Easter Friday, April 13

The Song of Solomon 6: It is important that the erotic imagery of The Song of Solomon is not separated from its covenant context. The bride in this book is not just any pretty girl. She is the unique beloved, his one and only, and she is constantly referred to in those terms. She is his sealed fountain (4:12; cf. Proverbs 5:15-19). This is a book about covenant fidelity, even beyond the grave (cf. 8:6-7). 

At the same time, and like all love poetry, it stresses the theme of losing and finding one another, because in so many instances husbands and wives do this their whole life long. Great attention is given to presence and absence (4:8; 6:1), and therefore searching (3:1-5; 5:2-8).

Very important to this book is the imagery of the garden, for which the Song of Solomon uses the Persian word paradeisos, the very place where Jesus said He would meet the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). This garden evokes, of course, the original garden, the garden of man’s innocence, where he lived in intimacy with God. It was in that garden, too, that man and woman enjoyed the intimacy of their married love, in the days before clothing was deemed necessary. The joys of sexual intimacy between husband and wife, as they are described in this book, attempt to approximate man’s original state in that original garden. This joy that husband and wife find in one another is one of the basic human blessings that was not entirely lost by man’s fall.

Easter Saturday, April 14

The Song of Solomon 7: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in the series of sermons already mentioned, treats the Song of Solomon entirely in terms of Christology. Solomon, simply put, means “the Peaceful One” (Pacificus in Latin), Bernard relying on an ancient word of biblical etymologies that related Hebrew form of Solomon, Shlomo, to the Hebrew word for “peace,” shalom. But who is Solomon, really? According to St. Paul, after all, Christ “is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). Everything said about Solomon in this book, therefore, Bernard sees as referential to Christ.

An excellent illustration of his approach can be found in his sermon on 1:3, “Your name is as oil poured out.” To interpret this verse, Bernard appeals to The Acts of the Apostles, where Peter and John invoke the name of Jesus to heal the man crippled from birth (3:6). Such is the power of the name which “is as oil poured out.” The pouring out of Jesus’ name upon the earth, says Bernard, is the entire economy of salvation, because it is the only name under heaven by which we must be saved. It is God’s oil poured out on the man Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son and the one Mediator between God and man. Bernard then goes on to deliver a three-point sermon on the three-fold properties of oil: nourishment, healing, and illumination. In all these three things, says Bernard, we are dealing with the name of Jesus, which we invoke in the prayer of faith. By that holy name we are nourished, we are healed, we are illumined. Faith in the name of Jesus, which is the major theme of the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles (and which we are also reading during this season), becomes Bernard’s interpretive key to The Song of Solomon.

St. Thomas Sunday, April 15

The Song of Solomon 8: There is considerable pastoral imagery in this book, ubiquitous references to the flocks and shepherding and that sort of thing. There is also considerable attention given to the hearing of the voice of the Beloved. These images should put Christians in mind of the theme of the Good Shepherd in John 10, with particular attention to the recognition of the Shepherd’s voice.

Indeed, the Gospel according to John apparently borrows the imagery of the Song of Solomon to describe Mary Magdalene’s search for Christ on Easter morning, using the imagery of the garden. We read this Gospel text today. Like the bride in the Song of Solomon (3:1-4), Mary Magdalene rises early while it is still dark (John 20:1) and goes out seeking him whom her soul loves. She searches for the one whom she calls “my Lord” (John 20:13) and, in an image reminiscent of both Genesis and the Song of Solomon, she comes to the garden where he was buried (19:41). Indeed, she first takes him to be the gardener (v. 15), which, as the new Adam, he most certainly is. Her eyes blinded by tears, she does not at once know him. He speaks to her (v. 15), but even then she does not recognize his voice. The dramatic moment of recognition arrives when the risen Jesus pronounces her own name: “Mary” (v. 16). Only then does she know him as “Rabbouni,“ “my Teacher.”

In this story Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: “the sheep hear his voice; he calls his own sheep by name . . . for they know his voice” (John 10:3f). Like Adam, and like the bride in Solomon’s Song, they seek God in the garden. Today’s narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ, who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: “. . . the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). This is truly an “in house” memory of the Church; it can only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.

Monday, April 16

Exodus 1: The political situation has changed a great deal since the end of Genesis. Israel had gone down into Egypt during the 15th Dynasty (1663-1555), but now the biblical account has apparently reached the 19th Dynasty, the first Pharaoh of which was Ramses I (1293-1291). As Exodus begins, we seem to be in the reign of the next Pharaoh, Seti I (1291-1278). If so, the Exodus itself occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1279-1212). If, as seems to be the case, the Pharaoh here was Set I, there was indeed a great deal of building in process. Archeological evidence from this period testifies to a new hall for the temple of Amun at Karnak, two new temples at Abydos, a large tomb in the Valley of the Kings and yet another temple at Thebes.

The “shrewdness” of Pharaoh here ties this story to two others. First, to the account of the serpent, “more cunning than any beast of the field,” in Genesis 3:1. Each  of these two books, Genesis and Exodus, commences with a wily enemy who endeavors to deceive God’s people. Second, this theme is related to the later stories of Pharaoh’s attempts to outwit Moses. This early verse of Exodus, then, introduces a major motif of our book: the “matching of wits,” in which the sinful wisdom of the world encounters the baffling wisdom of God. As this first chapter progresses, Pharaoh’s shrewdness is quickly outwitted by the Hebrew midwives, who are thus to be contrasted with the gullible Eve at the beginning of Genesis. Ultimately, of course, Pharaoh will be defeated by his own shrewdness, a process that the Bible calls hardness of heart.

For the first time in this book, the Israelites “pull a fast one” on Pharaoh, thus demonstrating a superior wisdom that ties this story back to the Joseph narrative at the end of Genesis. The midwives “feared the Lord,” and this was the source of their wisdom; cf. Psalm 110:10. Whereas the enemy outsmarted Eve at the beginning of Genesis, the women here in Exodus outwit the enemy.

The endeavor to kill the male children places this text in a parallel with Matthew 2:16. Beginning with the dreams of two Josephs in Genesis 37 and Matthew 1, there are many striking correspondences between the opening chapters of Matthew and the long account of the Chosen People in Egypt. This verse also introduces two major symbols of the Exodus story, water in general and the Nile River in particular.

Tuesday, April 17

Exodus 2: The Hebrew word tevah is found in only two passages of the Old Testament. It appears, first, in Genesis 6–9, where the term is usually translated as "ark," it refers to the boat-like structure that Noah and his sons construct for the saving of a new humanity. In Exodus 2, the only other place in the Old Testament where we find the word, it is more normally translated as "basket," referring to the receptacle that floated on the Nile River and held the baby Moses. In each case, likewise, the tevah, made watertight by the application of bitumen, is the means of salvation in the midst of the waters. The Bible’s use of the word in these two instances suggests an intentional literary, as well as theological, relationship between the two stories. This account of Moses, therefore, serves to parallel the Exodus story with the narrative of the Flood, and Moses with Noah. Moses becomes the deliverer of the Hebrews, much as Noah was the deliverer of the human race. Both the Flood and the Exodus, of course, are symbols of Baptism; cf. Hebrews 11:7; 1 Peter 3:18-22. Moses’ very name “drawn from the water” is a foreshadowing of the salvific event at the Red Sea. The people of God is the community “drawn from the water,” most particularly, of course, the water of Baptism.

Just as Pharaoh was outwitted by the midwives in the first chapter, so his policy is thwarted by the sister and mother of Moses in this chapter. There is the added comical dimension that Moses’ mother becomes probably the only woman in history to be paid for nursing her own child!

Moses is now introduced as the rescuer of the Hebrews; cf. Acts 7:20-29. Already we have a foretaste of his activity against the Egyptians; before Moses is finished, many more Egyptians will die. One observes especially that he chooses solidarity with the Hebrews rather than the Egyptians; cf. Hebrews 11:24-26. On the other hand, the zest and spontaneity with which Moses throws himself into this action is to be contrasted with his great reluctance, later on, when God gives him the difficult task of actually delivering His people. As was observed by Clement of Rome near the end of the first century (Epistle to the Corinthians 4), the animosity shown toward Moses in this passage is paralleled by the animosity shown toward Joseph by his brethren in Genesis.

In verses 16-21 Moses is presented, for the second time, as a deliverer, again foreshadowing his future role.  We see here also a parallel between Moses and the flight of Jacob in Genesis 29. Both men run away to distant relatives (Remember that the Midianites here, descendents of Abraham and his later wife Keturah in Genesis 25:2, are blood relatives of the Hebrews.), both meet their future wives by a well, both make sure that the water is drawn, both are taken to meet their future fathers-in-law, both settle down with their in-laws for a long time, both finally return to their original families and take their new families with them. These parallels were already noticed by the Jewish commentator Rashi back in the 11th century.

There is also the irony that Moses, having abandoned his heritage as an Egyptian, is called “an Egyptian” in verse 22; surely he is a “stranger in a strange land.” He was essentially a pilgrim on the earth; cf. Hebrews 11:26f; 13:14; Acts 7:29.

Wednesday, April 18

The Gospel According to John: This Devotional Guide follows the custom of ancient Christian lectionaries by assigning the Gospel according to John to the Easter season. Indeed, the opening verses of this Gospel remain, even now, the major biblical reading for the feast of Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

A second-century Christian, Irenaeus of Lyons, in southern France, is our earliest witness to the custom of identifying each of the four Gospel writers with one of the four “living creatures” in the Book of Revelation, an interpretive motif that was to have an immense influence on the history of icons, manuscript illumination, stained glass windows, and other forms of Christian art. The identification of the four Gospel writers with these symbols does vary somewhat in detail, but very consistently John is related to the image of the eagle. John’s Gospel aims at the heights. Mark begins with the preaching of John the Baptist; Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, and Luke traces it all the way back to Adam. It is John, however, who commences his Gospel by recourse to eternity itself in speaking of the Word in the bosom of the Father. His has always been regarded as the loftiest, the most sublime of the four canonical Gospels.

If one compares John’s Gospel with the others, one distinctive feature that will be noticed immediately is that while John records fewer events in the life of Jesus, he “makes more” of them. Compared with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he records a smaller number of healings, for instance, but those healings fit into larger blocks of related teaching. John has only one record of a healing of a blind man, contrasted with the several in the other Gospels, but this account in John occupies the entire ninth chapter and is the setting for an entire narrative sequence and several sayings of Jesus. Similarly, John has only one story of a multiplication of loaves, in contrast to Matthew and Mark, who have two each, but John’s account of this event is joined to a lengthy dialogue and discourse that fill his entire sixth chapter (which also happens to be the longest chapter in the New Testament).

John’s Gospel breaks rinto two discreet sections. The first of these is sometimes called his “book of signs,” because it is structured around certain miracles that reveal Jesus’ divine identity: the miracle at the wedding feast, the healings of the nobleman’s son and the lame man, the multiplication of the loaves and the walking on water, the healing of the blind man, and the raising of Lazarus. The inner meaning of these “signs” is discerned in their contextual narrative and dialogue.

The second part of John’s Gospel is the account of the Lord’s death and Resurrection. Here the structure is determined largely by the narrative sequence that marks the other Gospels and was evidently all of one piece from the very beginning of the apostolic preaching. John’s interpretive discourse here is found entirely in one lengthy section, chapters 13-17.

Exodus 3: In Holy Scripture, this same mountain is called both Sinai and Horeb, the former name more favored in the traditions of Judah, the latter name more common among the northern tribes. The story of the Burning Bush here requires two chapters, being the longest “call story” in the Bible. The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi speculated that the event took an entire week! As the story begins, Moses is curious. As usual, he is taking the initiative. He will attempt to approach the divine presence on his own!

Moses covers his face but bares his feet, such being the proper response to the presence of holiness, particularly a “holy place.” Holiness is not abstract; it is revealed in concrete physical experiences. The removal of the sandals in this context is found with regard to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-16) and the veiling of the face with regard to Elijah (1 Kings 19:13).  St. Paul explains the deeper significance of the veiling of the face in 2 Corinthians 3:18-4:6. God identifies Himself here as the same God who spoke of old to the patriarchs, and this description of God’s meeting with Moses bears comparison to some similar patriarchal narratives (cf. Genesis 17:1-3; 28:16-19; 32:31.

The divine commission distinguishes Moses from all that went before. From time to time the patriarchs had been told to do certain things (cf. Genesis 12 and 22, for instance), but they were never, strictly speaking, given some task to which they were to devote their entire lives. Moses is the first and prototype of the man called to the exclusive service of God and ministry to God’s people. After him the Bible will describe many such calls.

Beginning at verse 11 we observe Moses’ reluctance to accept his arduous prophetic call. Indeed, this will become a normal response of several of the prophets and other leaders at the time of their call; cf. Judges 6:14-18; Jeremiah 1:4-8; Jonah 1:1-3Luke 5:4-10.

Thursday, April 19

Exodus 4: All through this chapter Moses anticipates getting resistance from the chosen people, as had been the case back in 2:14. Popular resistance to the prophetic word was to remain a common biblical theme; cf. Amos 7:10-13; Hosea 9:7; Acts 26:24, etc. In the case of Moses this disposition to disbelieve him was to continue to the very end of his career. Indeed, in the New Testament there is the sustained complaint that the Israelites were still not taking Moses seriously; cf. John 5:45-47; 7:19; Acts 7:30-39.

These “signs” serve more than one function. Moses says that nobody will believe him, but it appears that the first unbelief to be overcome is that of Moses himself. Secondly, the Israelites must be convinced. Thirdly, the Egyptians must be convinced.

Moses objects that he has never had “a way with words.” Truly so; although at this point in the story he is 80 years old, the Bible records only one sentence from him prior to this time, and that one sentence had been totally ineffective (Exodus 2:13). God reminds him that he won’t be speaking for himself; cf. Mark 13:11. Jeremiah will also use an alleged speech deficiency in attempting to escape the prophetic call; cf. Jeremiah 1:4-8.

Time has run out for Moses, but in response to his pleading, God makes the concession that the new prophet is to receive some help, and for the first time we learn that Moses has an older brother. Aaron will do the talking, but Moses is not relieved of his own responsibility. Aaron will be his spokesman, but he himself will continue to be God’s spokesman. This extended dialogue between Moses and God reveals the prophet’s ability at haggling, which is a normal part of business transactions in that part of the world. In fact, one is reminded of Abraham as someone who “drove a hard bargain” with God; cf. Genesis 18:24-32. Later on in the Exodus account, much will be said about Moses’ ability as an intercessor with God; on one occasion the people will be saved from swift destruction solely by reason of Moses’ ability to “haggle” with the Almighty.

The last plague is predicted first (verses 21-23).  Several points should be made with respect to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. First, it is improper to interpret this expression in any fashion that frees Pharaoh from the moral responsibility of hardening his own heart (cf. 8:11[15]). It is clear from the entire context God is not responsible for Pharaoh’s sin. Second, in the several times that the text ascribes this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to God Himself (cf. 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8), the hardening of the heart is incorporated into the dramatic tension of the story. It is part of saying that the entire development, the growing suspense of the conflict, is being directed by God. As the Lord provides less and less excuse for Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, through the course of the plagues, God is pictured as making Pharaoh’s hard ever harder by giving him occasions for repentance. In order to resist God, Pharaoh’s heart must become progressively hardened. Third, it is unfortunate that the context of this drama of deliverance was forgotten by many later commentators on Romans 9, who treated that passage as though it dealt with individual salvation. There are further observations on this point in the note on Exodus 9:16.

Verses 24-26 are one of the most obscure passages in all of Holy Scripture, and it is possible that even the inspired author was not entirely certain what it meant. Indeed, we can say that the story was recorded here quite simply because it happened, and various interpretations of it can be traced back to pre-Christian times. What is clear about the passage, however, is this: that Moses’ son had to be circumcised before his prophetic commission could be undertaken. This detail places Moses once again in the tradition of the patriarchs. The insertion of this story, which has to do with a specific ritual act, at the beginning of the Exodus drama tends to place the whole narrative of the Exodus in a liturgical and initiatory context, indicating an important relationship between circumcision and the Exodus. Circumcision became the way in which the male Israelite became part of the Exodus community at all times. Even Jesus submitted to the rite (cf. Luke 2:21), and the liturgical tradition of the Church has always felt it appropriate to celebrate that event as a special feast day.

In verse 27 we learn that God had revealed Himself simultaneously to both Moses and Aaron (cf. 4:14). More than once in Holy Scripture God speaks to two people simultaneously in order to bring them together. Such are Samuel and Saul (1 Samuel 9:15-20, David and Gad (2 Samuel 24:10-12), Paul and Ananias (Acts 9:4-16), Paul and Cornelius (Acts 10:9-15,30-33); see also Tobit 3:1-16.

Friday, April 20

Exodus 5: “Thus says the Lord” (cf. also Exodus 32:27) places Moses squarely in the prophetic tradition. This is, in fact, the Bible’s first great encounter of a prophet with a king, an encounter that will be repeated with the likes of Nathan and David, Elijah and Ahab, Isaiah and Ahaz, Amos and Jeroboam II, Jeremiah and Zedechiah, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, John the Baptist and Antipas, Paul and Agrippa. It is instructive to remember that, on the sole occasion when Abraham was called a prophet, it was in connection with a local ruler in the Negev; cf. Genesis 20:7.

The source of Pharaoh’s problem is that he does not “know the Lord” (verse 2). Before much longer, nonetheless, he will have ample opportunity to make the Lord’s acquaintance; cf. Exodus 8:22; 9:29. Moses’ encounter with such a man may be compared to David’s confrontation with Goliath, who also did not “know the Lord”; cf. 1 Samuel 17:45-47.

Pharaoh reacts “that same day,” taking the initiative away from Moses and Aaron, thereby making them look inept in the eyes of the Israelites  (verses 4-9). “Thus says the Lord” now becomes “thus says Pharaoh” verses 10-14). Here there is a series of complaints: the overseers to the foremen, the foremen to Pharaoh, Pharaoh to the foremen, the foremen to Moses, Moses to God. Pharaoh’s tactic is to divide the people that he wants to oppress. He does not discredit Moses directly; he acts, rather, in such a way that the people themselves will turn on Moses.

The scene in verses 15-21 will be repeated many times in the next 40 years. On each occasion when things do not go well, the people will blame Moses. And when the people blame Moses, Moses will often enough blame God, as he proceeds to do now.