Samuel's Passover - While We Are Apart
There had been over 700 Passover celebrations since Israel had left Egypt to the time of King Josiah. Out of them all, we see that Samuel’s Passover rated second in spiritual significance within the memories of the people of Israel. “The Passover (as celebrated by King Josiah) had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel” (2 Chronicles 35:18). Josiah’s Passover is clearly explained in the book of Chronicles. But there is no mention in the scripture concerning any Passover conducted in the days of Samuel. How are we to understand it? Fortunately, there are enough details in the scriptures to explain the practices of keeping Passover in the days of Samuel.
Passover, as you might recall, was one of the three celebratory periods where all males within the land of Israel were required to attend. Israel was specifically commanded NOT to attend the three festivals of Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles in their home towns or tribal high places. These celebrations were to be conducted exclusively at the place where the sanctuary was filled with His presence. When Samuel was a child, the place of national worship was in Shiloh.
YHWH first came to dwell with Israel after the dedication of the Sanctuary constructed in the wilderness. His presence remained until He withdrew at the time of the death of Eli the High Priest. At the time of Eli’s death, the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines. The city of Shiloh and its temple was razed to the ground by the Philistines. It was at that time that the dying daughter-in-law of Eli declared “Ichabod”, meaning “the glory has departed” (see 1 Samuel 4:21). After the loss of Shiloh, Israel was in a state of disarray and disgrace. It took twenty years for the people to gain a sense of shame for the behaviors that brought on their destruction (see 1 Samuel 7:2).
Because of their spiritual condition, YHWH refused to dwell with them. That meant that there was no place commanded for the twelve tribes to congregate and hold their three sacred festivals. The ark of the covenant was stored eight miles north east of Jerusalem (see 1 Samuel 7:1). The rest of the sanctuary and its furnishings were setup at the Levitical town of Nob, two miles northeast of Jerusalem. While the people of Israel congregated to discuss civil matters on a hilltop at Mizpah, eight miles directly north of Jerusalem.
The word Mizpah was a fitting term for Israel’s condition, for it means “while we are apart” (See Genesis 31:49). YHWH’s glory had departed from Israel and would not return until His presence filled Solomon’s temple 140 years later. YHWH had departed, but also it meant that they (the Israelite people) would be apart from each other as well. Yet among these shameful circumstances, we see that Passover was celebrated in such a way that it rated number two in its significance to the Israelite people. If they were apart, where were they performing the Passover sacrifices and how were they performing it?
There was no official place to conduct the Passover services according to the complete specifications of the Torah, for it was commanded to them in the wilderness, “You are not to do as we do here (in the wilderness) today, everyone as he sees fit, since you have not yet reached the resting place and the inheritance YHWH your God is giving you. But you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land YHWH your Elohim is giving you as an inheritance, and he will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety. Then to the place YHWH your Elohim will choose as a dwelling for his Name—there you are to bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, and all the choice possessions you have vowed to YHWH (Deuteronomy 12:5-11).
It is not clear exactly how Passover’s were conducted at this time, but they clearly reverted back to a state of worshiping YHWH “as every man sees fit”. Because of the confusion, many had likely conducted the Passover in their own homes as they had originally done in Egypt. Others may have gone to the high places in Levitical towns such as Nob to fellowship during the Passover with the Levites. One thing we know for sure, many of the commandments of the Torah were fulfilled without a full functioning sanctuary. It was a time of great shame for the people, but it was a time of hope for a restoration to full functionality.
The revival of Israel to its restoration can be largely attributed to Samuel who had kept the light of Torah burning through his educational efforts. After a period of two decades, the hearts of the people yearned for freedom from the tyranny of the Philistines, “And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, "If you are returning to YHWH with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to YHWH and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served YHWH only”.
But this return did not immediately restore YHWH’s presence to them. The corruption of their devotion to Him ran dep and reconciliation between YHWH would be a slow, painful process that would not conclude for another 120 years. This state of reconciliation parallels those of Israel who being led to keep the Torah in the distant lands today. Many are putting away the false gods and desire to fulfill as much of the commandments that is lawful for us to execute. But the effects of our waywardness prevents Him from revealing his presence again. Shall we keep the Passover and the other festivals commanded? Yes! But we are likely conducting them as the children of Israel did in the time of Samuel “as every man sees fit”. They may not be perfect according to what was ultimately commanded, but we are heading in the right direction.
But be assured that our practices will be offensive to the nations who lord over us as did the Philistines in Samuel's day. “When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. And when the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. They said to Samuel, "Do not stop crying out to YHWH our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines." Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt offering to YHWH. He cried out to YHWH on Israel's behalf, and YHWH answered him. While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day YHWH thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car. Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far has YHWH helped us." So the Philistines were subdued and did not invade Israelite territory again”.
The key to the restoration of Israel was not that they attended the three great festivals in a temple dedicated to national worship. The key was that the Law of Moses was being taught to Israel and it reached into every home. It was Samuel’s teachings and organization of schools that a fire was kindled to obey YHWH and not depart from His commandments. As this occurred, YHWH’s hand reached out to protect them and the tide was turned to drive out their enemies.
“Throughout Samuel's lifetime, the hand of YHWH was against the Philistines. The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to her, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the power of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places” (1 Samuel 7:3-16).
Today we are in a state of "Mizpah". We are apart, but although we are apart from the immediate presence of YHWH and Israel, the principles of the Torah apply, along with its blessings and curses. His plan is to restore Israel to greatness, especially to those of Israel scattered throughout the nations. "Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47).