Passover? A Mistranslation.

Passover? A Mistranslation.

Yoel Halevi No Comments

Very commonly we find that the word פסח is translated as “Passover”. This translation carries with it not only a translation value but also an interpretation of the term. The basis of this translation is found in the dual use of the verb פסח which can both mean “to limp” and “to protect”. Due to the fact that in later Hebrew the meaning of limping was more common, the translation was adopted based on a partial understanding of Hebrew verbs. The idea of a person limping leads to the idea of skipping over a step, hence “Passover”. 

The translation of Pesaḥ as “Passover” was coined by Tyndale in the 16th century as an interpretation of the term. This translation has been adopted by most English speakers as the correct meaning of the ceremony done during the exodus. This interpretation by Tyndale was probably based on common Jewish etymology found in late antiquity in the Mekhilta Pascha chp.7 and medieval commentaries such as Rashi who based himself on Midrashic sources. 

However, it is understood that the Pesaḥ is an apotropaic ritual that was intended to protect the Israelites from the destroyer which was killing the firstborn of Egypt. 

This more accurate meaning can be understood from several sources which use the other meaning of the root פסח.

  • The description of the Pessaḥ itself in Exodus 12:23 clearly states that YHWH will not allow the destroyer to enter. Most translations translate the verb וּפָסַח as “pass over”. However, the action is referring to YHWH and not the destroyer which means the destroyer passes over the house due to YHWH’s protection.

וְעָבַר יְהוָה לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח יְהוָה עַל הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף

For the YHWH will pass through to strike the Egyptians; but when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the YHWH will protect the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to strike you.

The verse contains within it a complication due to the double description of who is doing the killing. In the first part it is YHWH who is passing in Egypt while in the second part, it is both YHWH and the destroyer. The second part clarifies that it is the destroyer who is killing while YHWH is the one deciding who should be killed. It seems from the rest of the text of this episode that the destroyer had a free hand to destroy and was only stopped by YHWH when there was blood on the door. 

  • Exodus 12:27 describes the action of YHWH as protection. The verb used is הִצִּיל meaning to “save”. In this context, the saving is due to protecting the houses from the destroyer. 

וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַיהוָה אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ.

Then you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to YHWH because He passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians but spared our homes.’” And the people bowed low and worshiped.

  • Isaiah 31:5 uses the verb פסח to describe the concept of protection. 

כְּצִפֳּרִים עָפוֹת כֵּן יָגֵן יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת עַל יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם גָּנוֹן וְהִצִּיל פָּסֹחַ וְהִמְלִיט

Like flying birds so the Lord of armies will protect Jerusalem.
He will protect and save it;
He will pass over and rescue it.

  • Papyrus D7.6 seems to be asking when to do the Pessaḥ in connection to keeping a child safe. This interpretation is based on a different reading of the text done by new examinations of the sources. The appearance of a clause at the end of the text regarding the safety of a child may lead to an understanding that the Pesaḥ was done to protect the children of the community. This looks like a living breathing idea that the Pesaḥ done in their time was not just a reenactment of the original Pesaḥ, but an action that must be done every year to protect children as it did in the original Pesaḥ.
  • There was a nomadic ritual done in spring for protecting the household. Not much is known about this ritual, but it is connected to offering younglings recently born in the herd. The ritual was probably done to protect the children of the household. A possible enemy would have been demons or Mot the god of death. The Exodus story clearly indicates that the destroyer is under YHWH’s control and removes any sense of impending death that is not supervised by YHWH. This is the Bible’s response to Canaanite beliefs showing that YHWH rules everything including death. This act emphasizes the absolute governance of YHWH in the world. 

As can be seen, it is difficult to use the term “Passover” for the Pessaḥ and it is possible that the term should be rejected as a translation to the Biblical term. This a good example of old translations which did not take into consideration the larger meaning of a term and only focused on one aspect out of the overall meaning. 

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