April 4, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt

John F. Fink(Thirteenth in a series of columns)

Chapters 7 to 12 of the Book of Exodus tell about the 10 plagues that God sent upon the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. Before each one, Moses and his brother Aaron told Pharaoh that the plague would occur, and each time Pharaoh promised to release the Israelites if the plague was lifted. But each time, except the last, he reneged on his promise.

The 10 plagues were: the Nile River and other water supplies turned into blood; frogs covering the land; gnats infesting humans and animals; swarms of flies everywhere; a severe pestilence that killed livestock; boils that afflicted the people; a hailstorm with lightning that killed all people and animals in the open and destroyed every growing thing; locusts that devoured whatever the hail hadn’t destroyed; darkness that covered the land for three days; and the death of every first-born person or beast.

While the Egyptians suffered those plagues, the Israelites did not.

Prior to the 10th plague, the killing of the first-born, the Lord had Moses instruct the people how they were to prepare the Passover feast and then mark the doorposts of their homes with blood from a lamb. Seeing the blood, he said, he would “pass over” (Ex 12:13) that house while he was killing the Egyptians.

This passage, from Chapter 12, is read in Catholic churches worldwide during liturgies on Good Friday.

The Israelites were instructed to keep that day as a memorial feast and a perpetual institution, which they do. This year Passover begins at sunset on April 14.

When the Egyptians discovered all of their eldest children dead, Pharaoh not only permitted the Israelites to leave, he chased them out. The Egyptian people gave them silver, gold and clothing, and rushed them out before they could even prepare food for the journey.

The Bible says that the Israelites comprised about 600,000 men, not counting children—plus numerous flocks and herds. They had grown from the 70 people who arrived in Egypt 430 years earlier.

But they weren’t safe yet. Pharaoh, suddenly realizing that all those slaves were leaving, again changed his mind. This time he sent his army—horses, chariots and charioteers—after the Israelites. They caught up with them at the Red Sea (or, perhaps, the Sea of Reeds).

We know what happened next because it has been dramatized in movies and TV series. But read Chapter 14 to see how the Bible describes the event.

First, God’s angel put a dark cloud between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Then, at God’s command, Moses split the sea in two. During the night, a strong wind turned the bottom into dry land. In the morning, the Israelites marched through the sea, “with the water like a wall to their right and to their left” (Ex 14:22).

When the Egyptians followed, Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and it drowned Pharaoh’s entire army. “Thus the Lord saved Israel on that day from the power of the Egyptians” (Ex 14:30).

But now what were they to do? †

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