲט֥וּ הַפָּֽסַח: יב:כב וּלְקַחְתֶּ֞ם אֲגֻדַּ֣ת אֵז֗וֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם֘ בַּדָּ֣ם אֲשֶׁר בַּסַּף֒ וְהִגַּעְתֶּ֤ם אֶל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף֙ וְאֶל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֔ת מִן הַדָּ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּסָּ֑ף וְאַתֶּ֗ם לֹ֥א תֵצְא֛וּ אִ֥ישׁ מִפֶּֽתַח בֵּית֖וֹ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר: יב:כג וְעָבַ֣ר יְ-הֹוָה֘ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת מִצְרַיִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת הַדָּם֙ עַל־הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְ-הֹוָה֙ עַל הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף:
Exod 12:21 Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the pesach offering. 12:22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. 12:23 For when Yhwh goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and Yhwh will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer (משחית) enter and smite your home.
The following schematic illustrates this ritual:
- Select a sheep (צאן) for the family.
- Slaughter the pesach (הפסח).
- Take hyssop, dip it in the (animal) blood and smear it on the lintel and two doorposts.
- Do NOT go out until dawn.
- YHWH will pass through to smite the Egyptians and will see the blood on the doorposts.
- YHWH will pesach (פסח) on the door.
- YHWH will not give the משחית the ability to enter your house to smite (you?).
These verses do not connect these activities with the 10th plague of the killing of the firstborn. It is only in a later reinterpretation of the core pagan ritual that the target audience is identified as firstborn. In fact, if one assumes, like a number of scholars do, that the first half of verse 23 is an addition, then this command/ritual may not have any intrinsic connection to the Egypt story at all.
An Apotropaic Ritual
From a cultural anthropological perspective many of the elements in the pesach ritual are associated with pagan rites. When brought together, as they are here, they form an apotropaic ritual, one meant to ward off evil.
Exodus 12:22 implies that this is a nighttime ritual, something which later edits of the text pick up on and emphasize (Exod 6:-10). Night was not a time people wanted to be outside. Bad things happened at night. For example, the Sodomites come to Lot’s house for unsavory purposes under the cover of night (Gen 19: 4-10). Consider too the apprehension about traveling after nightfall in (Judg 19:9) and spending the night sleeping outside (Judg 19:20). Night was understood as the liminal period when curtain between the divine and human realms was drawn back. It was when men received dreams (Gen 15:12-16); interacted with divine beings (Gen 28:10-16); and talked to the dead (1 Sam 28:8; Isa 8:19-20).
Liminality and Blood
Before the meat is roasted and eaten, the blood of the sacrifice is collected and painted on the doors, this time reflecting liminality of place rather than of time, since doorways define where one sphere ends and another begins. Blocking off the doorway with blood blocks the movement of demons through the liminal threshold. As the life-force, blood is dangerous and should be treated cautiously (Lev 12; 15:19-30, 17:6-11).
Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Parallels
The association of blood and sacrifice at nighttime with demons and rituals to get rid of them can also be found other places, like in the Mesopotamian ritual of maqlû, which reverses witchcraft. Within the Bible, a number of examples come to mind. The first is the “bridegroom of blood” episode in Exodus 4:24-26. The text is so obscure it is difficult to figure out who Zipporah circumcises, but the outcome is clear –the blood of the circumcision wards off YHWH (!) who was seeking to kill Moses. Another example occurs with the “witch of Endor” (1 Sam 28) as she is affectionately known, who also performs a bloody sacrifice in order to protect herself from what she perceives as evil.
The ritual of sending a goat out into the wilderness to Azazel (a demon?), carrying the sins of the Israelites on its back appears to function as a way of protecting the community (Lev 17). Similarly, when the elders of a town near which a person was murdered declare that their hands are clean of the victims blood and break the neck of a heifer on the spot, this also seem like a way of warding off any unsavory consequences for the spilled blood that occurred under their auspices (Deut 21).
The Nature of the Ritual
Based on these observations, scholars have offered two suggestions concerning the origin of these rituals:
Protection from a Malevolent Deity (משחית)
The first understands the protection ritual as warding off evil from a malevolent deity, the maschit. Scholars speculate that the ritual originated as a spring-time rite observed by a semi-nomadic shepherds when they prepared to move the flock to new grazing grounds. Fearing demons would attack the flock, the shepherds warded them off with blood through a protection ritual known as pesach. The term פסח thus carries the meaning “protection,” such as found in Isaiah 31:5. The more familiar meaning of “to pass over” came about when the ritual was historicized and entered the narrative talking about Egypt.
The Cult of Ancestors
A second approach associates the sacrifice with the cult of ancestors. While families lived together in nuclear family units, the cult was practiced by the family (משפחה), the larger kin network. Regular gathering to sacrifice and make offerings to mutual dead ancestors was an important part of organizing and maintaining living relationships within the broader clan. Ziony Zevit points out that sacrifices made on the ground [not on altars] are often associated with chthonic deities, ones that live in the ground or close to the ground.
Examples of the ancestor cult are peppered through the Hebrew Bible with the clearest being from 1 Samuel 20 where David asks leave to go attend the yearly sacrificial meal for his entire family (משפחה) kinship group.. As a ritual within the ancestor cult, sacrifice by the living members bound the dead ancestors to the living and the unborn. The ancestors then protected the living and the unborn, and the unborn would in turn perpetuate the cult in their own time.
Both of these ideas explain the pagan parts of the sacrifice, but neither idea, in my opinion, sufficiently addresses the threat of the משחית and its smiting (Exod 12:23). To this end, I think that some Mesopotamian lullabies can offer new insight.
Protection Ritual for Babies
Mesopotamian Lullabies were sung in order to ward off the demoness Lamashtu who steals away babies and men’s semen in order to gain the children she never had. It is noteworthy that Jewish lore has its own Lamashtu: Lilith. In the post-biblical text The Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lilith states that she was created to harm infants! While the Mesopotamians may have been facing the realities of crib death, the lullabies all have a sense of urgency: the baby must stop crying now for the baby’s cries were thought to alert Lamashtu that an infant was nearby.
In one particular lullaby, Lamashtu sends out her helper demon, the evil eye who flies around into doorways seeking to do harm. The lullaby describes the children as ceasing to cry through suffocation when the evil eye comes upon them. This description calls to mind the movie depictions of the exodus where the משחית sneaks into the Egyptian houses and snuffs out the breath of the firstborn.
Finally, the lullabies state that when the baby cries it not only summons the demoness, but bothers ili bītum (אל הבית; god of the house.) The noise can become so disturbing that the ili bītum might actually leave the house. Karel van der Toorn points out that in various Mesopotamian contexts, including the lullabies, ilu (=ili) should be translated not as “god” but as “ancestor” and, thus, this phrase means “the ancestor of the house.” It was generally believed that the ancestor of the house offered protection for his or her descendants (like a mezuzah according to some traditions). Therefore, if the ancestor of the house leaves, true disaster can follow, since the house would now be open to demonic forces without any protection.
The Pesach Ritual as a Lullaby
The pagan aspects of the pesach ritual address the two concerns found in the Mesopotamian lullabies: keeping the infants safe and the ancestors appeased. With regard to the latter, the pesach sacrifice (Exod 12: 21) maintains the cult of the ancestors by binding them to the living and the unborn as suggested by the second theory above. Reaffirming connections with the ancestors might also assuage any annoyance they experienced due to the cries of children in the house.
Exodus 12:22-23 ostensibly keeps the משחית from entering the house and smiting. The text is not clear on who will be smitten. JPS translates the latter have of verse 23 ולא יתן המשחית לבא אל בתיכם לנגף as “He [YWHW] will not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.” I suggest that the individuals needing protection in the pre-Israelite shepherd ritual were infants and children.
The ritual of painting the blood on the door then could be the (pre-)Israelite way to deal with the baby-snatching night demon Lamashtu [later identified as Lilith], just as the Mesopotamians ritually used lullabies to ward her off.
In this reconstruction, the Israelites inherited these pagan rites from their semi-nomadic ancestors and later historicized and reinterpreted them into the story we are familiar with—Pesach commemorates the flight from Egypt which happened on the heels of the 10th plague, the killing of the firstborn children (Exod 12:25-32).
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January 19, 2015
October 1, 2020
Dr. Kristine Henrikson Garroway is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Bible at the HUC-JIR. She received her doctorate in Hebrew Bible and Cognate Studies at HUC-JIR. Garroway is the author of Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household.
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