by Moshe Gold
On the Seder plate1 containing the main ritual items of the Passover is a place marked by the Hebrew word Zerôah. It is here that a roasted shank bone of a lamb is placed to symbolize the Pascal lamb once offered in the Temple. This is a purely symbolic item; it is not eaten. Judaism teaches that since there is no longer a Temple in which to properly slaughter the lamb, it is impossible to make an offering that would be acceptable to God. Therefore, it is best to only represent that offering. The Hebrew word used for the shank bone is actually the Hebrew word for arm. There is another word for lamb shank (shoulder). Why then is this central symbol referred to as the arm rather than a lamb shoulder?
Within Judaic thought, the shank bone was chosen as a reminder of God’s outstretched arm in deliverance at the Red Sea. Moses declared that the redemption from Egypt was accomplished with a strong hand, with an outstretched arm, and with great terror, signs, and judgments (Deut. 26:8). The sequence is from the weakest to the strongest, from the most dependent to the Most High. The right hand, although the symbol for human strength is weaker than the arm upon which it depends for its power. The arm directed the activity of the hand through whom the terror, signs, and judgments were achieved. The strong (right) hand used to accomplish the plagues and the parting of the sea was Moses. The actual miracles were brought about by the arm of God.
At the end of the wilderness wanderings, Moses declared that another deliverer would one day be sent to the Jewish people (Deut. 18: 18-19). Later prophets proclaimed that this anointed one would give a better law and would offer a superior salvation. The prophet Isaiah (51:17-23) called upon God to bring about this redemption. God promised to awaken His arm (Isa. 51:7-16), His righteous Servant (Isa. 49-53), His Messiah.
The custom of using the shank bone began in the 5th Century. It symbolized hope and belief in this long awaited deliverer, the Messiah, the arm of God through whom salvation would come to Zion.
The shank bone representing the paschal lamb is a symbol of redemptive hope. But was redemptive hope the importance of the lamb in the ancient ritual celebration of Passover?
In the original Passover (Ex. 12), the lamb was the means by which pardon was granted from sure execution. It was the blood of the lamb applied to the lintel and side posts of the doorways that gave protection to those in the home when God judged the land of Egypt through the slaying of her first-born.
Exodus 12:3-6 teaches how to identify the Passover lamb. It was to come from among the flock. It had to be a male in order to identify with the ones for whom it was being sacrificed, the first born. To retain inner purity, it had to be within a year old. To represent the ideal in sacrifice offered to God, it had to be physically perfect. To be certain that this lamb was the chosen one, it was to be studied for a period of time. In this process of discovery, the families of Israel were to become personally identified with this lamb. Verse 2 describes a lamb, generally one among many potentially suitable. Verse 3 describes the specific lamb that has been revealed as satisfying the command of God. Verse 4 declares the individual responsibility for the members of the family to accept this lamb as the one who is dying in their place in order to purchase their freedom.
It was the blood of this lamb, not one’s birth into the group descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nor one’s faithfulness to that group, which resulted in the judgment of God passing over certain homes while He passed judgment on the rest.
One showed their faith in God’s redemption by identifying with this lamb through eating it. Eating the lamb signified in a symbolic and awesome manner that this lamb had given its life for them. Its body had been broken in order that through it they might have life and the life that they received would be free from slavery. It would be an abundant life, a new life lived in a new way through a new moral, ethical and legal code.
During the 2nd Temple Period, the Passover seder was divided into two parts. The first half of the Seder recalled the redemption from Egypt and the second half was dedicated to what is called the greater redemption, the redemption from sin and the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. The Paschal meal was placed at the mid-point of the Seder and became the bridge that linked the past and future together. Partaking of the lamb became a communal meal through which one remembered with personal gratitude the past redemption and reconfirmed perpetual belief in the redemptive promises still to come.
The sages of Israel, who developed this custom still in use today, noted that the blood of the paschal lamb was representative of greater blood to be shed to establish the future redemption (Ex. 12:13-14 c.f. 6:6-7). Why was this blood better? While the former redemption was physical, the later would be both spiritual and physical. This blood would be shed to establish the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-33) that would renew the soul, heart, and mind of the person who enters into it (Eze. 36:24-25). Moreover, it would be God, not a man, who would establish the New Covenant and through it He would place His own spirit into the heart of the adherent. The New Covenant would be instituted by the Messiah of God, the arm of His strength, the One like Moses, the righteous Servant who would also be the suffering Servant, and the glorious King.
The shank bone used today in place of the paschal Lamb represents the messianic hope of the Passover. The lamb represented a reminder of God having redeemed Israel from slavery with the price of the first-born of Egypt. It also represented the future hope for personal and individual redemption from sin and the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel through the Messiah of God.
Just as the Passover lamb was taken from the flock (Ex. 12:5), the Messiah would come from the congregation of Israel (Deut. 18:18-19; Isa 49:6). More specifically, He would be born in Bethlehem Ephrata (Micah 5:2), from the house of King David (2 Sam 7:12-16; Isa 9:6-7), after the completion of, but before the destruction of the 2nd Temple (Dan. 9:24-26) in A.D. 70.
As the lamb was a male in order to be the suitable sacrifice to redeem the first-born from death, so the Messiah would be an Israelite in order to identify with His own people in death and to take the penalty for their sin upon Him (Isa. 53:4-6). Furthermore, as a man, He would represent all of mankind in this sacrifice (Isa. 52:15).
The Paschal lamb needed to be a year old or less to be “innocent,” pure (Exodus 12:5). The Messiah would be pure because He is not man but God the Son (Isa. 9:6; Jer. 23:5-6; Dan. 7:13-14; Psalm 2; 110:1). He is therefore perfect in every way and would be the acceptable sacrifice, fully able to save those who trust in Him (Isa. 53:11).
The Paschal lamb represented the redemptive hope of each individual who trusted in the blood of that lamb to be their covering and who identified personally and intimately with that lamb by partaking in its flesh, noting that its body was broken for them. The same is true for the Messiah who would shed His blood so others could be redeemed and would give His body to be broken so that the redeemed might be given new life. Even as Isaiah says, “…when thou shall make His soul an offering for sin…” (53:10) the wrath of God will pass over you.
Jesus, whose name means savior or salvation (Heb. Yeshua), fulfilled the requirements of Messiah and is the perfect Passover Lamb. He was born in Bethlehem Ephrata (Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:1-7) during the 2nd Temple times. He is acknowledged as a Jewish man and God the Son; physically a descendant of King David, He is eligible to sit on the throne of Israel (Matt. 1; Luke 2:21-24; John 1:1-4, 14, 34; Rev. 5:6-14). His blood was sacrificed, as was the paschal lamb, not only for Jewish people but for a mixed multitude (Ex. 12:38) who would put their trust in Him, making Him their acceptable offering before God (John 1:29).
As the lamb was examined for three days to make sure it was perfect (Ex. 12:3a, 6a), Messiah Jesus was quizzed by the religious leaders for three years and never once gave a wrong answer. He was interrogated by the civil authorities and was declared innocent. He was without spot or blemish.
Unlike the Passover lamb, the Messiah would be a living sacrifice. He would resurrect from the dead (Psalm 16:10; Isa. 53:10). He would redeem those who trust in Him from the very curse of death. His sacrifice would only be made one time, for all time, for all mankind. No longer would there be a veiled hope of redemption, but the hope would be made eternally visible. This was accomplished through the death, burial, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus (2 Cor. 15:20-23, 55-57).
Isaiah, in chapter 53, begins his description of the Messiah’s ministry with the challenge, “Who hath believed our report and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed (vs. 1).” Only those who believe what Isaiah and the testimony of Scripture tell them will experience the arm of God in salvation; those who trust the word of God over and above their own thoughts or the word of man, even learned men.
Passover was a new beginning for the Israelites, and for those who enter into the redemption of the Messiah, all things become new. Have you trusted in Messiah Jesus, the Passover Lamb? If so rejoice in the new life He has given you and never lose hope that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it, even as He has promised! If you have not experienced the freedom He offers, why not ask us to help answer questions on your heart so that the Passover Lamb will be your new beginning.
1. A special plate that has designated places for the main ritual foods of the Seder; these are a green vegetable, bitter herbs, haroset, an egg, and the shank bone of a lamb. It is placed in front of the leader of the Seder and was perhaps used in some form since the 2nd Century.