Friday of week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Exod 11:10

We have skipped several chapters of Exodus to come to today’s reading.

The sufferings of the Hebrews became intolerable and eventually God sent what we call the Ten Plagues on Egypt in order to persuade the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave. After each one, his heart hardened and he refused to the let God’s people go.

The Ten Plagues were as follows:

  1. Water turned into blood (most likely caused by a plant which discoloured the water).
  2. An infestation of frogs which penetrated every place and every home.
  3. An infestation of gnats (mosquitoes?) on man and beast alike.
  4. A plague of flies.
  5. An epidemic which attacked all the livestock of the Egyptians, but not those of the Hebrews.
  6. An epidemic of boils on humans and beasts.
  7. A fall of hail, accompanied by thunder and lightning, which killed everyone and every animal that was in the open air.
  8. A plague of locusts which devoured every plant which had survived the previous plagues.
  9. Total darkness for three days.
  10. The killing of all the first-born of the Egyptians, from the Pharaoh to the lowliest slave.

Most of these ‘plagues’ actually correspond to natural phenomena found in Egypt. But they are represented here as supernatural at least in their greater intensity and in their occurring exactly according to Moses’ command. In each of the plagues, the Hebrews were not affected, another sign of God’s intervention in what would normally be natural calamities affecting everyone.

With these plagues we are coming to the great finale and the high point of the Exodus story. Nine plagues inflicted on Egypt have not softened Pharaoh’s heart and “he would not let the Israelites leave his land”.

The Hebrews are now told to prepare for the final catastrophe with which God will strike the Egyptians. As our reading opens, the Tenth Plague has not yet taken place. Once again, “the Lord made the Pharaoh obstinate”. It is as if, in the eyes of the author, God wanted the Pharaoh to be hard-hearted, so that eventually the situation would become so bad that he would have no alternative.

The passage we read today is not really a historical account of how the Hebrews actually prepared for that last night in Egypt. It consists rather of formal instructions to a later generation on how to celebrate the great event that is about to take place. The instructions are presented as coming from God to Moses and Aaron.

First, the month in which it is taking place is from now on to be regarded as the first month of the year. It is the month of Abib, meaning the month of ‘young corn’ or ‘ripe grain’. It occurred around the time of the spring equinox, in a period between March and April in our Gregorian calendar. After the Exile it came to be known by the Babylonian name of Nisan, the name used in later books of the Old Testament e.g. Nehemiah 2:1 and Esther 3:7.

First, on the 10th day of that month each family is to procure for itself a lamb. If a family is too small to finish one lamb, then it can join with another family and they can share the lamb between them, including perhaps the cost of purchasing it. The lamb must be male, one year old and free from any blemish. It may be a sheep or a goat (in fact, sheep and goats are closely related animals).

The animal is to be kept until the 14th day of the month, then it is to be slaughtered in the presence of all the assembled Hebrews. This should happen “between two evenings”. This was understood as either between sunset and darkness (the Samaritans) or between afternoon and sunset (the Pharisees and the Talmud).

In every house where the lamb is to be eaten, its blood is to be applied on the doorposts and lintel of the house. This, in a way, was the most important requirement.

On the night of the 14th day of the month, the same evening on which it had been slaughtered, the roasted flesh of the lamb will be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

The animal is to be roasted, not to be eaten raw or boiled, and the whole animal, including head, limbs and internal organs is to be roasted as one.

Nothing must be kept over till the following morning. Anything that is uneaten is to be burnt. This was to preclude any possible profanation of something regarded as ‘holy’. The Greek text adds “You shall not break a bone of it”, a requirement mentioned in further instructions in the same chapter (12:46). In John’s account of Jesus’ passion, he notes that the soldiers, seeing that Jesus was already dead, pierced his side with a lance but did not break his legs, as they did with the other two men being crucified, and then quotes from this part of Exodus: “Break none of his bones”. This happened because Jesus was the Paschal Lamb of the New Covenant.

Then follow instructions for the way the meal is to be conducted:
It is to be eaten standing, with loins girt (that is, with clothes belted), wearing sandals and with a walking staff in one hand. In other words, the meal is to be taken like people preparing to make a hasty departure.

And it is to be called the Passover of the Lord. The origin of the word is disputed. The word pesah (Greek, pascha, ) means that Yahweh ‘leaped over’ the marked houses, as one might skip names on a list. The word may be originally from the Egyptian, pesach, meaning ‘the blow’, that is, the final plague which is about to happen. Both meanings, obviously, are applicable.

On this very night, the Lord would go through Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land, humans and animals alike, and thus pass judgement on all the gods of Egypt. But, because the blood of the lambs has been painted on all the houses of the Hebrews, when the Lord sees the blood, he will pass over, or skip over, those houses and no harm will come to them. Hence the name of the feast.

Then comes the final instruction to Hebrews of every future generation: “This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution.” An instruction which Jews continue to observe to this day.

For us Christians all this has great meaning because we see in it a foreshadowing of another Passover which Jesus celebrated with his disciples. It took place at the same time as the celebration of the traditional Jewish Passover but, because of what immediately followed, it was seen as the sacramental anticipation of the new Passover in which Jesus is the Sacrificial Lamb whose blood poured out becomes the instrument of our salvation and liberation.

It is significant that, in the descriptions of the Last Supper, no gospel mentions the lamb as the main dish. There is now a New Passover Lamb – Jesus himself. And in the eating of the Bread and the drinking of the Wine, those present had ‘eaten’ and ‘drunk’ of the Lamb.

So this passage from Exodus is the First Reading of the liturgy on Holy Thursday.

It might be noted, too, that some Catholics now celebrate during the earlier part of Holy Week a ‘seder meal’ which is a re-enactment of the Hebrew paschal supper, at which there will be cooked lamb, unleavened bread, wine and bitter herbs.

Finally, the Jerusalem Bible has the following comment on the feast:

The long section of the Passover and the feast of the Unleavened Bread (12:1-13:16) combines the Yahwistic and the Priestly traditions and some editorial additions the style of which is ‘Deuteronomic’. With this passage should be compared the liturgical calendars of Leviticus 23:5-8, Deuteronomy 16:1-8, and the legislation of Numbers 28:16-25. The two rites may have had separate origins: the Passover is primarily a pastoral feast, offering the first-fruits of the flock; the feast of Unleavened Bread is primarily agricultural, offering the first-fruits of the barley harvest. But they were both springtime festivals and became fused at a very early date. Once associated with a historical occurrence, that decisive event in the history of Israel’s election, the deliverance out of Egypt, these rites took on an entirely new religious significance: they recalled how God had saved his people, cf. the explanatory formula accompanying the rite, 12:26-27; 13:8. The Jewish Passover hence becomes a rehearsal for the Christian Passover: the Lamb of God, Christ, is sacrificed (the cross) and eaten (the Last Supper) within the framework of the Jewish Passover (the first Holy Week). Thus he brings salvation to the world; and the mystical re-enactment of this redemptive act becomes the central feature of the Christian liturgy, organised round the Mass which is at once sacrifice and sacrificial meal. (edited)

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