Do you remember the scene in The Prince of Egypt where the Angel of Death flies through the land, killing the firstborn sons of all the Egyptians? At the beginning of the scene, you see an eerie light break through the clouds. All you hear is the sound of wind as the light gathers and descends to the earth, shooting through the streets. As it reaches each house, you see it enter and hear the sound of breath escaping. But when the light reaches an Israelite house, it “sees” the blood on the doorposts and turns away, saving the Israelites from death. The scene is both frightening and sobering in considering God’s power of life and death.
I’ve been taught all my life that God “passed over” the Israelites if they had the blood on the doorframes, as this movie so powerfully portrays. But what if God didn’t actually “pass over”, but rather “covered over”? I recently read an article by Meredith G. Kline which said that “cover over” may be a better way to interpret the Hebrew word pasach. I haven’t seen a lot of other Hebrew scholars with this same idea, so this is a translation question that is “in process.” You are getting a first look at how scholars can grow in their understanding of words even though we have had the Bible for so many years. I have a link to Kline’s article at the end of this post if you would like to read more of his ideas on your own.
In order to fully understand this new interpretation, we need to look first at the imagery of birds in the Bible. One particular image is of God caring for and protecting his people as a mother bird cares for and protects its young. Psalm 91:4 says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” Exodus 19:4 uses the picture of God carrying the Israelites out of Egypt on eagles’ wings: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”
Another verse that pictures God as a bird is Isaiah 31:5, which says, “Like birds hovering overhead, the LORD Almighty will shield Jerusalem; he will shield it and deliver it, he will ‘pass over’ it and will rescue it.” Here again God (Yahweh) hovers over and protects his people. The last phrase, however, suddenly changes metaphors. God “passes over” Jerusalem. Passing over doesn’t seem to quite fit the context, and if you read this verse in different versions, it is clear that translators aren’t quite sure what to do with this word. How does it fit in?
This is the Hebrew word pasach. In most other contexts, this word is actually translated “limp”. It is only translated “pass over” when it is used in reference to the Israelites leaving Egypt. Traditionally, scholars have said that perhaps it means God “limped” or “hopped” over the Israelite houses. From there, they extrapolate that it means “to pass over.” With some humor Kline says, “that would be a lame metaphor indeed!” Instead, Kline points to several places where pasach is used in a metaphor including a bird. He says that perhaps this word should have a second meaning which is more like how a bird hovers or covers protectively over its nest. This would make Isaiah 31:5 say, “Like birds hovering overhead, the LORD Almighty will shield Jerusalem; he will shield it and deliver it, he will hover/cover over it and will rescue it.” Protectively covering the nest seems to make sense here, and also seems to make sense in the context of the Passover. Rather than “hopping” over the Israelite houses, God is “covering” them.
This interpretation of the word pasach answers another question in the Exodus story as well. In Exodus 12:23 it says, “When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.” In this verse, there seems to be two different “beings” – Yahweh the LORD, and a “destroyer”. If we use the interpretation of “covering”, then we can see God actively caring for his people, covering their houses with his own presence, and not allowing the destroyer to enter.
I think this is a very beautiful picture of what God does. Psalm 18:35 says, “You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great.” God shields and sustains us. But not only that, it foreshadows the cross, where God not only provided the payment for our sin, but covered us with his very own blood. He showed on the cross that his love is active rather than passive. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Because of God’s great and active love for us, it seems especially poignant to me to see God as “covering” rather than “passing over” the Israelite houses on that day.
But, the truth is, no matter how we interpret this one word, we can be assured through the Scriptures that the God who has numbered the very hairs of our head (Luke 12:7), has lavished his love on us and called us his own children (1 John 3:1).
Dr. Kline’s article: https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/37/37-4/JETS_37-4_497-510_Kline.pdf