Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, in their book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, argue that ‘the Passover lamb functioned as a penal substitute, dying in the place of the firstborn sons of the Israelites, in order that they might escape the wrath of God.’ They argue that the most important event in biblical history immediately prior to this was God’s covenant promise to Abraham to make his descendants numerous, to give them a land of their own, and to bless them with a special relationship with Himself. In order to fulfill His covenant promise, God carried out an act of penal substitution. While deliverance from the tyranny of the Egyptians is part of the meaning of the original Passover (Ex.11), more significant is that Passover was a means of deliverance from the judgment of God (Ex.12). Their argument is that, whereas the previous nine plagues on Egypt posed no threat to Israel, the tenth plague did. Israelite families would have lost their firstborn sons along with Egyptian families if they did not carry out the Passover ritual. Why would Israelite not obey the command of Moses and Aaron in this matter? The authors cite Ezekiel 20:4 – 10 as the reason: ‘The Israelites participated in the idolatry of their Egyptian masters; they too were guilty, and were no less deserving of God’s judgment. Only by God’s gracious provision of a means of atonement, a substitutionary sacrifice, were they spared.’
The authors proceed to connect Passover themes to Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Naturally, Jesus’ Last Supper occurs on or just before the Jewish Passover, and Jesus taught his disciples that his body and blood would now be the means of deliverance, from God’s wrath, according to these three authors. They rightly cite John’s Gospel as displaying Jesus as a Passover lamb through the details of the crucifixion: his bones were not broken, in the same way that the bones of the Passover lamb were not broken (Jn.19:35 – 36, quoting Ex.12:46). They helpfully cite Peter’s reference to God’s people being ‘redeemed…with the precious blood of the Christ, a lamb without blemish and defect’ (1 Pet.1:18 – 19) and Paul’s reference to ‘Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed’ (1 Cor.5:7) serving as the basis for the Corinthians to cleanse themselves of the ‘yeast’ of corruption, connecting the imagery of the first Passover in which the Israelites were to cleanse themselves of yeast (Ex.12:8, 15, 18 – 20; 13:3 – 7)..
I agree with Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach that there is a clear substitutionary role the Passover lamb plays, but the lamb does not fit any of the requirements for being a penal substitute. That is, I do not believe that the lamb served to symbolize God pouring out His wrath on the lamb instead of Israel. Rather, the lamb served to symbolize a judgment on Israel, to which they had to submit in order to be cleansed of their idolatry – idolatry of various kinds, as I will demonstrate – as part of their reception of the covenant. Much like circumcision was to Abraham, the Passover is the moment of Israel receiving a judgment on itself that led to a cleansing. The lamb, therefore, is a substitute that symbolizes the uncleanness of the Israelite, rather than symbolizing the Israelite himself. This fits much more comfortably in the ontological substitution model of the atonement than with penal substitution. Furthermore, I argue that the authors’ attempts at explaining the presence of Passover imagery in the New Testament are similarly mistaken.
First, the authors do not consider how circumcision is directly linked to Passover and informs Passover in the narrative of the Pentateuch. After God first speaks with Moses and tells Moses that he will confront Pharaoh with the news that God will take the lives of Pharaoh’s first born son (Ex.4:20 – 23), there is a curious inclusion of a short story about circumcision of Moses’ son(s).
20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and mounted them on a donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt. Moses also took the staff of God in his hand. 21 The LORD said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn. 23 So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.’’’ 24 Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the LORD met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, ‘You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.’ 26 So He let him alone. At that time she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood’–because of the circumcision. (Ex.4:20 – 26)
Several finer points of this story may continue to elude us. But for the purpose of my essay, there is clarity enough. By this point in the story, God takes seriously circumcision as a mark of obedience for anyone who would claim to represent Him. Circumcision is God’s command for all men who would enter the covenant community of Abraham. Circumcision ties all of the men among God’s people back to Abraham, certainly to reflect on his story, and probably to take the same lessons to heart. Apparently, Moses had not yet circumcised his sons, and this caused God offense. Perhaps Moses did not yet identify himself fully as a Hebrew, or thought that his sons might benefit socially by remaining in the more uncommitted state of being uncircumcised, or had despaired of his association with the people of Israel. But in any case, this is the first link between circumcision and the Passover, happening explicitly as God readies Moses to be the deliverer. I believe that we are being invited by biblical narrator of the Pentateuch to see the Passover itself as an act of cutting off and cleansing similar to circumcision.
I doubt whether we can call this ‘vicarious’ bloodshed. This is actual, personal bloodshed. And the motif of shedding the blood of the son – and at times one’s own blood, as with Abraham – through circumcision ties Israel literarily and thematically to the Abrahamic promise of inheriting the land as part of God’s people. First, as with Abraham, this symbolic sacrifice of the son to the Lord represents the father’s release of the son into the purposes of God. Cain’s descendant Lamech shed human blood because in Cain’s line, fathers controlled sons for their own purposes: to provide them with food, protection, retribution, vengeance, etc. By contrast, Israelite men shed their own blood in circumcision, in part, so that fathers could release their sons to God for God’s purposes. Second, as also with Abraham, the shedding of Israel’s blood by Israel represents the inversion of human violence for land. Cain shed Abel’s blood and was cursed from the land. Israel would shed its own blood to inherit the land. Third, God shed innocent animal blood to cover Adam and Eve’s corrupt blood (Gen.3:21) to live life outside the garden land. But now, God sheds corrupt human blood so they can live life inside a new garden land. Something that represents human corruption must be cut away from one’s own self in order to enter into the identity of God’s people, and enter into the inheritance of God’s garden land. Therefore, bloodshed via circumcision was not ‘vicarious.’ It was actual, at least for Israelite males. To the extent we can connect physical circumcision to spiritual circumcision and atonement, as various passages call us to do (Dt.30:6; Jer.4:4; 17:1 – 10; 31:31 – 34; Rom.2:28 – 29; Col.2:12), we can say that God is not ‘satisfied’ by substituting a stand-in for the party whom He wants reconciled to Himself. Nothing will do until God cuts away the uncleanness in every person by drawing him, renewed, to be one with Himself. The outward covenantal sign was a symbol of the inward content of the eventual deliverance it intended to portray. There was no other way: Moses needed to circumcise his sons.
The Pentateuch connects Passover with circumcision in two other explicit ways. God limits the celebration of the Passover anniversary to those who are circumcised (Ex.12:43 – 48). One might argue that this is purely incidental, as circumcision came to signify those who belong to the covenant community and identify with its history. But I think it is deeper than that.
More tellingly, consider the second link: the parallel between the birth of a son and the birth of Israel as a nation. In Levitical law, a new born son was to be circumcised on the eighth day (Lev.12:1 – 8).
1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying: ‘When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean. 3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 Then she shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed. 5 But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall remain in the blood of her purification for sixty-six days. 6 When the days of her purification are completed, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the doorway of the tent of meeting a one year old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. 7 Then he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her, and she shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, whether a male or a female. 8 But if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’’ (Lev.12:1 – 8)
Now the cords of connection between the Passover and circumcision should be plainly evident. The time frames are identical. In the original Passover, for seven days prior to the day the lamb being slain, Israel was to abstain from leavened bread, according to a passage that is quite repetitious about eating only unleavened bread for that full seven days (Ex.12:14 – 20). After the original Passover, the future consequence for eating leavened bread during the holy days of the feast of Unleavened Bread would be rather severe: ‘that person shall be cut off from Israel’ (Ex.12:15). The significance of being ‘cut off’ as a parallel to circumcision ought to be noted. God delivered Israel on the next day, the eighth day. The symmetry between Israel being cleansed by God’s command for seven days and then sacrificing a lamb while enacting a ritual with blood to be set free on the eighth day is surely meant to be connected to a baby Hebrew boy being cleansed by his association with the covenant community for seven days and then being circumcised on the eighth day. Just as every male entering the covenant community of Israel had to submit to his own blood being shed, so the marker for entering the deliverance of God out of Egypt was to shed the blood of the Passover lamb, mark the doorposts with its blood, and then walk through the blood – like a birth canal – into a new identity. This deliverance, significantly, was open to Egyptians and resulted in a mixed multitude leaving with the six hundred thousand men of Israel (Ex.12:37 – 38).
We must not read the statement in Leviticus 12 as if girls were less valuable than boys. Rather, these cleanliness laws signify something about circumcision, and Passover by virtue of its connection to circumcision. I for one am grateful that female circumcision was nowhere commanded by God! Circumcision of the male reduces the uncleanness and impurity by half, from two weeks for a girl to one week for a boy. I suggest that this ritual impurity is highlighted by the Sinai Law to illustrate the corruption in human nature. This is why a sin offering and a burnt offering are to be offered for a newborn, and why a new mother must be cleansed and atoned for simply because she gave birth. Baruch Levine says of this,
‘Ancient man seldom distinguished between ‘sin’ and ‘impurity.’ In man’s relation to God, all sinfulness produced impurity. All impurity, however contracted, could lead to sinfulness if not attended to, and failure to deal properly with impurity aroused God’s anger. The point is that the requirement to present a sin offering does not necessarily presume any offense on the part of the person so obligated. The offering was often needed solely to remove impurity. Childbirth, for example was not sinful – it involved no violation of law – yet a sin offering was required.’
The human being is a gift from God but also a sign of contradiction (e.g. Gen.3:16 – 4:26; 5:1 – 6:8) that obscures the character of God because of the corruption of his nature, his tendency to sin, and his vulnerability and captivity to death. This new human being represents and also misrepresents God. Hence, what was implicit with Abraham and with Moses is explicit in Leviticus when it is to be generalized for all Israelite families to follow. Circumcising a boy reduces, or takes away, his remaining ceremonial uncleanness by cutting something away. This fact therefore establishes the link between circumcision and one of the main objectives of the centralized sacrificial system: to cleanse the worshiper. I argue, further, that closer examination of the Tabernacle, the sacrificial system, and the addition of priests and sin offerings suggests that circumcision is the dominant paradigm that the sacrifices are illustrating. But I’ve discussed this in other posts.
Seen in this light, the Passover lamb is not a substitute for the worshiping person, but a substitute for his sinfulness. Just as circumcision aims to excise and cast something away from the man, so the Passover ceremony involving the death of the paschal lamb aimed to excise and cast something away from the person/nation. The laying on of hands, which most scholars accept as a gesture of identification and/or impartation between the human being and the animal, represents the impartation of the person’s sinfulness upon the animal, which is not in itself already corrupted by sin. Humans are fallen; animals are not. But in the case of the Passover, what human sin is in view?
To explain why God would have taken the firstborn of Israelite families in Egypt but for the Passover lamb, Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach reach into Ezekiel for the answer of ‘idolatry.’ Yet the text of Exodus does not offer this answer. By doing this, Jeffery, et.al. misunderstand Ezekiel, and misconstrue Exodus as well. The text of Exodus does not tell the Israelites to say to their descendants, ‘Although we also worshiped the gods of Egypt, yet because God provided us with our Passover lamb, we escaped His wrath.’ Any such thought is remarkably absent from the Pentateuch and the Jewish Passover tradition, including Ezekiel. Instead, they were simply to interpret the Passover remembrance with this explanation:
14 And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ then you shall say to him, ‘With a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 It came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the LORD the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ (Ex.13:14 – 16)
After the Passover, God made His claim on the firstborn that opens every womb (Ex.13:1 – 2), which is later clarified to mean the firstborn son (Ex.13:8, 14 – 16). The connection between circumcision and sons is now expanded to include the Passover and the symbolic redemption of sons. After observing the seven-day feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex.13:6 – 8), Israel was to put to death every firstborn male animal. It was God’s claim on Israel and his prerogative (Ex.13:11 – 13), clearly meant to show, among other things, that God was taking responsibility for Israel’s future and their agricultural blessing; He wanted them to trust Him. And symbolically, every Israelite family was to sacrifice its firstborn son to God as well. But while the families were to putting to death their firstborn animals, they were to redeem their human firstborn sons from death for God’s service, as God redeemed Israel for His service in the Exodus.
Therefore, the specific, proximate reason for the Passover judgment on Egypt is that Pharaoh was stubborn about letting Israel go and interfered with God’s claim on Israel. Egypt’s actual idol-worship may have been judged by the plagues, but the death of the first born had a specific cause tied to Pharaoh. He tried to obstruct the cleansing and blessing that God wanted to accomplish in His ‘firstborn son.’ In point of fact, Pharaoh ‘commanded all his people’ (Ex.1:22, emphasis mine), irrespective of the family being Hebrew or Egyptian or anything else, to kill every son by drowning them in the Nile. This was a radically indiscriminate step. Pharaoh’s decree showed the sheer disposability of sons in his mind.
As God redeemed His ‘firstborn son’ Israel to be cleansed and serve His purposes of blessing the entire world, so each Israelite family had to perform a similar act at every subsequent Passover. They had to redeem their firstborn son to serve God’s larger purposes, and in the process cleanse themselves – or at least reflect on the fact that God’s constant invitation to them was to cleanse themselves – of their own sins of possession, control, parochialism, and small-heartedness. They, too, like Abraham, had to surrender their beloved sons to God. They had to submit to the judgment of God for their own cleansing.
I believe God was cleansing Israel of a similar sinful attitude that Abraham had prior to God giving him the sign of circumcision: the sinful desire to control sons and not release them into the wider purposes of God. Israel’s context in Egypt ultimately involved the theme of sonship and the treatment of the son. The Egyptian Pharaoh refused to let Israel go free from their slavery to building cities, Pithom and Rameses (Ex.1:11). Thus, he reenacted the sin of Cain building his city at the expense of his son Enoch. This was true enslavement. But the son in question was not the Egyptian son, but rather God’s ‘firstborn son,’ Israel (Ex.4:22; cf. Rom.9:4). Israel is personified as a ‘son’ because God wanted to bestow on this ‘son’ an inheritance commensurate with being the ‘firstborn.’ That is, God wanted to give Israel a land inheritance, to fulfill His promise to Abraham. Due to Pharaoh’s attempt to kill all the boys of Moses’ generation, and his stubbornness at trying to keep God’s firstborn son, Israel, captive, Egypt will lose all of its firstborn sons to God. Pharaoh’s resistance to God was termed ‘hardness of heart’ and that itself has deep significance for Israel’s internal problem, which Jesus would also call ‘hardness of heart’ (Mt.19:6), not to mention all the prophets’ references to the problems of Israel’s ‘heart.’ Once again, there was a very real ‘letting go’ and ‘releasing’ that every Israelite family – and perhaps the father in particular – had to do. In a time and culture when a family’s future was thought to be everything, and when that future was thought to rest on a first born son, God was exerting His claim on each family to release their future to Him for the sake of the wider world. This was a very practical heart-level lesson that was meant to prepare Israel to leave the Promised Land under the Messiah and be his ambassadors to the Gentile world. And it was meant to help Israel understand the person and work of the Messiah as well, as I will discuss below.
Ezekiel saw that the idolatry of Egypt needed to be cleansed out of Israel, because it eventually led to child sacrifice of their firstborn in the wilderness, just a few verses down from those Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach cite (Ezk.20:26) and in other verses (Ezk.16:21, 45; 23:39), perhaps because all false gods eventually demand child sacrifice. As Jeffery and his co-authors note, Ezekiel first narrates the idolatry of the Israelites in Egypt and God’s merciful decision to bring them out of Egypt anyway (Ezk.20:4 – 10). Next, Ezekiel narrates the wilderness episode of the first generation of Israelites, their sin and God’s perseverance with them (Ezk.20:11 – 17). Then, however, Ezekiel speaks of the second generation of Israelites, their sin and God’s perseverance with them (Ezk.20:18 – 22), including God’s promise to send them into exile among the nations because of this specific problem:
20:26 I pronounced them unclean because of their gifts, in that they caused all their firstborn to pass through the fire so that I might make them desolate, in order that they might know that I am the LORD. (Ezk.20:26)
Ezekiel’s historical memory about Israel performing child sacrifice in the wilderness is corroborated by Amos (Am.5:25 – 27) and Luke through the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:39 – 43). Whether they were drawing on oral tradition is intriguing but irrelevant here. Regardless of where it comes from, later biblical writers concur that God was trying to purge out of Israel the practice of sacrificing of the firstborn son. Nowhere does Ezekiel suggest that the Passover ritual served as a penal substitute for Israel’s sin. Rather, the Passover served to warn Israel against child sacrifice, which was in principle the same sin that Pharaoh committed: the sin of oppressing the Hebrew sons, then all the sons in the land of Egypt. Thus, in the process of living through the Passover, and remembering the Passover throughout the centuries, Israel was supposed to go through a decisive cleansing. God was ‘circumcising’ Israel, calling Israel to reflect on the sin of Pharaoh, so they might cut off their own tendency to sin in that particular way. So it seems to me that Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach are putting words into the mouths of both Moses and Ezekiel.
God returned the innocent life-blood of the lamb to Israel, and of course this gesture had great significance. But it did not signify a penal substitution. The Israelites were to mark the doorway of their houses with the blood of the lamb. Walking through a blood-marked doorway was reminiscent of a human birth canal. Passover meant the act of entering into new life ‘in’ and/or ‘through’ the innocent life-blood of another. In Israel’s case, they left behind an old identity as slaves to Pharaoh and entered into their inheritance of the garden land, that is, the God-nourished life (or, at least, took their first step towards it). This had both an immediate meaning and a messianic meaning for Israel. The immediate meaning, according to the literary-thematic exegesis that I am proposing, was: Israel must release their firstborn sons to God in order to enter into true life; they must participate in God’s judgment of a specific sinful attitude, and judge themselves by it and cut the idolatry off from themselves. The messianic meaning was: Israel must release its long-hoped-for messianic son to God in order to enter into true life with him; just as the ‘mixed multitude’ of people not genetically related to Abraham (Ex.12:49) left Egypt with Israel and became part of Israel, so the Gentiles who were not previously under the Sinai covenant would leave their sinfulness with Jewish believers in Jesus; hence, the Israelites must not restrict the Messiah to their own narrow political and military aims.
When we step back to examine the placement of Passover among the annual Mosaic feasts, we find this interpretation of Passover corroborated, along with the ontological substitution theory. In Deuteronomy 15:19 – 16:17, Moses commanded the Israelites to travel three times a year to the place where God would later put His name: Jerusalem. The three Jerusalem feasts were Unleavened Bread/Passover, Weeks/Pentecost, and Booths/Tabernacles. God summoned Israel to meet Him three times a year at the Temple on Mount Zion. This calendar cycle communicated the meaning of the union of God and humanity in the true Temple, Jesus Christ, in a triple-layered fashion.
- The Feast of Unleavened Bread/Passover signified cleansing by death and resurrection by union with Christ, represented by cleansing from leaven and passage into new life through the innocent blood of the Passover lamb. The sacrifice of the lamb at Passover is thematically akin to repenting of a primal sin (controlling the firstborn son) which points behind Cain and the fall back to the original creation. Hence it is an act of cleansing. God delivered Israel from their own sinfulness with their participation.
- The Feast of Weeks/Pentecost commemorated the giving of the law at Sinai, and later signified the bestowal of the Spirit, represented in Israel’s calendar by reaping the fruit of creation’s harvest (Dt.16:9). Interestingly, the Feast of Weeks/Pentecost was the only feast which called for the use of leaven. If leaven continued to represent the corruption of sin, then the motif might be understood as the starting condition of God’s covenanted presence among sinful Israel. Weeks/Pentecost might signify the initial joining of God’s presence and word with Israel from Sinai (Ex.19), and later at the Pentecost event (Acts 2). It may even represent the initial conditions of the Incarnation, where the Word took on ‘flesh,’ or fallen humanity, in order to reverse the corruption of sin through his lifelong obedience, death, and resurrection.
- The Feast of Booths/Tabernacles signified God’s accompanying His people, cleansing them in a new kind of ‘wilderness phase’ prior to the promised land inheritance. This seems to be the lesson Paul drew from this period (1 Cor.10:1 – 13 connected to 6:18 – 20). The wilderness phase was represented by the Israelites dwelling not in houses but in the more vulnerable tents of the wilderness wandering, when God also tabernacled with them in a tent and dwelled with them, cleansing the second generation of Israelites of the attitudes of the first, and preparing them to enter the promised land. I will explain my views about this period more deeply when I explore the meaning of the bronze serpent as a cleansing, healing motif connected to medical substitutionary atonement.
Taken together, the Jewish pilgrimages to draw near to God in the Temple seem to serve as an anticipation of union with God in and through the physical body of Jesus by the Spirit. The symmetry of the first set of feasts with the third set of feasts is notable. The overarching theme running through them both is cleansing.
Notice that Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach must overlook numerous textual issues to read penal substitution into the Passover lamb imagery, which is not explained or justified by any physical constraints of the book they authored. They do not see the motif of ‘union’ which is strongly suggested by the fact that the Israelites had to walk ‘through’ and ‘into’ the blood-stained doorway. They offer no real reason why walking through the doorway should be governed by legal, penal, and judicial meanings instead, as they claim. They simply assume that it is. They find messianic significance in the fact that the lamb is connected to the firstborn son, but not immediate significance in it. That is, they fail to see the theme of fathers controlling sons running through the entire narrative of the Pentateuch, indeed the Old Testament, and how Israel needed to cleansed of that idolatry. They neglect how circumcision, which is connected to the theme of blood, land, and sons, introduces and might govern the meaning of the Passover narrative. They neglect the literary-thematic connection between blood, land, and sons established explicitly in Genesis 4. They misread Ezekiel along the way. And they make no comment on the placement of Passover in the calendar of Israel. Is this benign or intentional neglect of the biblical text?
 Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p.14
 Ibid, p.15
 Ibid, p.18
 Baruch Levine, Leviticus, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p.74. Cited by Helaine Ettinger, ‘Tazria: Our Children/God’s Children,’ edited by Rabbi Elise Goldstein, The Women’s Torah Commentary (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000), p.202 – 210