Friday, April 12
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 Zedekiah, 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.
Pharaoh is already beginning to harden his heart, as the Lord permitted him to do. Even though Exodus several times ascribes Pharaoh’s hardening of the heart to the Lord Himself (cf. 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8), this ascription is only an ironic way of declaring that the entire development, the growing suspense of the conflict, is under divine direction. As the Lord, through the course of the plagues, provides less and less excuse for Pharaoh’s mounting stubbornness, He is pictured as making Pharaoh’s heart ever harder by giving him further occasions for repentance. In order to resist God, that is to say, Pharaoh’s heart must become progressively hardened.
Saturday, April 13
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.
John 4:1-26: The Evangelist John surely knew that woman’s name, just as he knew the names of the paralytic at the pool and the man born blind, because he narrates all of these one-on-one encounters with details that he could only have obtained from the individuals themselves. So John most certainly knew their names. His omission of those names in the stories, then, has literary significance, and Celano is probably right to suppose that we are dealing here with anonymity for the sake of reader identification. That is to say, each of us, as we ponder the text prayerfully, becomes that paralytic, that blind man, and that woman at the well, encountering the Lord in the power of His Scriptures. As an “every Christian” account, the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well serves to illustrate certain distinct stages in the path of conversion.
When the woman first meets Jesus, He is called simply “a Jew” (4:9). This is important to the story as a whole, of course, because the Lord Himself will presently declare that “salvation is of the Jews” (4:22). On the woman’s lips, nonetheless, the designation “Jew” indicates two things:
First, it says that Jesus is at first assessed only within a certain class of people. He is not yet a distinguishable person, important on His own account. And second, the word “Jew” indicates the woman’s sense of separation from Jesus, because “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”
Next, Jesus is addressed as “Sir” (4:11; presumably the Aramaic Mar).
This term of respect is a great step for the woman to make, indicating her change of attitude toward Jesus. But then, within four verses “Sir” becomes “prophet” (4:19), when the Lord directs the woman’s attention to her own sins. Then Jesus takes the initiative in His own identification, calling Himself the Messiah.
Sunday, April 14
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-into-blood skills in Egypt!
Psalm 150: Originally crafted by a descendant of Cain (cf. Gen. 4:21), musical instruments do not, perhaps, look very promising when first we learn of them. Moreover, there has often been something a bit problematic about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed “the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music” (Dan. 3:5) for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God.
Yet, in fact, God rather early designated musical instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the tabernacle and the temple. And, once again, in the final book of the Bible we find heaven to be a place resonating with the sounds of trumpet and harp.
John 4:25-35: When the Samaritan woman leaves the well, she has a question in her mind, a question about the identity of Jesus. It is the fundamental question that would in due time be addressed by the Ecumenical Councils: “Who do you say that I am?” Just exactly who is Jesus? “Come,” she invites her friends, “see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (4:29). Everyone in John’s Gospel seems to be asking such questions: “‘This is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Christ’” (7:40, 41).
Monday, April 15
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 is 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 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.
John 4:46-54: At the end of the woman’s story, the designation “Christ” is embraced by her Samaritan friends, who promptly complete it with another important Christological title: “We know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (4:42).
The lady from Samaria has now come all the way. Starting out that day, hardly suspecting what lay ahead, she laboriously carried her sins to the well, where she met a Jew, who asked her for a drink of water. The Jew presently became a Sir, and then a prophet who reminded her that she was a sinner. No matter, though, because this prophet was also the Christ, who, because he was the Savior of the world, knew exactly what to do with her sins. Seeking her He sat down weary, and to redeem her he would, in due course, endure the cross.
Tuesday, April 16
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, suggesting the month of January, before the appearance of the winter wheat.
John 5:1-15: Although our Lord evidently cured a number of people from various kinds of paralysis (cf. Mark 4:24; 8:6), the Gospels narrate only two such instances in much detail: the paralytic lowered through the roof (Mark 2:1–12; Matthew 9:1–8; Luke 5:17–26), and the man lying at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–15). It also happens that these are the only two occasions of physical healing in which Jesus refers to the sins of the person whom He heals. Thus, He says to the man lowered through the roof, “Your sins are forgiven you” (Mark 2:5), and after restoring the man at the pool of Bethesda the Lord exhorts him, “Sin no more” (John 5:14).
This seems to be the point, then, of the question Jesus puts to the man: “Do you want to be healed?” Perhaps, in his deeper heart, he does not want to be healed—not really—and perhaps that is the sin to which Jesus is referring when He tells him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (5:14).
Wednesday, April 17
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.
Psalms 38 (Greek & Latin 37): This is not the happiest of psalms, but it is exceedingly salubrious to the spirit. If its message can be summed up in one line, that line may well be David’s response to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.” These words make all the difference, because, as another psalm insists, “a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” Over and over the tax collector “beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13).
Sin is also the great solvent of our relationships to one another. As is clear in the accounts of the first sins (Gen. 3:11–13; 4:12), sin means isolation and alienation. Sin separates us, not only from God, but also from one another. Our psalm speaks of this isolation: “My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague. And my relatives stand afar off.”
We are not talking about morbidity here. Contrition and sorrow in this psalm are accompanied by repeated sentiments of longing: “I groan because of the turmoil of my heart. Lord, all my desire is before You; and my sighing is not hidden from You. My heart pants, my strength fails me. . . . For in You, O Lord, I hope; You will hear, O Lord my God.”
Finally, there are the enemies. The demons are the only enemies of the man who correctly prays the Book of Psalms. Nowhere does Holy Scripture exhort us to forgive or pity the demons. They are the only true enemies that our prayer recognizes. Unlike human enemies who are to be prayed for, the demons are always to be prayed against. Our fight with them is unsleeping, as is their fight with us, plotting our ruin: “Those also who seek my life lay snares for me; those who seek my hurt speak of destruction, and plan deception all the day long.”
Thursday, April 18
Exodus 11: Commenting on this “borrowing” from the Egyptians by Israel, the Fathers of the Church display two preoccupations: (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 farfetched; indeed, it is rooted in historical fact. Israel did, indeed, take from Egypt a massive inheritance of philosophy, law, literature, and other cultural wealth. 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, of which the text speaks, 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.)
Psalm 37 (Greek & Latin 36): This psalm appears at first to challenge the very notion of the psalms as prayers, inasmuch as not a single word of it is explicitly addressed to God. It speaks about God, of course, but never to Him, at least not overtly.
Clearly this psalm has close ties to the Bible’s Wisdom tradition. If it were not part of the Psalter, we would expect to find it in Proverbs or one of the other Wisdom books. It appears to be a kind of discourse given by a parent to a child, or a wise man to a disciple. It is full of sound and godly counsel: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . Trust in the Lord and do good . . . Cease from anger and forsake wrath . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way,” and so forth. Such admonitions, along with the psalm’s allied warnings and promises, are stock material of the Wisdom literature.
Friday, April 19
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 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.
Fourth, 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 no 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).