Passover by Carol Meyers

Passover is an important biblical festival, originating in the agricultural calendar. The ancient Israelites were farmers whose festivals were determined by the cycles of the agricultural year. Springtime was the time when young herd animals, usually born in early winter, were ready for slaughter. This occasioned a family celebration in the form of a sacrificial meal. Springtime was also when the first grains appeared, signifying new life and thus becoming an occasion for celebration. These two agricultural festivals became historicized in the Bible: the sacrificial animal was linked to the tenth plague, when animal blood was smeared on Israelite doorposts so that God would protect those homes; and grain appears as the unleavened bread (matsah), that did not have time to rise because of the hasty departure from Egypt.


What are the biblical sources for the Passover?

Most biblical references mentioning the Passover or Feast of Unleavened Bread appear in legal materials of the Pentateuch, and the details differ. Exod 23:14-15 and Exod 34:18 mention the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread but not Passover at all. Deut 16 mentions the Passover sacrifice together with eating unleavened bread for seven days, but its list of festivals (Deut 16:15) mentions Unleavened Bread but not the Passover. Lev 23:5-8 and Num 28:16-25 ordain a Passover offering on the fourteenth day of the first month, followed by seven days in which unleavened bread is eaten; these are two separate but contiguous holidays (cf. Ezek 45:19), but this passage is much shorter than the one ordaining Tabernacles (Booths), suggesting that Tabernacles was more important in the late biblical period.

The most prominent narrative introducing both the Passover and unleavened-bread feasts appears in Exod 12:1-13:10 in the passage about God slaying the Egyptian firstborns. On the fourteenth day of the first month a lamb is to be slaughtered, with its blood smeared on the doorjambs and lintels of Israelite houses. The lamb is then “roasted over fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Exod 12:8). This sacrificial animal, called the “Passover,” signifies that God will “pass over” (Exod 12:13) the marked Israelite dwellings and spare their firstborns. This provides a popular etymology for pesakh, the Hebrew word for Passover, but pesakh more likely means “protect”; the animal offering is thus a “protective offering.” The sacrificial offering initiates a seven-day feast featuring bread that was not leavened because of the hasty Israelite departure from Egypt (Exod 12:39).

Consecutive celebrations of the Passover sacrifice and the Feast of Unleavened Bread appear in a passage about the Israelite entry into the promised land (Josh 5:10-11) and in the accounts of Hezekiah (2Chr 30) and Josiah (2Kgs 23:21-23; 2Chr 35) keeping these feasts. Ezra 6:22 mentions the unleavened-bread festival but not the Passover.

The Passover plays an important role in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:12; Matt 26:17; Luke 22:7; cf. 1Cor 5:7), where it is intertwined with the unleavened-bread feast. However, because the ritual “order” (seder) for the Passover meal was probably not set until the second century CE, the Last Supper was unlikely a Seder.

What is the meaning of the Passover celebration?

The narrative in Exod 12:1-13:10 (see also Deut 16:1-3) provides the most explicit information about the meaning of the festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread, whether sequential or combined. This text historicizes the two agricultural festivals, thus connecting them to the concept of freedom as expressed in the exodus story.

In tying recollection of the past with ritual activities, the Israelites became a people of memory. The concept of memory appears in the Exodus narrative (“day of remembrance” in Exod 12:14 and “remember this day” in Exod 13:3). But the festivals were more than commemorative; they become experiential. Eating sacrificial meat and unleavened bread transports celebrants into a reenactment of what happened in the past, so that they too “experience” the profound transition from servitude to freedom. Performing the rituals of the Passover and unleavened-bread feasts has the effect of making all who observe these festivals, from biblical times to the present, profoundly aware of the central meaning of the exodus story: liberation from servitude by a salvific god. The values and experiences represented by the ritual elements of these festivals––sacrificial animal representing the blood on Israelite doorposts in Egypt; unleavened bread representing the hasty departure––thus contributed to the formation of a national Israelite identity. Indeed, the rationale for many biblical precepts (e.g., the Sabbath commandment, Deut 5:15) is the memory of the deliverance from bondage, which is kept fresh by the springtime festivals.

After the destruction of the temple (70 CE), when animal sacrifice came to an end, the Passover and unleavened-bread festivals were inextricably connected in one holiday, Passover. The paschal sacrifice became signified by a roasted bone, as specified in the second-century CE rabbinic list (m. Pesah. 10) of Passover ritual items, most of which do not appear in the Bible.

Carol Meyers, "Passover", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:



Carol Meyers
Professor, Duke University

Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Emerita Professor of Religion at Duke University. An archaeologist as well as a biblical scholar with a special interest in gender in the biblical world, she has served as a consultant for many media productions dealing with the Bible. Her hundreds of publications include: commentaries on Exodus and on several biblical prophets; an edited reference work, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000); and Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2013).


Passover combines a springtime sacrificial meal with a feast of unleavened bread; together they celebrate and commemorate the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt.

Did you know…?

  • Passover is actually the combination of two separate festivals––the springtime Passover sacrifice of an animal and the Feast of Unleavened Bread––that were originally separate.
  • Passover celebrates the concept of freedom from bondage, but it originated as part of the agricultural calendar of ancient Israel.
  • The Hebrew word for Passover (pesakh) is often linked to a verb usually translated “to pass over” but probably means “to protect.”
  • The core narrative associated with Passover is found in Exod 12:1-13:10, but most of the information about how it was celebrated is found in the legal prescriptions of the Pentateuch (in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy). These sources differ from one another in the details they provide, and some even conflict with the others.
  • Passover is arguably the most widely celebrated and best known of the three main annual festivals (Passover, Tabernacles, and Weeks) mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. However, Tabernacles, not Passover, was the most important festival in biblical times.
  • For many centuries, the main celebration of Passover in Judaism has been a family meal called a Seder (“order”), with specific rituals and symbolic foods, but this form of the Passover festival is mainly postbiblical in date.
  • Interpreters now contest the commonly held view that the Last Supper of the Synoptic Gospels was a Passover Seder.
  • The postbiblical development of the Passover meal (Seder) uses ritual symbols meant to help the participants experience Israelite slavery and thus value the ensuing freedom.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

made without a leavening agent, such as yeast or baking powder

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

first five books of the Bible

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Exod 23:14-15

14Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. 15You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened b ... View more

Exod 34:18

18You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; fo ... View more

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
1Observe the month of Abib by keeping the passover for the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Eg ... View more

Deut 16:15

15Seven days you shall keep the festival for the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce ... View more

Lev 23:5-8

5In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord,6and on the fifteenth day of the same month ... View more

Num 28:16-25

Offerings at Passover
16On the fourteenth day of the first month there shall be a passover offering to the Lord.17And on the fifteenth day of this month is a fe ... View more

Ezek 45:19

19The priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering and put it on the doorposts of the temple, the four corners of the ledge of the altar, and the pos ... View more

Exod 12:1-13:10

Chapter 13

Exod 12:8

8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Exod 12:13

13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the ... View more

Exod 12:39

39They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, no ... View more

Josh 5:10-11

10While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11On the day aft ... View more

2Chr 30

1Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah, and wrote letters also to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to kee ... View more

2Kgs 23:21-23

The Passover Celebrated
21The king commanded all the people, “Keep the passover to the Lord your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.”22No such passo ... View more

2Chr 35

1Josiah kept a passover to the Lord in Jerusalem; they slaughtered the passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month. 2He appointed the priests to thei ... View more

Ezra 6:22

22With joy they celebrated the festival of unleavened bread seven days; for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to th ... View more

Mark 14:12

12On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations f ... View more

Matt 26:17

The Passover with the Disciples
17On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for y ... View more

Luke 22:7

The Preparation of the Passover
7Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.

1Cor 5:7

7Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.

The ritual killing and offering of animals to deities, often on an altar and intended as good for the gods.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

related to Passover

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Exod 12:1-13:10

Chapter 13

Deut 16:1-3

1Observe the month

 of Abib by keeping the passover for the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night. 2You s ... View more

Exod 12:14

14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpet ... View more

Exod 13:3

The Festival of Unleavened Bread
3Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord bro ... View more

Deut 5:15

15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore th ... View more

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Of or related to history after the writing of the canonical Bible; can also mean transcending a culture that focuses on the Bible.

Exod 12:1-13:10

Chapter 13

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