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).
Saturday, April 20
Exodus 13: By the regulations contained in these sections, Israel would be reminded of the Exodus every time a first-born son came into the world. Each such son would have to be “redeemed” by the sacrifice of a lamb. Elsewhere we learn that, for poorer families that could not afford the price of a lamb, the redemption could be made by sacrificing two pigeons or turtledoves (cf. Leviticus 12:8). We are familiar with one very notable family that took advantage of that humane and gentle provision (cf. Luke 2:22-24). This particular “Firstborn” would, by his sacrificial death, be the redemption of all humanity.
In verse 17 the inspired author gives us a picture of what line of reasoning is taking place in the mind of God. It is intimated here that God has a plan yet to unfold. This marvelous detail in verse 19 ties our story back to Genesis 24-25 and forward to Joshua 24:32 (cf. the comment in Hebrews 11:22).
John 6:1-14: We observe how Jesus engages Philip at the time of the multiplication of the loaves:
Jesus lifted up his eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” But this he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do (John 6:5-6).
What, then, was accomplished by this question to Philip, since Jesus already “knew what he would do”? His question here served the purpose of evoking the assistance of the apostles in what was about to take place.
Jesus did not ask that question for Philip’s sake, I believe, but for Andrew’s. They were a pair. He knew that wherever you saw Philip, Andrew must be nearby (cf. Mark 3:18; John 12:22). The question was apparently meant to be overheard by Andrew, who promptly replied, “There is a lad here who has five barley buns and a couple of dried fish” (John 6:9). Now, they could get started!
Thus, by putting to Philip a question to which he already knew the answer, Jesus transformed these apostles from mere spectators to active participants in the experience of the multiplication of the loaves. It is they who will seat the people for the meal (John 6:10). It is they who will distribute the bread and fish (6:11). In this scene, then, Jesus’ question both commences the event and provides for its participatory structure.
Sunday, April 21
Exodus 14: In the previous chapter (13:17) we already learned that God had a plan. Now it will be enacted. Pharaoh is being “set up.” As if the destruction of the first-born sons had not been enough, Pharaoh is coming back for more punishment. On the other hand, God intends this encounter, as He knows what Pharaoh is thinking. If Pharaoh is rash enough to do battle with the Lord, he will simply have to take his chances. Meanwhile, God’s plan remains a secret, even to Moses.
Pharaoh does not know that his own plan has already been subsumed into God’s larger plan (verses 5-9). Thus his very strategy against Israel becomes a component of his own destruction. Compare this with the way the New Testament pictures the plan of Satan being subsumed into Christian redemption (cf. John 13:2; 1 Corinthians 2:8).
The command to “stand” (verse 13) is more than a matter of posture. It is a summons to steadfast faith; cf. Psalm 5:3 — “In the morning I will stand before You, and I will see.” The Lord portrays Himself as a warrior for Israel (verse 14), something to which the Egyptians themselves will testify in 14:25. The image of God as a “fighter” for Israel will appear again in Deuteronomy 1:30; 3:22; 20:4, and it will be taken up again in the narratives of the conquest; cf. Joshua 10:14,22; 23:3. The people must, therefore, “be silent.” When God is in the act of saving, it is best that man refrain from making comments about it, which will inevitably be distracting or even worse.
Although by now Moses is aware that God has a plan, he does not yet know what that plan is. God does not explain Himself; He simply gives an order that must be obeyed in faith (verses 15-18). Indeed, God rather often does this (cf. John 2:8; 6:10; 9:7; 11:39). Few things are more arrogant in a religious person than the refusal to obey orders that one does not understand; we are dealing with God, after all, whom we shall never “understand.”
God has told Moses what to do; now God provides His own part in the plan. The text is clear that the mysterious quality of the cloud comes from an angelic presence (cf. Exodus 23:20; 32:34; Numbers 20:16). The traditional liturgical texts of the Church identify the angel here as Michael, who battles for God’s people; cf. Daniel 10:13,21; 12:1; Revelation 12:7. The cloud follows the people right into the sea, shrouding them in darkness; cf. Joshua 24:6f. St. Paul explains for Christians the meaning of this double experience of the cloud and the sea; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1f.
Monday, April 22
Exodus 15: The people of God have been hymn-singers right from the beginning. The singing of hymns is the Bible’s normal response to the outpouring of salvation; cf. Judges 5, 2 Samuel 22, Judith 10, many Psalms, etc. This particular canticle, which has been sung by Holy Church at her Paschal vigil from time immemorial, celebrates the Lord’s victory over the oppression inspired of idolatry. It should be thought of as the song of the newly baptized, standing at their baptismal waterside, their demonic enemies drowned in its depths.
It is not only the song of Moses and Miriam, but it is also the song of the Lamb, a prefiguration of that heavenly chant sung by the “sea of glass mingled with fire,” sung after the “last plagues,” sung by those who, with “harps of God,” “have victory over the beast”: “Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints!” (Revelation 15:1-3)
The encounter of Israel with God on Mount Sinai, which begins in chapter 19, will be bracketed between two sequences of desert stories, which provide a narrative frame in which the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai forms the center. We begin the first of these two sequences now, and the second will commence in Numbers 20. These two desert sequences contain some striking parallel narratives: the peoples’ murmuring (Exodus 15, 16, 17; Numbers 14, 16, 17), the manna and the quail (Exodus 16; Numbers 11), and the water from the rock (Exodus 17; Numbers 20).
The murmuring we find at the end of this chapter and into the next is nothing new, of course; the people have been murmuring since the Book of Exodus began, and we will be noting more about it as the account progresses. Here the murmuring is heard with respect to thirst, which is notoriously a problem in the desert.
The murmuring is rebellious, for the people’s anger is turned on Moses and is recalcitrant to his authority. They no longer “believed the Lord and Moses His servant” (14:31). This story is taken up in John 6, where the “murmuring in the desert” is directed against Jesus. The descendents of the murmurers in Exodus, immediately after the feeding of the people by miraculous bread in the desert, begin to murmur and ask for a sign (John 6:30). Then begins the Lord’s Bread of Life discourse, in which He contrasts the ancient manna with the superior bread of His own Eucharistic flesh (John 6:48-58).
Meanwhile, the rebels continue to murmur (John 6:41,43). Just as the people murmured against the authority of Moses, now they murmur against the authority of Jesus. It should also be remembered that it was precisely in the context of the Holy Eucharist that St. Paul warned against the sin of murmuring (1 Corinthians 10:10).
Tuesday, April 23
Exodus 16: The bitter water is sweetened and made potable by the tree placed in it, this tree often being interpreted in Christian history as symbolic of the Lord’s cross, that salvific tree that sweetens many of our bitter experiences in the desert of our Christian journey.
The manna is spoken of much more than the quail. There are two reasons for this: (1) On only two occasions does the Bible speak of the quail, whereas the manna will remain the people’s staple food for the next forty years. And (2) The manna received far more theological attention during the course of Israel’s long history. Speculations about the nature of the manna continued in Israel well into Talmudic times.
Similarly, in the memory of the early Church it is obvious that, with respect to the miraculous feeding with the loaves and fishes, the loaves were the element chiefly remembered, inasmuch as the bread was understood—like the manna—as a prefiguration of the Holy Eucharist.
This is “daily” bread, in the sense that God’s people must trust Him each day to provide it. They are to leave tomorrow to His care. The bread, then, becomes the daily occasion of faith in God’s providing. It is the bread for which Jesus commanded us to ask God, “give us, this day” (Matthew 6:11; Didache 8.2), or “day by day” (Luke 11:3). As long as our pilgrimage lasts—until the other side of the Jordan (cf. Joshua 5:12)—this bread will be supplied to God’s people, so that they must not fear nor fret for the morrow (cf. Matthew 6:25-34).
First Corinthians 11:17-34: According to our earliest Evangelist, Mark, Jesus himself testified to the identification of the Messiah with the redemptive Sufferer in Isaiah 53. Not only does Mark trace this testimony to Jesus; he also places in a specific setting—the Last Supper—the solemn historical event that virtually defined what the early Christians called paradosis, “tradition.” (1 Corinthians 11:23). In the Eucharistic institution Jesus invoked both Isaiah 53 and Exodus 24:8 with respect to the libation of his own blood: “This is my covenant blood, which is shed for many.” Thus, proclaiming himself to be the Suffering Servant, Jesus identifies the Atonement blood as his own.
Let us bear in mind that Mark is not our earliest literary witness to this ascription. Nearly a decade before the composition of Mark’s Gospel, Paul had written to the Corinthians on this very point, declaring that Jesus took “the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Paul went on to complete this theology somewhat later in the same epistle by reminding the Corinthians, ”I handed over (paredoka) to you, as of first importance, what I also received: that Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 11:25 and 15:3).
Wednesday, April 24
Exodus 17: Like the other events associated with the Exodus, the stream of water miraculously struck from the rock was adopted by the early Christians for its spiritual significance. Drawing on this inspiration, 1 Corinthians 10:4 says that the people “drank of that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.”
Two remarks should be made with respect to this latter text:
First, in calling the rock “spiritual,” St. Paul did not intend to deny that it was a physical rock. He had in mind, rather, to say that the physical rock possessed a spiritual significance, both as the medium of God’s special intervention, and as a symbol of Jesus the Lord, who provides us with the water of eternal life (cf. also John 4:10-14; 7:37-39). Thus, St. Paul said, “that rock was Christ.”
Second, the somewhat surprising detail that the rock in the desert “followed them” is derived from rabbinical reflection on the rock. After all, is this not the same rock as in Numbers 20, from which water miraculously flowed at Kadesh?
Rabbinical texts speak of this as a kind of rocky fountain from which water poured as through a sieve, and they describe it as traveling up and down the mountain ranges while the people wandered in the desert. This rabbinical speculation about the moving rock is witnessed in an ancient targumic (Aramaic paraphrase) version of Exodus, known as the Targum Onkelos, probably inspired by Isaiah 48:21. The rabbinical scholar Paul was completely at home in these traditions.
The Bible remembers Moses as preeminently a man of intercessory prayer, as we see here in verses 8-13. Moses thus became a model for all men of prayer. Stories of this sort very much impressed St. Symeon the New Theologian. “I know a man,” he wrote, “who desired the salvation of his brethren so fervently that he often sought God with burning tears and with his whole heart, in an excess of zeal worthy of Moses, that either his brethren might be saved with him, or that he might be condemned with them. For he was bound to them in the Holy Spirit by such a bond of love that he did not even wish to enter the kingdom of heaven if to do so meant being separated from them” (Book of Divine Love, 54.1).
For Christian interpreters the picture of Moses praying on the mountain with outstretched arms (verses 8-13) became a type of Jesus praying for mankind with outstretched arms on Mount Calvary. Moreover, the 3rd century commentator, Origen, wrote that this passage in Exodus “is fulfilled whenever we pray in the power of the Cross of Christ.”
Thursday, April 25
Exodus 18: The story of Jethro (verses 1-12) and the institution of the judges (verses 13-27) represent a chronological departure, it appears, from the historical sequence. There are two indications of this departure: First, Israel is still encamped at Rephidim (17:1 and 19:1), whereas the events in chapter 18 take place at Mount Sinai (verse 5). Second, there is the testimony of Deuteronomy 1 that the institution of the judges took place after the Sinai Covenant.
There is no theological or exegetical difficulty, of course, in discovering here a departure of the story from the historical sequence. After all, there is no a priori necessity requiring the biblical narrative to follow the historical sequence. However, if we look more closely at the accounts in chapter 18, there seem to be two reasons that prompted the biblical author to put the stories in chapter 18 before describing the Sinai Covenant.
First, this arrangement is less disruptive to the narrative. Placing these events in chapter 18 before the Sinai narrative permits the biblical author, when he comes to treat of the Covenant, to concentrate attention on the particulars of the Law, without the relative distraction of these other matters. The author reasonably preferred to tell this story earlier than it happened.
Second, a story about the sacrifice of the pagan Jethro at Mount Sinai would be most unseemly if it were told after the institution of the priesthood and sacrifice in the prescriptions of the Covenant (Leviticus 8-10).
What, then, are we to make of chapter 18?
To this point all of the great burden of leadership has fallen on Moses, though we did begin to see the gradual emergence of some other leadership, especially that of Joshua, in the previous chapter. In the present chapter, however, Moses accepts the counsel of Jethro and lays a broader foundation for the leadership of the people. It is particularly striking that this counsel comes from “outside” the chosen people. Indeed, it is the advice of a pagan priest! The willingness of Moses to accept the prudent counsel of an “efficiency expert” from outside the community, even in regard to his prophetic and pastoral ministry, seems to be a useful precedent for God’s people to bear in mind. This response of Moses to the suggestion of Jethro is thus of a piece with Israel’s earlier “despoiling” of the Egyptians.
Friday, April 26
Exodus 19: The Book of Exodus, having treated of Israel’s deliverance, now speaks of Israel’s election and the Covenant. Over the next six chapters two sections will emerge as especially prominent—the Decalogue (20:1-17) and the Book of the Covenant (20:22—23:19), the latter containing a detailed, practical application of the rules of the Covenant.
The things narrated in these chapters are not naked events, but events that received theological and liturgical elaboration reflected in the narrative. It is arguable that Israel devoted more attention to these events than to any other in its history.
The people have now arrived at Mount Sinai, where the rest of the Book of Exodus, and all of the Book of Leviticus, will take place. Indeed, the Israelites will not move from Sinai until Numbers 10:33.
The stories begin with Moses’ scaling of Mount Sinai (verse 3), still known among the local Arabs as Jebel Musa. This peak, 7467 feet high, can be climbed in under two hours. When Moses ascends to speak with God, the people wait below at the base of the mountain, the plain of er-Raha (verses 2,17).
God’s election of Israel (verses 5-6) is an invitation to become His chosen people, an invitation that marks Israel’s history until the end of the world, because God will never reject the descendents of those with whom He made Covenant at Mount Sinai (cf. Romans 11:1). What God proposes, however, is only an invitation, requiring Israel’s ratification of His choice and the resolve to abide by its conditions and strictures (verses 7-8). Moses mediates this Covenant (verses 9,25).
The people of God are to be a “royal priesthood, a holy nation” (verse 6). Both the kingship and the priesthood of the Old Testament are prophetic preparations fulfilled in Jesus. Like Melchizedek of old, Jesus Christ is both king and priest (cf. Hebrews 7:1-3). Moreover, because of their awareness of sharing in the royal and priestly dignity and ministries of the risen Jesus, the early Christians were prompt to see this Exodus promise as fulfilled in the Church (cf. 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
The subsequent terrifying scene on Mount Sinai (verses 9-25 and 20:18-20) is contrasted with the invitation to Christians to “draw near” to God (Hebrews 12:18-24). The theme of a bold “drawing near to” or “approaching” the divine presence is an important one in the Epistle to the Hebrews, serving as part of its sustained contrast of Christ with Moses (cf. Hebrews 4:16; 7:19; 10:1,22).