Matzah in Egypt
During a Passover meal, there are 3 pieces of matzah, a flat, rather dry bread. It represents the flatbread God’s people ate the night they left Egypt. It was that night they killed a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts of their houses so that the angel of death would pass over them.
3 Tell the people of Israel that on the tenth day of this month the head of each family must choose a lamb or a young goat for his family to eat….
6 Each family must take care of its animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of the month when the animals are to be killed. 7 Some of the blood must be put on the two doorposts and above the door of each house where the animals are to be eaten. 8 That night the animals are to be roasted and eaten, together with bitter herbs and thin bread made without yeast… 11 When you eat the meal, be dressed and ready to travel. Have your sandals on, carry your walking stick in your hand, and eat quickly. This is the Passover Festival in honor of me, your Lord. Exodus 12:2-12
This is the most basic Passover instructions, and it was the basis of the traditions which grew up around it. Notice that these instructions both on what to do that night and how to remember that night in the future are given to God’s people in advance.
Matzah in Jerusalem
Jesus celebrated the festivals, including Passover, and it was the Passover meal which we sometimes refer to as His ‘last supper’. By this time, the tradition was that the lamb was sacrificed at the temple, not in the home as in the original Passover. They then celebrated the meal in their homes, although you may remember that Jesus celebrates His with His disciples.
17 On the first day of the Festival of Thin Bread, Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked, “Where do you want us to prepare the Passover meal?”
18 Jesus told them to go to a certain man in the city and tell him, “Our teacher says, ‘My time has come! I want to eat the Passover meal with my disciples in your home.’ “ 19 They did as Jesus told them and prepared the meal…
26 During the meal Jesus took some bread in his hands. He blessed the bread and broke it. Then he gave it to his disciples and said, “Take this and eat it. This is my body.” Matthew 26:17, 18, 26
As part of this meal, He would probably done as is done during Passover today, taking the 3 matzahs and breaking the middle one, which was symbolic (among other things) of the Passover lamb which had been killed. In a Passover meal today, the story of the Exodus is told, but instead of doing this (or maybe as well as we don’t know everything which happened that night!), Jesus applies a new symbolism to this flat bread: This is my body.”
But why 3 matzah?
Manna in the desert
To understand about the numbers of matzah, we need to go to back to the Exodus story. After God’s people leave Egypt, they go into the desert where God provides manna for them to eat.
The Lord said to Moses, “I will send bread down from heaven like rain. Each day the people can go out and gather only enough for that day. That’s how I will see if they obey me. 5 But on the sixth day of each week they must gather and cook twice as much.” Exodus 16: 4, 5
This is sometimes referred to as ‘bread from heaven’, although I like to call it Triple Miracle Bread:
- it miraculously arrives when they need it
- it disappears when they no longer need it (when they get to the Promised Land)
- there’s always enough for them each day AND it goes off if they collect more than they need
This last one is my favourite – they are told to only collect what they need, and those who collect more find it goes mouldy and maggoty overnight. Except on the Sabbath. They are told to gather twice as much, a double portion, on the day before the Sabbath so they can rest and not work on the Sabbath.
To remember this, each Sabbat when Jews celebrate Shabbat, a special Friday night ceremony and meal marking the beginning of the weekly Sabbath, there are two loaves of bread representing the double portion of manna they collected in the desert.
On Passover, we retain these two pieces of bread, although now they are flat, matzah, and we add another to represent the lamb killed at Passover. I find it intriguing how these two stories are thus linked when Jesus says: This is my body. To see this better, we can look into the New Testament.
Bread in Galilee
During Jesus’ three years of ministry (another 3!), on at least one occasion He feeds a massive crowd with one person’s lunch, in John 6 it records Him doing it with 5 loaves and 2 small fish, and it’s after this that the people ask Him for a sign, quoting the sign Moses gave of the manna, the bread from heaven.
11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ …
Jesus then goes away and when the crowd find him again, Jesus says to them:
26 ‘Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill…
30 So they asked him, ‘What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’
32 Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’
34 ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘always give us this bread.’
35 Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…
41 At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42 They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I came down from heaven”?’ John 6: 11-42
I love how they’re asking for a sign after being fed with one boy’s lunch! And notice that they quote manna in the desert as being a sign – not just a way that God provided for them physically, but a way that God showed them He was with them, providing not just food but everything they needed.
When Jesus says that He is the bread of life, the Jews begin to grumble – this is because they understood the significance of what He was claiming. He was claiming to BE the manna, the bread which was a symbol of God’s provision for His people. He was saying: I am what God has provided, come down from heaven for you. No wonder they were cross!
Bread of the Presence
But that’s not all.
People hearing Jesus’ teaching on bread would also have connected it with another bread, the bread God instructed His people to make and put on the table in the Holy Place inside the Tabernacle. They made 12 loaves, one each to represent the 12 tribes of Israel (like the 12 baskets of left over bread?), and it was called lechem panim, which literally means ‘bread face’. Lechem = Bread, as in Beth-Lehem – house of Bread. Panim means before or in front of, face or presence. It’s the word used in these verses (and over 2000 others!):
Moses fled from the presence of Pharoah Exodus 2:15
Moses hid his face [from God] because he was afraid Exodus 3:6
Then Moses said to [God], “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. Exodus 35:15
It’s the word used twice in the Aaronic blessing:
24 ‘“‘The Lord bless you
and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord turn his face towards you
and give you peace.’” Numbers 6:24-26
So this bread is the bread which rests in God’s presence, in front of God, and is the symbol of God’s presence with His people. The bread may even have been made using manna! The bread of the Presence is put always before God: it’s a double use of the word ‘panim’:
Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all time. Exodus 25:30
Literally, the Hebrew reads with consecutive double panim:
And you shall set on the table of the Bread of the Presence before Me always.
I have read that in Jesus’ time there was a tradition which involved this bread. The Bible tells all Israelite men to journey to Jerusalem three times a year for the ‘high holiday’ or the three big feasts, including Passover, to appear before the God ‘behold the face of God’. The literal translation of the Hebrew in Exodus 23:17 reads:
“Three times in the year shall appear all your males before the face of the Lord God.” The word face here is, of course, panim.
The tradition was that the priests would bring the table with the bread of the Presence out of the holy place and lift it up in front of the pilgrims gathered in the temple and say, “Behold, God’s love for you.”
So when Jesus speaks of being bread from heaven, people hearing Him would have also connected this with the Bread of the Presence, the bread which represents God’s presence with His people, and perhaps even this tradition whereby the bread of the presence represented God’s love for them. What a powerful image!
Bread at Bethany
The last bread I wanted to mention was that eaten, or rather broken, in Bethany. After Jesus dies, two of His friends return to Bethany and meet a stranger on the road. They invite Him to stay with them, and the stranger blesses the bread:
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread. Luke 24:30-34
Notice the sequence here is the same as in the feeding of the 5000 and the Passover: hold the bread, bless it, break it and give it. The blessing may well be the hamotzi, the blessing said over bread at Shabbat and Passover:
And it’s as Jesus does this that His friends’ eyes are opened and they see who He is – they realise that His presence is real and with them!
And they run back to Jerusalem, the location where His friends last saw Him break bread and where, as He told them in advance, His body was broken.
Bread at Passover
For me, when we have this special bread at Passover, it has echoes of all these breads: the bread of affliction eaten in Egypt, the manna collected in the desert, the Bread of the Presence in the Holy Place, first in the Tabernacle then later in the Temple, which the pilgrims saw when they went to the temple for Passover, the bread which fed 5000 and the Bread of Life, the walking, talking provision and presence of God.
How about you?
Activity ideas: Cooking!
- Make some bread – you could try making some flatbread. I’d recommend trying flatbreads, or this pita bread (with or without the zaatar). Note: none of these count as kosher matzah as there are very specific rules about how matzah is made which you can’t do in your own kitchen. We usually eat kosher matzah for Passover, but also enjoy making flatbread as we think about bread and the story in the weeks running up to it.
- Make Matzah Crack – an amazing salted caramel and chocolate topped matzah treat! You totally have to try this!