Symbols are important, but only if you honor the meaning of the symbol. Some people wear a ring; a symbol of their devotion and unending commitment and love to their spouse, without a thought to what that ring symbolizes. In this case, the ring means absolutely nothing. It holds no power and no meaning. But others wear that ring as a constant reminder of their love and devotion. The symbolism is strong and meaningful. The object, the ring, holds no meaning beyond the symbol. And yet there is something significant, powerful, and beautiful when the symbol is honored. And there is something ugly and base when the symbol is worn but not honored. God works through symbols. And he often gives us symbols that have significance to our reality.
In Exodus 12:14-20 God gives the Israelites another symbol of the exodus. Unlike the Passover, this symbol would not be observed the first year. The Passover was an evening observance; a symbol of haste and leaving; of being delivered from slavery. The Feast of Unleavened Bread which would later be combined with the Passover, was a seven day observance that was to symbolize relaxed purity. As with Passover, it is established as a remembrance feast. Unlike some, I don’t find it unlikely that God would give them instructions that they were not to follow immediately.
Most see verse 14 as a transitional verse. It could be speaking of Passover or the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. But those are not two different days. It seems more likely that the “this day” refers specifically to the day of their deliverance. Both the Passover and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread were on the fourteenth day of the first month, which is the day of their beginnings as a nation. This day is to be a forever ordinance to be celebrated throughout their generations.
For the Passover, the unleavened bread seemed to symbolize the need for haste. For the Feast of Unleavened Bread it most likely symbolized purity. They are to remove all yeast from their houses. Josephus tells us that this command was observed to the point of sweeping out mouse holes. The removing of yeast symbolizes the removal of sin. God was not only delivering them, he was making them a holy nation, dedicated to him. This passage is full of words that speak of holiness. The word “celebrate” implies to make a pilgrimage and the word “feast” refers to a religious festival. It is a sacred time; a feast important enough to warrant a pilgrimage. The first and the seventh day are set aside to hold a holy gathering; a sacred worship assembly. On these days the only work that is to be done is food preparations. They are Sabbath day observances.
And if anyone eats leavened bread during this festival, they are to be cut off from the assembly. That means that they are no longer to be considered part of Israel. They are cut off from their very identity. That seems pretty serious. So, somebody accidentally chomps down on a leavened biscuit and they are forever shut off from being a part of the people of God. Why so serious God? Maybe God wanted to make sure they understood the meaning of the symbol. And that meaning is significant. Like yeast, sin spreads and effects the whole community. And in the days to follow, the Israelites are going to become painfully aware of that reality. The rebellion of Korah; the murmurings that resulted in plague; the murmurings that resulted in fiery snakes. Sin is a contagious disease that infects the whole community. God is delivering them and making them holy. They are slaves of Egypt no more. That is indeed something to celebrate and be thankful for.
No doubt, many an Israelite through the ages has celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread with precise obedience but without grasping the meaning of the symbol. No leaven was to found in their houses, while sin had run amuck in their souls. God has always desired more than rote obedience. He has given us symbols with significance; with power and beauty. Today, we have been set free from sin. We have died to ourselves and we have been buried with Christ in baptism. And baptism is a wonderfully powerful symbol of death and resurrection. But if we are merely observing a command we are merely getting wet. Without the symbolism baptism is powerless and meaningless. And just as God did not merely deliver the Israelites from slavery, he does not merely set us free from sin. He makes us his people; his holy assembly. Die then. Let the symbol slay you. Peace, Walter.