Friday, April 24
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 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 25
Psalm 32 (Greek/Latin 31): This psalm is the second of the traditional “penitential psalms,” which express the themes of sin, repentance, mercy and forgiveness.
The correct interpretation of certain psalms comes more readily than others, and the task is rendered easier still if a psalm’s meaning has already been made plain in the New Testament. The New Testament is, after all, the key to the full (that is to say, Christian) understanding of the Old. When the New Testament tells us the meaning of some passage in the Old Testament, then the matter of authentic interpretation, for us Christians, is settled.
Such is the case with this psalm, which begins: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity.” Saint Paul explicitly quotes these lines near the beginning of Romans 4 to illustrate “the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (v. 6). The apostle’s thesis here, as in Romans generally, is that we believers are not justified before God by our own merits, by the effort of our “works,” by a correct and meticulous observance of the Mosaic Law, but by receiving, in faith, God’s gracious justification of us for the sake of Christ our Redeemer. Psalm 32, then, is the prayer of those who, standing at the foot of the Cross and forswearing all righteousness of their own, commit their lives and entrust their destinies entirely to God’s forgiving mercy richly and abundantly poured out in the saving, sacrificial blood of His Son, because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Cor. 5:19).
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 24f. and forward to Joshua 24:32 (cf. the comment in Hebrews 11:22).
Sunday, April 26
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.
As in reation God had separated water from water (Genesis 1:6), He does so here (verses 21-22) in a symbol of the new creation. The imagery of the opening verses of Genesis all return now: light/darkness, water/dry land, and, especially, Spirit/wind. On the relationship of creation to the Exodus, cf. Wisdom 19:4-8. The two texts from Genesis and Exodus are read together in the Church’s Vigil of Pascha, which was traditionally the preferred time of baptism. The images of Spirit, light, and water were part of the Church’s baptismal catechesis from the very beginning (cf. Hebrews 6:4-6).
Since the destruction of the Egyptian forces is the major type of the destruction of demonic powers in the waters of baptism, it is not surprising that the biblical poets loved to rhapsodize over the scene of the Egyptian forces lying dead on the shore (cf., for example, Habakkuk 3:8-15; Wisdom 10:18-20, and many places in the Book of Psalms). This was a sight that Israel was commanded never to forget (cf. Deuteronomy 11:1-4). This scene by the seaside, combined with Exodus 15, will return in the vision of St. John; cf. Revelation 15:1-3.
The Greek word used to describe Moses as a “servant” in verse 31, in the Septuagint text, is therapon, which also refers to Moses elsewhere in the Greek Old Testament: Numbers 12:7f; Wisdom 10:16; 18:21. This noun, therapon, was used in classical Greek literature to designate a ministerial servant in a temple, such as the temples of Dionysus or Asceplius (hence the English “therapeutic,” because these temples were places of healing). It is related to the verb therapevo, which often means “to serve” in a religious sense; cf. Acts 17:25, for instance.
Moses is a servant, therefore, in a kind of liturgical sense, as a minister of worship among God’s people. Among early Christians therapon became nearly a personal term reserved exclusively for Moses, never being used except in reference him. In the seven instances of the expression in Christian literature prior to A.D. 110, it refers to Moses every single time: Hebrews 3:2-5; Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians 4.12; 43.1; 51.3,5; Pseudo-Barnabas 14.4. From these texts it is clear that Moses was thought of by the early Christians in the context of the Church, God’s house, where Moses continues even now to serve God’s people.
Monday, April 27
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, is bracketed between two sequences of desert stories that 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 murmuring of the people (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 28
John 6:1-14: Sometimes Jesus asks a question in order to engage his disciples in either a discussion or an activity, making them participants in an event. In today’s reading he 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.
What, then, is accomplished by this question to Philip, since Jesus already “knew what he would do”? His question here serves the purpose of evoking the assistance of the apostles in what is about to take place.
Jesus does not ask the question for Philip’s sake, I believe, but for Andrew’s. They are a pair. He knows that wherever you see Philip, Andrew must be nearby (Mark 3:18; John 12:22). The question is apparently meant to be overheard by Andrew, who promptly replies, “There is a lad here who has five barley buns and a couple of dried fish.” Now, they can get started!
Thus, by putting to Philip a question to which he already knows the answer, Jesus transforms these apostles from mere spectators into 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.
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).
Wednesday, April 29
John 6:15-21: Inasmuch as all three narratives of Jesus walking on the water (cf. Mark 6:45-52; Matthew 14:22-33) place that event in immediate proximity to the Multiplication of the Loaves, one is justified in believing that this sequence represents the memory of those who bore witness to it. This sequence is so tightly determined in the Tradition that John’s Bread of Life Discourse, notwithstanding its strong thematic tie to the Multiplication of the Loaves, must be delayed until the present story is told.
This narrative sequence may suggest, in addition, a theological consideration: Just as the Multiplication of the Loaves demonstrates Jesus’ power over the substance of the bread, so his walking on water manifests his power over his own body. This correspondence is essential to the thesis can he can change bread into his own body.
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 said 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 was possessed of 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.
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 30
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, do we find in 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, May 1
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).