LCN Article
Understanding the “Night To Be Much Observed”

March / April 2003

John H. Ogwyn (1949-2005)

What is the real significance of the occasion observed by the Church of God at the beginning of the first holy day of the Days of Unleavened Bread? Traditionally, brethren have gathered in small groups for a festive occasion of food and fellowship that evening. Why? We do not begin any of the other holy days such as Pentecost or Trumpets in this same way.

Do you clearly understand why this particular night is set aside for such special note—why it is a night to be much observed? And do you understand how we should actually observe it? What does the Bible say about this important topic?

We begin the Days of Unleavened Bread with a special night on the basis of instructions given in Exodus: “And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years—on that very same day—it came to pass that all the armies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. It is a night of solemn observance [“night to be much observed,” KJV] to the Lord for bringing them out of the land of Egypt. This is that night of the Lord, a solemn observance for all the children of Israel throughout their generations” (Exodus 12:41–42).

Some have claimed that the night spoken of here is actually the night of the first Passover. Is this really the case? God’s Church observes the Passover on the evening that begins Abib 14. Twenty-four hours later, while we are gathered for the Night To Be Much Observed, today’s Jews are gathering for a festive meal with family and close friends in observance of what they call “the Passover.” This has caused some to conclude wrongly that the Church today keeps the Passover a day earlier than what God established in the book of Exodus.

What was Christ’s example? Was the last supper of Jesus and His disciples actually the Passover, or simply a new observance done a day earlier? In order to properly understand what the Night To Be Much Observed is all about, it is necessary that we grasp its relationship with the Passover.

The Relationship of Passover and Unleavened Bread

The distinction between Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread is clearly stated in Leviticus: “On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; seven days you must eat unleavened bread” (Leviticus 23:5–6). Before we examine the timing differences in detail, notice first the difference in symbolism.

The Passover represents God’s redemption of His people. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and the Creator God had sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message to let them go that they might serve Him. Pharaoh refused to heed God’s demand and, over a period of time, plague after plague was poured out on this rebellious king and his people. The final plague that God intended to bring upon the Egyptians was the death of the firstborn. God instructed the Israelites to make special preparations that would allow them to escape this terrible plague. Each family was to select a lamb on the tenth day of the first month, and save it until the fourteenth. During the period of twilight on the fourteenth they were to kill and roast the lamb, first having drained the blood into a container. The blood of the slaughtered lamb was to be used to mark the doorposts and lintels of their homes. That night they were to remain inside their homes until the morning (Exodus 12:22) and eat the roast lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Moses told the Israelites that, at midnight, God would send “the destroyer” (v. 23) through the land to strike dead the firstborn in every house that did not have the blood of the lamb on the doorpost.

This represents the first part of God’s great redemptive plan. The Passover reminds us that God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Jesus Christ came as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). The Apostle Paul explained: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

However, we must remember that the Passover is the starting pointnot the conclusion—of the plan. On the night of the Passover, ancient Israel received an exemption from the death penalty, setting the stage for one of history’s greatest and most dramatic events: the Exodus from Egypt. Their deliverance typifies the way in which Christians are justified and made innocent before God. First, we require God’s grace, given through God the Father’s gift of His only begotten Son, who died in our stead and paid sin’s penalty on our behalf (John 3:16; Romans 3:24–25). Second, we must respond to God’s grace with faith and repentance (Romans 5:1–2; Acts 3:19). Repentance—a turning away from sin and a turning toward God—flows from faith. The Israelites of old did not receive an exemption from death so that they could remain as slaves in Egypt, any more than we receive God’s grace extended to us in His Son’s sacrifice so that we might remain slaves to sin.

The original seven days of unleavened bread were the week of the Exodus, beginning when Israel started out of Egypt “with boldness” (Numbers 33:3) or “with a high hand” (KJV) and concluding when they crossed the Red Sea, leaving Egyptian slavery behind. When we celebrate the Days of Unleavened Bread, we are celebrating God’s deliverance of His people from slavery. Passover represents our redemption from death through the sacrifice of Christ, and Unleavened Bread reminds us that God will completely deliver us from the bondage of sin if we will respond to His grace by following where He leads. This must be our response to the grace that God freely extends. Even though Israel was spared the wrath of the Eternal on the night of the Passover, any who had refused to follow God’s lead would have remained behind in Egypt as Pharaoh’s slaves.

Those who confuse the Passover and Unleavened Bread festivals lose sight of the fact that two distinct events are to be noted by God’s people. The first is our redemption from death, and the second is our deliverance from the bondage of sin. They are inexorably linked, yet also distinct and separate.

The Timing Examined

Over the years, some have wondered if the first Passover was also the night that the Exodus began. If that were true, that Passover would have had to be observed on the evening that was the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth. Simply put, does the phrase “at even” (KJV) or “twilight” (NKJV) refer to the end of the day or the beginning of the day? The Bible makes the answer quite clear, as is explained in detail in “Between the Evenings” on page 8 of this issue, and as we will examine in brief here.

Note that Exodus 12:6 states: “And ye shall keep it [the lamb] until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at dusk” (JPS version). The Hebrew phrase translated “at dusk” in the JPS and “at even” in the KJV would be literally translated “between the two evenings.” This phrase is used several times in the Old Testament and these various usages show what it properly means.

Dusk, or the period between sunset and total darkness, is the proper meaning of “between the two evenings,” later Jewish tradition notwithstanding. Defining this as the afternoon period between noon and sunset was simply an attempt by the Pharisees to justify their tradition of a midafternoon Passover sacrifice and to read it back into the text. As Christ pointed out on various occasions, they gave their tradition more weight than the plain text of Scripture.

The Hebrew word normally translated evening is ereb, and refers to the period that begins with sunset. This is made clear in verses such as Leviticus 22:6–7 and Joshua 8:29 where evening [ereb] is equated with sunset and clearly marks the end of the old day and the beginning point for the new. The term used in Exodus 12:6, beyn ha`arbayim, is only used a few places in the Old Testament. In addition to describing the time when the Passover was to be killed, it is also used to describe the time when the Israelites could slaughter and prepare the quail in Exodus 16:12 and the time when the priests were to light the lamps in the tabernacle in Exodus 30:8. It clearly makes sense that the lamps would be lit at dusk (after sunset, but before it became really dark). This account regarding the quail, examined closely, explains much.

Exodus 16 explains that on the fifteenth day of the second month the Israelites began to complain about food and declared that they were going to starve. This was clearly a Sabbath, because God promised them manna the next morning and gave it to them on six consecutive days. On the seventh day, God’s Sabbath, they received none.

Now notice the giving of the quail. This was sent the evening before the first manna came. They received the quail at dusk (v. 12, JPS). Do you understand the significance of this statement? This clearly shows that dusk represented the beginning of the first day of the week, not the last portion of the Sabbath. God did not want the Israelites gathering and preparing their food on the Sabbath (cf. vv. 22–23). This miracle of the quail represented the beginning of God’s miraculous demonstration of which day is the Sabbath.

Now consider the implications of this for the timing of Passover. Exodus 16 shows that the period of dusk was the beginning of the first day of the week, therefore the dusk mentioned in Exodus 12 also means the beginning of the fourteenth day of the first month, not its end.

Days begin and end at sunset, not at total darkness which comes an hour or so later. Ereb, referring to sunset, means the end of the old day and beyn ha`arbayim (“dusk” or literally “between the two evenings”) always means the beginning of the new day, as Exodus 16 shows.

Notice also that several other points help to prove the timing of the Passover. First, consider the origin of the name of the festival itself. Exodus 12:27 shows that the name came because God “passed over” the houses of the children of Israel. The slaughter of the lamb, placing the blood on the door post, roasting and eating the lamb, and the “destroyer” passing over, all came within about a six hour period and must have all occurred on Abib 14, the only day ever identified in God’s Word as the Lord’s Passover (Leviticus 23:5).

In Numbers 28 and 29 we find a detailed list of sacrifices offered in the tabernacle, covering the morning and evening sacrifices and the sacrifices for the weekly Sabbath, for the first day of the month (the new moon) and for each festival day. One very interesting point is that the fourteenth day of the first month is clearly identified as the Passover, and differentiated from the fifteenth—which is designated as the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Numbers 28:16–17). However, unlike all the other days mentioned in these two chapters, there is no special temple sacrifice designated for the Passover. Of all the festive occasions, the Passover alone was a household-centered ceremony rather than a temple ceremony. Notice also that the temple sacrifices offered on Abib 15 were repeated throughout the entire seven-day period, clearly delineating Abib 15 and the six following days as the same festival, distinct from the festival on Abib 14.

In the New Testament, the gospel accounts repeatedly call Jesus’ final meal with His disciples “the Passover.” The disciples asked, “Where shall we eat the Passover?” and we are clearly told that the disciples then “prepared the Passover” (Matthew 26:17–20). There is no indication that they were surprised at the timing of the meal, or that it differed from the Passover to which they were accustomed.

Further, Christ was our Passover, sacrificed for us. The symbolism only fits when we understand that Christ’s introduction of the new symbols as a memorial, His arrest and scourging, as well as His crucifixion and death all occurred on the fourteenth day of the first month, the day called in various Old Testament scriptures “YHVH’s Passover.” By the sunset that began Abib 15, Jesus was dead and buried, and all of the Passover symbolism had been concluded. There was clearly no part of the New Testament fulfillment of the Passover that happened after sunset on Abib 14. Thus, the period of dusk that began Abib 15 saw Jesus asleep in the grave, and saw completed all the fulfillment of the Passover symbolism.

Resolving a Difficulty

Some have wrongly thought that Deuteronomy 16:1–8 shows the night of the Passover and the first night of Unleavened Bread as one and the same. Upon careful examination, however, we will see that these verses explain something very different.

First, we should remember that the Torah was occasionally edited, to make its terminology “up to date,” all the way down to the days of Ezra. A classic example is found in Genesis 14:14, which says that Abram pursued “as far as Dan” the kings that had looted Sodom and taken Lot and his family captive. While the location of Abram’s pursuit was known in later Israelite history as “Dan,” it was not known by that name in Moses’ lifetime—and certainly not in the days of Abraham! Dan was Abraham’s great-grandson. Judges 18:29 makes clear that this city, known earlier as Laish, had its name changed to Dan in the days of the judges, long after the deaths of Moses and Joshua. Some later editor, possibly Ezra, substituted “Dan” for the earlier place name, so that readers in his current generation would understand where the ancient battle took place.

In later usage, the Israelites had come to use the term “Passover” to refer to the entire eight-day period of Passover and Unleavened Bread, just as we in the Church of God commonly say “the Feast” when describing the eight-day period of the Feast of Tabernacles and the Last Great Day. Ezekiel 45:21 and Luke 2:41–43 are two examples of this “inclusive” use of the term “Passover.” Deuteronomy 16 is using “the Passover” in this inclusive sense when describing the Festival of Unleavened Bread. In fact, the whole theme of Deuteronomy 16 is of the three “pilgrim festivals.” Further, note that Deuteronomy 16:1 emphasizes God’s deliverance, and the night He brought Israel out of Egypt—not the “destroyer” passing over homes marked by the blood of the lamb.

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation helps clarify the proper sense of the second verse: “And thou shalt sacrifice the passover-offering unto the Lord thy God, of the flock and the herd in the place which the Lord shall choose to cause His name to dwell there” (v. 2). What were these Passover offerings “of flock and herd”? Exodus 12:5 makes plain that the Passover meal celebrated at the beginning of Abib 14 must be a yearling lamb, taken “from the sheep or from the goats.” It was not permissible to use a cow or an ox taken from the “herd.” Neither was it permissible to cook it any way except dry roasting (Exodus 12:8–9). Yet Deuteronomy 16:2 plainly refers to an offering “of flock and herd.” The Hebrew word for “herd” is bakar, and is used frequently in the Old Testament, but only to refer to cattle or oxen. It can only refer to beef—not to lamb. As such, Deuteronomy 16:2 cannot refer simply to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.

How was that Passover lamb to be prepared? It was to be roasted. Notice in 2 Chronicles 35 an account similar to Deuteronomy 16. While giving “Passover offerings” in the number of 30,000 lambs and young goats, Josiah also gave 3,000 cattle (2 Chronicles 35:7). What was done with these offerings? They “roasted the Passover offerings with fire according to the ordinance [Exodus 12]; but the other holy offerings they boiled in pots, in caldrons, and in pans” (v. 35).

Clearly, Deuteronomy 16:2 must be using the term “Passover offering” to describe offerings made at the temple to begin the Days of Unleavened Bread—the “Passover season” in the broadest sense. Thus can the instructions of Deuteronomy 16 be reconciled with those of Exodus 12.

A Night To Be Much Observed

In Exodus 12:42, we are instructed to keep a “night to be much observed” (KJV) unto the Eternal. The Hebrew word translated as “to be much observed” is shamarim, and is only used in this one verse in all of the Old Testament. It is the plural form of shamar, a word frequently used in the Old Testament and generally translated as “observe” or “keep.” The plural form is often used in Hebrew to denote the superlative (i.e., holy of holies or song of songs). This is a night of special keeping or observation. It represented the beginning of one of the most dramatic events in God’s redemptive plan—the Exodus.

On the night when the “destroyer” passed through the land, the Israelites had been instructed to remain in their homes until the morning (Exodus 12:22). Pharaoh arose in the night, after the midnight slaying of the firstborn, and finally yielded to God’s demand to let His people go. At morning break, the hundreds of thousands of Israelite families began assembling quickly. In the process, they were to spoil the Egyptians by taking the gifts of gold, silver and jewels that their Egyptian neighbors thrust on them. As they were preparing for the beginning of their journey, they saw the Egyptians burying their dead from the night before (Numbers 33:2–4). Even though the people moved with haste, it took a number of hours to assemble well over a million people, along with their herds and flocks, to march in an orderly fashion (Exodus 13:18). They began their journey around sunset on Abib 14, coming out of Egypt by night (Deuteronomy 16:1).

Notice further how God, in Exodus 12, distinguished the meanings of these two evenings: the Passover and the Night To Be Much Observed. Exodus 12:27 explains what the Israelites were to teach their children regarding the Passover service: “It is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households.” Later, in Exodus 12:42, we read of another night with a different meaning. That night is Abib 15. Scripture says of it: “It is a night to be much observed unto the Lord for bringing them out from the land of Egypt” (KJV).

Passover commemorates the offering of the “Lamb of God,” and our deliverance from death by God’s grace. The Night To Be Much Observed celebrates the beginning of our own spiritual “Exodus” from sin! On that evening, Israel of old began its journey, coming out of Egypt “with boldness” (Numbers 33:3) or “with a high hand” (KJV). This was an exciting and festive occasion, which God wanted to be remembered for all generations.

We gather at dusk, at the beginning of the fourteenth day of the first month, to commemorate the sacrifice of our Savior by partaking of the symbols that He set apart at His final Passover with His disciples. On the following evening, we gather for a festive meal to celebrate the beginning of our journey. We were not “passed over” to continue dwelling in spiritual Egypt, but rather so that we would be free to follow our Savior all of the way out of Egypt, and on to the Promised Land—the glorious liberty and freedom of the Kingdom of God. This evening that begins the Days of Unleavened Bread should be a festive and joyous occasion. Rejoicing and giving thanks to God should be the centerpiece of this occasion. We are celebrating the beginning of our journey to spiritual freedom: “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).


Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to remove an unintentional ambiguity that could be taken to mean Moses and Aaron personally met with Pharaoh after the tenth plague. We know from Exodus 10:28–29 that Pharaoh never saw Moses’ face again after the ninth plague.