Saturday of Week 32 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Wisdom 18:14-16; 19:6-9

Our final reading from Wisdom. It is full of poetical images, although underneath the beautiful language is the power of God that brings both life and death. The context is the liberation of the Israelites from their life of slavery in Egypt.

The reading opens with a beautiful image of “gentle [peaceful] silence” covering the world which is in the darkness of night. Then from God’s heavenly throne, his all-powerful Word “leaps down”. This sentence (up to just this point) is used during the Christmas liturgy to express God’s entrance into our world through the Incarnation, made visible through the birth of Jesus.

The end of the sentence, however, is omitted:

[…your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne] into the midst of the land that was doomed…

In this context, it is a different “Word” that is being spoken of. It is the Word as the one who carries out God’s judgement on a sinful world. In this case, it is the sinful world of the Pharaoh’s Egypt which will not let the Israelites leave the country.

In the Book of Exodus, the massacre of the first-born, attributed to God himself and accompanied by the Destroying Angel, here in Wisdom becomes the work of the divine Word. The Word had already been represented as executing God’s sentences by, among others, Isaiah. This dramatic passage draws its inspiration from a verse in 1 Chronicles and possibly also from Homer (Iliad IV). In apocalyptic terms, the Word of Judgement prefigures, not the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus, but the dreadful aspect of his Second Coming.

The massacre is then described when the Word of Judgement, carries out God’s clear command:

…a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command, and stood and filled all things with death…

This refers to the slaying of the first-born of every Egyptian family.

The author now moves on to the crossing of the “Red Sea” (the Sea of Reeds) as the Israelites fled from the Pharaoh and his armies. The author sees this action as part of a “whole creation…fashioned anew” as God manipulates the very elements of nature in leading his people out into a new world.

He describes the various wonders that took place when:

…the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew, complying with your commands…

To facilitate the crossing of the Red Sea, the natural creation was re-organised or changed:

…so that your children might be kept unharmed.

In Genesis we see the elements brought into an ordered creation. Here a similar phenomenon is now witnessed, but this time the extraordinary behaviour of air, land and water violates the order established by the Creator.

As a cloud, representing the protective presence of Yahweh hovered over them, dry land appeared, where just previously there had been water, and the sea became “an unhindered way”; stormy waves became a green plain. A Hebrew midrash speaks, not only of abundant grass, but of fruit trees lining the road opened through the waters. Later rabbinical tradition enumerates ten miracles attending the crossing of the Red Sea.

Then, under the sheltering hand of God, the people crossed in safety, mesmerised by the amazing prodigies they were seeing. No wonder they were filled with joy and excitement:

For they ranged like horses and leaped like lambs, praising you, O Lord, who delivered them.

Underlying the reading is that God brings liberation to those who put their trust in him, but destruction to those who violate his way. Jesus, too, as Simeon foretold in the Temple, would bring about both “the rise and fall of many”.

Jesus can be a source of life for all who walk his Way of Truth and Life or we can reject that Way, and opt for darkness and death:

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matt 12:30)

With Jesus, there is no half-way position, no fence-sitting, no neutrality.

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