Passover: One God, Two Miracles, Two Living Faiths

Beit Midrash for calendar_month April 2022

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, famously said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” Of course, one person’s miracle is often another person’s phantasmagoria or even a reason for skepticism; therefore, there will always be people who will utterly discount the possibility of miracles. Even those who are not inclined to believe in or accept the supernatural, however, can at least affirm the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, when he came to the podium to deliver a morning lecture and exclaimed, “I just witnessed a miracle!” and then, after a long pause, explained, “I saw the sun rise.” Indeed, anyone who has ever done any significant study of cosmogony and has considered the expanse of the cosmos with its intricate design and delicate balance must conclude with wonder and amazement that human life on Planet Earth is, in and of itself, a miracle and that the fact that “the sun also rises” is a miracle as well.

Pesach, the Festival of Passover, is a perpetual memorial to two pivotal events that are foundational to Judaism and Christianity, the two religions that represent the one God of Scripture. Each time Torah-observant Jews or Bible-believing Christians celebrate the Passover, they call to remembrance one or both of history’s greatest miracles, the Exodus event and the Calvary experience. Without the Exodus, there would be no Jewish people. Without both the Exodus and Calvary, there would be no Christianity. As Anthony Saldarini rightly observes, “Passover lives on in both the Jewish and Christian communities as a central ritual which expresses each community’s identity and nature.” (Jesus and Passover, Paulist Press, 1984, p. 4). The very essence of both Judaism and Christianity is manifest in the miraculous acts of God that occurred on the day of Passover. Without Passover, neither faith would have a foundation.

The First Passover

For Judaism, the miracles surrounding the first Passover began when Moses was confronted by a burning bush in the desert of Mount Horeb. What seemed as nothing out of the ordinary became extraordinary and miraculous when Moses discovered that the bush was burning but was not consumed. Then, out of the bush, Moses saw and heard tongues of fire as God gave him a commission in words that have continued to echo over the corridors of time: “Tell Pharaoh to let my people go so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1).  These very words were a miracle in themselves, for the festival that God planned for Israel to celebrate in the desert was Shavuot (Pentecost), and the timing for that festival had been set in order from the creation of the cosmos when God summoned the sun, moon, planets, and stars into existence saying, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven . . . and let them serve as signs for the moedim (festivals) and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14, jps, tnk). Before all creation, therefore, God had already made preparation for the festival to which he was summoning his people with the command, “Let my people go!”

Before all creation, therefore, God had already made preparation for the festival to which he was summoning his people with the command, “Let my people go!”

Moses dutifully followed God’s instructions and conveyed the words of this divine command to Pharaoh, the sovereign of the most powerful nation in the world at that time. The king of Egypt, however, refused to comply with God’s instructions and brought upon himself and his people ten plagues that God himself poured out upon the land of Egypt. The last of these plagues would decimate the land when all of the firstborn of Egypt would die. God, however, planned to deliver the firstborn of his chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Through Moses, he instructed each family to kill a lamb and place its blood upon the doorposts and lintels of the entrances to their houses, saying, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:13).

During that fateful night of Nisan 14, the Lord himself passed through the land of Egypt, smiting the firstborn of every household that did not have the blood of the Paschal lamb applied to its entrance. The Israelites, however, were safe and secure in their houses, eating the roasted lamb, the bitter herbs, and the matzah, the bread of haste that had been baked before it had time to rise. When morning came, the firstborn of every family that had applied the blood to their houses was alive.

In Pharaoh’s palace, however, the story was much different. Upon hearing the news that his own son, who he believed to be a god, had died during that night, Pharaoh relented and commanded the Israelites to leave Egypt. The Chosen People then spent the day making preparations for their journey, and they departed Rameses “with a high hand,” bound for the Promised Land. The miracle of Passover, however, was just the beginning for the liberated Israelites. They shortly came face to face with an impassible body of water, the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds. By that time, Pharaoh had changed his mind and was in hot pursuit of the Israelites with his armies. When fear gripped the people, Moses stood tall and said, “Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord. . . .The Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again” (Exodus 14:13). 

Finally, the Lord commanded the Israelites, “Don’t stand there crying out to me. Move on!” Then, as Moses stretched forth the rod of God over the Reed Sea, suddenly a strong east wind blew over the sea and caused the waters to be congealed as walls on both sides of a path of dry ground at the bottom of the sea. The walled-up sea stood at attention, forming a channel through which the Israelites could pass. The Israelites passed between those waters in a profound act of faith for every individual man, woman, and child. Each one of them experienced a real-life death, burial, and resurrection as they walked through the mikveh of the Reed Sea. The Apostle Paul, himself, a Torah-observant Jew described the experience as a “baptism” in the cloud and sea (1 Corinthians 10:2), an immersion unto a different legal status. On the Egyptian side of the sea, the Israelites were still slaves; on the Promised Land side, they were free people. They had passed through death to a new life of liberty. In the meantime, when the Egyptian armies attempted to cross through the same channel, they found that the walled-up waters collapsed on them and destroyed all of them. The Israelites were free; the Egyptian armies were destroyed. But the story of the miracle did not end there. The Israelites had escaped their enslavement; however, they were not free in the way in which God wanted them to be free. If, at that point in time, they had simply dispersed and gone their way, they would have been nomads who would have vanished into history. Instead, God had greater plans for them. He had summoned them out of Egypt to celebrate a festival unto him in the desert. And, so, they followed Moses to Mount Sinai, the site where he had been commissioned by God from the burning bush.

On the very day of Shavuot, God himself appeared to Moses and the entire company of the Israelites in another manifestation of miraculous power. “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently.” God, their God, had appeared on the mountain in an utterly shocking display of might. Not only did he appear, but he also thundered to the Israelites these immortal words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  Having confirmed his identity and his mission, God continued to outline the briefest possible synopsis of his own instructions for humanity: the Ten Commandments. This was not, however, a simple statement of divine preferences posted on a bulletin board for Israel to consider. These were fiery words of infallible and uncompromisable divine truth that the Israelites not only heard but also saw. As a matter of fact, the text literally says, “And all the people saw the voices and the flames, and the noise of the shofar, and the mountain smoking.” There was fire on the mountain, and God thundered his Torah to his chosen people in words that were so powerful that they both heard and saw the Ten Commandments as tongues of fire. The sages maintain that those tongues were divided into the languages of the seventy nations of the world so that the whole world heard the words of the Decalogue.

“And all the people saw the voices and the flames, and the noise of the shofar, and the mountain smoking.”

When Israel had heard all the terms of the covenant, they answered with one voice, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” Later, the people made this affirmation in a slightly different and more powerful way. This text quotes the Israelites as saying, “Kol asher diber HaShem na‘aseh v’nishmah,” which is literally translated this way: “All that the Lord has said, we will do, and we will understand.” In effect, the people declared that they would simply do whatever God commanded them even before they could understand it.

God entered into a covenant with them, the delineation of the details of the covenant that he had made with Abraham that he promised would endure for a thousand generations, which in biblical terms of that era amounted to 120,000 years. This is the covenant that made Israel God’s holy nation and ceded to them the Promised Land as their inheritance forever.  From this matrix, Biblical Judaism, the world’s first monotheistic faith, emerged. Later, through prophets, kings, and sages the words of the Torah given to Moses would be expanded and explicated. The living faith of the Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish people developed through centuries into Second-Temple Judaism where the Pharisees (Perushim) carefully analyzed the Torah texts as well as the oral traditions and from them formed rabbinic Judaism that endures and thrives to this day, anchored on the miracles that occurred in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and at Mount Sinai. Judaism continues to be a living faith founded on the miracles of God who designed it and gave it to his chosen people.

A Second Passover

Out of the matrix of Second-Temple Judaism, another monotheistic faith emerged. A meticulously Torah-observant Jew named Yeshua ben Yosef m-Nazaret (Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth) emerged as a significant teacher and rabbi in Israel at the transition of the Common Era. As he taught a growing band of talmidim (disciples), some of them began to suspect that he may have been one of the prophets (Elijah, Jeremiah, or Zechariah) returned in spirit and power to minister in Israel. Others came to understand that he was the long-anticipated Messiah, even the divine Messiah, the Son of Man that the prophet Daniel had seen in Daniel 7:13. Talmudist Daniel Boyarin maintains that during the century before and after the Common Era, it was not uncommon for people in Israel to expect that the Messiah would be a man with some degree of divinity. It had been reported to the disciples that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was, in itself, miraculous, for the Angel Gabriel had appeared to a Jewish virgin and predicted that she bear a son after she was overshadowed by the Ruach haKodesh (the Holy Spirit) so that her son would be called the “Son of God.” This, in itself, was a profound miracle, for parthenogenesis is utterly impossible in human beings. In light of these reports and with the continuing evidence of miracles that Jesus performed, including raising people from the dead, two of Jesus’ disciples, Mary and Peter, exclaimed of him, “Attah hu haMashiach, ben Elohim chayyim” (“You are he, the Messiah, Son of the living God”).

As fame of Jesus and his teachings and works spread through the land and the numbers of his disciples increased, the Roman overlords of Israel became concerned that he might foment an uprising against their power. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator, a deceitful and vicious man who maintained his power and that of the Roman Empire with murderous efficiency, schemed to silence this potential threat to order in the Roman province of Syria-Palaestina. Shortly before the Passover in the third year of Jesus’ ministry, a plan was devised to accomplish this purpose.

Jesus celebrated the Passover festival with his disciples when he predicted that the Gentiles would put him to death. He also expanded traditional Haggadah for the Passover for his disciples by taking the matzah and the fruit of the vine of the traditional Seder and instructed his disciples to remember his death when they celebrated the Passover thereafter.

And, indeed, as Jesus had predicted, he was seized and judged in mock trials that the Roman government devised to placate the masses and absolve themselves of guilt for his judgment. In the end, at the hands of Roman soldiers, Jesus was flogged by Roman flagra. Then, on the day of Passover, he was nailed to a Roman cross and finally was pierced by a Roman spear so that his spirit was separated from his body. And in one of history’s greatest ironies, the merciless Romans made a scapegoat of the Jewish people, blaming them for the death of Jesus and causing their descendants to be falsely charged with deicide for nearly two thousand years. Jesus was crucified at the time of the morning sacrifice in the temple, the morning hour of prayer. At the noon hour of prayer, darkness covered the land, and at the time of the afternoon temple sacrifice, the afternoon hour of prayer, he expired. Then, before sundown, he was entombed just outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem before the annual Sabbath of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Finally, at the time of the festival of firstfruits, Jesus rose from the dead.

Jesus rose from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus was a profound miracle in that he had been dead for three days. The miracle was witnessed by his disciples when he appeared to them and ate with them on a number of occasions before his ascension into heaven, an event that was witnessed by some 500 people, 120 of whom returned to Jerusalem to wait for the completion of the counting of the omer and the arrival of the day of Pentecost.

Then, on that day, the disciples of Jesus experienced an event that was similar to the one that the Israelites had received some 1500 years earlier when the Holy Spirit descended upon them with a great noise and a mighty wind that filled the place where they were sitting. Then, tongues of fire appeared to them and sat upon each of them as they were filled with the Holy Spirit and given power to bear witness to what they had observed in their lives with their Lord.

Once again, people from around the world who had assembled in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot heard the wonderful words of the Lord in their own languages, just as the nations did when God’s Torah was thundered at Sinai. The witness of the disciples expanded as they took the good news of God’s kingdom to Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. In effect, the Jewish apostles of Jesus and their disciples fulfilled the commission that God had given to Israel through the prophet Isaiah to be “a light to the nations and for salvation to the ends of the earth.” This was especially true when during and after the time of Hadrian, the rabbis of Israel were forbidden on penalty of death to disseminate the teachings of Judaism and Israel, as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has said, was removed from the stage of world history.  It was the message of Judaism—the truth about the God of the Jews, the Scriptures of the Jews, the Messiah of the Jews, and the salvation that Jesus declared to be “from the Jews”—that the disciples of Jesus continued to preach and teach in their Master’s name.

The Christian faith, therefore, was founded on the miracle of Passover when Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, and it was solidified and established when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell the lives of his disciples to empower them for service to take the Good News of the Kingdom of God into all the world, making disciples of all nations. Passover, then, continues to prompt the celebration of One God, Two Miracles, and Two Faiths―the living legacy of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, the prophets, the sages, and Jesus and his apostles.

About the Author
John D. Garr, Ph.D.
President & CEO