“Why is this night different from all other nights?” This question is asked by thousands of children during Passover Seders every year. Passover is one of the most important Jewish festivals as it commemorates the liberation of the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The question being asked is a way for the story of the Exodus to be retold and remembered. I would like to take some time and explore Passover and its importance to us.
Egypt and Israel
Egypt and the Children of Israel had had contact with Abraham during is sojourn there, but the major interactions between the two peoples began when Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Joseph was the favourite son of Israel. The brothers did not like that their second to youngest brother was the favourite. When Joseph was sent out to meet his brothers in the pastures with the sheep, they took hold of him and planned to kill Joseph, but they sold him to a caravan that was going into Egypt instead (Genesis 37:18-28). Joseph was sold to Potiphar who was a high official in the court of pharaoh. It was not long before Joseph gained favour with Potiphar and was given charge over the household. Unfortunately, Joseph had more trouble coming to him. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph and when he refused, she convinced Potiphar that Joseph had tried to seduce her. Joseph was then sent to prison (Genesis 39).
While in prison, Joseph was given responsibility over the other prisoners. It was during this time that Pharaoh’s baker and butler were sent to the prison having been accused of a crime against pharaoh. During their imprisonment, they each had a dream. Neither could make sense out of their dream. They turned to Joseph to see if he could interpret the dreams. The butler was promised that he would be released and restored to his former position in the court. The baker was told that he would be hanged because he was the true culprit. When these interpretations came to pass, Joseph asked the butler to speak to Pharaoh for him and see if he too could be released from prison. The cupbearer promised to do so, but forgot and Joseph spent two more years in prison.
One night, the Pharaoh had a series of dreams that shook him to the core. It was at this juncture that the cupbearer remembered Joseph and his ability. He told Pharaoh of his experience in the prison and Joseph was summoned. When Joseph arrived, Pharaoh told him his dream. They involved seven healthy cows and seven healthy ears of corn being eaten by malnourished cows and shriveled ears of corn. When asked for the interpretation, Joseph explained that each set of seven represented seven years. The healthy cows and ears of corn represented seven years of plentiful harvests. The seven malnourished cows and shriveled corn were seven years of poor harvests. Joseph counseled Pharaoh to stockpile the grain in the seven good years so the people could feed themselves in the seven poor years. As a reward for his interpretations, Pharaoh freed Joseph, and made him second in authority in all of Egypt. The interpretations were fulfilled.
The dearth reached all the way to Canaan, the home of Israel and his sons. They had heard of the food in Egypt and Israel sent his sons except for Benjamin, who was the youngest, to buy food so they could live. When they arrived at the place where they were to buy grain, Joseph recognized them. He commanded that if they were to return, they must bring Benjamin with them. They did end up coming back and brought Benjamin with them. It was during this second visit that Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. He forgave them for what they had done and told them that he was meant to be in Egypt so he could save his family from starvation.
Pharaoh invited the brothers to bring the whole family to live in Egypt so they would not have to travel so far for their food. This was how the Israelites came to be in Egypt. Eventually Pharaoh, Joseph, his brothers and their children died. The next generation of Egyptians did not know or remember the story of how the ancestors of the Israelites helped save Egypt. They feared the size of the Israelites and decided to enslave them and force them to work. The bondage in Egypt was to last for four hundred years.
“And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour; And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field…” This went on for centuries. Even with this hard labour, the children of Israel continued to multiply in the land.
The pharaoh feared that the Israelites would one day outnumber his people and revolt against them. To ward off this problem, he called the midwives of the Israelites and commanded them to kill all the male babies they delivered. The midwives refused to do this. This made pharaoh angry and so he commanded that any boys that were born to the Israelites were to be drowned in the river. This was carried out and many were killed. One woman gave birth to a son and decided to put him in a basket and float him down the river, trusting God to keep him safe. He was found by the daughter of Pharaoh. She took him into her family and named him Moses. He spent the next years of his life as a member of the royal court.
When he was grown, he saw an Israelite slave being attacked by an Egyptian. In the course of stopping this attack, Moses killed the Egyptian. To avoid execution, Moses fled. He came to the land of Midian in the Sinai Peninsula. In this new land, he was taken in by Jethro, the High Priest of Midian. Moses married Jethro’s daughter and lived as a shepherd. One of the places that the flocks of Jethro moved to was close by Mount Sinai. It was during this stop that Moses received a call to serve.
There was a bush on the mountain that was aflame. The Lord called to Moses from the fire. Moses turned and saw that the bush was not consumed by the fire. He then said to himself that he would “turn aside and see this great sight.” As he drew closer, the Lord called Moses by name. He replied, “here am I.” Moses was commanded to not come any closer. He was also told to remove the shoes that he was wearing because the ground he was standing on was holy. After Moses had done so, the Lord spoke again:
I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob…I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their task masters; for I know their sorrows.
The Lord continued by telling Moses that He had come down to deliver the people from bondage. The Lord also promised to lead the people to a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Moses was then called to serve as the prophet.
Moses’ response to this call was one of shock and disbelief. He said, “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” The Lord’s response was the response He gives to all of us when we wonder why we are called to serve. “Certainly I will be with thee…” Moses was beginning to believe at this point and asked what the Lord’s name was. The Lord answered “I AM THAT I AM” which is interpreted as Jehovah. Jehovah was the name used by Jesus Christ to identify Himself to the Children of Israel in the Old Testament.
After reassuring Moses of His help, the Lord sent him to Egypt. Upon his arrival to Egypt, Moses met with Aaron, the elders, and the people in turn. As the Lord promised, they believed the words and looked forward to the day of deliverance that was soon to come.
“Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go…” proclaimed Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh in their first meeting. Pharoah responded that he did not know their god and would not let the people go- “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” He then off handedly dismissed them saying that it is not their place to keep the people from working and that they, too should return to their own burdens. It is interesting that Pharaoh used the word burdens- he knew the hardness of the work that the Israelites did but he was sufficiently hardened in his heart toward them that he did not change the work. In fact, he made it harder for them by refusing to provide the straw needed for the bricks the Israelites made. They would have to gather it for themselves.
When the people heard this, they turned on Moses (see Exodus 5:19-23). Many claimed that he was either a false or fallen prophet. Moses asked the Lord why the people turned against him. The Lord answered with this statement: “I am the LORD and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgements.”
With these words, Moses and Aaron returned to Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked for a sign and Moses gave Aaron his staff to lay at the feet of Pharaoh. The staff turned into a snake. Pharaoh was not fazed. He had his magicians do the same thing. Aaron’s snake ended up eating the other snakes and turned back into a staff. Pharaoh was still not impressed and did not let the people go.
What followed was a series of plagues and promises (See Exodus 7-10). In their turn there was the Nile turning to blood for seven days; an invasion of frogs; then lice; flies; death of the livestock; boils appearing on the people; burning hail that killed people and damaged buildings; swarms of locusts that ate the growing plants in the fields; and finally, three days of darkness where not even candles could be lit. During each of these plagues, Pharaoh promised that if the Lord turned back the plague, he would release the people. Every time the plague was relieved, Pharaoh reneged on the deal.
Throughout the nine plagues, Pharaoh got angrier and angrier. He was deadest against letting the people go, but he did not want to have to deal with the plagues either. He did not connect his hardened heart to the recurrence of the plagues. His thought was that it was Moses’ fault. If Moses did not come to him, there would be no more plagues. Pharaoh thought that Moses was just like the magicians he had, except Moses was able to reverse the plagues when the Egyptians could only conjure them. One final time Moses and Pharaoh met with Pharaoh saying, “Get the from me, take heed to thyself, see my face no more; for in that day thou seest my face thou shalt die.” The threat delivered, Pharaoh thought his troubles over with.
After being cast out of the presence of Pharaoh, the Lord spoke to Moses. There was going to be one more plague brought upon Egypt. After this plague, the people would be released and free to act for themselves. This plague was the ultimate one that could happen- death of the firstborn. Not only was this to be the death of the firstborn of Pharaoh, but of all the people of Egypt and also their livestock. None would be spared. It is not hard to see why the Israelites would be freed after this. If there is one thing that is nearly universal in this world, it is that parents love their children. They would do anything for them. Having every family lose the firstborn would be unbearable for the country and serve as the act that severed Pharaoh’s hold over the people. It is important to note that the death of the firstborn was not the first plague to come even though it was the surefire way to release the Israelites. It was saved until the nine other plagues failed to convince Pharaoh of the power of the Lord.
The Lord did not bring this plague right away. He took time to give instructions to Moses and Aaron (Exodus 12:1-20). The Lord also did this to give time for the people to prepare themselves for it. He told them about how their calendar was to work going forward- the release from Egypt would coincide with the new first month. On the fourteenth day of the new month the plague would come. Every year after that, the Israelites would celebrate their release on that day. Jesus also gave instructions on how the Israelites would be preserved from the plague.
The people were to take a lamb for every family on the tenth day of the first month. It was to be a lamb without blemish meaning that it was to be pure white and healthy. It was also to be male and not yet a year old. They were to keep this lamb with them until the fourteenth day of the month and then kill it in the evening of that day. The blood of the lamb was to be saved to be painted on the doorposts and lintel of the home of the family. This was to be a sign to the Lord that He should pass over the house because they believed in the promise of protection. During the night of the fourteenth day, the people were to eat the meat of the lamb and leave nothing un-eaten. The Israelites were also to have unleavened bread and bitter herbs to eat with the lamb. They were to eat this feast with shoes on, loins girded, and staffs in hand to show that they were ready to leave. They were also commanded to eat in haste.
On the night of the fourteenth, the Israelites did as commanded and prepared their homes, themselves, and their feasts. At midnight the firstborn of Egypt, from the son of Pharaoh down to the most common families in Egypt, died. The Book of Exodus tells us that the Egyptians awoke shortly after this happened and saw what had occurred. “[A]nd there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” It is hard to estimate how many died because of this plague, but it would have been catastrophic to the morale and faith of the people of Egypt. Imagine being the Pharaoh mourning the death of his son and hearing the cries and grief of his people going through the same shock. This would surely tear at the heartstrings and cause serious reflection. There also must have been guilt and regret that he had not listened to Moses and the word of the Lord sooner.
Moses and Aaron were called to Pharaoh that night. Pharaoh released the people and told them to leave with their flocks and herds as well. Then he said a curious thing: “and bless me also.” In this dark period in his life, Pharaoh was convinced of the power of Jesus Christ and looked for a blessing. It is not recorded whether this blessing was given, but now even Pharaoh knew that help could be found in Jesus Christ.
The next day, the Israelites gathered together with all of their belongings and left Egypt. They had been delivered by the power of God and had been preserved from the final plague by following the commandments they received. The Passover has been celebrated and commemorated every year since by faithful Israelites and Jews.
Passover and Jesus Christ
It is all well and good to celebrate the release from captivity, but there is more to Passover than just being freed from slavery. The Passover is a great allegory of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
First, let us look at the lamb that was killed by the Israelites that night. Only certain lambs would do. It had to be without blemish. Being without blemish meant that it had to be healthy and pure white. This is in reference to the life of Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect life, without sinning once. Only a perfect person could perform the Atonement and take the sins of the world upon himself. The lamb was also to be a young male. Once again this reminds us of the innocence and perfection of the life of our Saviour.
The blood of the lamb was to be spread on the doorposts and lintel of the homes of those who trusted the words of Moses. In the scriptures we find references to being washed in the blood of the lamb(see Revelation 7:13-14; Revelation 12: 11; 1 Nephi 12:10-11; Mormon 9:6). These references help us understand that it is because Jesus Atoned, bled, and died for us we can find forgiveness and become clean when we repent of our sins. When we receive this forgiveness, we have “overcome the world” and are able to return to our Heavenly Father in the Celestial Kingdom.
The instructions to have unleavened bread and to be dressed ready for travel also reference the Atonement of Jesus Christ. When Jesus was preaching and inviting disciples to follow him there were a few who asked to be allowed to bury family members, or attend to other family duties. The answer Jesus gave to them was “No man , having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” He was not being unfeeling or unkind, but he reminded them that once they commit to living the gospel and have received forgiveness, they should not turn back to their old lives; but be ready to act when called upon.
The Passover is the most important and solemn feast of the Jewish calendar. It rightly commemorates the freedom of the Israelites from bondage. The response given to the question “Why is this night different from all other nights?” is, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.” When we celebrate Easter, we are doing much the same thing. We are celebrating our rescue from the clutches of Satan and sin. We are celebrating our opportunity to return home to our Heavenly Father with out families. We are celebrating the victory of Christ over evil. We are celebrating the gift we all have the opportunity to accept- forgiveness and cleansing. Take time this, and every Easter to remember the great things done for us by the Lord and thank God for His goodness and mercy. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.