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Who Slayed the Passover Lamb: Priest or People? by Dr. Terry Harman

Updated: Dec 5, 2023


Photo by Terry Harman, 2008

“Who Slays the Passover Lamb”

One of the questions I often receive on my YouTube channel is about who slaughtered the Passover lamb at the Temple: the priest or the people? The answer is not as clear-cut as we would expect. In short, both lay persons and priests prepared the Passover offering. As we have seen in a former post (1) today without the Temple, most Jews do not eat Lamb during Passover.


While most people would assume that it was the priest who took the life of the lamb, the reality is the responsibility of slaying the lamb has changed from a home observance whereby the head of the household would slay the lamb to a period when the practice was restricted to the Temple precincts and later on to a hybrid experience including home and Temple observance. One aspect of the Passover offering never changed.


Both the owner's personal status and the undisputed ownership of the lamb must comply with the law before it can be slaughtered on their behalf. The lamb was your personal lamb that you selected, and it had to be without blemish.


During the early years of the first century, the population of the Promised Land and Jerusalem in particular may have grown to the point that it was physically impossible for the priests to slaughter all the necessary lambs for the pilgrims.


As Coulter suggests (2), there may have been two separate observances for the Passover during the time of Jesus, one that took place in the home and one that took place at the Temple. How did these practices come about?” A brief historical review may shed light on this dual observance.


First Passover in Egypt – People Slay the Lamb

The instructions for the first Passover are found in Exodus 12:1-13. The term "Passover" is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach, which comes from the root "pass over" and alludes to God sparing the lives of the first-born children inside every home the Jews marked with the blood of the lamb or kid before the tenth plague, where he killed the firstborn of Egypt.

On the night of Passover, the Hebrew slaves were commanded to slay the lamb they had concealed for four days and then apply its blood to the doorposts of their home as a sign of their allegiance to their God. This was an act of defiance in the face of the Egyptians who revered the lamb as a representation of their "Ram god" Ra. The memorial of their deliverance from Egypt was to be commemorated every year at the same time. As we will learn, the feast was not always observed, and various practices were adopted along the way.


Second Passover in the Wilderness

The next time the Israelites sacrificed the Passover lamb was on the first-year anniversary of the Passover in Egypt. During the next forty-nine years, the Israelites did not commemorate the Passover offering. According to Rashi in Numbers 9:1-5 (3), the Israelites resumed the practice only after they entered and took possession of the promised land.


And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying: ‘Let the children of Israel keep the Passover in its appointed season. In the fourteenth day of this month, at dusk, ye shall keep it in its appointed season; according to all the statutes of it, and according to all the ordinances thereof, shall ye keep it.’ And Moses spoke unto the children of Israel, that they should keep the Passover. And they kept the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at dusk, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so did the children of Israel. Number 9:1-5 JPS 1917


Third Passover in the Promised Land

Moses passed away before he could lead the Israelites into the Promised Land after spending forty years in the desert. Once inside the boundaries of the Promised Land, Joshua organized the circumcision of male Israelites, an act they were unable to perform during their time in the desert. Following this, the Israelites celebrated Passover by making a sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening in the plains of Jericho, where they had encamped in Gilgal.


And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at even in the plains of Jericho. And they did eat of the produce of the land on the morrow after the Passover, unleavened cakes and parched corn, in the selfsame day. And the manna ceased on the morrow, after they had eaten of the produce of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more; but they did eat of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year. Joshua 5:10-12 JPS 1917


Thereafter the Passover sacrifice was commemorated annually during the 1st Temple period. I was not able to determine if the people still observed the eating of the lamb at home or if the observance was restricted to the rituals at the Temple. Then came the destruction of the 1st Temple, and the people were deported to Babylon.


Passover During and Captivity

After the 1st Temple was destroyed, and during the seventy years of captivity in Babylon, the land of Israel remained desolate, and Jerusalem, along with the temple, was in ruins. The destruction of the 1st temple (Solomon’s Temple) put a stop to the offering of sacrifices, and the people's absence from the land of Judea made it impossible for them to reconstruct the temple and renew their covenant. Therefore, due to the captivity, the Passover could not be observed throughout the entire period.


Following seventy years in captivity, a group of 42,360 Jews along with 7,337 male and female servants and 200 singers departed from their place of exile to return to Judea. The expedition was led by Zerubbabel, who was appointed as the governor of Judea, and Joshua, who served as the high priest during that period. (Ezra 1-3). The slaying of the lambs was restricted to the priests due to concerns the people may have been ritually impure.


And the children of the captivity kept the Passover upon the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were pure; and they killed the Passover lamb for all the children of the captivity and for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. And the children of Israel, that were come back out of the captivity, and all such as had separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the nations of the land, to seek the LORD, the God of Israel, did eat, and kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy; for the LORD had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria unto them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel. Ezra 6:19-22 JPS 1917


“By restricting all Passover observance to the area of Jerusalem, Ezra hoped to prevent the exiles from falling prey to the counterfeit religions that were competing with the true worship of God at the temple in Jerusalem.” (4)


Passover During the 2nd Temple

According to Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, an enormous number of lambs were sacrificed in the Temple during the Jewish festival of Passover. In his work "The Jewish War," Josephus reports that during one of the Passover festivals between CE 66-70 over 256,000 lambs were sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem. (5)

If this number is not an exaggeration on the part of Josephus it would be practically impossible to slaughter and prepare such a large number of animals within the time constraints of the festival. There are three different opinions regarding the possibility of sacrificing 256,000 lambs, Nonetheless, Josephus' account gives us some idea of the scale of the religious practices in the Temple during that period.


All Lambs Slaughtered at the Temple by Priests

First, Dave Bruce suggests all of the lambs were slaughtered at the Temple by only the priests. Assuming a line of 144 priests, each killing six lambs per minute at a rate of ten seconds per lamb and holding the lambs in a suitable position for swift slaughter, it would have taken

approximately five hours to slaughter 256,500 lambs. (6)


Lambs Slaughtered by Laypersons and Priests

Third, the sacrifice of the lamb was restricted to the Temple but the common Israelite, as long as he was ritually clean, could perform part of the ritual. “The killing took place in the court of the Temple and might be performed by a layman, although the blood had to be caught by a priest, and rows of priests with gold or silver cups in their hands stood in line from the Temple court to the altar, where the blood was sprinkled.” (7) Robert Hayward agrees “non-priests” were permitted to slaughter the Passover offering but not permitted to perform the rituals associated with the blood of the offering. (8)


Some Lambs Slaughtered at Home

Second, Colter suggests “Far more lambs were sacrificed for the Passover than could have been slain at the temple during the allotted courses. The only logical explanation is that most of the lambs were not slain at the temple! This mathematical dilemma is resolved when we accept the fact that a majority of the Jews in the first century killed their own Passover lambs . . . Contrary to what some have claimed, the domestic Passover continued as the predominant practice down to New Testament times.” (9) This practice continued until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.


Lamb was Your Lamb

Regardless of whether the priest or the layperson slayed the lamb, there were a few requirements that could not be changed. First, everyone within the household had to eat a portion of the Passover lamb. Second, those participating in the Passover meal must be under the protection of the covenant. Third, the lamb offered was the lamb you selected, not someone else’s lamb.


"All members of the ḥaburah were to be in a state to eat at least "ke-zayit" (the equivalent of an olive). In the composition of the ḥaburah care was taken to avoid provoking levity; for instance, the sexes were kept apart. The members of the ḥaburah complied with the conditions, regarding purity, circumcision, etc., prescribed for partaking of the paschal lamb. Not only must the personal status of the owner be conformable to the law, but his ownership also must be beyond doubt; the lamb must be slaughtered on his account, and in accordance with the Biblical prescriptions and the Temple ordinances." (10)


Conclusion

Like the Passover Seder, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb may have adapted to the circumstances of the times – in Egypt, it was a home observance whereby the head of the household slayed the lamb. During the period of exile, the people were prohibited from commemorating the Passover altogether. After the Babylonian exile, with most of the people remaining in captivity, the ritual sacrifice was limited to the priesthood by Ezra as a way of ensuring proper ritual observance. As the nation and observance grew at the Temple in Jerusalem there was an accommodation permitting laypersons and priests to share the duties of slaying the lamb with the layperson and then returning home with his butchered lamb to celebrate the feast by roasting the lamb at home or rented quarters.

References

1 Terry Harman, "Why a Lamb was Chosen for Passover (Exodus 12:1-14)," The Tabernacle Man, accessed March 28, 2023, https://www.thetabernacleman.com/post/why-a-lamb-was-chosen- for-passover-exodus-12-1-14-by-dr-terry-harman.


2 Fred Coulter "Later Passover Practices as Recorded by Jewish Historians," The Christian Passover, accessed March 21, 2023, https://www.cbcg.org/booklets/the-christian-passover/chapter-seventeen-later-passover-practices-as-recorded-by-jewish-historians.html.


3 Rashi on Numbers 9:1, Sefaria, https://www.sefaria.org/Rashi_on_Numbers.9.1


4 Coulter, ibid.,


5Flavius Josephus, The Jewish Wars 6.9.3.


6 Dan Bruce, "How long to kill 256,500 Paschal lambs? – The Prophecy Society of Atlanta," (unpublished manuscript, date unknown), cited in a footnote.


7 "Jewish Encyclopedia. 'Paschal Sacrifice.' Retrieved March 26, 2023, from https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11926-paschal-sacrifice."


8 Hayward, Robert (2006). "Priesthood, Temple(s), and Sacrifice". In Rogerson, J. W.; Lieu, Judith M. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Oxford University Press. p. 341.


9 Coulter, ibid.,


10 "Jewish Encyclopedia. 'Bitter Herbs.' Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3343-bitter-herbs."


The picture of the Second Temple court was provided by Dr. David Hamilton of Mishkan Galleries in Mobile, Alabama. He has a museum-quality gallery of Temple-related representations. Thank you, David, for inspiring so many of us to study the Tabernacle and the temples.

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Guest
Jan 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Much appreciated your sharing this article. I had began explaining and find your link where I can post where your article is self explanatory. Thank you. Elaine Jehu


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Guest
Mar 29, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you

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Dr. Terry Harman
Dr. Terry Harman
Mar 30, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for reading. I was afraid of getting bogged down in the details. Yet I felt the historical timeline would lend itself to the possibility of both home and Temple observances.

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JP
JP
Mar 29, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you for sharing this. The article and information are presented in a manner that makes it enjoyable to read. As always, when I finish one, I look forward to the next.

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JP
JP
Mar 29, 2023
Replying to

Most excellent!

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