IBRI Research Report #34 (1987)


Unleavened Bread and
the Dedication of the Firstborn:
The Literary Structure of Exodus 13:1-16

John A. Bloom
Biola University,
La Mirada, CA

Copyright © 1987 by the Bloomsbury Research Corporation. All rights reserved.

This paper or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the copyright owner. Permission will be quickly granted to reviewers, authors, teachers, and others engaged in promoting Bible study.



When faced with a biblical passage which contains repetitive portions that are difficult to harmonize, source-critical methodology attributes the awkwardness to a blundering editor who was piecing together the fragments of scattered traditions, while the literary school “reads between the lines” seeking a profound stylistic reason for the problem. The author shows here, with a typical enigmatic passage, that such difficulties can be better resolved by noting that an economy of words was undoubtedly used to record the historical events described therein.


Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

ISBN 0-944788-34-3

Unleavened Bread and the Dedication of the Firstborn:
The Literary Structure of Exodus 13:1-16.

John A. Bloom, Ph.D.

The structure of the book of Exodus appears on the surface to be a flowing narrative account of the adventures surrounding the escape of the sons of Israel from Egypt. A deeper look at the fine details of the account exposes occasional “problems” regarding the logical order of the events that took place. Exodus 13:1-16 is one typical example of such a difficulty. Why, when Moses is commanded to institute the dedication of the first-born (vv.# 1-2), does he digress with the laws concerning the Feast of Unleavened Bread before giving those regarding the firstborn? Further, why does he add so much material to the simple command he apparently received? The purpose of this paper will be to study these questions from a literary and historical approach and attempt to deduce plausible motives for this order.

I. The Passage.

The speech of Moses given in Exodus 13 is placed within about a day of the exodus from Egypt. The people have left Rameses during the night following the death of the Egyptian first-born and are encamped at Succoth in the desert area between the Nile and the Red Sea. The immediate excitement of the plagues and the flight from Egypt has peaked. The exodus has not reached its climax at the Red Sea, but then neither we nor the Israelites are aware yet of Pharaoh’s regret for letting the people go and of his decision to pursue them. We are at an exciting time: It seems that Israel is free from the slavery of Egypt at last!

It is important to the immediate context to note that a “mixed multitude” of people (12:38)1 left Egypt along with the sons of Israel. Thus the camp at Succoth is a mixed group, and this is probably the reason that the additional regulations regarding how foreigners should observe the Passover are given in 12:43-49. Chapter 13 begins with a brief command to Moses from the Lord that the first-born of both men and animals should be consecrated to Him. Moses then addresses the people, but he adds much more material as follows (vv.# 3-10):

1) The people are to commemorate this day of liberation.

2) They are not to eat anything containing yeast for seven days.

3) This ceremony is to be celebrated annually when they reach the land of Canaan.

4) An explanation should be given to the children that this feast commemorates their leaving Egypt.

5) The ceremony is to be a constant reminder of the deliverance from Egypt.

After this Moses gives the law regarding the first-born (vv.# 11-16):
1) It is also to be done after reaching the land of Canaan.

2) It includes all animals and sons.

3) It should be explained to the children as a commemoration of the death of the firstborn in Egypt.

4) The ceremony is to be a constant reminder of the deliverance from Egypt.

Note that Moses expands considerably upon the Lord’s initial command in vv.# 1-2: The intent and purpose of the law are stressed, as is a particular detail about the firstborn of unclean domestic animals (donkeys). However, the more serious problem involves the “intrusion” of the law regarding unleavened bread. While it certainly appears to break the context, at this point we note with Childs the striking parallels between its format and that of the firstborn law: Both are to be instituted when they enter the promised land (v.#5 || v.#11); both deal with answering the questions of sons (v.#8 || v.#14); both are intended to be a visible sign of remembrance, as obvious as “a sign worn on your hand” (v.#9 || v.#16); and both are grounded in the exodus event (v.#9 || v.#16).

Given this literary parallelism, it seems unlikely that this “intrusion” is an independent law which was clumsily inserted at this point by a thoughtless redactor. How should we understand and explain this passage?

II. Source Critical Approach.

The methodology of source criticism employs stylistic and vocabulary variations as markers for distinguishing different strands of Hebrew tradition or different editors. Followers of this approach usually regard this entire passage as a late attempt to justify or authenticate the Firstborn and Unleavened Bread traditions by inserting them into the “historical” exodus account. Thus 13:1-2 is viewed as the late Priestly source, but 13:3-16 is taken as late Deuteronomic due to its style and vocabulary. This approach finds nothing profound in the “confused” order of the narrative other than poor editorship, thus it does not address the literary aspect of the problem. Since it does not consider the narrated events to be historical, it is of little benefit for reconstructing a historical model to explain the origin of this narrative.

One of the most striking characteristics of the source critical method is its tendency to amplify differences between redundant or parallel portions of a narrative and then to attribute them to disparate sources. A particularly nice example of this practice can be found in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges when it treats 13:3-10 and the instructions given previously concerning the Feast of Unleavened Bread in 12:14-20. The Cambridge Bible notes the following discrepancies:

1) 12:14-20 mentions that a “holy convocation” should be held on the first and seventh days of the feast and that no work should be done on them. In contrast, 13:3-10 only mentions a “feast to the LORD” on the seventh day.

2) 12:14-20 gives a different name for the month of the ceremony from “Aviv” in 13:4.

Given such differences, how can one be so foolish as to think that they could belong to a single historical account? Despite the force which this argument has on the surface, it crumbles quickly with the application of the literary principle of economy of words, as we will see below.

III. Literary analysis.

In order to postulate a reason for the apparent “intrusion” of vv.# 3-10 we need to clarify the purpose of this literary unit. Benno Jacob, in his commentary on Exodus, sees a major change in the role of Moses beginning in chapter 13. Formerly he was a comrade standing at the side of the enslaved sons of Israel, arguing their case before Pharaoh. Now he sees Moses in a new role: A law giver to the newly liberated nation of Israel.

Although he acknowledges the Deuteronomic tone and language in 13:3-16 (and compares vv.#9, 16 with Deut.# 6:8 and 18:19), he explains this by arguing that Moses was not acting simply as a passive mouthpiece for God, but as a teacher who expounds upon and clarifies the basic commandments of God, then motivates the people to obey them.

Jacob rests the crux of his interpretation upon the phrase “and Moses said to the people”, which occurs here for the first time. Moses’ direct address to the people of Israel is taken as indicative of their freedom from slavery and their new national status. Moses must now begin to formulate laws for governing the new nation in a manner which the people will accept. Thus he takes God’s terse words and fills them in with motivational material to make them palatable to the newly liberated people.

While Jacob has presented a reasonable model to explain why Moses expands upon the basic commandments from God, his criteria for finding a new leadership role for Moses beginning precisely at 13:1 are not that well-founded. Technically, this is the first time that Moses directly addresses “the people”. However, Moses has addressed “the sons of Israel” before (6:9), although he normally worked through the elders of Israel (4:29-31, 12:21). The shift in terminology here may simply reflect the fact that Moses is now dealing with a “mixed multitude” (12:38) which includes but is not limited to the sons of Israel. Thus this author suspects that Jacob has misinterpreted a nuance in the wording of the text which is intended to reflect that “the people” includes more than the “sons of Israel” and not the fact that they are being addressed as a new nation. Also, the term “people” can hardly be considered as a new epithet for the liberated nation since it is applied to the Israelites over fifty times while they are still slaves in Egypt (Exodus chapters 1-12).

Neither can we point to the facts that the promised land is mentioned, or that the ordinance is to be permanently observed, or that sons are to be instructed as to the nature of the ceremony, because the command to the elders regarding Passover has these same elements (12:24-27). Thus there are no features unique to chapter 13 which mark it as the distinct initiation point of a new role for Moses.

Brevard Childs, when he gives an integrated explanation for this passage in its final redaction, believes that this passage is not as irrationally organized as some liberal critics think. He sees the Unleavened Bread and Firstborn ceremonies as pre-exodus traditions which were later merged with the exodus event to explain their origin. Thus these two ceremonies are explained separately in chapter 13 from the Passover itself (chapter 12). Given the parallelism of the instructions here, Childs sees their primary goal as explaining the faith to the next generation.

The weakness with Childs’ argument is that an arbitrary editing approach can be used to explain any features which appear unusual to the modern reader. Childs’ separation of Passover from the Unleavened Bread and Firstborn laws can be seen to be arbitrary because in Chapter 12 the Passover and Unleavened Bread regulations are presented together. Thus by emphasizing a different set of verses, one could just as well use this methodology to show that the Passover and Unleavened Bread traditions were both original, and only the Firstborn tradition was added later.

Critical to the analysis of any literary unit is deciding where it begins. Up to this point we have followed Jacob in starting it at 13:1, but careful reconsideration of the narratives leads this author to conclude that Childs is correct in starting it at 12:1. If we outline the narrative starting in 12:1 we get an excellent overview of events and a better insight into the purpose of this passage:

A. God tells Moses and Aaron the details for observing the Passover (12:1-14).

B. God tells Moses and Aaron the details for celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread (12:15-20).

C. Moses gathers the elders of Israel and explains to them the details about Passover, and adds comments about celebrating it in the Promised Land and instructing sons about it (12:21-28).

D. God strikes the Egyptians and the Israelites flee, with their bread unleavened and accompanied by a “mixed multitude” (12:29-42).

E. In light of the mixed multitude fleeing with Israel, God adds stipulations as to how foreigners can observe the Passover (12:43-51).

F. God commands Moses to initiate the firstborn law (13:1-2).

G. Moses tells the people about the Unleavened Bread as well as the Firstborn laws (13:3-16).

With this overview we can see a simple logic behind this sequence of events: Moses is presenting these new ordinances in the order in which God gave them to him, and also at the most opportune time for the people to understand and appreciate them.

The Passover rite itself was the highest urgency because the blood on the doorposts was necessary to avert death. Then, after the people fled carrying their unleavened bread with them, they could better appreciate the Feast of Unleavened Bread as another aspect of celebrating the exodus. Further, after witnessing the death of the firstborn Egyptians, they could better understand why God would want them to consecrate their firstborn to him. Thus the order here is very logical. Why does Moses go back to present the Unleavened Bread regulations before those of the Firstborn and thus create an apparent “intrusion” into the text of chapter 13? If we view this as a historical rather than a literary problem, there is a natural explanation: Moses wanted to present the new regulations to the people in a manner which he thought would be most effective and also in the order in which God gave them to him.2 The difficulties in understanding this passage arise only if we forget about or dismiss a historical basis for the text.

Despite some weaknesses already noted, Jacob seems to have a valid point in seeing this 24-hour period as a transition for both Moses and the people of Israel. Rather than placing the break point at 13:1, we saw that 12:1 would be better. Up to this point Moses has been their advocate before Pharaoh, now he is their leader to take them to the Promised Land and to establish a new nation there. Jacob’s insight explains nicely why Moses is adding comments about Canaan and about instructing their children to all three ceremonies (Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstborn, not just the latter two as he apparently proposes): Moses is looking forward to their settlement in Canaan, which everyone at this time thought was only two weeks away. Thus he views himself now as an instructor, teaching them the laws of the new nation and how they can best serve God as a free people.

The question arises about the additional comments which Moses makes regarding these laws. We have no record that God mentioned the special case about donkeys, or made references to the Promised Land or to instructing sons when telling Moses about these ordinances. Where did this further material come from? To complicate matters further, we see that Moses does not repeat certain details of the instructions he has been given. Why is some material omitted?

To address this issue we need to realize that in ancient times documents had to be copied by hand, which was a time-consuming, boring, and tedious process. Given this constraint, there was a great need to maintain some control over the size of the history of the Hebrew people. The procedure usually adopted in the Old Testament is to give the details of an instruction once, and to refer to it tersely at other times. Cassuto calls this “the principle of economy of words” and illustrates it in his Exodus commentary in Exodus 10:2.

In light of this literary technique, it is quite possible that Moses is simply repeating verbatim the instructions he receives from God, although they appear in the text as either being spoken by God or Moses, but not both. However, the model of Benno Jacob is more plausible: He attributes some of the unique material in Moses’ addresses to his preaching style, especially because it follows that of Deuteronomy so closely. This is a reasonable literary approach, although we should not deduce from this that Moses was spinning these motivational encouragements and other details out of thin air. In Exodus 10:2 we find God telling Moses that one purpose for his miraculous signs in Egypt is so that future generations will know that God controls the world. From this Moses could deduce that the instruction of sons was one important purpose for these ceremonies and thus make this point more explicit. Similarly, since God had said these celebrations should be observed permanently, it follows that they should be observed in the Promised Land. Hence there is nothing Moses says here which is not derived from an idea he originally heard from God. As such, there is nothing here which can be misconstrued as Moses speaking his private opinion.

Because of the latitude given Moses, we should not deduce that God somehow was incapable of addressing the people directly himself in a motivating, loving, sympathetic, or practical manner. That he allowed Moses to be creative in issuing commands may have been for the purpose of developing Moses’ character and ability as a strong yet empathic leader rather than limiting him to being a mechanical errand boy. Aside from recognizing that God probably gave Moses a degree of latitude in presenting his laws to the people, we need to consider what effect the principle of economy of words would have on a literary document where much of its content involves the repeating to the people of material given to Moses by God. To be specific, there are four possibilities:

A. The narrative records God’s exact words to Moses and Moses’ exact words to the people. One would expect a great deal of redundancy in this case and hence would expect to see it only rarely.

B. The narrative notes God’s instructions tersely, then gives Moses’ full address to the people.

C. The narrative gives God’s instructions in detail, then tersely notes Moses’ address to the people.

D. The narrative gives some details of God’s instructions, then gives the remaining details in the context of Moses’ address to the people.

Note that the last three possibilities are all consistent with the principle of an economy of words. Alerted to this literary style, we see possibility “B” being used regarding the law of the firstborn, where the terse instructions are given in 13:1-2 and the details follow in Moses’ address (13:11-16).

In response to the discrepancy-amplifying approach of the source critics, it appears instead that the two accounts of the Feast of Unleavened Bread represent an example of type “D” economy. Although there is some overlap, each account gives unique details which when taken together give a harmonious, well-defined set of instructions for observing the feast. The meshing of details between these two passages is complementary: We can derive the season in which the Exodus took place from the term hodesh ha’aviv (the month of green [barley] ears) used in chapter 13:4 and correlate this well with the Jewish New Year (“This shall be your first month” in 12:2);3 the exact dates (14th to 21st) from chapter 12 as compared with the general reference to a week in chapter 13; the details about convocations on both the first and seventh days from 12, with the stress that the seventh day convocation is the (more important?) “feast to the LORD” in 13.

Thus the differences between the parallel accounts are intended to minimize redundancy without reducing one of the speeches to a trivial level. Doubtless the original audience received complete instructions in the course of one address but the content was split between God’s instructions to Moses and Moses’ instructions to the people in order to maintain the reader’s interest throughout the total narrative. To amplify these differences rather than harmonize them represents a gross misunderstanding of Hebrew literature and its love of parallelism within the practical constraints of a need to keep written documents brief.

IV. Conclusions.

We have seen that a literary approach provides fresh insights and explanations for the textual difficulties observed in this sample portion of the Pentateuch. Unfortunately, we saw that it can be prone to over-reading the text in that it may place great weight on a subtle wording which has a better alternative explanation for its origin (i.e., Benno Jacob’s analysis of “people”). More seriously, we found it laboring to derive a literary explanation for a textual anomaly which has a quite plausible historical origin (i.e., the apparent “intrusion” of 13:3-10). Within appropriate limitations, the literary methodology is extremely helpful for justifying logical relationships between parallel accounts which the source critical approach would attribute to an all-powerful, here brilliant, there blundering, editor. Thus for explaining why the text is the way it is, the literary method is more consistent and hence more valuable than the source methodology. However, we must remember that the Exodus account claims to be historical, so we should allow passages to be shaped by “the way things actually happened” even if that unfolding of events appears insensitive to our own present understanding of ancient literary tastes.


U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Hebrew University), 1967.

Brevard S. Childs The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press), 1974.

S. R. Driver, The Book of Exodus, in The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: The University Press) , 1953.

Benno Jacob, Das Zweite Buch der Torah (Jerusalem: microfilm), n.d.


1 The key Hebrew term is  , which Targum Onkelos links with the “rabble” mentioned in Numbers 11:4. The term is used as a general label for “people groups” foreign to Israel (Nehemiah 13:3, Jeremiah 25:20, Jeremiah 50:37). Doubtless this “mixed multitude” included slaves who were not of Israelite descent.

2 Note that if we take 12:3 as referring to the original Passover in Egypt, we cannot argue that Moses did not have the time to present an additional regulation to the Israelites before they fled, for the Passover ceremony required that the lamb be kept by the household for four days.

3 The Cambridge Bible Commentary appears to understand Aviv in 13:4 as a variant for the Babylonian month name Ab. While this affords a convenient etymology, it would force a contradiction into the text which is hardly justified in light of other, more harmonious understandings.