Sunday, April 17
Psalm 98 (Greek & Latin 97): The latter part of the Book 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” (Isaiah 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. Exodus 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 1:50f). God’s arm in these contexts is an image of His “power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:4), “the power of God unto salvation” (1:16).
The same reference to God’s holy, salvific arm appears several times in the Book of Psalms, one example being the opening of Psalm 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 Atonement, 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, Heracleitus, 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 Corinthians 1:24).
Such is the meaning of Theophany, literally “the appearing of God” in man’s history. This appearing of God is not a general and pervasive luminosity to which the human race has a ready and easy access. It is, on the contrary, most particular, very specified with respect to time and place. God has become incarnate only once. Only once has the price of our sins been paid. Only once has He “appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has ordained.” Moreover, “He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Only once has God done all of these “wondrous things.”
Our psalm speaks likewise of this latter judgment of the world by one Man whom He has ordained. “For He comes to judge the earth,” it says, “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with uprightness.” All of human history will, at the last, be summoned before the same Judge whom God has ordained, giving “assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” This single, unique standard of the final judgment is likewise a component of the Gospel itself: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him” (Matthew 25:31f).
Particular in the time and place of its appearance, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is nonetheless universal as the canon and measure of man’s destiny, being solely the source of the “knowledge of salvation” (Luke 1:77).
Monday, April 18
The Book of Exodus: This second book of Holy Scripture continues the narrative of salvation begun in Genesis. It commences with the story of the Chosen People, now in Egypt where Genesis had left them, and ends with them receiving the Law at Mount Sinai. The book's defining event, the deliverance from slavery, also provides its (Greek) title, which means "going out" or "departure."
It is in Exodus that the Chosen People is formally constituted and given its proper structure, as Martin Luther observed. In Exodus, he wrote, "when the world was now full and sunk in blindness so that men scarcely knew any longer where sin was or where death came from, God brings Moses forward with the Law and selects a special people, in order to enlighten the world again through them, and by the Law to reveal sin anew. He therefore organizes this people with all kinds of laws and separates it from all other peoples. He has them build a tent, and begins a form of worship. He appoints princes and officials, and provides his people splendidly with both laws and men, to rule them both in the body before the world and in the spirit before God."
Just as the deliverance from slavery was the setting for the Law, it provided also much of the context for the prophets. Thus, in the 9th century, the prophet Elijah, who likewise was miraculously fed with bread and meat in the wilderness, was careful to return to the very mountain where Moses had received the Law, and at the end of his life, he went back eastward over the Jordan, to where Moses had died, in order to hand over the prophetic ministry to Elisha, who thereby became a sort of new Joshua. Similarly, in the 8th century, the prophet Hosea constantly appealed to motifs from Exodus to recall a sinful people to repentance and renewal. Likewise, the second part of the Book of Isaiah repeatedly appeals to the Exodus as a promise of a greater salvation yet to come.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the early Christians, as reflected in the New Testament, were forever going to the Book of Exodus for the appropriate symbols of redemption purchased by Jesus: the covenant blood, the paschal lamb, the darkening of the earth just prior to the slaying of the firstborn, freedom from slavery, baptism in the Red Sea, water from the rock, manna in the desert, and so forth.
Tuesday, April 19
Exodus 2: Arguably one of the most puzzling verses in Holy Scripture is that which tells why Moses’ mother did not drown him at birth. For the purpose of introducing this subject as a matter of inquiry, but without recommending the accuracy of the translation, I quote the relevant verse in the New King James Version: “And when she saw he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months” (Exodus 2:2).
Now when I describe this statement as puzzling, I have two considerations chiefly in mind. First, taken as a plain assertion—“he was beautiful, so she hid him”—the verse just won’t do. All babies are beautiful to their mothers, so of course she would not drown him! Are we to imagine that all the other little Hebrew boys were ugly? There is surely something more at work here. Since the beauty in Moses’ case is given as the reason for his parents’ refusal to obey Pharaoh’s command (“Every son who is born you will cast into the river”), we suspect that a deeper, subtler significance is intended.
Second, ancient interpreters did, fact, tend to treat this text as somewhat cryptic. Though differing among themselves somewhat with respect to details, they agreed that its meaning is more profound and mysterious than at first appears.
We may begin with the New Testament witnesses, Stephen and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In their reading of this verse, both these early Christians maintained the adjective asteios, which the Septuagint used to describe Moses. Although this word is most often translated as “well formed” or “beautiful” (as we saw in the NKJV), each of these sources recognized that the appearance of the newborn Moses was of a quality different from merely human beauty.
Thus, after the adjective asteios, Stephen added the qualifying expression to Theo, “to God,” which effectively changes the sense of the verse to “well pleasing to God” (Acts 7:20). Moreover, Stephen was describing Moses himself, his relationship to the Lord, not his mother’s assessment of the child. In fact, Stephen does not even mention Moses’ mother.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the appearance of the newborn Moses is given as the reason why his parents “were not afraid of the king’s command,” the entire context is that of faith: “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw that he was a beautiful child” (11:23).
Here the point is very subtle indeed. When the parents looked upon little Moses, they were able to discern “by faith” some aspect of the child’s appearance that was not otherwise obvious. We recall that this section of Hebrews began by defining faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). In Hebrews 11 faith invariably has to do with an adherence to the unseen future. The appearance of the infant Moses, then, gave evidence of something hoped for but not yet seen, and faith granted his parents a special discernment in his regard.
These early Christian interpretations of Exodus 2:2 are not unlike those found among ancient Jewish readers of the text. For example, Philo wrote that the newborn Moses “had a beauty more than human” (de Vita Moysi 1.9), and Josephus apparently agreed (Antiquities 2.9.6 §224), adding that Moses’ mother felt no pangs in childbirth (2.9.4 §218). Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus, went even further, speculating that the house was filled with light at Moses’ birth. Indeed, he wrote, when Pharaoh’s daughter opened the little basket floating on the Nile, she beheld the Shekinah, the luminous cloud of the divine glory.
All of these readings, differing among themselves in detail, are nonetheless in accord in their search for a deeper, subtler meaning in the Bible’s description of the newborn Moses. They all agree, furthermore, that his beautiful appearance was revelatory of God’s purpose.
I respectfully offer here another approach to the passage.
Most of the authors that I have cited (Rashi the exception) based their interpretations of Exodus 2:2 on the Septuagint translation. For my part I suggest that we should look more closely at the underlying Hebrew text, which asserts of Moses’ mother, wattere’ ’oto ki tov hu’. This clause literally says, “and she saw that he was good.”
The most obvious parallels to this passage, I submit, are the several places where the Book of Genesis says of Creation, “And God saw that it was good,” wayyar’ ’Elohim ki tov (Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31). It is remarkable that both passages employ the identical predicate (ra’ah) and exactly the same objective clause (ki tov). That is to say, each of these books begins with the selfsame assertion, ra’ah ki tov — “ . . . saw that . . . was good.”
Moreover, this verbal correspondence between Genesis and Exodus, too manifest for doubt, is certainly deliberate on the author’s part. Thus, God’s salvific deed in Exodus is here set in intentional parallel with His creative work in Genesis. I propose that this harmony pertains to the deeper, subtler significance of the text.
Wednesday, April 20
Exodus 3: In Holy Scripture, this same mountain is called both Sinai and Horeb, the former name more favored in the traditions of Judah, the latter name more common among the northern tribes. The story of the Burning Bush here requires two chapters, being the longest “call story” in the Bible. The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi speculated that the event took an entire week! As the story begins, Moses is curious. As usual, he is taking the initiative. He will attempt to approach the divine presence on his own!
Moses covers his face but bares his feet, such being the proper response to the presence of holiness, particularly a “holy place.” Holiness is not abstract; it is revealed in concrete physical experiences. The removal of the sandals in this context is found with regard to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-16) and the veiling of the face with regard to Elijah (1 Kings 19:13). St. Paul explains the deeper significance of the veiling of the face in 2 Corinthians 3:18—4:6. God identifies Himself here as the same God who spoke of old to the patriarchs, and this description of God’s meeting with Moses bears comparison to some similar patriarchal narratives (cf. Genesis 17:1-3; 28:16-19; 32:31).
The divine commission distinguishes Moses from all that went before. From time to time the patriarchs had been told to do certain things (cf. Genesis 12 and 22, for instance), but they were never, strictly speaking, given some task to which they were to devote their entire lives. Moses is the first and prototype of the man called to the exclusive service of God and ministry to God’s people. After him the Bible will describe many such calls.
Beginning at verse 11 we observe Moses’ reluctance to accept his arduous prophetic call. Indeed, this will become a normal response of several of the prophets and other leaders at the time of their call; cf. Judges 6:14-18; Jeremiah 1:4-8; Jonah 1:1-3; Luke 5:4-10.
Thursday, April 21
Exodus 4: All through this chapter Moses anticipates getting resistance from the chosen people, as had been the case back in 2:14. Popular resistance to the prophetic word was to remain a common biblical theme; cf. Amos 7:10-13; Hosea 9:7; Acts 26:24, etc. In the case of Moses this disposition to disbelieve him was to continue to the very end of his career. Indeed, in the New Testament there is the sustained complaint that the Israelites were still not taking Moses seriously; cf. John 5:45-47; 7:19; Acts 7:30-39.
These “signs” serve more than one function. Moses says that nobody will believe him, but it appears that the first unbelief to be overcome is that of Moses himself. Secondly, the Israelites must be convinced. Thirdly, the Egyptians must be convinced.
Moses objects that he has never had “a way with words.” Truly so; although at this point in the story he is 80 years old, the Bible records only one sentence from him prior to this time, and that one sentence had been totally ineffective (Exodus 2:13). God reminds him that he won’t be speaking for himself; cf. Mark 13:11. Jeremiah will also use an alleged speech deficiency in attempting to escape the prophetic call; cf. Jeremiah 1:4-8.
Time has run out for Moses, but in response to his pleading, God makes the concession that the new prophet is to receive some help, and for the first time we learn that Moses has an older brother. Aaron will do the talking, but Moses is not relieved of his own responsibility. Aaron will be his spokesman, but he himself will continue to be God’s spokesman. This extended dialogue between Moses and God reveals the prophet’s ability at haggling, which is a normal part of business transactions in that part of the world. In fact, one is reminded of Abraham as someone who “drove a hard bargain” with God; cf. Genesis 18:24-32. Later on in the Exodus account, much will be said about Moses’ ability as an intercessor with God; on one occasion the people will be saved from swift destruction solely by reason of Moses’ ability to “haggle” with the Almighty.
The last plague is predicted first (verses 21-23). Several points should be made with respect to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. First, it is improper to interpret this expression in any fashion that frees Pharaoh from the moral responsibility of hardening his own heart (cf. 8:11). It is clear from the entire context God is not responsible for Pharaoh’s sin.
Second, in the several times that the text ascribes this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to God Himself (cf. 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8), the hardening of the heart is incorporated into the dramatic tension of the story. It is part of saying that God is directing the entire development, the growing suspense of the conflict. As the Lord provides less and less excuse for Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, through the course of the plagues, God is pictured as making Pharaoh’s heart ever harder by giving him occasions for repentance. In order to resist God, Pharaoh’s heart must become progressively hardened.
Third, it is unfortunate that many later commentators on Romans 9, who treated that passage as though it dealt with individual salvation, forgot the context of this drama of deliverance. There are further observations on this point in the note on Exodus 9:16.
Verses 24-26 are one of the most obscure passages in all of Holy Scripture, and it is possible that even the inspired author was not entirely certain what it meant. Indeed, we can say that the story was recorded here quite simply because it happened, and various interpretations of it can be traced back to pre-Christian times. What is clear about the passage, however, is this: that Moses’ son had to be circumcised before his prophetic commission could be undertaken.
This detail places Moses once again in the tradition of the patriarchs. The insertion of this story, which has to do with a specific ritual act, at the beginning of the Exodus drama tends to place the whole narrative of the Exodus in a liturgical and initiatory context, indicating an important relationship between circumcision and the Exodus. Circumcision became the way in which the male Israelite became part of the Exodus community at all times. Even Jesus submitted to the rite (cf. Luke 2:21), and the liturgical tradition of the Church has always felt it appropriate to celebrate that event as a special feast day.
In verse 27 we learn that God had revealed Himself simultaneously to both Moses and Aaron (cf. 4:14). More than once in Holy Scripture God speaks to two people simultaneously in order to bring them together. Such are Samuel and Saul (1 Samuel 9:15-20, David and Gad (2 Samuel 24:10-12), Paul and Ananias (Acts 9:4-16), Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:9-15,30-33); see also Tobit 3:1-16.
Friday, April 22
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 Zedechiah, 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.
Saturday, April 23
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. Ezechiel 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.