Passover goats

When the Passover lamb can be… a goat?

Goats and sheep at Heshbon, Jordan

I never read THAT before – and I know what you said is wrong.

Sometimes you just know what the bible says – except that you don’t. Case in point, someone asked me why you could have a Passover Goat. Of course I knew this was not possible, but they insisted their version said it was ok. I checked. It was ok. Clearly I have trust issues. I then checked another version (I have a lot of trust issues). It also said goats were in. However, as a Christian, I know full well that the Passover meal instituted by Moses as the final act of the Exodus had to be a lamb. The New Testament only ever talks about a lamb because Christ is the lamb of God and our Passover. Obviously the language of Exodus 12 is the same. Except it isn’t. Sometimes we think we know the Bible better than we do (my apologies to those of you who already knew this).

Does Exodus 12 really include goats as the Passover meal? Yes. Exodus 12:5 NET (similarly in the KJV and others)

“Your lamb must be perfect, a male, one year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats”

However through the rest of the chapter the sacrifice/meal is described as a lamb. The NET notes state on their use of “lamb” through the chapter:

“The שֶּׂה (seh) is a single head from the flock, or smaller cattle, which would include both sheep and goats.”1

The Tyndale Old Testament commentary explains as follows:

“The Hebrew śeh is quite a neutral word and should be translated ‘head of (small) stock’, applying equally to sheep and goats of any age. The Hebrews, like the Chinese, seem to have regarded any distinction between sheep and goats as a minor subdivision. Probably because of this, to ‘separate the sheep from the goats’ is proverbial of God’s discernment in New Testament times (Matt. 25:32)2

In verse 5 we’re told explicitly the animal can be either a sheep or a goat; ambiguity in the word “seh” is removed. Comparison with the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls Bible along with various commentaries highlights no textual issues – the reading seems plain.

Hence the criteria for the Passover animal becomes only two – the animal must be the right size to be near enough fully consumed (Exodus 12:4) and be perfect (Exodus 12:5). By allowing a choice of two different animals the feast is made more accessible/easy to keep.

When did the Passover come to be associated exclusively with a lamb? In 2 Chron 30:17 we read of the Passover of Hezekiah and in some translations the sacrifice of the Passover animal is designated as a lamb (NET, ESV). However the Hebrew according to the Complete Word Study Dictionary is “a Passover animal3 which it goes on to explain includes both lambs and kids. The same non-specific language is used in 2 Chron 35:11 – the Passover of Josiah – and in the time of Ezra 6:20.

In the New Testament this Hebrew word was transliterated over into the Greek, not specifying whether a lamb or kid was involved.

The Complete Word Study Dictionary says “The later Jews made some additions4 to the Passover ritual. While Josephus discusses the Passover in his day and some of these additions (and even the number of animals slain5) he doesn’t shed any light on the animal involved. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, referencing the Mishnah, states a lamb was the preferred animal6 although the references in the Mishnah do not explain this preference.

To be sure the New Testament describes Jesus as a sacrificial lamb, starting with the testimony of John the Baptist in John 1:29. In this context though, the metaphor is one of a sin offering “taking away the sin of the world” rather than a Passover. Similarly in the symbolism of Revelation, Jesus is the Lamb in whose blood the saints are cleansed Rev 7:14 – pointing to a sin offering as the sacrifice in mind.

Somewhat more broadly in 1 Pet 1:19 NET Peter says we are saved by “by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ”. While v 18 speaks of being ransomed/redeemed which could have echoes back to Egypt/exodus, the passage has nothing specific in it of the Passover. As Michael’s notes:

“Although Peter’s metaphor recalls the regulations for the Passover lamb according to Exod 12:5, his terminology is drawn not from the LXX of that verse…and probably not exclusively from traditions about the Passover lamb, but in a more general way from the LXX and from Jewish sacrificial language.”7

Do this matter? No. Christ is our Passover. He is the lamb of God. Yes. Anyone can think they know what the Bible says. As in many spheres of life, we should check first and speak later. Our faith tradition and cultural heritage will often inform our assumptions in matters large and small. While the species of the Passover sacrifice is certainly no more than the tithing of mint, dill and cumin, the same blind spots doubtless affect our application of the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness. Just because we know doesn’t mean it is so. A disciple is challenged to continually grow, to test everything and hold fast to what is good (1 Thes 5:21 NET).

Footnotes

  1. Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.
  2. Cole, R. A. (1973). Exodus: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 2, p. 112). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  3. Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (p. 908). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
  4. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
  5. Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.
  6. Wilson, M. R. (1979–1988). Passover. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 3, p. 677).
  7. Michaels, J. R. (1998). 1 Peter (Vol. 49, p. 66). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

Author: Daniel Edgecombe

Daniel is a lifelong Christadelphian and married to Sarah. They have a poodle and three teenagers. He is interested in apologetics (partly to answer his children’s questions) but suffers from an addiction to all books but particularly history and science.