The following article views the biblical celebration of Pesach as a rejection of idolatry. The reader should be aware that the author’s reconstruction of the biblical story is based to a great extent on a non-historical reading of the biblical text and draws heavily on the post-biblical midrashic tradition. Reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson, Inc).
When the Israelites gathered lambs on the 10th day of the month of Nisan and set them aside for slaughter on the afternoon preceding Passover, they declared themselves free of the influences of the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians. Although the Israelites in Egypt had maintained a distinctive national character during the duration of their enslavement, many, if not most, adopted the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians (Midrash Tanchuma on Exodus 1:7).
The slaughtering of the lamb–considered a deity to the Egyptians–before their oppressors was a public and communal repudiation of idolatry by the Israelites. The Israelites were truly worthy of leaving Egypt only after slaughtering the Passover sacrifice. However, when the Israelites left Egypt, their repudiation of idolatry was not final. The worship of idols would continue to plague the Israelites over the next thousand years until the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.
A New King
During the chaos of the First Temple era, a righteous Judean king prevailed upon the people to desist from their idolatrous practices and mend their ways. This king’s emergence and call for change coincided with the approaching Passover holiday. Those changes were characterized by the Passover sacrifices brought by a repentant nation.
Judea had both upright and evil kings. Often the rule of evil kings was followed by the rule of just kings. At the young age of 25, King Hezekiah of Judea inherited a troubled kingdom from his father Ahaz, who had lured the Judeans into idolatry and showed contempt for the holiest site in Judaism–the Temple. Ahaz plundered the Temple of its wealth, brought sacrifices to strange gods, and placed bamot (prohibited altars) throughout the land. (During Temple times, sacrifices were prohibited from being brought outside the Temple walls.)
He also sought the alliance of the powerful Assyrians in the north as protection from Judea’s many surrounding enemies. In his desire to mimic the ways of his northern ally, he removed the Temple’s copper altar and constructed a likeness of an Assyrian deity in its place. During his rule, Ahaz cancelled the Temple service, prevented the study of the Torah, and permitted immoral practices (Talmud, Sanhedrin 103b).
Immediately upon ascending the throne, Hezekiah sought to right the wrongs of his father. He gathered the Levites and priests and instructed them to purify the Temple. He reminded them of their mission, “My sons, do not forget, for the Lord chose you to stand before Him to minister to Him and to be His ministers and to burn incense (Second Chronicles 29: 11). He also recalled the failures in Judea’s history, “…for our fathers acted treacherously and did evil in the eyes of the Lord, our God, and forsook Him, and they turned their faces away from the Tabernacle of the Lord and turned their backs” (Second Chronicles 29:7).
Many of the Levites and Temple priests did not hastily heed the king’s call. Rather, they delayed their preparations for the Temple service. They did not take the new king seriously, nor did they trust his motives. They did not initially believe that the son of Ahaz could be so vastly different from his father, but when they investigated the matter and found Hezekiah to be righteous, they returned to Jerusalem (Rashi’s commentary on Second Chronicles 30:15). When the holy work was completed, the Temple was consecrated and offerings were once again brought to the Temple.
Preparing for Passover
As Passover was approaching, Hezekiah called upon the nation to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday. He dared to send letters to the tribes who were Judea’s adversaries, in the Northern Kingdom, inviting them to Jerusalem. Although his attempts to have Judah’s northern secessionists reunite with their brethren had not been a complete success, some from the north did journey to Jerusalem. When Passover came, the nation assembled in Jerusalem. “And the entire congregation of Judah and the priests and the Levites and the entire congregation that come from the Land of Israel, and those who dwelt in Judah rejoiced” (Second Chronicles 30:25).
Prior to the offering of the Passover sacrifice, all idols were removed from their midst. Jerusalem was once again free of idolatry. “And they arose and removed the altars that were in Jerusalem, and all the altars for incense they removed and cast them into the Kidron Valley” (Second Chronicles 30:14). The people arose, cleansed of their impurity, and offered sacrifices.
Following the Passover sacrifice, the nation, in a renewed spirit of dedication, destroyed the idols throughout the land. “All the Israelites who were present went out to the cities of Judah, and they smashed the monuments and cut down the asherim (trees that were used as part of idolatrous rites)and so they demolished the high places and the altars from all Judah and Benjamin and in Ephraim and Menashe until they had completely destroyed them” (Second Chronicles 31:1).
Just as at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, preparations for the Passover sacrifice involved the collective elimination of all forms of idolatry that the Judeans had adopted from their neighbors. That Passover, the Jews experienced a spiritual renaissance, just as their ancestors had in Egypt before the Exodus took place. The Israelite Passover was followed by their redemption. In Hezekiah’s time a few years later, the Assyrians–formerly the allies of Ahaz–were to advance towards Jerusalem and threaten the kingdom of Judah. On Passover night, as the Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem and prepared its capture, a plague broke out among the troops stationed around Jerusalem. The Assyrian army was decimated. However, the triumph of Hezekiah’s Passover did not endure. His son Menashe was as evil as his grandfather Ahaz, and under his rule the Judeans once again immersed themselves in idolatry. However, history would repeat itself as Menashe’s son Josiah would campaign against idolatry, and again the Passover sacrifice would be offered in the purified Temple.
Just as when the first Passover when they left Egypt did not eliminate the Israelites’ lust for idolatry in subsequent years, the Passover that was celebrated during Hezekiah’s rule did not eliminate idol worship, nor did Josiah’s. Even so, the Passover celebrations profoundly impacted the Jews in their time and strengthened their commitment to their heritage, as had been the effect of the first Passover.
Pronounced: nee-SAHN, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish month, usually coinciding with March-April.
Pronounced: PAY-sakh, also PEH-sakh. Origin: Hebrew, the holiday of Passover.