The three images shown here, the "Angel of Death" drawing from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us1, the illustration by William Henry Margetson,2 and the engraving by Gerard Jollain,3 all depict the rites of the Passover sacrifice in Shemot 12. Each focuses on a different part of the process, either the sacrifice itself, the smearing of the blood, or the passing by of the destroying angel. The artists' varying renditions raise questions regarding the purpose of the blood, the nature of the offering, and the identity of "the destroyer" (הַמַּשְׁחִית).
Angel of Death
The illustration depicts both the inside and outside of an Israelite home, with the wall of the house effectively dividing the image into two scenes. The left half illuminates the destroying angel. He holds a sword in one hand and examines the smeared blood on the door-frame. Behind him a dead Egyptian lies on the floor. On the right, in the home, a family gathers around their lamb, which lies whole and as of yet untouched on the table. The figures are dressed to go, wearing hats and holding their staffs and satchels. The girl at the head of the table grasps a bundle, perhaps her matzot.
This image focuses on the act of smearing the blood. A male figure holds a branch and spreads the blood on the outer doorway of his home. To his right, several men garbed in white, presumably his Egyptian neighbors, look on. Inside the house, two figures are visible. One seems to be setting the table while the other crouches on the floor as he sweeps something into his palm, perhaps the last remnants of unleavened bread.
In contrast to the other renderings, Jollain sets his scene not in a private home, but outside in a public venue. A big altar stands in the center of the image and a multitude of men, women and children gather around to observe the proceedings. A male holds a lamb in one hand and a knife in the other, preparing to slaughter the offering. In the left foreground, two unidentified men4 stand slightly apart from the crowd, also watching the ceremony.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
For whom is the blood?
In the illustration entitled "Angel of Death", the destroying angel appears to be the intended audience of the blood, while in Margetson's image, in contrast, it is the Egyptians who look at the bloodied doorpost.5 According to the Biblical text, for whom was the blood intended? In Shemot 12:14, Hashem says, "וְרָאִיתִי אֶת הַדָּם וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית", suggesting that the blood is for God Himself, so He can prevent the destroyer from harming the Israelites. This, though, raises the question – could not Hashem have saved the nation without the sign of blood? Others,6 thus, assert that the blood was actually aimed at the Egyptians to prove to them the worthlessness of their gods. Alternatively, the blood was a sign for the Israelites themselves7 ("וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת"), as they rejected idolatry and proved their loyalty to Hashem.8 For elaboration, see Purpose of the Pesach.
Nature of the offering
While Jollain has the lamb being killed on an actual altar, neither of the other two images includes one. Was the Pesach considered a full-fledged sacrifice with all the accompanying laws? If so, what type of offering was it? Though the annual Pesach is clearly a sacrifice, it is not clear whether this was true of the original Pesach as well. The ceremony in Egypt contained the sacrificial features of unblemished animals, sprinkling of blood, and prohibitions of leavened bread, but there is no mention anywhere in the text that there was either an altar or the equivalent of a priest. See Purpose of the Pesach for the possibility that it acted similar to a sin offering,9 or alternatively, as a thanksgiving or petitionary offering.10
The destroying angel
Of the three artists, only the illustrator of "Angel of Death" decided to include a destroying angel in his image. He is depicted as a celestial being with wings and sword, flying through Egypt to smite all the firstborns in unmarked homes. Sefer Shemot makes no explicit mention of an angel, speaking instead just of a "מַשְׁחִית" (destroyer), whose nature is undefined. Is this being distinct from Hashem and acting independently,11 or is he Hashem's messenger, killing on His orders? Moreover, who actually killed the Egyptians? On one hand, we read that Hashem announces, "וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם".12 On the other hand, the blood is said to be placed on the doorpost so as to prevent the "מַשְׁחִית" from harming the Israelites.13