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Exodus 12:13b (ESV)

And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:13b (BHS)

וְרָאִ֨יתִי֙ אֶת־הַדָּ֔ם וּפָסַחְתִּ֖י עֲלֵכֶ֑ם וְלֹֽא־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה בָכֶ֥ם נֶ֨גֶף֙ לְמַשְׁחִ֔ית בְּהַכֹּתִ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

I recently ran across an argument1,2 that פסה (päsah) here (also vv. 23b, 27b) should be rendered something like “cover over” or “protect” rather than the more common translation “pass over.”

According to one source:1

The blood was not a signal to the destroyer, meaning, ‘Miss out this house’; but a signal to the Lord, ‘Protect this house’. ‘When I see the blood I will pasach you’ implies not the negative idea of omission but the positive one of protection.

The LXX seems to agree; two of the three instances of päsah in Exodus 12 are translated σκεπαζω. From BDAG (italics original):

  1. to spread out over something cover . . .
  2. to provide security, protect, shelter . . .

But I see no similar meaning included for päsah in BDB.

How should we understand this word?


1. T. Francis Glasson. The Passover: A Misnomer: The Meaning of the Verb Pasach. J Theol Studies (1959) X(1): 79-84.

2. Meredith G. Kline. The Feast of Cover-over. JETS 37/4 (December 1994): 497-510.

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    I don't have the language skills to answer it, but the picture of the blood applied to the lintels and doors lends itself to 'cover'. There are numerous other examples where the blood 'covers', and therefore judgment is 'passed over' the individual(or nation). – Tau Sep 5 '14 at 8:24
  • That's an interesting point. I think the authors of those papers would argue that v. 13 is not an image of judgment at all but stands in contrast to v. 12 rather than just defining an exception. From Kline: What's clear is that the action denoted by pasah results in the sparing of the blood-marked Israelite homes from the curse...the question is: what is the specific nature of this action? – Susan Sep 5 '14 at 8:43
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    Considering it can also mean to hop, halt, limp, become lame I think this is on the wrong track. Its got to have something to do with stopping, tripping over, something related to a walking problem. I think if it meant cover, some variation of kopher/kaphar would be used. Some examples here: biblehub.com/hebrew/6452.htm – david brainerd Sep 6 '14 at 5:27
  • @davidbrainerd hmph, what's going on with all the mems in that BDB entry you linked? You're right that that lexicon gives no inkling of the alternative interpretation described in the question (nor does HALOT that I see....hence the question!). The recurrent substitution of מ for פ there hasn't done much to endear that website to me. Point taken all the same. – Susan Sep 7 '14 at 6:49
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The question of the semantics of the verb פָּסַח‎ = pāsaḥ is a difficult one, in part because it so quickly gets lost and subsumed in discussion of the noun pesaḥ (the name of the feast/festival), and in part because the verb has its own inherent difficulties.

There has long been a question as to whether there should be one or two distinct "roots" behind the verb. Brown-Driver-Briggs (p. 820) opts for two, and this is reflected in the discussion by Glasson referenced by OP.

However, the more recent Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (vol. 2, p. 947) has only a single heading under which all occurrences are listed, and which references Glasson's article specifically -- but which glosses it (sub qal 2., with ʿal) as "limp by, pass by, spare", so no "protect".

There are, in fact, only seven occurrences in the Hebrew Bible. The three occurrences in Exodus 12 (vv. 13, 23, 27) are usually grouped with one further instance in Isaiah 31:5 (which is exactly what Glasson does, too):

Isa 31:5 [New Jerusalem Bible] Like hovering birds, so will Yahweh Sabaoth protect [יָגֵן yāgēn] Jerusalem; by protecting [פָּסֹחַ, qal inf. abs.] it, he will save it, by supporting it, he will deliver it.

When this issue gets picked up for attention, the commentaries (I've consulted a few) tend to go over this same ground. William Propp has more to say than most.1 He translates the relevant verses this way:

12:13b (P) And I will see the blood and protect over you, and harm from destruction will not be upon you in my striking the land of Egypt.

12:23 (E) And Yahweh will pass to harm Egypt and will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, and Yahweh will protect over the doorway and will not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses for harm.

12:27 (E/D-like) "...Then you will say, 'It is the Pesaḥ slaughter sacrifice for Yahweh, who protected over Israel's Sons' houses in Egypt in his harming Egypt, but our houses he rescued'."

In spite of his stilted English, his preference for the "protection" meaning is clear. In his discussion he notes that both the "pass over" and "protect" understandings are ancient ("traditional"), and that his own inclination is wholly determined by context.

So, "how should we understand [pāsaḥ]" (OP)? Good question! In either one of these two ways, reckoning with:

  • a fairly limited number of occurrences;
  • strong contextual "colouring" -- especially if one begins with the Isaiah text in the analysis;
  • traditional association with the verb עָבַר ʿābar (first verb of Exodus 12:13); and
  • the antique translation tradition (as noted by OP, and discussed at length by Glasson).2

The lexicographers don't give the clarity that we "users" would like. In the context of Exodus 12:13, it should also be noted that it is not necessarily the case that the "blood" (itself) does the "protecting" -- but that it is explicitly the sign (אֹת ʾōt, v. 13) in this instance -- analagous to the perpetual sign of the "rainbow" (Genesis 9:12-16) -- indicating a protected household. The Lord is both the Destroyer and the Protector (Ex. 12:23).


Notes

  1. W. Propp, Exodus 1-18 (Yale, 1999), p. 401. The supralinear letters in the text citations follow Propp's method for indicating his source analysis.
  2. One should also add to the bibliography: Sebastian Brock, "An Early Interpretation of pāsaḥ: ʾaggēn in the Palestinian Targum", in Interpreting the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honour of E.I.J. Rosenthal, ed. by. J.A. Emerton and S. Reif (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 27-34. (Not currently available to me, but if anything turns up, I'll add it in.)
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According to this Wikipedia article about Passover, both the meanings of "pass over" and "protect" are valid, depending on where and how the verb פָּסַח‎ is used.

I can vouch that my understanding of פָּסַח‎ has always been to "pass over," and that the holiday itself is called Passover also implies how the word has been understood for quite some time.

The blood of the lamb appears to be a reference or stand in to the blood of the sacrificial animal which "covers over" or stands in for the sins of the sacrificant as described Leviticus 16. Therefore it is appropriate to understand this with a dual meaning as the blood causes the angel to "pass over" the home because the blood has "covered over" the sins of the firstborn.

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  • @JamesShewey - I agree that there are both covering and passing over actions described in this passage. However, finite verbs are limited by their subjects. The specific nature of the action (Kline's words, see comment above) described by päsah should be that undertaken by God. The blood has its own verbs elsewhere. – Susan Sep 13 '14 at 12:10
  • @JamesShewey This is a brilliant insight. – Tim Biegeleisen Sep 15 '14 at 9:14

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