Sunday, May 11
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 though the destruction of the firstborn 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 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 1014,22; 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 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 creation 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. It is
related to the verb therapeo, which often means "to serve" in a religious
sense; cf. Acts 17:25, for instance. Moses is a servant, therefore, in 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: Hebrews3:2-5; 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
Monday, May 12
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 Pascha 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 mannah and the quail (Exodus 16; Numbers 11), 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 mannah 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, May 13
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 mannah 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 mannah will remain the people's staple food for the next forty years.
(2) The mannah will receive far more theological attention during the course
of Israel's long history. Speculations about the nature of the mannah will
continue 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, it was the loaves that were chiefly remembered,
inasmuch as the bread understood, like the mannah, as a prefiguration of the
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 manna, 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, May 14
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 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 "that rock
was Christ." Second, the somewhat surprising detail that the rock in the
desert "followed them" is certainly 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 it 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, May 15
Exodus 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 16
Exodus 19: The people have now arrived at Mount Sinai,
where the rest of the Book of Exodus, and all Book of Leviticus, will take
place. Indeed, the Israelites will not move from Sinai until Numbers 10:33.
The people of God are 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 Melchisedech 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 to
Israel fulfilled in the Church; cf. 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6.
This terrifying scene on Mount Sinai (verses 7-25 and 20:18-20) is
contrasted with the Christians' "drawing near" to God in a very moving
passage in Hebrews 12:18-24. The theme of a bold "drawing near" or
"approaching" to 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).
Saturday, May 17
Exodus 20: We come now to the Decalogue, or Ten
Commandments. The first commandment of the Decalogue, "You shall have no
other gods in My stead" (Exodus 20:3), is not the "first" simply in the
sense of being the earliest in the sequence. It is not as though the order
within the Decalogue could be switched around, so that it might begin with
the prohibition of murder, say, or the injunction of the Sabbath. This lex
prima is not prima inter pares.
The first of the Ten Commandments is the first, rather, in the sense that it
is the source and fountainhead of the other nine. The commandments are not
equal, and the first is formally different from the others. Its priority,
that is to say, is not just material but qualitative. Its "firstness"
pertains to its essence, not merely its assigned place in the Decalogue's
sequential disposition. It is not only first, but the first.
The first commandment of God's Law is first in a manner analogous to the
way that the number "one" is the first of the numbers. "One" is not simply
the numeral that precedes "two"; "one" is, rather, the number out of which,
and by reason of which, that second number comes. "One" is the cause and
necessary condition of "two" and all the subsequent numbers. "One" is
logically one, then, before it is first. "One" becomes "first" only by the
emergence of a second.
One (to hen) is the root and font determining the identity of two and the
subsequent numbers. "One" is what we call a principle, an arche. The
principle of something is that which confers its qualitative and identifying
form. In this sense, there is a formal, and not merely material, disparity
between the "one" and all other numbers.
Analogously, the first commandment of the Decalogue is the arche, the
principle of the other commandments. Perhaps this truth will be clearer if
we examine that commandment in its entirety: "I am the Lord your God who
brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall
have no other gods in My stead."
Unlike the other commandments, this first commandment commences with
God's self-identification; only then does there follow the immediate prohibition
against idolatry. Three things must be said about the auto-identification of
God in this commandment.
First, it places the Ten Commandments firmly in the context of God's
revelation. This needs to be asserted, I believe, because of a widespread
idea that the Decalogue is simply an expression of Natural Law. It isn't.
While it is true that there are a number of material equivalents between
certain components of the Decalogue and certain dictates of Natural Law
(those governing murder and theft, for instance), there is a formal
difference between them. In the case of the Decalogue, each of the
commandments is rooted in God's self-revelation within specific biblical
history -- Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are essentially revelatory.
They are all extensions of "I am the Lord your God." This is why we call
them the "Decalogue," or "ten words" (deka logoi). This Septuagint usage
corresponds exactly to the Hebrew expression ╬aseret haddevarim, which is
common in the Old Testament (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:4).
Second, God's self-identification places the Decalogue entirely in the
context of unmerited grace. He is not simply "the Lord your God," but the
One who "brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."
The observance of the commandments is man's grateful response to the God who
"first loved us" (1 John 4:19). The Ten Commandments, almost any time the
Bible speaks of them, were "given" to Moses on Mount Sinai. Holy Scripture
regards them entirely as gifts, component dimensions of God's redemptive
grace and covenant.
Third, God's self-identification makes idolatry necessarily the first sin:
"You shall have no other gods in My stead." All other sins are material
extensions of idolatry. When men exchange "the truth of God for a lie," all
other sins follow, because idolatry is the root cause of "all
unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness,
maliciousness," and so on (Romans 1:18-32). It is always the case that
those who worship demons do "not repent of their murders or their sorceries
or their sexual immorality or their thefts" (Revelation 9:20-21).