Changes and Transformations in the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread:
From the Pentateuch’s Earliest Sources to Its Latest
Working from what was previously posted about the Pentateuch’s 5 Festival calendars, we can see that the two oldest sources, the Elohist and the Yahwist, make no mention of the Passover, and indeed this is to be expected since what is listed in Exodus 23:14-17 & 34:18-26 are those festivals which required a pilgrimage to local sanctuaries.
By pilgrimage festival, or hag in Hebrew, we mean a festival that required Israelite males to journey out from their homes and present themselves before Yahweh at one of his local altars, or later, according to D and P, his one Altar (#137-138). In this respect, only the Festival of Unleavened Bread is mentioned in these early sources as a hag, a pilgrimage festival to a local altar. In other words, E and J do not list Passover as one of the 3 hags required by all male Israelites because Passover was celebrated at home (cf. Ex 12:21-22 (E))—at least as represented in these pre-7th century BCE texts.
Additionally, the Elohist text of Exodus 13 specifies that the pilgrimage was to occur on the 7th day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread (13:6). Thus according to this tradition, both the Passover and the first six days of Unleavened Bread were to be celebrated at home.
As previously noted in contradiction #117, this early tradition was discarded and radically revised by the 7th century BCE Deuteronomist, who transformed the Passover into a pilgrimage festival as part of the broader religious reforms implemented by Josiah—namely, the abolition of all local altars and shrines to Yahweh throughout the land of Judea and the centralization of the cult to only one altar, the Altar at the Temple in Jerusalem (you can read about this in 2 Kings 22-23). As a result, the Deuteronomist had to make Passover a pilgrimage festival:
“And you shall make a Passover sacrifice to Yahweh your god, of the flock and heard [see #111], in the place that Yahweh will choose to tent his name.” (Deut 16:2)
“You may not make the Passover sacrifice within one of your gates that Yahweh your god is given you [contra the older Elohist tradition]. But rather, to the place that Yahweh your god will choose to tent his name: there you shall make the Passover sacrifice in the evening at sunset.” (Deut 16:5-6)
Thus on account of Josiah’s centralization of the cult and simultaneous abolition of all other shrines and altars throughout the land, Passover was now a pilgrimage festival to Jerusalem—the only place, Altar, where sacrificial slaughter was henceforth permitted (see #137-138).
The Deuteronomist’s transformation of the Passover from a domestic event to a national event in Jerusalem—all through the authority and mouthpiece of Yahweh it must be added—had additional consequences. Although the Deuteronomist copies the earlier Elohist’s Unleavened Bread tradition and lists it as one of the 3 pilgrimage festivals to Yahweh to be observed, all of which are now pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem (16:16), he nevertheless seemingly fuses both the Passover and Unleavened Bread into one 7 day festival. It would appear, in other words, that in understanding the earlier 7-day Unleavened Bread festival of the Elohist, the Deuteronomist put Passover as the first day of that 7 day festival. This in effect does two things:
- Since Passover is now a pilgrimage festival, the pilgrimage for Unleavened Bread actually becomes the day of the Passover festival, or the 1st day in the Passover-Unleavened Bread Festival, after which we are informed that Yahweh instructs the people “to turn in the morning and go to your tents” (16:7). Or, understanding this differently, Passover becomes the pilgrimage festival and Unleavened Bread now becomes the domestic festival since the Israelites are ordered to return home on the day after Passover!
- Since the Deuteronomist understood a total of 7 days of Unleavened Bread AND that no leaven was eaten for the Passover meal—borrowing this tradition from the older Elohist source—that effectively leaves him with a 6-day festival of Unleavened Bread. So rather than have the Passover festival on the eve of the 14th and then 7 days of Unleavened Bread as it is in all the other sources—E, J, P—he fuses the two together claiming that the Passover meal was the first night of Unleavened Bread—“you shall not eat leavened bread with it [Passover]. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread” (16:3)—and on the 15th only 6 more days of unleavened bread remained: “six days you shall eat unleavened bread” (16:8).
This is how the Deuteronomist accounted for the Elohist tradition of 7 Days of Unleavened Bread. Moreover, the Deuteronomist apparently felt obliged to account for the Elohist’s Unleavened Bread hag which occurred on the 7th day by making the 7th day a “sacred assembly” (‘aseret), not a hag, to Yahweh.
But the even later Priestly writer, using the same Elohist tradition, also rewrites these festivals in radically different and contradictory ways. Just as the Deuteronomist had to transform the Passover festival in order to reflect his historical circumstances—namely the centralization of the cult under Josiah in the 7th century BCE, so too the Priestly writer rewrote the Passover tradition to reflect his historical context—here, that of exile! Because the earliest strand of the P source was written in exile, Passover was reverted back to a domestic festival celebrated at home, or “throughout all your settlements” as the exilic Priestly writer put it. This practice, moreover, seems to have been retained in the post-exilic period when the Jews returned to the land. Both Leviticus 23:6-8 and Numbers 28:18-19 specify that the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, on the 15th of Abib, was a pilgrimage festival. Therefore, the Israelites must have celebrated the Passover at home.
The Priestly writer also differs from the Deuteronomist in his calculation of the total number of days of unleavened bread. Like the Deuteronomist, the Priestly writer also noted that no leaven was eaten on Passover. But unlike the Deuteronomist the Priestly writer then assigns, as his older tradition bears witness, 7 days to the festival of Unleavened Bread—thus assigning a total of 8 days of unleavened bread (Ex 12:18)!
Both the priestly legislation in Leviticus 23:5-8 and Numbers 28:16-25 are identical, with the sole exception that the latter specifies Yahweh’s sacrifices: the burnt-offering, grain-offering, and sin-offering to be performed on each of the 7 days of Unleavened Bread. It would seem therefore that the festival of Unleavened Bread was now conceived of as a 7-day pilgrimage festival since indeed the Israelites are instructed—again authorized through the mouthpiece of Yahweh—to offer sacrifices to Yahweh on all 7 days.
For “readers” unfamiliar with the Bible, this may seem alarming, but it is more natural to see and understand that religious practices changed in ancient Israel and most of the times due to a different priestly guild writing the rules or a radically different historical context which necessitated changing religious customs and even festivals. For example, under Josiah’s 7th century reforms, Israel no longer existed since it had been destroyed by the Assyrians in the previous century, and Judea was drastically reduced also by invasions made by the Assyrians at the end of the 8th century before they finally retreated from the land. Thus Judea was small enough to enforce a centralized altar and cult. But look what happens merely a couple decades after Josiah’s death—the Babylonian invasion, the destruction of Judea and Yahweh’s Temple and Altar, and the deportation of the elite to Babylon to remain as captives. The core of the Priestly literature which was written during this time, must now revert to the older practice of celebrating the Passover, while in Babylonian captivity, in their homes! Apparently then, this practice was continued when the Israelites returned to Judea in the late 6th century to rebuild the temple.
Once again we see that proper understanding of the Bible’s many texts and traditions requires a firm grasp of the historical and literary worlds that produced these texts. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not being honest to these texts, their authors, and the reasons they were written in the first place.
Some interesting observations are in line when thinking about what happens when these once separate texts and contrary traditions get redacted together in the 5th century BCE to form the Torah.
For in the redacted JEDP text of the Torah as it now stands, Yahweh is presented as declaring just before Sinai (E) and at Sinai (J) that once in the promised land the Passover is to be celebrated at home and the festival of Unleavened Bread as a pilgrimage festival to any local altar, and that on the 7th day. But merely 2 years later or in the interval of 2 years—the narrative context of Leviticus 23 & Numbers 28—Yahweh commands all 7 days of the festival as a hag (P). But that’s not the worst of it. 40 years later on the plains of Moab Yahweh decrees that once in the land the Passover slaughter and meal can only be celebrated as a pilgrimage festival and only at Jerusalem. Furthermore, the pilgrimage festival of Unleavened Bread is now abolished and the Passover is now order as the hag. Additionally, a total of 6 days are commanded by Yahweh to observe unleavened bread, rather than the previous commandment of 8: Passover + the 7 days of Unleavened Bread.
Okay, next I will attempt to tackle the festival of Firstfruits, err I mean Weeks.