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What is the Passover story?

The Passover story is from the Biblical book of Exodus, which discusses the ancient Hebrews’ enslavement in Egypt and how they were freed. It’s the central story of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and reflects some of the biggest themes in Jewish history: foreign oppression and the longing for freedom; the sense that Jews are a protected and resilient people who will survive any adversity; and the contrast between living outside of Israel (in what’s called the “diaspora”) and living in the Jewish homeland. Those themes, and their contemporary resonance, are a big part of the Passover holiday today.

The Passover story begins when the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, starts worrying that the Jews living in Egypt will outnumber his own people. His response: forcing them into slavery, and decreeing that every son born to the Hebrews should be drowned in the Nile. It’s a part of the story that, for Jews, has come to symbolize anti-Semitic persecution more broadly and the historical struggle to endure it. One baby, named Moses (more on him here), is saved and adopted by Pharaoh’s own daughter.

When Moses grows up, he’s told by God to command Pharaoh to let the Jews go. Pharaoh says no, and God sets out to convince him by way of the Ten Plagues. (See here.) As the story goes, during the tenth and final plague, God passes through the land of Egypt and strikes down the firstborn of every household. But the Jews have been told to mark their doors with the blood of a lamb they’ve sacrificed — the Passover offering — and so God “passes over” their homes. Jews give thanks for being “passed over” and protected from the plagues: it’s a reminder that even when Jews are oppressed, the Bible teaches that they are a chosen people and will survive.

Pharaoh’s son is killed during this final plague, and as a result, Pharaoh lets the Jews go free — before changing his mind, as Pharaohs do. The ensuing chase ends up with Moses being trapped in front of the Red Sea, before it’s parted by God for the Jews to cross — the act of divine intervention that finally leads them to freedom, and (after forty years in the desert) to the land of Israel.