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What is the meaning of the bitter herbs in the Bible (see Exodus 12:8)?

bitter herbs

Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt foreshadowed God’s plan to deliver and redeem humankind through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God (John 1:29). In preparation for the final plague—the death of the firstborn—God instituted the initial Passover. In His great mercy, the Lord provided a way for His people to be saved from wrath. Every Israelite family was to take a spotless male lamb, slaughter it at twilight, and then smear some of its blood around and above the doorframes of their houses. “That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast” (Exodus 12:8).

Rather than a savory seasoning for the meat, God called for bitter herbs, meant to symbolize Israel’s bitter existence under Pharoah’s oppressive rule. As the Hebrews ate, the bitter herbs would remind them how their cruel Egyptian enslavers “made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:14). The unleavened bread would remind them how they had to flee in haste—the bread had no time to rise.

Every detail of the inaugural Passover pointed to Jesus Christ, our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The sacrifice of His blood on the cross set us free from bondage to sin and death (Romans 3:25–26; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:21–22; Hebrews 9:12). Like the Israelites, we suffered bitterly before receiving salvation in Christ Jesus. We were afflicted due to our slavery to sin (Romans 6:6, 14, 16; Galatians 5:1; 2 Peter 2:19).

Although the Bible doesn’t say specifically, the first Passover’s bitter herbs likely consisted of greens such as wild lettuce, watercress, endive, chicory, cumin, and dandelion. All of these are grown and readily available in Egypt. Jewish tradition specifies endive, chicory, wild lettuce, and nettles among the herbs that can be eaten. In present-day Passover seders, horseradish and lettuce are commonly used bitter herbs.

Additional directions for the Passover were given in Numbers 9 while Israel wandered in the wilderness of Sinai. The Lord intended for His people to celebrate the feast in perpetuity once they reached the Promised Land. God repeated the instruction “to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Numbers 9:11). Thus, bitter herbs became part of the annual observance of Passover.

The Hebrew word (mĕrōrɩ̂m) translated as “bitter herbs” in Exodus 12:8 and Numbers 9:11 is elsewhere rendered “bitterness” to describe the prophet Jeremiah’s personal misery: “He has filled me with bitterness and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink” (Lamentations 3:15, NLT). Interestingly, we are reminded that Jesus was offered the bitter cup of wine mixed with myrrh at His crucifixion (Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23).

Bitterness is a feeling that involves a mixture of anger and resentment generated by the experience of unjust suffering. Bitterness is frequently associated with sin and slavery to sin in the Bible (Deuteronomy 29:18; 32:32; Acts 8:23). Scripture cautions believers to “see to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). Paul warns Christians to “get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The bitter herbs of Passover can remind us today that we are no longer slaves to sin but free in Christ (John 8:36). The bitterness of our old lives was overcome by Jesus’ blood and the sacrifice of His body on the cross.

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Questions about Exodus

What is the meaning of the bitter herbs in the Bible (see Exodus 12:8)?
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This page last updated: October 17, 2022