Friday, May 10

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, May 11

Luke 2:21-24: The baby Jesus is brought to the Temple to comply with the ordinance—and to fulfill the prophecy—in Exodus 13. This is the account of the Messiah’s first visit to the temple in Jerusalem, a site that Luke makes a foundation stone of his literary structure. Indeed, Luke begins and ends his Gospel in the temple (1:5-9; 24:52-53).

Moreover, near the end of this first visit to the temple, Luke remarks that the prophetess Anna “spoke of [Jesus] to all those who looked for the redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38). The real “redemption in Jerusalem” takes place, of course, in the last pages of Luke, describing the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These are the events included in what Luke’s original Greek text calls Jesus’ exodos, “which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31).

These four verses take for granted the full significance of the temple. Luke presumes that the reader is familiar with the Lord’s assumption of “residence” there shortly after its completion (1 Kings 8), His departure from it at the time of its destruction (Ezekiel 10), and His return there when the temple was rebuilt (Haggai 2:1-9; Zechariah 8-9).

Luke especially presumes the prophecy of the Messiah’s coming appearance at the temple, an oracle found near the end of the last prophetic book of the Hebrew Scriptures: “And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:1).

According to that same prophecy, the purpose of the Messiah’s coming to the temple was to purify its priesthood: “He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness” (3:3).

It was those very priests, however, who failed to recognize the Messiah’s arrival. On His final recorded visit to the temple, in fact, Luke tells us that “the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him” (20:1). Their confrontation came in response to the purging of the temple in the scene immediately preceding (19:45-48).

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, May 12

Psalms 98 (Greek & Latin 97): The latter part of Isaiah, in which the dominant theme is Israel’s return from the Babylonian Captivity, speaks several times of God’s “arm,” a metaphor especially used in conjunction with the noun “salvation” and the adjective “holy” (Is. 40:10; 51:9; 52:10; 53:1; 59:16; 63:5).

This robust image of God’s arm, which had first appeared in the Bible in the context of the people’s deliverance from Egypt (cf. Ex. 6:6; 15:16), was thus applied to their return from exile in Babylon. In each case, the redemption of the oppressed was ascribed to the holy flexing of God’s muscle, as it were, on their behalf.

It is significant that the Mother of God summoned this same metaphor to describe God’s definitive historical intervention on behalf of His people: “Holy is His name, / And His mercy is on those who fear Him, / From generation to generation. / He has shown strength with His arm” (Luke 1:49–51). God’s arm in these contexts is an image of His “power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4), “the power of God to salvation” (1:16).

The same reference to God’s holy, salvific arm appears several times in Psalms, one example being the opening of Psalm 97 (Hebrew 98): “Sing to the Lord a new song, for the Lord has done wondrous things; His right hand and His holy arm have wrought salvation.”

God’s salvation is not simply a thing announced, but a “wrought” reality. In saving us, God truly does certain deeds, “wondrous things,” by which we are redeemed. God saves man by the forceful intrusion of His holiness into man’s history. God’s arm is a metaphor of this irrupting redemptive holiness. In the “wondrous things” of the Incarnation, the atoning Death, the Resurrection, God’s arm invades the processes of human destiny with the outpouring of His own life. Man’s life is thereby given access to the incorruptible life of God.

This, says our psalm, is the substance of the Gospel proclaimed to the nations and peoples of the earth: “The Lord has made known His salvation; unto the nations has He revealed His righteousness. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”

The substance of the Gospel, then, is not some theory about God or even some set of norms by which man is to live. At root, the Gospel has absolutely nothing in common with even the highest religious speculations, such as those of the Upanishads, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Lao Tzi, or the Buddha. In the strictest possible sense, beyond all human reckoning or expectation, the Gospel is a “new song,” a radically different voice on the human scene. It is the revelation of God’s holy arm taking charge of man’s history. It is that redemptive, holy activity by which “He has shown strength with His arm.” It is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

Monday May 13

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.

Revelation 15:1-18:

The song of Moses and Miriam 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 imagery of this chapter rests on details of Exodus 15. The ocean of blood, with which the previous chapter ended, has now become a kind of Red Sea (verses 1-3), which also inserts the theme of the Exodus. This theme itself is appropriate to the outpouring of the plagues.

Beside this sea stand God’s people who have passed over it in the definitive Exodus. They are musicians—harpists to be exact—identical with the one hundred and forty-four thousand whom we saw with the Lamb in the previous chapter; there was harp music in that scene too.

John sees in heaven the tabernacle of testimony from the Book of Exodus, the traveling tent of the divine presence that Moses and the Israelites carried through the desert. This tent, however, is “heavenly,” which means that it is the original model, the very pattern that Moses copied (Exodus 25:9,40; ?Acts 7:44; Hebrews 8:5).

Since the tent is a place of worship, we are not surprised that John sees seven angels coming out of it, clothed in priestly vestments (verse 6; cf. Exodus 28:4; 39:29), very much as Jesus was clothed in the inaugural vision (Revelation 1:12-13).

The tent itself is full of the cloud of the divine presence, the very cloud that led the Israelites through the desert of old. When that tent was dedicated in the desert, the divine cloud took up residence within it? (Exodus 40:34-38). That cloud later took residence in Solomon’s temple (I Kings 8:1-12), where Isaiah beheld it (6:1-4). In prophetic vision Ezekiel ?saw that cloud return to the second temple built in 520-516 (Ezekiel 44:4).

Tuesday, May 14

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).

Our NT readings today correspond to that theme: We read John’s account of Jesus feeding the people with bread in the wilderness, the introduction to the lengthy Bread of Life Discourse. We also read the NT’s earliest written account of the Last Supper, First Corinthians 11:17-34.

Psalms 47 (Greek & Latin 46): In this psalm the Ascension of Christ into glory is the object of biblical prophecy: “God has ascended with jubilation, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet. Oh sing to our God, sing! Sing to our King, sing!” This is an invitation to us on earth, a summons to join our voices in jubilation with the angels on high. The Ascension of Christ is the event where heaven and earth are joined forever.

David’s taking of the ark of the covenant into the Holy City may be seen as a figure and type of the Lord’s entry into the heavenly Jerusalem, and that long-distant day was likewise marked with the rapture of happiness at God’s approach: “Then David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet” (2 Sam. 6:14, 15). Our psalm calls for similar marks of celebration at the coming of Christ into the Holy City on high: “Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph! For the Lord most high is awesome; He is the great King over all the earth.”

Wednesday, May 15

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, today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 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 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.”

Psalms 53 (Greek & Latin 52): In Romans 3:10–12 the Apostle Paul quotes this psalm (probably by heart) with special emphasis on the universal need for salvation. His point is that, strictly speaking, there are really no just men in this world—men who are just in the sense that they are able, by the righteousness of their own works, to attain to the presence of God and stand innocent before him. Thus understood, who is a just man in this world? St. Paul’s answer is emphatic—nobody, absolutely nobody, and he quotes our psalm text to prove the point: “There is none righteous, no, not one; / There is none who understands; / There is none who seeks after God. / They have all turned aside; / They have together become unprofitable; / There is none who does good, no, not one.”

Thursday, May 16

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 17

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).