Monday of Week 16 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 14:5-18

At the end of last week, we saw the Israelites setting out on their escape journey out of Egypt. The story is interrupted by a number of religious instructions for later generations arising out of the Exodus experience, including regulations for the Passover, the consecration of the first-born to the Lord, and the feast of the Unleavened Bread.

When the story of the departure is taken up again we are told that God instructed the people not to follow the shortest route through the land of the Philistines along the shores of the Mediterranean to Canaan. This was the objective of their journey, the Promised Land. Instead, they were told to follow a more roundabout way through the “wilderness to the Sea of Reeds”. The reason given was that to go that shortest route would have involved a lot of fighting with the local people. It will eventually take them 40 event-filled years before they will reach their objective.

We are also told that on their journey, Yahweh’s accompanying presence was indicated by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night. In this way they could travel both day and night. It is possibly one and the same preternatural phenomenon, a central nucleus of fire surrounded by smoke; only at night was its luminous nature visible.

Both cloud and fire are regularly symbols of God’s presence in the Scriptures. We saw Moses talking with God in a burning bush. In the Gospel, during the Transfiguration, God’ presence is shown by the cloud that comes down on the three apostles, and Jesus, at his ascension is taken up into a cloud. At Pentecost, God’s presence is indicated by the tongues of fire on each one present.

The erratic route followed by the Israelites gave the impression that they were lost in the wilderness leading the Pharaoh to change his mind and go in pursuit of them. But this was all part of God’s plan. It is at this point we pick up today’s reading. 

When the Pharaoh heard that the Hebrews had fled, he and his officials changed their minds about letting them go. They suddenly realised that they were going to lose a major work force for their construction projects. 

So the Egyptians set out in pursuit with the cream of their armed forces, 600 first-class chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt – all carrying soldiers. God had made the Pharaoh so obstinate that he went in pursuit of the Hebrews who were marching away in triumph with their God behind them. The Egyptian forces caught up with the Hebrews in their encampment by the sea at Pi-hahiroth, facing Baal-Zephon. These places have not been definitively identified and even their position related to each is not clear. Perhaps the former was on the west shore of the sea, where the Israelites were, and the latter was on the opposite shore.

Pharaoh was almost on top of them when the Hebrews became aware of their presence. Filled with alarm, they cried out to their Lord for help. 

They then turned on their leader, Moses, as the scapegoat for their problem.

Were there no burial places back in Egypt that you had to bring us to this place to die?

They even begin saying that they did not want to leave Egypt at all and were ready to keep working for the Egyptians. Better to be slaves in Egypt than die a horrible death in the desert. It was typical of people who judge a situation only by what they can see immediately in front of them. It was also one of the first of many examples of their lack of trust in God and in his chosen messenger, Moses.

Moses then reassured them. If they will only stand their ground, they will witness the victory the Lord has planned for them. The Egyptians who are pursuing them now will soon never be seen by them again.

The Lord himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still.

The Lord himself now intervenes and asks why the people are crying out to him. Do they not trust him and his promises?  He then gives his instructions. First, the Israelites are to continue going forward in the direction of the sea. Second, Moses is to raise his staff over the sea and divide it in two so that the Israelites can walk through it on dry land. Third, God will make the Pharaoh and the Egyptians so obstinate that they will go in pursuit. 

We are not yet told exactly what is going to happen to the Egyptians, but that God will receive glory through what happens to Pharaoh, his army and all his chariots. The result will be that the Egyptians will now realise that Yahweh is Lord.

The lesson all through is that God is with his people, protecting and leading them. Even when they seem to be in deep trouble, he is there. They sometimes can see no light at the end of the tunnel, but the light is there and it is God.

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