Covenant Love, Lesson 4.2

Covenant Love: Introducing the Biblical Worldview

Lesson Four: The First-Born Son of God

Lesson Objectives

  1. To read the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy with understanding.
  2. To understand God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai and to see how this covenant looks forward to and is fulfilled in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.
  3. To appreciate the key figures and events - Moses, the Passover, and the vocation of Israel as “a kingdom of priests” - as they are interpreted in the Church’s tradition.

II. Out of Egypt, My Son

A. Moses and Jesus

The start of Exodus should sound familiar to you. What other figure in the Bible is born under a threat of death, facing a tyrannical ruler who has decreed that all first-born Hebrew males are to be killed?

In the Christmas story, we see Herod dispatch troops to Bethlehem to kill all the first-born Hebrew boys (see Matthew 2:16). In Exodus Pharaoh hatches a more subtle scheme of forced infanticide - ordering Egypt's midwives to kill every Hebrew first-born male child (seeExodus 1:15-16).

Moses, incidentally, is saved by being placed in an "ark" (that's the literal word for what's translated "papyrus basket" in Exodus 2:3; the same word is used for Noah's ark inGenesis 6:14).

The infant Moses and the infant Jesus are saved by family members - Moses by his mother and sister (see Exodus 2:1-10) and Jesus by his mother and father (Matthew 2:13-15;Exodus 2:5-10). And both remained in exile until those who sought their life were dead (seeMatthew 2:20; Exodus 4:19).

There are many more parallels we could trace between the Moses and Jesus - for instance, Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, just as Moses did (see Matthew 4:2; Exodus 34:28) and just like Moses, Jesus goes to a mount and gives a covenant law to His people (see Matthew 5-7; Deuteronomy 5:1-21).

Moses is the prototype for all the men of God that we read a bout in the rest of the Old Testament and on into the New. The Gospel writers, especially St. Matthew, describe Jesus as a "new Moses," a new leader and king, savior and deliverer, teacher, wonderworker and suffering prophet.

And the story of Moses - especially the Passover, the parting of the waters, the wandering in the desert, the daily bread from heaven - has a deeper, symbolic meaning for Catholic readers of the Bible.

B. God's First-Born Son

Moses is called by God to deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.

What motivates God to act? He was "mindful of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (see Exodus 2:24; Psalm 105:8-11). That's why He repeatedly identifies Himself to Moses as "the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob" (see Exodus 3:6, 13,15; 6:2-8).

God had warned Abraham in a dream that they would be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years, but that God would deliver them (see Genesis 15:13-15). Now the Israelites had been in Egypt for 430 years - the first 30 years as privileged guests, relatives of the prime-minister Joseph, the last 400 years as slaves (see Exodus 12:40).

The time had come for Him to fulfill His promise to Abraham - to make His descendants a great nation and to give them a beautiful and bountiful land of their own (see Genesis 28:13-15).

God sends Moses to tell Pharaoh that "Israel is My son, My first-born" (Exodus 4:22; Sirach 36:11).

We see God here again trying to establish His holy family. We see this when He renews His promise to Moses: "I will take you as my own people and you shall have me as your God" (see Exodus 6:7). This anticipates the covenant He will make with them later at Sinai (see Exodus 19:5).

Watch the "character" of God throughout Exodus - what He says and does. He's not a detached "Creator."

God in Exodus truly reveals himself to be the divine Father of Israel (see too Deuteronomy 32:6). He saves His children (see Exodus 12:29-31), clothes them (see Exodus 12:35-36), guides them (see Exodus 13:21-22), feeds them (see Exodus 16:1-17:7) protects them (see Exodus 14:10-29; 17:8-16), teaches them (see Exodus 20:1-17; 21:1-23:33), and lives with them (see Exodus 25:8; 40:34-38).

In short, He is a Father to them (see Hosea 11:1).

It's not that He is a Father only to Israel. Israel is His first-born not His only son. God is the God of all the nations - and He wants to be a father to all the other nations, too.

But Israel is His first-born, His pride and joy. Israel is called out of Egypt to show the other nations the way to live as His children. But Israel - and its leader - must be righteous before it can preach righteousness to the other nations. That is what's going on in that strange scene before the showdown with Pharaoh - where God tries to kill Moses (see Exodus 4:24-26).

God is serious about His covenant, no one can be exempt from its provisions. Moses was in violation of the covenant with Abraham. His son, Gershom, hadn't been circumcised as God had commanded (see Genesis 17:9-14). Moses' wife, Zipporah, takes matters into her own hands and performs the circumcision, and Moses' life is again saved.

C. Plaguing Pharaoh

Pharaoh is punished, his nation put under judgment, for failing to respect the rights of God's first-born son.

Pharaoh makes the big mistake of mocking the power of the Moses' God (see Exodus 5:2). In the ten plagues God visits upon him, He both punishes punishes Pharaoh and executes judgment on the Egyptians' many gods (see Exodus 12:12; Numbers 33:4):

The Egyptian Nile god, Hapi, is rebuked by the plague of blood on the Nile (seeExodus 7:14-25).
Heket, the frog goddess, is mocked by the plague of frogs (see Exodus 8:1-15).
The bull god, Apis, and the cow goddess Hathor, are reviled by the plague on the livestock (see Exodus 9:1-7).
And the plague of darkness is a rebuke to the sun god, Re (see Exodus 10:21-23).

Scholars believe that each of the plagues can be linked to specific Egyptian deities. Even the final plague that strikes the first-born of Egypt can also be seen as an attack on the political gods of Egypt, because Pharaoh was worshipped as divine and his sons were "divinized" in special ceremonies.

By these divine actions, worked through Moses, God was demonstrating His power - establishing that Israel's God is "a deity great beyond any other" (see Exodus 18:11; 9:16;11:9).

D. The Passover and 'Our Paschal Lamb'

Israel's first-born is "passed over" in the last plague, spared the fate of Egypt's first-born.

We have to read the story of the Passover carefully. This story has a great influence on the shape and the meaning of the rest of the Old Testament. It's also vitally important for understanding Catholic beliefs about the meaning of the Cross, the salvation won for us on the Cross, and the memorial of our salvation that we celebrate in the Mass.

The Passover story is one of the Old Testament's defining dramas. But more than that it points us ahead to the defining drama of all salvation history - the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

Since the earliest days, the Church has understood the Crucifixion and Resurrection as "the Lord's Passover" (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 557-559,1174,1337,1364,1402). The Eucharist, in turn, is the memorial of the Lord's Passover.

That's why during the Mass the priest presents the consecrated Host to us and declares: "This is the Lamb of God...Happy are those who are called to His supper." The Liturgy is yoking together two New Testament passages (see John 1:29; Revelation 19:9). But what made the New Testament writers talk about Jesus this way in the first place? The answer is the Passover story.

The Church's ancient belief is based on the interpretation of the Exodus story that begins with Jesus and the New Testament writers.

Let's read ahead to John's account of the Crucifixion (see John 19). As Christ is condemned, John notes that it was the "preparation day for Passover, and it was about noon." Why this detail? Because that was the precise moment when Israel's priests slaughtered the lambs for the Passover meal (see John 19:14).

Later, the mocking soldiers give Jesus a sponge soaked in wine. They raise it to him on a "hyssop branch." That's the same kind of branch the Israelites are instructed to use to daub their door posts with the blood of the Passover lamb (see John 19:29; Exodus 12:22).

And why don't the soldier's break Jesus' legs (see John 19:33,36)? John explains that with a quote from Exodus, telling us that it was because the legs of the Passover lambs weren't to be broken (see Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:21).

There are more parallels that we could draw in John's Gospel and in the other Gospel accounts. The Crucifixion is presented in the New Testament as a Passover sacrifice - in which Jesus is both the unblemished Lamb, and the High Priest who offers the Lamb in sacrifice. For the New Testament writers, what we're reading about here in Exodus is a sign that points us to Jesus.

In the Passover, Israel was spared by the blood of an unblemished sacrificial lamb painted on their door posts. The lamb dies instead of the first-born, is sacrificed so that the people could live (see Exodus 12:1-23,27). It is the same with the Lord's Passover, the Cross and Resurrection. The Lamb of God dies so that the people of God might live, saved by "the blood of the Lamb" (see Revelation 7:14; 12:11; 5:12).

"For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed," St. Paul says (see 1 Corinthians 5:7). On the Cross, St. Peter tells us, Jesus was "a spotless unblemished Lamb." By His "Precious Blood" we are "ransomed" from captivity to sin and death (see 1 Peter 1:18-19).

That's what's going on here in Exodus. The first-born sons and daughters of God are being "ransomed" or "redeemed" - bought out of captivity and slavery (see Exodus 6:6; 15:13;Psalm 69:18; Isaiah 44:24; Genesis 48:10).

The Israelites were instructed to remember the first Passover by each year eating the Passover lamb's "roasted flesh with unleavened bread." And in His last supper, eaten during Passover, Jesus instructs His followers to remember His Passover in the Eucharist, where we eat His flesh and drink His blood (see John 6:53-58).

Continue to Section 3

Other Lessons

  • Lesson One: The Master Key that Unlocks the Bible
  • Lesson Objectives
    1. To learn the "big-picture" overview of the Bible - the story that the Bible tells.
    2. To understand the concept of "covenant" and its importance for reading and interpreting the Bible.
    3. To learn in general detail the six major covenants in the Bible.

    Begin Lesson One

  • Lesson Two: From Sabbath to Flood
  • Lesson Objectives
    1. To read Genesis 1-12 with understanding.
    2. To learn the meaning of the first two covenants of salvation history - the Sabbath, and the covenant made with Noah.
    3. To begin to understand the "patterns" of biblical history.

    Begin Lesson Two

  • Lesson Three: Our Father, Abraham
  • Lesson Objectives
    1. To read Genesis 12-50 with understanding.
    2. To understand God’s covenant with Abraham and to see how that covenant is fulfilled in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.
    3. To appreciate key figures and elements in the Abraham story - Melchizedek, circumcision, the sacrifice of Isaac - as they are interpreted in the Church’s tradition.

    Begin Lesson Three

  • Lesson Five: A Throne For All Generations
  • Lesson Objectives
    1. To finish reading the Old Testament (from Joshua to Malachi) and to read with understanding.
    2. To understand the broad outlines of the history of Israel in light of God’s covenant with Abraham.
    3. To appreciate the crucial importance of God’s everlasting covenant with David.

    Begin Lesson Five

  • Lesson Six: The New and Everlasting Covenant
  • Lesson Objectives
    1. To read the New Testament with understanding.
    2. To understand how the New Testament depicts Jesus as the fulfillment of the covenants of the Old Testament.
    3. To appreciate, especially, the importance of God’s everlasting covenant with David for understanding the mission of Jesus and the Church as it is presented in the New Testament.

    Begin Lesson Six