Monday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 1:8-14, 22

Immediately following the end of Genesis, we move into reading the next book of the Pentateuch, the book of the Exodus (Greek, Exodos) or the ‘Going Out’. The ‘Going In’ was partially realised by the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land, but only fully completed with the resurrection and ascension of the crucified Jesus the Christ.

The book tells of the departure of the Israelites from a life of slavery in Egypt. We saw that the last word in Genesis was ‘Egypt’. However, a long period has passed since the death of Joseph and the present plight of God’s People under the Pharaohs. Exodus recounts the oppression by the Egyptians of the ever-increasing descendants of Jacob followed by their miraculous deliverance by God through Moses, who led them across the Red Sea to Mount Sinai where they entered into a special covenant with the Lord.

These events were of prime importance to the Chosen People, who became an independent nation having a unique relationship with God. Through Moses, God gave to the Israelites at Mount Sinai the “Law”: the moral, civil and ritual legislation by which they were to become a holy people, in whom the promise of a Saviour for all mankind would be fulfilled.

We will spend the next three weeks going through this book. There are two central themes:

  1. the deliverance from slavery in Egypt (1:1-15:21) and
  2. the Covenant on Sinai (19:1-40:38).

Connecting these two is the secondary theme of the Journey through the Wilderness (15:22-18:27).

The central figure is Moses, arguably Israel’s greatest prophet. It is he who will lead his people out of the bondage in Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai. There, in a majestic and dramatic setting, God makes a solemn alliance with his people and hands down his law, the law which is at the heart of Israel’s life, and around which the whole of Old Testament revolves.

At the end of Genesis we saw how Joseph had brought his people to live in Egypt under very favourable conditions. The opening paragraph of Exodus makes the link between that time and the present. The 11 brothers of Joseph, the sons of Jacob-Israel, had settled in Egypt and we are told that altogether, Jacob had 70 direct descendants (literally, ‘coming from the loins of Jacob’), presumably by a multiplicity of wives.

Now, some 400 years later the situation has changed. “A new king, who knew nothing of Joseph” had come to power. Pharaoh, in Egyptian, is Per-aa, meaning ‘the great House’ and was the usual designation of the Palace or the Court but, from the 18th Dynasty onwards, referred to the king’s own person.

He resented the growing numbers and the increasing power of the Hebrews in his kingdom. “The Israelite people are growing, more so than we ourselves!” He saw them as a possible threat to the integrity of his kingdom. Their increase had to be stopped, otherwise, in time of war, they might take sides with the enemy and “leave our country”. The implication is that an important source of slave labour would be lost. Ironically, they would in fact leave the country, but with the help of an ally the Pharaoh had not taken into account.

It was the beginning of the long and sad story of antisemitism and of all kinds of racial and ethnic discrimination which is by no means a thing of the past now, some 3,000 years later.

The Pharaoh took two steps to subjugate the Hebrew: first, they were reduced to doing forced labour under Egyptian taskmasters. For their massive undertakings the kings of this time in general always used forced labour. In Israel, David was to do so (2 Sam 20:24) and Solomon even more so in his building of the Temple. The Hebrews were involved in major construction projects, specifically, the building of the supply or store cities of Pithom and Rameses. Rameses was the residence in the Nile Delta of Pharaoh Rameses II. It is now identified with either the contemporary town of Tanis or Qantir.

Yet, the greater the oppression, the more the Hebrew population increased. As a result, the working conditions became even more severe, and the Hebrews were virtually reduced to slavery and doing the most difficult work.

It is part of our reading, but it is interesting to note that the Hebrew midwives were told that, when they were attending a birth, they were to kill the boys but the girls could live. The midwives, however, “feared God” and disobeyed the ruling. When called to account, they replied that the Hebrew women were so strong and healthy the child was already born before the midwife arrived!

Finally, the Pharaoh gave the order that all Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the river but, again, the girls could be spared. The “river” refers either to the Nile or one of its tributaries.

The stage is being set for the birth of one particular boy – Moses, and God’s intervention on behalf of his suffering people.

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