Saturday of week 32 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Wis 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 “peaceful silence” covering the world which is in the darkness of night. Then from God’s heavenly throne his all-powerful Word leaps down. It is just up to this point that this sentence 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: “[The Word leaps down] like a pitiless warrior into the heart of a land doomed to destruction”. 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, carrying out God’s clear command, “like a sharp sword… filled the world with death” as the first-born of every Egyptian family was killed.
The author now moves on to the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (the ‘Red Sea’) as the Israelites fled from the Pharaoh and his armies. The author sees this action as part of a “new creation” 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, submissive to your commands, had its very nature re-created”. To facilitate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the natural creation was re-organised or changed “so that you children should be preserved from harm”.
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 unimpeded way”, stormy waves became a green plain. A Palestinian 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, like horses released to pasture, skipping like lambs and singing the praises of God their liberator.
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. “He who is not with me is against me.” With Jesus, there is no half-way position, no fence-sitting, no neutrality.

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