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Lectio divina on the book of Exodus

by Fr Piergiorgio M. Di Domenico OSM

Lectio 4 – 2016/17
Exodus 20:22-23:19; 24:1-18

“We shall do everything
that the Lord has said,
we shall obey”

(Ex 24:7)

We have come now to that section of the Book of Exodus that goes conventionally under the name of ‘Code (or Book) of the Covenant’: it is an unsystematic collection of laws, without a logical order, many of which were previously part of the juridical heritage of the ancient East. It was probably written around the year 1225 before Christ, that is, in the first years of Israel’s settling in the land of Canaan, before the age of the monarchy. These laws are informed by the spirit of the Decalogue, and that is why they were incorporated into the Covenant of Sinai.

The Code includes:

- civil and penal laws (21:1-22:19), concerning slaves, homicide, harm, theft;

- laws concerning worship: the altar (20:20-26), the offering of the first-fruits and of the first-born sons (22:28-31), the Sabbaths, the Sabbatical year, feasts (23:10-19);

- moral laws: the protection of aliens, widows, orphans, the poor (22:20-27), justice in trials, duties to the enemy (23:1-9).

Being included in the Covenant, all these laws are regarded as coming from the Lord Himself and acquire a sacred value: their transgression is equal to the transgression of the Covenant with the one and only Lord, with Him who is a jealous God. This is why the Code opens with the following words:

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 gods of gold”. (Ex 20:22-23)

All that has been said is Word of God, who now speaks “from Heaven”, not merely from the mountain; and who now speaks “to you”, not merely to Moses. A similar declaration closes the Code:

‘You will make no pact with them or with their gods. They may not stay in your country or they might make you sin against me, for you would serve their gods, and that would be a snare for you!’ (Ex 23:32-33)

The danger of being contaminated by the worldly mentality is a constant worry (cf Psalm 106, where Israel confesses its sin: “they did not destroy the nations… but intermarried with them, / and adopted their ways”).

The first law concerns worship and, in particular, the altar:

‘You must make 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.’ (Ex 20:24-26)

The altar made of stone, not profaned by the hand of man, will be placed “wherever I choose to have my name remembered”: there is still no single place of worship. God can be encountered everywhere.

Ex 21:1-11: slavery is an established social institution. The law tries to safeguard the rights of slaves. Each and every Hebrew who had fallen into slavery due to debts should be freed after seven years, and this was regarded as an ‘individual jubilee’. Dt 15:12 adds to “Hebrew” the term “fellow” or “brother”: this is an anticipation of that fraternity which will be the main feature of the Christian community, where there will be “neither slave nor freeman” but all members will be “one” in Christ (cf Ga 3:28; Fil 15-16).

In the case of unintentional homicide, God appoints a place where the murderer “can take refuge” (Ex 21:13). Cf also Dt 19 and Nb 35:11-34; Lv 24:10; 1 K 1:51. As far as fraternity is concerned, as a place of refuge for the poor and needy, please read ‘Legenda de Origine’ (‘The Legend of the Origins’), n° 2.

In the case harm is done, “you will award life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stroke for stroke”. (Ex 21:23-25)

The law of retaliation (cf Lv 24:20; Dt 19:21), that was trying to restrain indiscriminate violence, is surpassed by Jesus’ law, according to which we must overcome evil by good:

“But I say to you, offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if someone wishes to go to law with you to get your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone requires you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks you, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.” (Mt 5:39-42)

Exodus 22:20-26

‘You will not molest or oppress aliens, for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt.

‘You will not ill-treat widows or orphans; if you ill-treat them in any way and they make an appeal to me for help, I shall certainly hear their appeal, my anger will be roused and I shall put you to the sword; then your own wives will be widows and your own children orphans.

‘If you lend money to nay of my people, to anyone poor among you, you will not play the usurer with him: you will not demand interest from him.

‘If you take someone’s cloak in pledge, you will return it to him at sunset. It is all the covering he has; it is the cloak he wraps his body in; what else will he sleep in? If he appeals to me I shall listen. At least with me he will find compassion!

The law concerning aliens occurs also in Ex 23:9. As far as the poor are concerned, cf Lv 25:35-37.

Exodus 23:1-19

‘You will not spread false rumours. You will not lend support to the wicked by giving untrue evidence. You will not be led into wrong-doing by the majority nor, when giving evidence in a lawsuit, side with the majority to pervert the course of justice; nor will you show partiality to the poor in a lawsuit.

‘If you come on your enemy’s ox or donkey straying, you will take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen under its load, do not stand back; you must go and help him with it.

‘You will not cheat the poor among you of their rights at law. Keep clear of fraud. Do not cause the death of the innocent or upright, and do not acquit the guilty. You will accept no bribes, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and is the ruin of the cause of the upright.

‘You will not oppress the alien; you know how an alien feels, for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt.

‘For six years you will sow your land and gather its produce, but in the seventh year you will let it lie fallow and forgo all produce from it, so that those of your people who are poor can take food from it and the wild animals eat what they have left. You will do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

‘For six days you will do your work, and on the seventh you will rest, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the child of your slave-girl have a breathing space, and the alien too.

‘Take notice of everything I have told you and do not mention the name of any other god: let none ever be heard from your lips.

‘Three times a year you will hold a festival in my honour. You will observe the feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you will eat unleavened bread, as I have commanded you, at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. No one will appear before me empty-handed. You will also observe the feast of Harvest, of the first-fruits of your labours in sowing the fields, and the feast of Ingathering, at the end of the year, once you have brought the fruits of your labours in from the fields. Three times a year all your menfolk will appear before the Lord God.

‘You will not offer the blood of my victim with leavened bread, nor will the fat of my feast be kept till the following day.

‘You will bring the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.

You will not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’

After the norms concerning the poor and needy as well as enemies, we find rules concerning worship. In particular, please note those concerning the Sabbaths and the Sabbatical Year.

“For six years you will sow your land and gather its produce, but in the seventh year you will let it lie fallow and forgo all produce from it, so that those of your people who are poor can take food from it and the wild animals eat what they have left. You will do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Ex 23:10-11)

“You will not exploit the land”, or literally, “You will do remission”. In fact, the seventh year is the year of remission, when debts are remitted and slaves are freed (cf Dt 15:1-18). “The land must keep a Sabbath’s rest for the Lord too” (Lv 25:2).

God cares that the land is granted the right to regenerate itself, in the same way as men and animals are. If man disregards that right, he will have to suffer very bad consequences.

“And I shall scatter you among the nations. I shall unsheathe the sword against you, reducing your country to desert and your towns to ruins. Then the country will indeed observe its Sabbaths, all the while it lies deserted, while you are in the country of your enemies. Then indeed the country will rest and observe its Sabbaths. And as it lies deserted it will rest, as it never did on your Sabbaths when you were living there.” (Lc 26:33-35)

Exile is regarded not only as a time of ‘diaspora’ and ruins, but also in a positive way as a time of rest for the land. All the Sabbaths that Israel did not allow it to observe can be given back to it.

This is a very important message, as it takes into consideration the inner relation that all the creatures of the universe have with one another: “Created by the same Father, we beings of the universe are related one to the other by invisible bonds and we form a kind of ‘universal family’, a sublime communion driving us towards a sacred, loving and humble respect… God has united us so closely to the world surrounding us that the desertification of the soil is like an illness for each of us, and we can lament the extinction of a species as if it were a mutilation.” (Francis, ‘Laudato Sii’, n° 89) [Please read Chapter 2 of the Encyclical, ‘The Gospel of creation’, nn° 62-100]

The prescription concerning the Sabbath quotes one of the Ten Words (Ex 20:8-10). The Sabbath is the day when not only Hebrews, but also oxen, donkeys, the children of the maid-servant as well as aliens can enjoy rest. The Sabbath day is a gift especially for those who are tired or fatigued because of hard work and are at the service of somebody else.

“No one will appear before me empty-handed.” (Ex 23:15) Literally, “my faces will not be seen for free”. To see the face of the Lord is a phrase meaning to visit the shrine. One cannot reach the Lord’s presence empty-handed. The prescription occurs again in Ex 34:20; Dt 16:16 and Si 35:6. We must bring God an offering; the most precious offering is of course faith put into practice:

“Fool [‘empty man’]! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless?” (Jm 2:20)

An empty man is he who has faith (or who thinks he has faith) but in fact does nothing at all.

“So I tell you this, that for every unfounded word people utter they will answer on Judgement Day.” (Mt 12:36)

May God preserve us from an empty and pointless speech; may our words be conformed to His Word, which does not return to Him “empty”, that is, “unfulfilled” (Is 55:11)

Exodus 23:20-26, Before leaving

‘Look, I am sending an angel to precede you, to guard you as you go and bring you to the place that I have prepared. Revere him and obey what he says. Do not defy him: he will not forgive any wrong-doing on your part, for my name is in him. If, however, you obey what he says and do whatever I order, I shall be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. My angel will precede you and lead you to the home of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, whom I shall exterminate.

‘You will not bow down to their gods or worship them or observe their rites, but throw them down and smash their cultic stones.

‘You will worship the Lord your God, and then I shall bless your food and water, and keep you free of sickness. In your country no woman will miscarry, none be sterile, and I shall give you your full term of life.

From a juridical system we are taken abruptly to God’s command to leave, in order for the Israelites to reach the place prepared for them by the Lord. God sends a “guardian” angel, and we must obey him, for God’s name (ie, the divine presence) is in him. His main duty is to preserve the people from idolatry and to help them serve the Lord alone. Service to the Lord is a source of happiness.

Exodus 23:27-33

‘I shall send terror of myself ahead of you; I shall throw all the peoples you encounter into confusion, and make all your enemies take to their heels. I shall send hornets ahead of you to drive Hivite, Canaanite and Hittite out before you. I shall not drive them out ahead of you in a single year, or the land might become a desert where wild animals would multiply to your cost. I shall drive them out little by little before you, until your numbers grow sufficient for you to take possession of the land. And your frontiers I shall fix from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River, for I shall put the inhabitants of the territory at your mercy, and you will drive them out before you. You will make no pact with them or with their gods. They may not stay in your country or they might make you sin against me, for you would serve their gods, and that would be a snare for you!’

Why did God prescribe that the land should be conquered not all at once, but gradually? Because if Israel’s enemies had been driven out of the land in a single year, the land would have become a desert and wild beasts would have multiplied.

Exactly as in the blessing we find in Genesis 1:28, here the increase in the number of inhabitants is the necessary condition for ownership and rule of the land.

Later on, Israel added some more explanations for that prescriptions: God did not drive out Israel’s enemies in a single year in order to test Israel and to see whether or not they would walk along the Lord’s path (cf Jg 2:21-22); or – and this is the explanation we favour – God does not like to destroy, but patiently waits for man to change; He punishes those who deserve punishment, but He is indulgent towards Canaanites “as they are men too”; He is “the Lord of Power” but He judges with meekness, He corrects but at the same time gives reasons to hope in His mercy (cf Ws 12:2-22).

Exodus 24

The Lord then said to Moses, ‘Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel and bow down at a distance. Moses alone will approach the Lord; the others will not approach, nor will the people come up with him.’

Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and all the laws, and all the people answered with one voice, ‘All the words the Lord has spoken we will carry out!’

Moses put all the Lord’s words in writing, and early next morning he built an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve standing-stones for the twelve tribes of Israel.

Then he sent certain young Israelites to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice bullocks to the Lord as communion sacrifices. Moses then took half the blood and put it into basins, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar.

Then, taking the Book of the Covenant, he read it to the listening people, who then said, ‘We shall do everything that the Lord has said; we shall obey.’ Moses then took the blood and sprinkled it over the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you, entailing all these stipulations.’

Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel then went up, and they saw the God of Israel beneath whose feet there was what looked like a sapphire pavement pure as the heavens themselves, but He did no harm to the Israelites notables; they actually gazed on God and then ate and drank.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain. Stay there, and I will give you the stone tablets – the Law and the Commandment – which I have written for their instruction.’ Moses made ready, with Joshua his assistant, and they went up the mountain of God. He said to the elders, ‘Wait here for us until we come back to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; if anyone has any matter to settle, let him go to them.’ Moses then went up the mountain.

Cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the watching Israelites, the glory of the Lord looked like a devouring fire on the mountain top. Moses went right into the cloud and went on up the mountain. Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

A very special ritual seals the Covenant. Lines 1-2 quote the order that God gave Moses in 19:24. But now Moses is accompanied not only by Aaron but also by his sons Nadab and Abihu as well as by seventy elders (cf Ex 18:21-26; Nb 11:16, 24). Thus, three levels or grades of closeness to God are formed: the people at the foot of the mountain, the elders who go up with Moses but have to stay at a distance, and Moses who “alone will approach the Lord” (Ex 24:2).

“Alone”: solitude with God is a fundamental experience not only for those who are leaders or prophets (cf Jr 15:17), but also for each and everyone of us. It is a personal encounter which allows us to communicate God to others as our most inner truth; truth which by now has turned into our very life.

Moses told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, and the people “with one voice” promised to observe them.

“Moses put all the Lord’s words in writing” (Ex 24:4). Moses will write also in Ex 34:27-28. However, in Ex 24:12,

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain. Stay there, and I will give you the stone tablets – the law and the commandment – which I have written for their instruction’.”

God will write once again in Ex 31:18 (“tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God”) as well as in 34:1. God writes and Moses writes too. Here we find a hint to the rituals of covenant in the ancient East: the document containing the clauses of the covenant was written in two copies, then deposited in the respective temples of the two parties.

In addition to that, we can see in it a hint to a very important truth for our lives: Scripture is God’s work, but Moses’ also; it is a book written by God but by us too. Scripture is a never finished book, which is always to be completed. We keep on writing it by our lives.

After writing the Book of the Covenant, Moses sprinkles blood on the altar. He builds an altar, the symbol of God, with twelve standing stones which represent Israel’s twelve tribes. He asks some young Israelites to sacrifice some animals. Then he takes half of the blood and puts it into basins, and the other half he sprinkles on the altar. Blood, which is life, (cf Lv 17:14) is now holy because, after being sprinkled on the altar, it has become God’s very blood, that is, His life.

Then he reads the book of the Covenant and the people, for the third time (cf 19:8; 24:3) give their consent: “We shall do everything that the Lord has said; we shall obey” (Ex 24:7). This is one of the most important passages of the Bible, where deeds (that is, life) are the necessary condition for one to be able to truly listen and understand God’s word. There can be no real listening without deeds, given that it is through deeds that the heart can concretely adhere to God’s will. “We shall do everything and we shall listen…” According to Hebrew grammar, the conjunction ‘and’ may have a finalistic value: what the Lord said, we shall do, ‘in order for us’ to listen to Him. In order to listen, in order to obey, we must live, that is, love, first. According to Psalm 103:20, the angels too behave in the same way: “mighty warriors who fulfil His commands, / attentive to the sound of His words.”

After the reading of the Book, the people is sprinkled with blood too (the other half): Israel is now in full communion with God, they share God’s very life in a nuptial covenant by which the two become one thing. Moses declares: “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you, entailing all these stipulations.” (Ex 24:8) The same blood ‘circulates’ in God and in us. We are blood-related. The New Covenant will make use of part of these rituals (cf Mt 26:27; Mk 14:24; Lc 22:20; 1 Co 11:23-25). However, we are no longer related to God through the blood of animals, but through Jesus Christ who offered His life for us (cf Heb 9:11-18).

After the people’s declaration of fidelity, Moses goes up the mountain together with Aaron and his sons and the seventy elders who had previously stayed “at a distance”. They are half way through the climb when a very peculiar experience occurs to them. “They saw the God of Israel beneath whose feet there was what looked like a sapphire pavement pure as the heavens themselves.” (Ex 24:10) They do not see a clear figure, they just see the feet, within a Heavenly light. They are privileged because they “gazed on God and then ate and drank” (Ex 24:11), ie, they did not die. They are privileged “for – the Lord said – no human being can see me and survive” (Ex 33:20). There is a kind of sight that leads one to death, because it is an action which exceeds human power; and there is another kind of sight which means gazing God’s ineffable presence with the eyes of the heart. Sight originating from faith is Moses’, when he had the courage to leave Egypt: “he held to his purpose like someone who could see the Invisible” (Heb 11:27; cf also Nb 12:6-8). Or the sight of the beloved disciple: “He saw and he believed” (Jn 20:8). This seeing lays no claim to ‘own’ God; on the contrary, it implies abandoning ourselves in Him with full trust.

In the Old Testament some more people are so “privileged” to see God without dying. Hagar, the slave sent away by Sarah, is found by a spring in the desert by the angel of the Lord, who tells her to go back to her mistress, to be submissive. In fact, the Lord has heard her cries of distress and she will conceive and will bear a son.

“Hagar gave a name to the Lord who had spoken to her, ‘You are El Roi’, by which she meant, ‘Did I not go on seeing here, after Him who sees me?’” (Ex 16:13)

This text – which is a bit obscure – can be read also: “You are the God who sees me: for here I have seen One who sees me!” The former meaning does not exclude the latter. Here two sights meet: God’s seeing, which is care and protection for the poor; and the seeing of the creature, who is surprised by God’s love.

After his struggle with God and receiving the new name of Israel, Jacob exclaims: “I have seen God face to face, and have survived” (Gn 32:31). According to the etymology provided by Philo of Alexandria, ‘Israel’ means ‘the man who sees God’. Hopefully, our own persevering and firm ‘struggle’ of prayer will be granted one day to see God too.

Isaiah received God’s call during a magnificent vision in the Temple:

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Sabaoth.” (Is 6:5)

The verb ‘to contemplate’ becomes the technical term used for the prophets, who are often called ‘seers’ (cf Nb 24:4, 16; Is 1:1; 2:1; 13:1; Ezk 12:27; Am 1:1). The prophets see the word which is addressed to them.

Once again the Lord commands Moses to go up the mountain, where He will give him the tablets of stone. The Lord’s glory, ie, His presence, is seen by the Israelites as a “devouring fire” (cf Ex 13:22; Dt 4:24; Heb 12:29): fire is God’s jealous love, requiring a total and exclusive adhesion.

“In a flame blazing from the middle of a bush” (Ex 3:2). Moses encountered the God of his fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. Now Moses goes right into the cloud and up on the mountain, staying on the mountain for forty days and forty nights: a long time of obscurity and trial, of patient penetration of God’s ineffable mystery.