Dr. Richard Booker, founder of the Institute for Hebraic-Christian Studies and author of Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts, acknowledges this historical threshold connection, explaining that pesach, before the Exodus, meant “to come under the protection of a deity by crossing over, jumping over, stepping over, or leaping over…the threshold” and into the protection of a home sprinkled with the animal’s blood.[i] World-famous Sunday School Movement trailblazer and Yale Divinity School academic, Henry Clay Trumbull, published an entire volume in 1896 on the threshold covenant in ancient religions. His preface explains that the purpose of his book was to teach about “the beginning of religious rites, by which man evidenced a belief, however obtained, in the possibility of covenant relations between God and man; and the gradual development of those rites, with the progress of the race toward a higher degree of civilization and enlightenment.”[ii] His research into these religious practices—involving the consistent and corresponding contributions of thirty-six well-known and respected professors, scholars, and theologians alive in his day (including John Henry Wright)—shows that the original family altar was the “threshold, or door-sill, or entrance-way, of the home dwelling-place.”[iii] He goes on to explain:
This is indicated by surviving customs, in the East and elsewhere among primitive peoples, and by the earliest historic records of the human race. It is obvious that houses preceded temples, and that the house-father was the earliest priest. Sacrifices for the family were, therefore, within or at the entrance of the family domicile.
In Syria and in Egypt…when a guest who is worthy of special honor is to be welcomed to a home, the blood of a slaughtered, or a “sacrificed,” animal is shed on the threshold of that home, as a means of adopting the new-comer into the family, or of making a covenant union with him. And every such primitive covenant in blood includes an appeal to the protecting Deity to ratify it as between the two parties and himself. While the guest is still outside, the host takes a lamb, or a goat, and, tying its feet together, lays it upon the threshold of his door…. [A few sentences of potentially disturbing content is omitted here. Trumball explains specific details about how the animal is sacrificed. Then he goes on to say that the host:] retains his position until all the blood has flowed from the body upon the threshold. Then the [lamb] is removed, and the guest steps over the blood, across the threshold; and in this act he becomes, as it were, a member of the family by the Threshold Covenant.[iv]
So, far before it was a “Hebrew thing,” a “Jewish thing,” or an “Israelite thing,” pesach—in many ancient languages that are not phonetically similar to the sound the mouth makes when we say “passover,” by the way—was a custom that would have been carried out in many religions of our old world, including paganism. Technically, the compound “pass-over” is better translated today as “cross over,” as in the act of crossing over a threshold. It never meant “to avoid” or “float by,” as we imagine when we think of the angel of death. It’s actually quite the opposite! Pesach, in the context of the intended purpose of a threshold covenant ritual, meant “to invite in” (the humans’ appeal to the deity) or “to enter in” (the deity’s acceptance of the humans’ appeal). As Trumbull explained, this rite was even observed between two people with the invisible deity in the middle of them as a witness to a covenant.
Some scholars and theologians even acknowledge that, in the ancient East, kings would travel throughout their land with their armies and advisors, interacting with the people from door to door. Kings would do this for several purposes, such as to gain further support from nobility, to ensure that their laws were being carried out, or to personally deliver important changes to the law. However, if that had been all these kings were attempting to do, most of that could have been tended to in the kings’ courts and via the town criers and messengers. One central reason the kings would directly lead a march from castle grounds was to weed out their enemies. When people in these territories heard that the king was coming, they would complete a sacrifice upon their threshold, using their most prized animals as a covenant sign to the king and his men that he was welcome to “pass over” their threshold, enter their homes, and receive homage. If the royal troop happened upon a threshold that wasn’t marked with blood, that family would be seen as enemies of the king, and the home would be invaded and everyone killed.
Although variations of this custom are still practiced in some parts of the Middle East, over the years, the veracity of the threshold covenant’s history would be greatly blurred into oblivion in the West, even though there are quite a few traditions we still perform despite not knowing why.
For instance, the custom of a groom carrying his bride over the threshold actually began in the earliest records of human history as a woman stepping over the animal-sacrifice blood, right foot first, into her new husband’s home during or immediately after a matrimonial ceremony. No part of the threshold could be touched during the crossover, lest the covenant be then and there voided. However, because of the long veils involved in much of the wedding attire of the day, getting the bride from one side of the door to the other without disturbing the blood was a challenge. Thus, as a practical matter, the groom would lift his bride while she clasped on to any flowing fabrics; in this way, the couple completed the crossover as a joint effort, once again with their deity present (in their belief). And, as I’m sure readers have already imagined, because not every man is the buff jock he needs to be to carry out this tradition without clumsily bumbling and ruining the whole pesach ritual for both of them, some cultures switched to seating the bride in a chair that was then carried over by the groom and several others (a custom still practiced in some tribes of West Africa). Because of its association with the altar, some countries traded the blood for fire (which, in accordance with not burning one’s house down, actually meant a red-hot blade or a few coals from the fire were placedat the door for a brief time, though the Romans somehow used a torch); this is how we arrive at some of the earlier Eastern ceremonies in which brides are carried over smoke.
Of course, over time, eventually the brides, grooms, adopted family members, contractual agreements, and so on would extend the rite to involving blood above the door, and not just where a foot can tread, as a way of coming under covenant (as in “under” the obligations of the promissory pact). Ironic, then, that “pass-over” now becomes its own opposite, “pass-under.”
Are you starting to see how the angel of death has nothing to do with this word?
Anyway, you get the idea. The pesach exchange floods into nearly countless other rites and customs of almost all world cultures, always (as far as we can tell) related to a sworn covenant—and we could have mentioned another thirty examples…but a bride being carried over the threshold is a tradition still practiced in the US today, so we chose that illustration because we knew it would be most familiar. (We can’t help but chuckle a little, however. Most young men today have no idea that it’s not just about carrying his bride through the door, but that it’s also about not allowing his feet to tread on the threshold. These authors can imagine many well-meaning gentlemen in their struggle unknowingly stomping all over the “sacred” place in their eagerness to show chivalry, symbolically canceling or insulting their union.)
The Pesach Covenant Changes Common Tenth-Plague Imagery
Speaking of what’s familiar, Trumbull explains that God, Himself, reestablished the pesach for His own purposes on the night of the tenth plague not out of the blue, but because of the intense, covenantal overtones the Israelites would have easily recognized from common culture. He puts it this way:
How the significance of the Hebrew passover rite stands out in the light of this primitive custom! It is not that this rite had its origin in the days of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, but that Jehovah then and there emphasized the meaning and sacredness of a rite already familiar to Orientals. In dealing with his chosen people, God did not invent a new rite or ceremonial at every stage of his progressive revelation to them; but he took a rite with which they were already familiar, and gave to it a new and deeper significance in its new use and relations.
Long before that day, a covenant welcome was given to a guest who was to become as one of the family, or to a bride or bridegroom in marriage, by the outpouring of blood on the threshold of the door, and by staining the doorway itself with the blood of the covenant. And now Jehovah announced that he was to visit Egypt on a designated night, and that those who would welcome him should prepare a threshold covenant, or a pass-over sacrifice, as a proof of that welcome; for where no such welcome was made ready for him by a family, he must count the household as his enemy.
In announcing this desire for a welcoming sacrifice by the Hebrews, God spoke of it as “Jehovah’s passover,” as if the pass-over rite was a familiar one, which was now to be observed as a welcome to Jehovah. Moses, in reporting the Lord’s message to the Hebrews, did not speak of the proposed sacrifice as something of which they knew nothing until now, but he first said to them, “Draw out, and take you lambs according to your families, and kill the passover”—or the threshold cross-over; and then he added details of special instruction for this new use of the old rite.[v]
Understanding the threshold covenant brings new life to the story of the tenth plague. The pesach act of the Exodus narrative was the direct and intentional cross-over step of God, Himself, into the doorway of a faithful family, where He would now actively guard His people against the danger of the angel of death.
Pesach means to jump over something, as we have certainly discussed, but in proper context of the threshold, the term means “protect”! And whereas the translators of the KJV and other early translations rendered Exodus 12:13 to read “I [God] will pass over you,” the English translation of the Septuagint (LXX) actually has it: “I [God] will protect you”!
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It gets even more beautiful and theologically profound when we consider that God was protecting those families from the vehicle of His own wrath, since He is the One who sent the judgment plague in the first place.
The tenth plague in movies, books, and plays, and generally in the minds of Westerners, is a moment when the Israelites cowered in fear and smeared blood above their doorposts as a way of warding away an angry God. In this view, God is not even with His people! This is a stark contrast to the historically true story behind the tenth plague, which tells of when the Israelites carried out a threshold covenant as a way of welcoming the King who would identify the other doors as the enemy of His kingdom and people.
Let’s turn to how this all connects to Christ.
Jesus’ Role in and Fulfillment of the Passover
The New Covenant was prophesied in more than one place in the Word, but in Jeremiah 31, we see some of its specific accomplishments:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.… But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31–34; emphasis added)
The death of “a” lamb covered sins. The death of “the” Lamb removed them entirely from God’s memory. The sins are forgiven and remembered no more, because of the New Covenant made with the perfect sacrificial Lamb—which, as confirmed by forerunner John the Baptist, is Jesus (John 1:29). This sacrifice, accomplished on the cross where He suffered, bled, and died, was described by the prophet Isaiah about seven centuries before Christ’s birth (Isaiah 50–53).
By now, a few Passover/Christ parallels should be clear:
- A) The Israelites spread a perfect lamb’s blood on the door to establish a threshold covenant between God and them; B) Jesus is the Perfect Lamb, whose sacrifice of blood established the New Covenant between God and all people.
- A) The threshold covenant involved all Hebrews inviting God into their homes through belief in the lamb’s blood on the doorpost; B) The New Covenant involves all believers inviting Christ into their lives through belief in the saving power of the Perfect Lamb’s blood on the cross.
- A) The threshold covenant saved the Israelites from the plague God sent upon the land; B) The New Covenant saves all believers from the judgment of God upon sin.
- A) The threshold covenant ultimately led to the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage in the hands of the Egyptians and onward to the Promised Land; B) The New Covenant immediately made possible our deliverance from the bondage of sin and onward to the Kingdom of God.
- A) The lamb’s blood marked the doorway of a common house, where the Israelites invited God the Father; B) Jesus’ blood marks the doorway of His Father’s house, where God the Father invites His children.
Already, the message conveyed by these parallels is beautiful. In the West, when we hear about blood, we tend to cringe and think of death. In the East, and embedded in the foundations of Christian doctrine, blood represents life, as many verses from the Bible directly declare (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:11, Deuteronomy 12:23, and many others). All this talk of blood should inspire imagery of the celebration and transferal of life, not death.
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Fresh Light on Old Words
Comprehension of the threshold covenant brings the Passover parallels and prophetic fulfilments through Christ into view, but it also casts new light on Jesus’ words, “This is my blood of the new covenant” (Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20).
But the big picture is even more astounding when we see Christ literally referring to Himself as the threshold covenant for all people before His own death, irrefutably positioning Himself as the fulfillment of the promise that was begun that night in Egypt (brackets below for clarification):
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way [some way other than the threshold], the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep [Himself]. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.”
This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them.
Then said Jesus unto them again, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door [threshold] of the sheep [believers]. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers [because they didn’t establish a threshold covenant]: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life [through a blood sacrifice on the cross], and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. (John 10:1–10)
Jesus not only fulfilled the pesach for us to enter His Father’s house; He was the Threshold, the Doorway upon which the pesach occurred. It doesn’t get any more poetic and sweet than that. A couple of chapters later in John, Jesus makes sure His parallel has been received, saying for ultimate clarification, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father [or into His eternal dwelling], but by me [as threshold covenant]” (John 14:6).
The writer of Hebrews also apparently sees the link between Christ as the Threshold and location of the blood covenant, as well as the cancellation of a covenant if the blood is stepped upon:
For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.… He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26–29, emphasis added)
Further, Jesus told His disciples on the night he was betrayed:
With desire I desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it [the pesach/Passover] be fulfilled in the kingdom of God [which was later accomplished through His sacrifice]. (Luke 22:15–16)
Because of the New Covenant that was established through Him (Luke 22:20, Ephesians 2:11–13), He became the Passover Lamb, “our passover [who was] sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7) on the threshold of His Father’s Kingdom, fulfilling the purposes of the Passover feast. The Jews were commanded to observe the Passover (Leviticus 23:4–5; Exodus 12:1–4, 13:8). Christians are commanded to observe the replacement of the Passover in the form of communion (Mark 14:22–25, Luke 22:18–20, 1 Corinthians 11:23–25).
But, when we say He became the Lamb, some readers may not know just how deep that parallel goes…
The most obvious example would be the way Christ conducted the Last Supper. It confuses a lot of people at first. Without a theological understanding of the symbolism, Christ’s references to His own body and blood as the bread and wine sound cannibalistic (and of course, that’s what most people think at first, though they rarely dare to say it aloud). But once believers understand the parallel between the sin-covering Passover lamb that is sacrificed for the Seder feast and the sin-removing Jesus as the Lamb that replaced all others, it sheds fresh light on why Jesus presented Himself as such. As uncomfortable as it may be for some to imagine Jesus breaking bread and saying, “Take, eat; this is my body,” followed by the passing of the wine cup, over which He said, “Drink…this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26–28), it was necessary to establish that imagery and practice precisely in that way, since Jesus was establishing Himself as the replacement of the Seder lamb.
As for the unsettling and cryptic phrasing about “partaking” of Jesus’ body and blood, believers are required to be mature enough to see the Last Supper as it really played out: purely symbolically. The whole scene would be much harder to take if Christ had maimed Himself in any way and required His disciples to literally “partake.” (Goodness, just the thought. And though we wouldn’t launch into a diatribe about transubstantiation at this moment, these authors think the fact that the Last Supper was only symbolic says something about whether Jesus intended the communion/Eucharist sacrament to be also.) It would likewise be uncomfortable if Jesus had raised an arm outward and instructed His disciples to mimic a “partaking.” But that is certainly not what happened, and it behooves the reader to, for a moment, set aside how this representative act lands on us, and consider how it would have landed on them. The disciples were very well accustomed to the Passover feast, and it was no small thing. By their time, the lamb was no longer slaughtered over a threshold, since the temple in Jerusalem had now been built. (By then, the sprinkling of the lamb’s blood by the priests at the base of the temple’s altar was symbolic of the past sprinkling of the blood on the doorposts.) Historians acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims from near and far traveled in enormous caravans to the same place at the same time each year, selecting lambs, checking them for perfection, preparing them for sacrifice, setting up extra ovens all over Jerusalem, and making accommodations. If you were a Jew in those days, you were either a part of the procession toward Jerusalem for Passover, or you were in Jerusalem getting your city ready for the endless barrage of pilgrims, which required months of planning: selectively breeding lambs for their sole purpose of sacrifice, cleaning ritual baths, ensuring that all roads and bridges leading in and out of the city were ready for mass travel, and so on. The population of Jerusalem during the Passover jumped from twenty thousand to about one hundred and seventy thousand.[vi]
This annual event was so grand that it was, to borrow one of President Donald Trump’s favorite expressions, “YUUUGE!” We can hardly imagine it today, but to the people of Jesus’ time and in His area, the tremendous focus on the sacrificing, bloodletting, and eating of a lamb for one’s sins was on everyone’s mind—not just one day a year, but throughout the year in preparation.
So, at the Last Supper, Jesus wasn’t trying to be dark or cryptic; the disciples would never have taken His words that way. He was giving them a revelation by saying (if we might suggest a modern rewording), “Remember that Passover lamb who only covers your sins? You won’t need it anymore. I am the Lamb that completely removes your sins. It is not an animal every year, but the Son of God only once and for the benefit of all that will be sacrificed. I am the door, the way, the threshold upon which the New Covenant will be established between My Father and men. My blood will be spilled once for all, and My body will be broken once for all, in replacement of your lambs. So, when you see wine or bread, like these here at this table, when you think of the Passover feast, think of My blood that is shed, My body that is broken for your sin and in replacement of the Passover. Now take this bread and eat it, take this wine and drink it, with that in mind.”
What a powerful image.
But that was only to point out the most obvious comparison. The lamb/Lamb parallel continues.
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[i] Booker, Dr. Richard, Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers Inc.; Expanded edition 2016), 36.
[ii] Trumball, Henry Clay, The Threshold Covenant or The Beginning of Religious Rites (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896), iii.
[iii] Ibid., 3.
[iv] Ibid., 3–4.
[v] Ibid., 203–204.
[vi] Jeremias, Joachim, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 84.