Every year for some 2,000 years, Jews around the world have celebrated the Passover seder, marking the exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. However, modern scholars suspect the holiday had a different, even more ancient origin, well before the Jewish people even took shape.
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According to tradition, the holiday's origin is the Exodus: The night before the Jews left Egypt, God ordered Moses and Aaron to tell the Israelites to mark the event every year, in perpetuity.
This conversation is recounted in the first 20 verses of Exodus 12, where God orders each Israelite family to kill a one-year-old sheep or goat. They were to mark the doorposts of their homes with its blood. (The word used is "seh," which is traditionally translated as "lamb," but the ancient Hebrew word could have meant either sheep or goat.)
Thus, God explains to Moses and Aaron, the Jewish homes would be spared as he smote the firstborn sons of Egypt, to punish Pharaoh for his hard-heartedness and persuade him to let the Israelites go. He also tells the two to order the Israelites to repeat the ceremony every year, in memory of their deliverance, and to forgo leavened bread for the whole week, though he does not explain why.
The chapter then continues, from verse 21, with Moses obeying the Lord, telling the Israelites to slaughter their livestock and mark their doorposts as God commanded.
It is not written that Moses told them to discard their leavened dough – and indeed the next day, after the firstborn sons of Egypt were found dead and Pharaoh relented and let the Jews go, the Israelites tried to make bread. But they ended up with matza - not because they had discarded their leavening but because they left Egypt in haste.
Clearly there is a contradiction: God told Moses to tell the Israelites not to use leavening. Moses does not do so and the Israelites try to make bread as usual. The fact that they can't is not due to God's prohibition on leavening but to their haste.
The contradiction in narrative can be resolved, say many scholars, if we assume the verses 1-20 were a later insert, and if we read from Chapter 11 straight onto Chapter 12, verse 21, skipping God's conversation with Moses and Aaron.
Why would anybody insert those 20 verses? The only things they add is to make the connection between the story of Exodus and the plague of the first-born and the Passover sacrifice. We may assume that was, therefore, the goal, if the verses were indeed a later addition. But if that is so, then the Passover sacrifice evidently had some other origin.
One Passover – or two?
Some scholars speculate that Passover (the sacrifice of the animal) and the Holiday of Matza were once two separate holidays, one marked by nomadic shepherds and the other by farmers, celebrated in ancient times in ancient Canaan, before the Israelite people arose. However, as the Israelite culture gelled from disparate groups of nomadic herders and more sedentary farmers, these holidays would have been celebrated by the Israelite shepherds and farmers too.
According to this theory, when the Israelite cult was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem (apparently in King Josiah's time), this arcane sacrificial ritual became integrated with the unrelated holiday of matza, since they took place at roughly the same time in the spring.
While this is a valid and widely accepted explanation of the origins of Passover, it has been drawing criticism from a growing number of scholars in recent decades.
Many scholars now believe that the Canaanite culture, the dominant ancient culture in the region that is now Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria around 5000 years ago (from which the kingdoms of Judah and Israel arose) was not made up of separate groups of nomads and settled farmers. It consisted of herders and farmers living together in an integrated society. If that is so, we must explain the origins of Passover not in two rituals, but in a single Canaanite holiday.
Time to stop raining
This single festivity was most likely an agricultural holiday. Nearly all ancient Canaanites – Hebrews included - were farmers, and Passover takes place just at the most critical time of the year, at the end of the growing season, just before the harvest.
This was a time of great anxiety, since the rains that made their grains grow during the winter were no longer welcome. One particularly nasty storm could decimate wheat and barley fields, knocking down the ripe plants and rotting the grains, and the people would starve.
Somehow the ancients had to stop the rains, and this could be the original function of Passover.
The question is, how could eating a roast ruminant stop the rain? For that we have to learn something about the Canaanite religion, which the Hebrews practiced before a proto-Judaism took form.
Importuning the god of rain
The Canaanite rain god was Baal. He is mentioned in the Bible time and again, but no details are given about the myths associated with him. To learn about these, we must consult the library found in Ugarit, an ancient Canaanite city on the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Syria.
There we find, written in a language very close to Hebrew, detailed accounts of the mythology and religion of Canaan. Among them is a story which explains why the rain stops each spring and returns every fall: the Canaanite god of death Mot kills Baal, each year anew. Baal spends his summers in the netherworld, Sheol, until being resurrected again in the fall.
“I it was who confronted mightiest Baal, I who made him a lamb like a kid in the breach of my windpipe,” Mot tells Baal’s sister Anath in the poem describing this myth.
Mot’s likening Baal's killing to eating livestock may be key to understanding the original symbolism of Passover. Perhaps by eating a kid or lamb, the Canaanites were symbolically recreating Mot's consumption of Baal, hoping that this would stop the rain on time.
This could explain the dictum that the bones of the Passover sacrifice must be kept intact, which the Bible does not explain. Maybe the ancient Hebrews thought that if the bones of the symbolic representation of the Baal were broken, this would adversely affect the resurrection of Baal in the fall, when rains are once again needed.
So where did Passover come from? That depends on where you believe the Jews came.
If you believe the Jews are descendants of runaway Israelite slaves in Egypt, you may take the Biblical account at its word. If you believe that the Jewish people originated in an amalgam of nomadic and settled peoples, the dual origin of Passover may be your preferred explanation. On the other hand, if you believe the Jewish people sprang out of the local Canaanite culture, then worship of Baal may be your best bet.