#117. Is the Passover celebrated at home OR is it a national pilgrimage festival celebrated only at Jerusalem? (Ex 12:3-8, Ex 12:43-46 vs Deut 16:1-7)


As previously noted (#109-110, #111, #112), the ritual prescriptions outlined in the Priestly writer’s account of the Passover in Exodus 12:1-20 and 12:40-50—all from P—are at odds with the ritual prescriptions of the Passover outlined in Deuteronomy 16:1-8. This is not because Yahweh changed his mind 40 years later, following the narrative chronology, but rather because these two texts were written by two different priestly guilds and each one sought to present the Passover, authorized through the mouthpiece of Yahweh or Moses, in light of the specific historical audience for which they wrote. The specific contradiction that we’re concerned with in this entry is the place where each of these Passover accounts command the Passover to be celebrated and eaten.

Both in Exodus 12:3-8 and Exodus 12:43-46 the Passover is to be celebrated in each family’s house:

  • on the 10th of this month, let each one take a lamb for the father’s houses, a lamb per house (12:3)
  • if the household will be too few for a lamb, then he and his neighbor who is close to his house will take it according to the number of persons (12:4)
  • and they will take some of the blood and place it on the two doorposts and on the lintel on the houses in which they will eat it (12:7)
  • it shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the meat from the houses outside (12:46)

The Priestly writer presents these prescriptions as “the law of the Passover”: a lamb per household, ritually set apart 4 days prior to the Passover, ritually prepared, i.e., roasted, and eaten by that household and only in that household on the eve of Passover. This, our Priestly writer has Yahweh proclaim, “you shall celebrate through your generations, an eternal law.”

In the Deuteronomic version, however, preparing and eating the Passover at home, “in your houses,” in the city, or at the gates are ALL strictly prohibited! In the hands of the Deuteronomist, Passover becomes a national pilgrimage festival where all male Jews must perform a pilgrim to Jerusalem and celebrate and eat the Passover meal there, no exception!

Observe the month of Abib, and you shall make Passover for Yahweh your god, because in the month of Abib Yahweh your god brought you out of Egypt at night. And you shall make a Passover sacrifice to Yahweh your god of the flock or herd, in the place that Yahweh will choose to tent his name there. . . You may not make the Passover sacrifice within one of your gates that Yahweh your god is giving you. 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, the time when you went out from Egypt. And you shall cook and eat it in the place that Yahweh your god will choose. (Deut 16:1-7)

The most pronounced feature of the Deuteronomic version is the repeated refrain that “you shall make, cook, and eat the Passover in the place that Yahweh your god will choose.” That place is Jerusalem, where Yahweh “tents” or “settles” his name. This Passover prescription, as well as the rest of Deuteronomy 12-26, was written during king Josiah’s religious reforms of the 7th century BC, and it was used to centralize Israel’s religious practices in Jerusalem, now the only altar where Yahweh was to be worshiped and sacrifices were to be made, the only “house of Yahweh” where tithes were to be brought, and the only holy place where his festivals were to be celebrated (Deut 12). It is during Josiah’s reforms that Jerusalem becomes the official religious and political center of Israel. The flip side of this centralization was the abolition and destruction of all earlier forms and places of worship throughout the land: the destruction of all other altars and shrines, and the centralization of all festivals at Jerusalem (see 2 Kgs 22). The text of Deuteronomy explicitly details the older practices that are being abolished and transformed here:

You may not make the Passover sacrifice within one of your gates. . . But rather to the place that Yahweh your god will choose to tent his name: there you shall make the Passover sacrifice!

Written to legitimate Josiah’s religious reforms (630 BC), Deuteronomy 12-26 stipulates the main reformative theme in Josiah’s centralization of the cult: namely, that all sacrifices and festivals must be officiated over by Levite priests at, and only at, the temple in Jerusalem. This in and of itself transforms the paschal sacrifice from a domestic rite performed in the community or the city gates, as described in both E and P, to a national pilgrimage festival and ritual performed at Jerusalem. Additionally, there is no mention of placing the blood of the paschal sacrifice on the doorposts in D; rather, what is placed on the doorposts in D is Moses’ words (Deut 6:9).

Thus, Deuteronomy 16 was clearly written during a time period when the Temple at Jerusalem stood—that is, it is a pre-exilic text (before the temple fell in 587 BC), and was most likely written in the late monarchal period (7th c. BC), and against the backdrop of E where sacrifices, tithes, and festivals were celebrated at any altar of Yahweh’s throughout the land (Ex 20:24-25; 23:14-17).

In sum, the reason given for P’s legislation, which allows for the paschal sacrifice to be performed by the family head and within the community, and D’s which stringently stipulates that the sacrifice be performed solely and only at “the place that Yahweh your god will choose to tent his name,” that is Jerusalem, is that while D’s text reflects the religious reforms of the 7th century under Josiah’s rule, P reflects a Passover rite that was observed and performed during the exilic period, when the Jews were not in possession of their homeland, nor their temple. P must have been written after the fall of the temple and for an audience that no longer had a centralized temple, that is one that was living in exile.

Finally, for the Priestly writer writing to an exilic group of Israelites now living in Babylon three identity markers were stipulated to keep the Israelites separated from their “heathen” environs and loyal to Yahweh: circumcision, the Sabbath, and the Passover as decreed in the Priestly text of Exodus 12. Furthermore, all of these stipulations are decreed, from the mouth of Yahweh, as “eternal laws.”

It was the strict observation of these three “eternal laws/covenants” (Gen 17:1-14 (#28); Ex 31:12-17; Ex 12:14-20) which instilled hope in the exilic community that in observing Yahweh’s covenants, Yahweh would uphold his end of the deal and bring them out of exile. This in and of itself was the sole creation of the exilic Priestly writer. We will have occasion to return to this theme in future contradictions, especially since the Priestly writer’s covenants (circumcision, Sabbath, and the Aaronid priesthood) stand in utter opposition to the Mosaic covenant in the Deuteronomic tradition (see also #30).

3 thoughts on “#117. Is the Passover celebrated at home OR is it a national pilgrimage festival celebrated only at Jerusalem? (Ex 12:3-8, Ex 12:43-46 vs Deut 16:1-7)

  1. Steven,

    I appreciate your lengthy response. The sad fact is that I have known about the agenda of apologists and fundamentalists for years. When I was a teenager, I was a young earth creationist and an aspiring “creation scientist”. It was a decade in the coming but I gradually accepted evolution and came to eventually accept that the Bible was not the inerrant literature that I was raised to believe it was. I totally agree with your observations about the difference between a faith-based harmonizing approach to the biblical texts and a critical approach which seeks to understand the biblical texts on their own terms. I have seen over and over again the ridiculous explanations that conservatives use to rationalize away obvious discrepancies.

    I am still going through many of your posts on this website and I am trying carefully to learn as much as I can. I have learned some new information and I am a bit astonished that some if it I never noticed before. A good example is the discrepancy over when the Hebrews left Egypt. One text in Exodus tells the Hebrews that they are the stay in their houses until morning and one text in Numbers states that the Hebrews started out on the very next day, the 15th. However, one text in Deuteronomy states that the Hebrews are to celebrate their Passover at sunset and states that this is the same time of day that they left Egypt.

    I am looking forward to more of your books. I definitely plan to purchase your book on Genesis One!

    I am very grateful for all that you do!


  2. Steven,

    Some apologists may try to argue that “a single house” spoken of in Exodus 12: 46 is the same place that Yahweh will establish his name in Deuteronomy 16: 6. They will argue that “a single house” refers to the house of Yahweh, which is the Temple. What would say in rebuttal to this?


    1. Matthew, thanks for your question. I would first make the larger and unfortunate observation that apologists are generally neither concerned about learning about and supporting the message/beliefs of a particular biblical scribe nor in most cases even possess the knowledge necessary to perceive authorial agendas, messages, ideologies, beliefs, etc. On most cases the apologetic “game” centers around the apologist’s/reader’s beliefs/worldview and attempts to bring these ancient texts inline with, or harmonize them with, his/her beliefs and/or beliefs about these ancient texts.

      In other words the apologist’s methodology places the reader, and his/her beliefs, at its center of the reading process. Biblical scholarship on the other hand places these ancient texts and the beliefs (changing and variant beliefs) of their writers at the center of the reading and interpretive process. To assume that our biblical secular scribes, elite priests, and court scribes who were patrons of different kings who held variant royal ideologies did not have competing views, legislation, and beliefs about sacrifice, the priesthood, the monarchy, the place for pilgrimages, etc., and even Yahweh’s role in all of these institutions is just plain ignorant. We know so much about our authors’ differing views, beliefs, ideologies, and role of the sacrificial institution through our knowledge of the biblical texts and its ever-changing cultural (historical, religious, and political) underpinnings. This is what I meant by claiming that apologists possess no knowledge of these texts. By innocuously denying these texts their different messages on the topics listed above (and on numerous other topics), these apologists not only display their ignorance of the texts and its cultural underpinnings, but I would go as far as claiming that it also displays their disdain and dishonesty towards these ancient texts and the views and beliefs of their authors! Again, this is understandable—not tolerable—when we realize that they and their (erroneous) beliefs are what they are defending (apologia), not those pronounced in the biblical texts by their various authors. It is quite the sham and shameful what they are doing and one needs to be very cautious when dealing with these types. They have placed their beliefs at the center of the conversation and in so doing have discarded the beliefs and messages of our biblical scribes.

      I have indirectly addressed some of these issues in other essays here on this site. You and/or your apologetic friends might be interested in Defending the Biblical Texts: What It Entails and Why Secularists Ought to Care. Genesis 1 as a Test Case or somewhat of the same thing here The Biblical Texts on Their Own Terms Versus the Bible on Its Terms: Genesis 1 and 2 as a Case Study. Or again indirectly addressed in my most recent book Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate: Being Honest to the Text, Its Author, and His Beliefs, where I attempt to show readers (fundamentalists and apologists) that their beliefs about Genesis 1 and 2 are often contrary to and negligent of the beliefs and messages—and in this case competing and contradictory beliefs and messages—of our biblical authors.

      When modern readers attempt to “harmonize” these differences away what they are actually guilty of doing is placing their own beliefs about the text or those they inherited through that which is implied in this text’s later interpretive framework, “the Holy Bible,” above the independent messages and beliefs of the authors of these texts. And this places these readers in a precarious situation because they not only place their beliefs about the texts above the individual beliefs and messages of the authors of these texts, but they also display—unintentionally I assume—a certain disdain and negligence for the texts themselves and what they reveal about their own compositional nature and the beliefs and messages of their once independent authors. Such reading practices negate our authors’ beliefs and unique messages, and replace them with those of the reader! [Genesis 1, p. 122]

      More specific to your question and the biblical writers’ views on the Passover and where to celebrate it, biblical scholars have long noted, with support from the biblical texts, that prior to the Jerusalem ideology so vividly pronounced in Deuteronomy (see especially chapter 12) where all sacrifices AND Yahwistic festivals were now legislated to occur at only one altar—Yahweh’s altar in Jerusalem—earlier biblical records indicate that, again prior to Jerusalem becoming the centralized location for sacrifices and the priesthood, that Passover, judicial hearings, gifts and tithes, and other festivals were all celebrated at altars throughout the Canaanite landscape (see for example Ex 20:24-26; also note here the these altars could be made of earth/stone, when again according to a later priestly legislation Yahweh’s altar could only be made of acacia wood; see contradictions #137-138). The later 7th century legislation found in Deuteronomy specifically forbade these earlier, and judging from the biblical texts themselves widely disseminated, religious practices and proclaimed by divine decree that they now, henceforth, were to be practiced at Jerusalem (Deut 12, 16). As a side note the even later Priestly legislation of the 6th-5th centuries now called the book of Leviticus advocated this at Jerusalem but contradictory to Deuteronomy, now only Aaronid priests could minister over these sacrificial proceedings and they alone were allowed to approach Yahweh’s altar—contrary to Deuteronomy’s pan-Levite views (see contradiction #299 for more on rival priesthoods in the biblical canon).

      It is precisely these differing attitudes and legislation that apologists, and fundamentalists, disingenuously rob from these biblical texts and their authors. Their beliefs are substituted into these archaic texts and the individual beliefs and messages of our authors disappear from the historical and textual record—a most deplorable activity! It is the job of biblical scholars such as myself to make the voices of these ancient scribes, and their disagreements, heard again. We are interested in their beliefs, worldviews, messages, and stories.

      So from a larger perspective the difference between an earlier text that advocated the celebration of Passover “in one house” (Ex 12:45) or “in every place [altar] where I’ll have my name commemorated” (Ex 20:24) is representative of an earlier religious practice. This older text (Ex 20:24-26) also seems to have advocated a sacrificial practice that also permitted sacrifices and tithes to be brought to any and all altars throughout the land. Decades, even centuries, later when Jerusalem became the religious and political center of Israel, new texts had to be written as it were. These texts advocated, in opposition to this earlier record, a sacrificial code that demanded all sacrifices, tithes, vows, and festival pilgrimages be carried out at—now—the only altar of Yahweh, housed in the temple at Jerusalem. Read through 2 Kings 23 which scholars align with the text of Deuteronomy and Josiah’s centralization of the cult. One feature of this new Jerusalem ideology—one altar—was the destruction of all other Yahwistsc altars throughout Israel.

      Bernard Levinson (Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation) has written a very accessible and short book showing the textual changes that occurred when these later Deuteronomistic scribes rewrote this earlier legislation. In other words our pro-Jerusalem levitical scribes who wrote the legislation in Deuteronomy actually had this earlier legislation that permitted sacrifices to all and any of Yahweh’s altars throughout the land in front of them. Levine shows you the textual support for this claim. Judicial proceedings and other festivals that also took place “before Yahweh” in any and all of these altars were also transferred to Jerusalem under this later ideological centralization of the religion. To deny changes in religious and political institutions is just ludicrous, besides the obvious: that apologists deny the biblical texts themselves!

      In reality the development and changing of Israel’s religious festivals, especially Passover, is much more fluid than presented above. While texts such as Exodus 20, and all of Exodus 20-24 date to an earlier time period and thus too represent the views of an earlier religious practice, texts such as Exodus 12:1-20 + 40-49 (see Friedman’s The Bible with sources Revealed) have been identified by biblical scholars as coming from a later period, after the Deuteronomic legislation. It is now considered a part of the Priestly source composed circa 6th-5th century BCE. One notices that precisely at Exodus 12, the narrative stops and what starts is a description of the Passover rite as a commemorative rite. It is written from the narrative perspective of later centuries as a commemorative rite describing the practice of Passover to a later generation of Israelites—“on the 10th let them chose a lamb”. . . if a household be too few for one lamb, then he and his neighbor shall share a lamb at their neighbor’s household. . . Likewise, looking at the context of Exodus 12:40-46, we also see that this is instruction written for an audience of a much later time period. The passage speaks of “foreigners in the land” a prominent expression for non-Israelites who lived on the land after the Babylonian exile when exiled Israeltes returned to Judah and had to share their land with the now newly inhabited non-Israelite folks. These foreigners, along with the uncircumcised, were not prohibited to eat of the Passover (again this too will later be contradicted by Paul; see contradiction #118). “And if an alien resides with you and makes a Passover for Yahweh, let him also be circumcised. . .” Again such language is indicative of the post-exilic circumstances that plagued returning Israelites. More significantly, this post-exilic community also no longer had a temple! Yahweh’s altar had been destroyed by the Babylons in 587 BCE. So again, with each changing political circumstance, new texts were written to represent these changing political landscapes and to more importantly address the immediate needs of this changed reality. So here our 6th-5th century Priestly writer opted to revert back to an earlier period of religious practice and made the Passover a celebration at home!

      Have a look at these series of posts; each one is dedicated to talking about the developing and changing legislation in the Torah concerning the Passover or the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of First-fruits, and Booths. A quick glance at these festival differences can be seen in the Festival Calendars.

      In sum, I lament the fact that in the public sphere we as human species of the 21st century lack the ability to have an open and honest conversation about these ancient texts, what they are and are not, and about the varying and competing beliefs of their authors. Apologists and fundamentalists that replace these competing beliefs and messages with their own beliefs and message are ironically the real enemies of these ancient texts! When did their beliefs become more important than the beliefs of these texts’ many and diverse authors? That’s almost a rhetorical questions since I understand why a modern belief system is more important than an archaic one, but what irks me I suppose is the “need” to legitimate one’s modern belief system by denigrating the beliefs and messages of these ancient writers and their cultures. Again, in my recent book I label this practice as not only being dishonest and disingenuous towards these texts, their authors, and their beliefs, but also as a byproduct of the systemic problem of biblical illiteracy that is sweeping across our country. These apologists represent one aspect of biblical illiteracy, and being ignorant about a particular field of study, in this case the biblical texts, is not so damning, but their ignorance comes at a high price—the drowning out of the individual and often competing beliefs and messages of our biblical scribes. That sort of ignorance is unacceptable.

      Anyhow, I hope this lengthy response helps you out a bit and sets you on the right direction to battle both their ignorance and hypocrisy.

Leave a Reply