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Lectio divina on the book of Exodus

by Fr Piergiorgio M. Di Domenico OSM

Lectio 3 – 2016/17

Exodus 19, 1-20, 21

“You, out of all peoples, shall be my personal possession”

(Ex 19,5)

Exodus 19

Three months to the day after leaving Egypt, on the very day, the Israelites reached the desert of Sinai. Setting out from Rephidim, they reached the desert of Sinai and pitched camp in the desert; there, facing the mountain, Israel pitched camp.

Moses then went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Say this to the House of Jacob! Tell the Israelites, “You have seen for yourselves what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you away on eagle’s wings and brought you to me. So now, if you are really prepared to obey me and keep my covenant, you, out of all peoples, shall be my personal possession, for the whole world is mine. For me you shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Those are the words you are to say to the Israelites.’

So Moses went and summoned the people’s elders and acquainted them with everything that the Lord had bidden him, and the people replied with one accord, ‘Whatever the Lord has said, we will do.’ Moses then reported to the Lord what the people had said.

The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Look, I shall come to you in a dense cloud so that the people will hear when I speak to you and believe you ever after.’ Moses then told the Lord what the people had said.

The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and tell them to sanctify themselves today and tomorrow. They must wash their clothes and be ready for the day after tomorrow; for the day after tomorrow, in the sight of all the people, the Lord will descend on Mount Sinai. You will mark out the limits of the mountain and say, “Take care not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Anyone who touches the mountain will be put to death. No one may lay a hand on him: he must be stoned or shot by arrow; whether man or beast, he shall not live.” When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they must go up the mountain.’

So Moses came down from the mountain to the people; he made the people sanctify themselves and they washed their clothes. He then said to the people, ‘Be ready for the day after tomorrow; do not touch a woman.’

Now at daybreak two days later, there were peals of thunder and flashes of lightning, dense cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast; and, in the camp, all the people trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their stand at the bottom of the mountain. Mount Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke rose like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain shook violently. Louder and louder grew the trumpeting. Moses spoke, and God answered him in the thunder. The Lord descended on Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain; and Moses went up.

The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to look at the Lord, or many of them will perish. Even the priests, who do have access to the Lord, must sanctify themselves, or the Lord may burst out against them.’ Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, since you yourself warned us to mark out the limits of the mountain and declare it sacred.’ The Lord said, ‘Away with you! Go down! Then come back bringing Aaron with you. But do not allow the priests and people to break through to come up to the Lord, or He may burst out against them.’ So Moses went down to the people and spoke to them.

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The third part of the Exodus begins with Chapter 19. It includes:

- the covenant on Sinai (the Decalogue) and the so-called ‘code of the covenant’ (19:1-20:21; 20:22-23, 33);

- the ratification of the Covenant (24);

- the instructions on the building of the Sanctuary and on its ministers (25:1-31:18);

- the golden calf and the renewal of the covenant (32:1-34, 35);

- the building of the sanctuary (35:1-40:38).

The first three months of the journey in the desert were very difficult both for Moses and the people. The path to liberation as well as to conversion to a new way of understanding one’s liberty was marked by hunger and thirst, discouragement and rebellion. At Rephidim Moses had to change his leadership style, after becoming aware that he had to stay – first and foremost – “before God”. Now Israel has reached the central stage of its pilgrimage: the meeting with the Lord at Sinai and its establishment as God’s people through the Covenant.

The covenant is a human juridical institution; the Bible makes use of it as the symbol expressing the mystery of God’s relationship with His people. There may be covenants between relatives (cf Gn 31:44-49), between friends (cf 1 S 18:1-4, David and Jonathan), between two kings (cf 1 K 5:15-32, Solomon and Hiram), and, in particular, because this is the very kind of contract that the biblical author relates to God, between a king and his subject (cf Ezk 17:13, Nabucodonosor and Zedekiah): the sovereign imposes the pact and defines all the conditions and clauses.

“Three months to the day after leaving Egypt, on the very day, the Israelites reached the desert of Sinai.” (Ex 19:1)

“On the very day”: literally, “on this day”. It is not a day in the past, but this very day, today. Here the message implied is important: the Lord’s law is given today to us, who live in this present time and in this world. Israel has always regarded the Exodus from Egypt as a living reality, and as such it has always celebrated it in the liturgy. Psalms 81 and 95, inviting the community to think over and over again about the voice which resounded in the events of the Exodus and to listen to it more and more carefully, were probably recited at the Feast of Shelters:

You cried out in your distress, so I rescued you…

Listen, my people, while I give you warning;

Israel, if only you would listen to me!

You shall have no strange gods, shall worship no alien god.

I, the Lord, am your God,

who brought you here from Egypt…

If only my people would listen to me,

if only Israel would walk in my ways… (Ps 81:8, 9-11, 14)

“If only my people would listen to me…” The same wish is expressed in Psalm 95:8: “If only you would listen to Him today!” God’s wish and our own wish: we must wish to live the exodus as a perennial exit from ourselves, in order to belong to God alone.

The perennial actuality of the Exodus finds expression in the Passover supper, when the father explains the rite of the unleavened bread as the memory of Israel’s liberation: “And on that day you will explain to your son, ‘This is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Ex 13:8) The Jerusalem Bible [Italian edition] explains in the relevant note: “ ‘This is because of what’: the Jewish Medieval commentators interpreted this text in two ways. - ‘It is because of what’, that is, of this rite of the unleavened bread, that the Lord freed me. That is, ‘because’, by leaving Pharaoh’s slavery, I became the true servant of the Lord. And then the Lord freed me. Or, - ‘It is in view of this’: the Lord made me go out of Egypt in order for me to be His servant, in order for me to observe the unleavened bread rite. In the first centuries of the Christian era, the Mishnah commented: ‘Each generation must consider themselves as if they were personally gone out of Egypt themselves.’”

Israel pitched camp in the desert of Sinai, facing the mountain. Only Moses went up to God, and he received from Him the task to let the people know that all that He had promised had been fulfilled (cf Ex 6:6-7). “I brought you to me” (Ex 19:4). God is the ultimate goal both of the great Israelite journey and of each and every human path. God is leading the world’s history to Himself, in spite of all the failures, sins and betrayals on man’s part. If God is the ultimate goal of history, my task will be to help the world start walking on that way.

Now, after offering His covenant for free, God demands the people’s response. If the people listen to Him and cherish His Covenant, they will become God’s property. The term ‘segullah’ always implies in the Bible a special relationship between God and His people (with the exception of Qo 2:8 and 1 Ch 29:3, where it has a profane meaning). It occurs three times in Deuteronomy (“set apart / consecrated”: 7:6; 14:2; 26:18); once in Psalm 135:4 (“for the Lord has chosen Jacob for Himself, / Israel as His own possession”); and in Ml 3:17 (“On the day when I act – says the Lord Sabaoth – [those who fear the Lord] will be my most prized possession, ‘segullah’”).

To God’s eyes we are a precious treasure, as it is said with different but still convincing words in Is 43:1-5: “…I have called you by your name, you are mine. … Since I regard you as precious, since you are honoured and I love you… Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” In the New Testament, cf Tt 2:14: “[Jesus Christ] offered Himself for us, in order to ransom us from all our faults and to purify a people to be His very own, and eager to do good”.

God is the creator of the world; the Earth is His. “Yet it was on your ancestors, for love of them, that the Lord set His heart to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, you yourselves, out of all nations, up to the present day.” (Dt 10:15)

We can say that Exodus 19:4-6 already contains the gospel, the good news that God is close to us, that He is present in our own history in order to renew us, to free us, to make of us “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation”, mediators between God and the world, a sacred reality God is jealous of. The prophet Jeremiah, idealizing the time spent in the desert as the time of love and betrothal, proclaims: “I remember your faithful love, the affection of your bridal days, when you followed me through the desert, through a land unsown. Israel was sacred to the Lord; the first-fruits of His harvest; all who ate this incurred guilt, disaster befell them.” (Jr 2:2-3) If God loves and respect us because we are a precious and sacred thing to His eyes, what about our own love for others?

After Moses had related everything that the Lord had told him, “the people replied with one accord, ‘Whatever the Lord has said, we will do.’” (Ex 19:8) With one accord: it is a choral response. God wants us to approach Him thus: not on our own, but together with others.

“The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and tell them to sanctify themselves today and tomorrow…” (Ex 19:10) Sanctification implies not only an exterior purification (“They must wash their clothes”), but also the renunciation to conjugal love (“do not touch a woman”, 15). In order to be able to meet God, the Holy One, preparation is necessary. The people must have an attitude which may favour the meeting, enabling them to relate to God, to understand His will and to put it into practice. Here there is a hint to a value which will come fully to the fore in the New Testament: renunciation to family, which still remains a value, after discovering that God is the highest good, to whom it is right and fitting to donate the whole self; and that all the rest is relative.

“Moses spoke, and God answered him in the thunder.” (Ex 19:19) God’s voice is powerful as thunder (cf Ps 29): “The Lord then spoke to you from the heart of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no shape; there was only a voice.” (Dt 4:12) We cannot see God, but He gives us His word so that we can know Him. Therefore the people is warned “not to break through to look at the Lord” (Ex 19:21), not to break the limits in their eagerness to see (cf the translation of the Vulgate), as otherwise they will perish. On the contrary, to listen to what God says gives life. Even Moses, who is a friend of God’s and to whom God speaks “face to face” (Nb 12:8), cannot see God (cf Ex 33:20-23). This is why Jesus proclaims: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). At other times, however, there are people who “see” God and still do not die (cf Ex 24:10-11). “To see”, then, can have a variety of different meanings.

Line 25 of Chapter 19 ends with God’s “ten words”. So we go on with Ex 20:18-21: “Seeing the thunder pealing, the lightning flashing, the trumpet blasting and the mountain smoking, the people were all terrified and kept their distance. ‘Speak to us yourself,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die.’

Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; God has come to test you, so that your fear of Him, being always in your mind, may keep you from sinning.’ So the people kept their distance while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.

The people are frightened by the manifestation of God’s power and entrust themselves to Moses’ mediation. In Dt 5:23-31 Moses remembers the manifestation of God’s power and how the people heard His voice from the fire, a great fire the people feared to be devoured by: “For this great fire might devour us if we go on listening to the voice of the Lord our God, and then we should die. For what creature of flesh could possibly live after hearing, as we have heard, the voice of the living God speaking from the heart of the fire?” (Dt 5:25-26) Then the people beg Moses that he may act himself: “Go nearer yourself and listen to everything that the Lord our God may say, and then tell us everything that the Lord our God has told you; we shall listen and put it into practice!” (Dt 5:27) God agrees: “I have heard what these people are saying. Everything they have said is well said.” (Dt 5:28) And He adds His secret wish: “If only their hearts were always so, set on fearing me and on keeping my commandments, so that they and their children might prosper for ever!” (Dt 5:29)

Apparently, God does not want us to approach Him directly; we need a mediator. Once again Moses is given this task: “But you yourself stay here with me, and I shall tell you all the commandments, the laws and the customs which you are to teach them and which they are to observe in the country which I am giving them as their possession.” (Dt 5:31)

It is important not only to stand before God, but also to stay with Him. The Apostles were chosen by Jesus first of all because they could stay with Him (cf Mk 3:14). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews juxtaposes the event of Sinai and the Christian experience: “What you have come to is nothing known to the sense: not a blazing fire, or gloom or total darkness, or a storm; or trumpet-blast or the sound of a voice speaking which made everyone that heard it beg that no more should be said to them. They could not bear the order that was given: If even a beast touches the mountain, it must be stoned. The whole scene was so terrible that Moses said, ‘I am afraid and trembling’. But what you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God… and to Jesus, the Mediator of a New Covenant…” (Heb 12:18-22, 24)

There is a basic difference between Moses’ and Jesus’ mediations. Jesus is not only the leader, He is the genuine and life-giving Way (“No one can come to the Father except through me”, Jn 14:6), the Way which must become our own way. Jesus is the ladder towards God (Jn 1:51), He is the Gate (cf Jn 10:7).

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Exodus 20:1-26

Then God spoke all these words. He said, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you lived as slaves.

‘You shall have no other gods to rival me.

‘You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in Heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.

‘You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a Jealous God and I punish a parent’s fault in the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren among those who hate me; but I act with faithful love towards thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not leave unpunished anyone who misuses His name.

‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath for the Lord your God. You shall do no work that day, neither you, nor your son nor your daughter nor your servants, men or women, nor your animals nor the alien living with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens, earth and sea and all that these contain, but on the seventh day He rested; that is why the Lord has blessed the Sabbath day and made it sacred.

‘Honour your father and your mother so that you may live long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

‘You shall not kill.

‘You shall not commit adultery.

‘You shall not steal.

‘You shall not give false evidence against your neighbour.

‘You shall not set your heart on your neighbour’s house. You shall not set your heart on your neighbour’s spouse, or servant, man or woman, or ox, or donkey, or any of your neighbour’s possessions.’

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites this, “You have seen for yourselves how I have spoken to you from Heaven. You must not make gods of silver to rival me, nor must you make yourselves god of gold.

‘You must make me an altar of earth on which to sacrifice your burnt offerings and communion sacrifices, your sheep and cattle. Wherever I choose to have my name remembered, I shall come to you and bless you. If you make me an altar of stone, do not build it of dressed stones; for if you use a chisel on it, you will profane it. You must not go up to my altar by steps, in case you expose your nakedness on them.”’

The Decalogue is the focus of the Pentateuch and of the whole Old Testament. ‘Decalogue’ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew phrase ‘ten words’, occurring in Dt 4:13 (cf also Dt 10:4; Ex 34:28). They are short sentences, sometimes accompanied by explanations and exhortations, both in negative and positive form, regarding man’s duties toward God and neighbour. There are no penal clauses for transgressions, even though strict boundaries are clearly established, and it is clear to everybody who fulfils the Covenant and who does not. Differences between this text and the parallel text we find in Dt 5:6-21 are due to the fact that the Decalogue in its present form underwent a long process of editing, both oral and written, before it was finally given its definitive form and its definitive space within the Covenant. The differences and the additions to the Decalogue that we find in Ex and Dt show how it was really part of the life of the people.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you lived as slaves.” (Dt 20:2) The Lord presents Himself by His name, the one pronounced in Ex 3:15 and 6:2. It is the Lord who frees man. The ten words are a law conducive to freedom. Freedom that we receive as a gift and freedom that we have to give to others. “Talk and behave like people who are going to be judged by the law of freedom. Whoever acts without mercy will be judged without mercy but mercy can afford to laugh at judgement.” (Jm 2:12)

The freedom that God gives us is an act of great mercy on His part, but at the same time it implies commitment on our part, given that we must be merciful and give freedom to others, that is, give them their dignity (please read Jm 2:1-12).

First of all, we must be free from ourselves in order to love God solely: “‘You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in Heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Ex 20:3-5) This basic commandment is repeated in the Jewish daily prayer: “Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is the one, the only Lord. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” (Dt 6:4-5) Love for God must be thorough: God is a jealous God, He wants everything for Himself. “You will worship no other god, since the Lord’s name is the Jealous One; He is a jealous God.” (Ex 34:14; cf also Dt 4:2; 6:14-15; 32:16; Jos 24:19)

20:7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God…” The holy name of the one and only God cannot be profaned, by turning or sacrificing to other gods (cf Lv 20:3; Ezk 43:8). Or, when we are “surrounded by plenty” and we believe that, given that we are satisfied and self-sufficient, that the Lord’s help is useless (cf Pr 30:8-9). God’s name is to be pronounced only when praising Him and invoking Him (cf Ex 15:1-3), and when blessing (cf Nb 6:22-27).

20:8 “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” This is the time reserved for God, a day of rest, “for in six days the Lord made the heavens, earth and sea and all that these contain, but on the seventh day He rested; that is why the Lord has blessed the Sabbath day and made it sacred.” (Ex 20:11) This blessing, in the same way as that given to animals and men, give the Sabbath day its fruitfulness and power. The time given to God renews all our time.

Dt 5:12-15 gives a different reason: “The seventh day is a Sabbath for the Lord your God. You must not do any work that day, neither you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servants – male or female – nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your animals, nor the foreigner who has made his home with you; so that your servants, male and female, may rest, as you do. Remember that you were once a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with mighty hand and outstretched arm; this is why the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”

The Sabbath day is then the memorial of freedom received as a gift from God, and so precious to His eyes: this freedom makes us all equal, with the same dignity, as brothers and sisters. Time does not belong to us any longer. It has been given to us and we must put it at the service of others.

The first part of the Decalogue – that the ancient called “the first tablet” – ends with the word on the Sabbath day. The “second tablet” begins with the precept regarding parents: “Honour your father and your mother so that you may live long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Ex 20:12) It is important to note that the word on parents immediately follows that on the Sabbath day.

In Lv 19:3 the order is the same, but the terms are reverted: first comes honour to be given to parents, then the observance of the Sabbath day. “Each of you will respect father and mother. And you will keep my Sabbaths…” (Lv 19:3)

Father and mother are given the same prominence, with some translations putting ‘mother’ first.

Honour given to parents is set in a sacred context. The relation to parents is not horizontal, as it is the relation to one’s neighbours, but vertical. Jesus will repeat this commandment against those who get round the commandment of God in order to preserve their own tradition (cf Mk 7:11-13).

“You shall not set your heart…” (Ex 20:17) Referring to that verb, St Paul speaks about sin that is a constant menace to us and that we know thanks to the Law (cf Rm 7:7-13). The law, by focussing our attention on something forbidden, may be in a way an invitation to sin. “What should we say then? That the law itself is sin? Out of the question!” (Rm 7:7) “The law is spiritual but I am a creature of flesh and blood sold as a slave to sin” (Rm 7:14). The law has become part of that perverted mechanism of the flesh, that is, selfishness, which encloses us in ourselves and deceives us into believing that we can be self-sufficient. Therefore “I do not understand my own behaviour; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate. While I am acting as I do not want to, I still acknowledge the Law as good, so it is not myself acting, but the sin which lives in me.” (Rm 7:15-17)

Sin rules over me and the Law, however good and holy it may be, does not give me the power to free me from the “law of sin which lives inside my body” (rm 7:23).

This kind of drama ends with a cry of victory, though: “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rm 7:25) He carried our sin and freed us. In Him we can understand that the freedom given to us as a gift by God is meant to free us from being slaves to our selves, and to be at the service of one another (cf Ga 5:13).