March 2, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: Exodus and God's covenant

John F. FinkThe biblical readings in the Office of Readings next week are from the 17th verse of Chapter 13 through the 17th verse of Chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus. They run from the time the Israelites left Egypt, taking the bones of Joseph with them, to the delivery of the Ten Commandments.

It took two months for them to travel from Egypt to the Sinai Desert. We don't know what route they took. Biblical experts suggest three possibilities. Along the way, they had many adventures and hardships.

First was their final escape from Pharaoh's soldiers. After the Israelites left Egypt, Pharaoh decided it was a bad idea to let them go so he sent his chariots after them. They cornered the Israelites at either the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds, wherever that might have been. That is when the Lord sent a strong wind that turned the sea into dry land so the Israelites could cross over safely. Then, as the Egyptians chased them, he let the water return to normal, drowning the Egyptians.

The Israelites were now free. But they were also stuck in the desert. They had exchanged the security of slavery for freedom in a wilderness, houses for tents, an urban life for a nomadic existence, arable land for sand. Where would they get food and water? And who would protect them from enemies?

There was great tension between Moses and the people he led out of Egypt: "Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?" (Ex 17:3).

God provided the answers to those questions. He gave them manna and quail for food, and caused water to gush forth from a rock. And when the Amalekites attacked, the Israelites prevailed only as long as Moses kept his hands raised in prayer. When Moses grew tired, Aaron and Hur had to support his hands until victory was won.

Finally, the Israelites pitched camp at the base of Mount Sinai in the Sinai Desert. Again, we don't know exactly what mountain, but that is not important. What is important is that we come to the high point of the entire Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible. God makes a covenant with the Israelites.

Moses ascended the mountain and God said to him, "Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles' wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people" (Ex 19:3-4).

A second time, God summoned Moses to the top of the mountain. Then, the third time, God delivered the Ten Commandments, which are in Exodus (Ex 20:1-17). Unfortunately, God didn't number them one through 10. Therefore, Catholics have traditionally considered verses 1 to 6 as one commandment while Protestants divide them into two, and Catholics divide verse 17 into two commandments while Protestants keep it as one. †

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