Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reading for Monday, 15th Week in Ordinary Time

From: Exodus 1:8-14, 22

The Sons of Israel are Oppressed

[8] Now there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph. [9] And he said to his people, "Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. [10] Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war befall us, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." [11] Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens; and they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Ra-amses. [12] But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. [13] So they made the people of Israel serve with rigor, [14] and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field; in all their work they made them serve with rigor.

[22] Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live."
1:8-14 The situation of the children of Israel is dramatically portrayed: the more they are oppressed, the stronger they become (v. 12). The frequent contrasts in the account and the fact that no names are supplied give the impression that God himself (even though he is yet not named) is on the Israelites' side and is against the pharaoh and his people. From the very beginning, over and above the comings and goings of men, God is at work; a religious event is taking shape.

For the first time the Bible here speaks of the "people [of the Sons] of Israel" (v. 9). The sacred book counter-poses two peoples--the people of the pharaoh, cruel and oppressive, and the people of Israel, the victims of oppression. Over the course of their struggle to leave Egypt, the children of Israel will gradually become conscious of this--that they form a people chosen by God and released from bondage in order to fulfill an important historical mission. They are not a motley collection of tribes or families, but a people. "God, with loving concern contemplating, and making preparation for, the salvation of the whole human race, in a singular undertaking chose for himself a people to whom he would entrust his promises" (Vatican II, "Del Verbum", 14). At the same time the religious framework of this inspired book is established: on one side stand the enemies of God, on the other the people of the children of the Covenant (cf. Acts 3: 25; "Catechism of the Catholic Church", 527).

1:8. We do not know who exactly this new king" was. He was probably Rameses II (early 13th century BC), who belonged to the nineteenth dynasty. This pharaoh sought to restore imperial control over foreigners and invaders. The phrase "did not know Joseph" indicates how helpless and alone the "sons of Israel" were. The people of Israel never did count for very much politically, and yet God wills them to have an essential place in his plans.

Many Fathers of the Church saw in this pharaoh a personification of those who are opposed to the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ. St Bede, for example, reminds the Christian that if, having been baptized and having listened to the teachings of the faith, he goes back to living in a worldly way, "another king who knows not Joseph" will come to birth in him, that is, the selfishness which opposes the plans of God (cf. "Commentaria In Pentateuchum", 2,1).

1:11. Pithom and Ra-amses are called "store-cities" because provisions for the frontier garrisons were stored in the silos of their temples. Reliable archeological studies identify Pithom (which in Egyptian means "dwelling of Athon") with some ruins a few kilometers from present-day Ishmailia, not far from the Suez canal. A temple of Athon has been discovered there, and huge stores of bricks. It is more difficult to say where Ra-amses was. The balance of probability is that it was the earlier city of Avaris, a capital during the dynasties of invader pharaohs. It would later be called Tanis, and nowadays it is just a series of big ruins near a fishing village, San el-Hagar, near Port Said, on the eastern part of the Nile delta. Archeologists have discovered there the remains of an elaborate temple built by Rameses II (1279-1212 BC), probably the pharaoh mentioned here.

1:14. In ancient Egypt it was normal for people, particularly foreigners, to work for the pharaoh. This was not regarded as a form of slavery or "oppression"; we know, for example, there were towns or entire cities which accommodated the workers engaged in building the tombs or temples of the pharaohs. The oppression the sacred writer refers to lay in the fact that the Egyptians imposed particularly hard tasks on the Israelites--such as brick-making, building and agricultural labor--and treated them cruelly.

St lsidore of Seville, commenting on this passage, compares it with the situation of mankind which, after original sin, is subject to the tyranny of the devil, who often manages to turn work into slavery.

Just as the pharaoh imposed the hard labor of mortar and brick, so too the devil forces sinful man to engage in "earthly, dusty tasks which are moreover mixed with straw, that is to say, with frivolous and irrational acts" (cf. "Quaestiones In Exodum", 3).

1:22. The original text always refers to "the River" because the entire life of ancient Egypt depended on it. Obviously it is referring to the Nile.
Source: "The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries". Biblical text taken from the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. Commentaries made by members of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre, Spain. Published by Four Courts Press, Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland. Reprinted with permission from Four Courts Press and Scepter Publishers, the U.S. publisher.

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