There are a number of interesting events and “coincidences” that can be examined in the Jewish Traditions of the Second Temple period which hold significant parallels with Christian understanding of the last week of Jesus’ life, leading up to his resurrection.
This is Part I in the series (Palm Sunday), with further parts planned for later this week, to correspond with the days being celebrated.
Lamb Selection Day
On the tenth day of the first month of the year (five days before passover), every family was required to choose a lamb for passover, per the instructions given by God to Moses:
Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. (Exodus 12:3-6)
Jewish historians record that the lambs were brought from the fields of Bethlehem to the south up to Jerusalem and through the Northeast gate of the city by the pool of Bethesda, called the “Sheep’s Gate” (see above). (As we discussed during the the Desanitizing Christmas series, the sheep of Bethlehem were owned by the Sadducees, and only these sheep were allowed to be sacrificed on Passover – for the purpose of filling their corrupt coffers.)
In order that the families could comply with the instructions from Exodus 12, the lambs were chosen the afternoon of the 9th day of the first month, so that they would be with the family from the 10th (which began at sundown) through the 14th. One reason for this, according to some Jewish sources, was so that the lamb would spend time with the family, becoming a part of it, so that when it fulfilled its purpose, it would take the sins of the family with it.
The year of Jesus’ death, He and his disciples began the trip into Jerusalem on a donkey at Bethphage (which is exactly one Sabbath day’s walk from the city walls). Bethphage is to the east of Jerusalem, and the road travels over the Mount of Olives down to the Sheep’s Gate. There they were met by a crowd of people waving palm branches.
The palm branch was a symbol which some scholars believe was not allowed within the city of Jerusalem, because it was associated with the zealots who wanted to overthrow Rome. The war cry of the zealots was “(God) Save Us!” chanted over and over again. In Hebrew, this would be pronounced “Ho-sha-NAH”, which we pronounce today Hosanna. This comes from Psalm 118:25-26, which is at the end of the Psalsms of Jewish blessings (Ps 113-118) called the hallel, sung during Jewish holidays.
O LORD, save us;
O LORD, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you. (Psalm 118:25-26)
This is the setting for Lamb Selection Day – which we Christians call “Palm Sunday”. And it is on this day that the Lamb of God, born in the flocks of Bethlehem, who was sacrificed for all of our sins, entered the city of Jerusalem. This was done at the end of the day (Mark 11:11) which would have been the same time at which the Passover lambs were being selected for each family group (and it is also the time that the disciples would have chosen the lamb for their own Passover Meal, which occured on the evening of the 14th day).
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosannain the highest!”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:1-11)
As Westerners, we may miss this, but to Hebraic audiences, the picture is a stark one being painted here: Jesus is proclaimed a messiah by the people, but in doing so, they were selecting him as the Passover lamb to cover all the sins of the people for all time. He was from the flocks of Bethlehem, as all lambs were required to be in that time. The people waved the Palm branches, declaring Yeshua the Messiah. And so it is that the early Christians understood this day (which we celebrate as Palm Sunday) as the day in which Jesus was selected to be our sacrifice.
And so it is that this perfect lamb would have additional significance 5 days later, on the day of Passover…
(to be continued in Part II: Passover)