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.
Saturday, April 21
Exodus 6: Here commences God’s response to Moses’ complaint in chapter 5, and the major message is one of reassurance. God recalls his covenant with the patriarchs, to whom He was also obliged to give reassurance from time to time. God’s covenant with them has now been perfected by the revelation of God’s mysterious Name (cf. Ezekiel 20:5-7). Everything that Moses is to tell the people is summed up in the revelation of the Divine Name.
In verses 14-27 we find another genealogy, of which there were so many in Genesis, and many more of which will be found in the rest of Holy Scripture. Although modern readers may be disposed to skip such passages as uninteresting, they were certainly important to the biblical writers, not least because they helped give structure to the continuity of the narrative. In this case the genealogy serves to relate the founding of Israel’s priestly family, the established priesthood being one of Israel’s principal defining institutions. In biblical thought, salvation is not a purely individual thing; it is intimately linked, rather, to certain prescriptive institutions and authoritative ministries, and priesthood, as one of these, involves a proper succession. Proper succession is also a requirement of Christian ordination, a point that was argued strongly before the end of the first century; cf. Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians 40-44.
Sunday, April 27
Exodus 7: Moses will be the wonderworker, and Aaron the speaker. (As a matter of irony, however, we will find Moses doing almost all the talking, while Aaron extends the wonderworking rod.) Deed and word go together in the Bible, as in any fine drama. Speaking and doing are the two components of God’s revelation. Indeed, these two things sum up the whole activity of Jesus and the Apostles (cf. Mark 6:30; 1 Thessalonians 1:5).
What is described in verses 8-13 is not one of the plagues, but it is the beginning of a prolonged test of wills and skills. Pharaoh is not much impressed with Moses, since his own people demonstrate comparable skills. After his initial retaliation, however, Pharaoh will never again be in a position to retaliate. Moses and Aaron will keep him on the defensive, with his hands full of trouble. The most he can hope for from any encounter is to break even, and gradually this too will be taken from him.
The first plague is most serious, because the Nile has always been the foundation of the entire Egyptian agricultural and mercantile economy. Pharaoh’s response is very humorous. After all, the last thing Pharaoh needs right now is another display of water-to-blood skills in Egypt!
Monday, April 23
Exodus 8: There are several obvious connections among the various plagues. Here, for instance, there is a great multitude of frogs, because their natural habitat, the water, has become contaminated.
Even though this second plague was not as harmful as the first, we will see Pharaoh begin to weaken. Obviously this second plague has gotten his attention. For all that, it may be thought of a “nuisance plague,” perhaps putting one in mind of Elijah’s mocking of the prophets of Baal prior to doing them the real damage (1 Kings 18:20-40).
Once again Pharaoh’s magicians, still a bit “unclear on the concept,” demonstrate that the bringing forth of frogs is also within their power, as though Egypt was suffering a shortage of available frogs!
Pharaoh’s reaction is new; he is starting to recognize that Moses is not a nobody. Pharaoh is going to test if Moses is really a spokesman for God. As will be very much the case later in the Exodus narrative, Moses is presented as a man given to intercessory prayer. Here he tells Pharaoh to “pick the time,” and, remembering that the previous plague lasted a week, he wisely picks the next day! In this plague (verses 9-10), as in the previous one, mention is made of the outrageous stench afflicting the nation. The third and fourth plagues are clearly related to the death of all the frogs, which are the natural predators of insects.
Although Pharaoh will once again harden his heart, we at last see in him some disposition to negotiate. He starts to make some concessions that Moses will reject as inadequate. Since the Israelites and the other Semites were accustomed to sacrifice certain animals unacceptable to the Hamites, including Egyptians, however, Moses insists that the people be allowed to leave Egypt to perform these sacrifices. Moses still has a “hidden agenda,” of course, as does Pharaoh. There is no reason that either man should trust the other.
Tuesday, April 24
Exodus 9: The matter of the livestock had been introduced in connection with the previous plague, as well as the Lord’s protection of the Israelites from all the plagues. This latter is particularly important. God is already beginning to separate Israel from Egypt, and this separate treatment will continue till its culmination on the night of Pascha.
As the Hebrew word ‘aba’bu’oth (verses 8-12) appears nowhere else in the Bible, the exact nature of these sores is obscure. The Greek word in the Septuagint text, helkos, means any sort of wound, abscess, or ulcer. We observe that at last the magicians retire, no longer able even to put in an appearance in Pharaoh’s court.
Exodus 9:16 is quoted as part of St. Paul’s famous treatment of the dialectic of salvation history; cf. Romans 9:17. It is one of the greatest misfortunes of theological history that some later commentators, abstracting this passage from its context and inserting it into philosophical speculations about divine predestination and foreknowledge, reached certain conclusions unwarranted by the Scriptures, at odds with the traditional teaching of the Church, and unknown to the earlier, classical commentators on Romans (such as St. John Chrysostom). It is important to insist that the argument in Romans 9 is not about individual salvation; it is about the historical relations of Israel to the Church. There is nothing in this passage to infer that Pharaoh (or Esau) was predestined to be damned.
Since verse 6 said that all the cattle of the Egyptians had perished anyway, some question may arise with regard to the cattle mentioned in verse 19. Obviously the inspired biblical writer is not interested in problems like this, a fact perhaps suggesting that we shouldn’t be, either.
While some of the other plagues, such as insect infestations, visit Egypt occasionally even in normal times, a hailstorm in northeast Africa is a truly rare thing (verse 23). Accompanied by a frightening display of lightning and thunder, this one proves too much for Pharaoh, and for the first time he admits his sin. Alas, his repentance does not outlast the plague that inspired it.
Verses 31-32 are our only indication with respect to the time of the plagues, suggest the month of January, before the appearance of the winter wheat.
Wednesday, April 25
Exodus 10: To an agricultural economy, few things are more frightening than a visitation of locusts, which can reduce all plant life, over many square miles, to absolute ground level in a matter of hours (cf. the first chapter of Joel).
In three respects this is the most effective of the plagues to date: (1) Pharaoh’s servants, who had begun in support of him, and had come to see themselves bested (8:15), and had then retired from the combat (9:11), now come out to make a common plea with Moses against Pharaoh. (2) Pharaoh, for the first time, offers to release the Israelite men even before the plague starts. (3) Pharaoh himself asks for forgiveness. Even though the king’s heart is still hardened, the inspired author takes note of the progress.
In Egypt the sun god, Re, held a special prominence, so this plague of darkness is freighted with special theological significance; the Lord is in earnest doing battle with the gods of Egypt. The three days of darkness here should be seen as a type of the three hours of darkness that covered the earth on that afternoon when the new Moses did battle with the most ancient of the pharaohs of our slavery, himself the Prince of Darkness (Mark 15:33). There on Calvary, as here, the plague of darkness immediately precedes the death of the Firstborn Son.
Thursday, April 26
Exodus 11: Commenting on this “borrowing” from the Egyptians by Israel, one observes two preoccupations among the Fathers of the Church: (1) Lest anyone think that this action on Israel’s part was to be copied as a moral example, some of the Fathers took care to point out that the Israelites were, in fact, slaves and, as such, entitled to just remuneration for their coerced labor. (2) The silver and gold that the Israelites took from the Egyptians was understood allegorically, as representing the philosophical and cultural riches of Egypt. Thus, they used this example to justify the Christian use of classical pagan philosophy, law, and cultural ideals.
This allegorical interpretation is not far-fetched; indeed, it is rooted in historical fact. Israel did, indeed, take from Egypt a massive inheritance of philosophy, law, literature, and other cultural wealth. Indeed, their own Semitic culture had become enormously enriched by their extensive sojourn in northeast Africa, surrounded by one of the oldest and richest civilizations the world has ever seen. Alas, however, so many of these trinkets would eventually be used in the construction of the golden calf, a fact indicating the dangers inherent in any “borrowing” from the world.
In some sense, Moses and Aaron will now be “out of the picture.” This final and decisive plague will involve no activity on their part. This work will be accomplished without human mediation of any kind; the Lord will use only the angelic ministry. The chapter ends by saying that Moses and Aaron had done all they could do to prevent what was about to befall Egypt.
Doubtless this is what accounts for the anger of Moses as he leaves Pharaoh’s presence for the last time. Sign after sign had been ignored by an inveterately stubborn man seemingly intent on his country’s destruction, and the inspired biblical author stands amazed at such hardness of heart. (Compare St. John’s bewildered comments on the later hardness of heart that could not be softened by the many “signs” done by Jesus; cf. John 12:37-41.)
Friday, April 27
Exodus 12: There are four features especially to be noted about this important text that interrupts the narrative sequence in order to place the whole into a more theological and liturgical context:
First, the paschal lamb is an example of “substitutionary” sacrifice; like the ram that had replaced Isaac on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22:13, the paschal lamb’s life is given in place of the lives of Israel’s first born sons.
Second, there is nothing in the text to suggest that this sacrifice is “expiatory.” That is, unlike certain other biblical sacrifices, such as those associated with Yom Kippur, the sacrifice of the paschal lamb is not made in reparation for sins. Moreover, the Old Testament provides not a single example of an animal being sacrificed in place of a human being whose sin was serious enough to merit his death.
Third, the blood of this paschal lamb is sprinkled at certain points of the houses of those who are “redeemed.” This sprinkling is explicitly said to be a “sign” of covenant protection, parallel to the rainbow in the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:12-17 and circumcision in the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:19-27.
Forth, because this paschal lamb was a type or symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7), it was fitting that the meal celebrating the new covenant in His blood should be inaugurated in the setting of the paschal seder (cf. Luke 22:15-20).
The “this day” of verse 14 is the fifteenth day of the month Nisan, but it includes the night of Pascha. Pascha itself was to be the first liturgical day of an entire “week of sabbaths,” that is, seven days of rest and festival continuing the celebration, during which Israel could eat unleavened bread as on Pascha itself. More regulations relative to this weeklong feast are to be found in 13:3-10. In the New Testament the two terms, Pascha and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, are used almost interchangeably.
After the lengthy and detailed instructions that prepare for it, the tenth plague is narrated very succinctly, to great dramatic effect. The Exodus itself follows at once. In the writings of the New Testament, the event especially served as a prefiguration and type of redemption, including all of the events narrated of that great week, both His death for our sins and His rising again for our justification.
So important was the liturgical observance of Pascha to the life of the early Christians that one of the major and most heated controversies of the second century Church concerned the proper dating of the feast. In spite of a venerable tradition held in Ephesus and the other churches of Asia Minor, it was finally determined that Pascha would always be celebrated on a Sunday, a rule that has been maintained by all Christians since the fourth century.
In verses 43-50 we find more regulations relative to the preparation of the Seder of Pascha. As was noted above, there was not disagreement among the early Christians with respect to the deeper meaning of the paschal lamb. Indeed, verse 46 here, about not breaking the bones of the paschal lamb while preparing it, was seen by St. John as a prophecy of the body of Jesus on the cross, in that the soldiers did not break His legs (cf. John 19:36).