Covenant Love, Lesson 4.3

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.

III. The Making of the Old Covenant

A. Images of the New Exodus

God's great act of deliverance in the Exodus shaped the identity and imagination of the Israelites. We're going to find references to this Exodus throughout the rest of the Old Testament.

The Exodus was the one divine sign above all others that convinced the Israelites that they were God's chosen people. What other people could boast that God had personally delivered them in their time of trial?

We hear this faith in the song that Moses sings when they get to the other side of the Red Sea: "Who is like to You among the gods, O Lord?....In your mercy You led the people You redeemed...The nations heard and quaked...while the people You had made Your own passed over" (see Exodus 15:11,13,14,16).

The memory of God's mighty deeds here in Exodus become the foundation of Israel's identity as a nation and the basis for all of its hopes for the future.

Later in the Old Testament, when Israel through its sin has fallen into captivity and exile, the prophets will predict a "new Exodus," led by a Messiah, a new Moses, who would bring an even greater redemption and deliverance of God's people (see Isaiah 10:25-27; 11:15-16; 43:2,16-19; 51:9-11). This new Exodus, Jeremiah predicted, would mark the start of a "New Covenant" (see Jeremiah 23:7-8; 31:31-33).

In the New Testament, Jesus is the new Moses, leading a new Exodus, liberating God's people from the last enemy - sin and death. We will see all this in our last lesson, when we look at the New Testament in detail.

As we read the story of the crossing of the Red Sea and the testing of Israel in the wilderness beyond the sea, we need to keep in mind how these scenes are understood in the New Testament. There, and throughout the Church's tradition, these historical events are described as symbols foretelling the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

As the Israelites passed through the waters into freedom and a new identity as God's chosen people, so too the Christian in baptism is freed from sin and made a child of God. And as the Israelites received manna from heaven and water from the rock, the Christian is given the heavenly bread and spiritual drink of the Eucharist.

"Our ancestors...were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea," Paul wrote. "All ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ" (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-3).

B. Testing in the Wilderness

Paul also said that we should read the account of Israel's testing in the wilderness "as an example...written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Despite all the signs and wonders worked by God, the story of the Israelites' journey to Sinai after the Exodus is a story of stubbornness and shortsightedness, of the people's inability to trust that God was with them, that the God who delivered them would care for them along their way.

Right off the bat, they grumbled at Marah that the water was too bitter to drink - and God responded by giving Moses the power to make the water sweet (see Exodus 15:22-25).

A month later, they were grumbling for food in the Desert of Sinai. God feeds them with manna from heaven, giving them their daily bread every day for 40 years (see Exodus 16). This is the manna that Jesus said was a symbol of the Eucharist (see John 6:30-59).

But even this wasn't proof enough for them. They were thirsty at Meribah and Massah and put God to the test: "Is the Lord in our midst or not?" (see Exodus 17:2,7). So Moses struck the rock, as God instructed, and waters poured out for the people.

Forty years later, in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses explained to the Israelites that God did all this "to test you by affliction and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep His commandments...You must realize that the Lord, your God, disciplines you even as a man disciplines a son" (see Deuteronomy 8:2-5).

Why does God test Israel if He knows everything already? The key is found in Moses' last line - His testing is a form of "fatherly discipline," by which He makes His child stronger.

God does not test Israel to learn something that He doesn't already know. He tests to make Israel stronger, to teach the people what they don't know - how much they need God, how without Him they would be nothing. God tested them, Moses said, so that they wouldn't mistake their freedom and prosperity as the work of their own strength. "

Remember then," he told them, "it is the Lord, your God, who gives you the power to acquire wealth, by fulfilling, as He has now done, the covenant which He swore to your fathers" (see Deuteronomy 8:17-18).

C. "A Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation"

At Sinai, God reveals His full purpose for His chosen people, why He bore the people out of Egypt on eagle wings and brought them to Himself (see Exodus 19:4). God wants His first-born son, His own people, to be "to Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (see Exodus 19:6).

In the covenant at Sinai, we reached a turning point in salvation history. Remember what we've been saying all along: When God makes a covenant, He is making a family, He is making people kin to Himself, His sons and daughters.

Remember, too, that the imagery in the Old Testament is rooted in ancient images of the family. In the ancient family, fathers were both "kings" - rulers, lawgivers and protectors of their family - and "priests," leading the family in worship and sacrifice. The "first-born" son was the heir to the authority and the kingly and priestly roles of the father.

Since Adam, He has been looking for a "first-born" son worthy of His calling - to guard and keep creation, to offer Him sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, to be a light to all peoples, to dwell with Him intimately.

Adam was the founding father, made the lord of creation and given priestly functions to guard and keep God's creation (Genesis 1:26; 2:15). Noah, too, was father of a family, and his family became the "first-born" from which God would populate the earth anew after the flood. God then chose Abram, whose name means "mighty father," and made himAbraham - a name meaning "father of a multitude."

Through all this history, however, we see that God is forced to pass over the first-borns in many instances because they prove too proud, too unjust and violent. We see that in the case of Cain, Ishmael, Esau, to name just three. Indeed, among the "first-borns" in Genesis, only the ancient line of Shem was faithful.

But God remained faithful to His plan - and His promise. With Israel, His first-born, He is again starting anew. They will be His family, his royal heirs. Already, Moses has instructed that the first-born of Israel be consecrated to God, dedicated to His priestly service (seeExodus 13:2,15; 24:5).

Here at Sinai, God reveals that He wants Israel to be for the family of nations what the first-born was in the ancient family system - priest and king.

God is making His family a nation - but not a nation like the other nations. Israel is to be "a holy nation," set apart from other nations, an example of holiness and righteous living, an instrument by which God extends His salvation to all the nations.

His covenant at Sinai, as we've seen, is intended to fulfill His promise that through Abraham's descendants, He will bless all the nations of the world. So Israel is being consecrated here at Sinai as a "light to the nations," leading them in the ways of holiness (see Isaiah 42:6; 49:6).

But don't miss the big "if" in all of what God is saying here at Sinai: "If you hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My special possession...a kingdom of priests " (see Exodus 19:5).

God's covenant is conditional. To experience its blessings, Israel must keep His covenant, obey its terms (which are spelled out in Exodus 20-23). If they don't keep His covenant, they may as well be "no people" at all, their number blotted from the face of the earth (seeDeuteronomy 32:21; Hosea 1:9; 1 Peter 2:10).

Read the Ten Commandments as a covenant family law, a household code. These laws were primarily given to govern relationships within the growing national household of Israel - they cover how to resolve disputes, how to deal with slaves, how to treat acts of violence, how to make restitution for theft or property damage, and how to relate to God and human authority.

After listening to God's words, Israel swears to keep the covenant (see Exodus 19:8,24:3,7). And Moses builds an altar with twelve pillars, symbolizing that all of the tribes of Jacob had approved the covenant (see Exodus 24:4).

Then He takes the blood from the animals sacrificed and sprinkles it on the people, calling it "the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you" (see Exodus 24:8). Blood is a symbol of family relations. That's what this covenant does - it makes Israel the sons and daughters of God.

Jesus uses these same words at His last supper, but adds the word "New" - telling us that by His blood shed on the Cross for many, God is making a New Covenant (see Mark 14:24;Matthew 26:28).

This is a sign for us that what we're reading about here in Exodus "prefigures" the New Covenant - it is a partial fulfillment of God's plan. The ultimate fulfillment will come with Jesus.

This New Covenant will be "for many" (which means "for everyone"). In the New Covenant, Jesus promises, His twelve apostles will sit in judgment over the twelve tribes of Israel (seeLuke 22:30) and as the altar at Sinai was built on the pillars of the twelve tribes, the Church of Jesus will be founded on "the twelve apostles of the Lamb" (see Revelation 21:12,14).

All covenants are sealed with a ritual meal, which is why Moses and the 70 elders sit down to eat in the presence of God (see Exodus 24:9-11).

Later, when Israel is in exile as a consequence of breaking the covenant, the prophets will recall this intimacy with God - eating and drinking in His very presence - and teach the people to hope for the day of a new sacred banquet, when they will once again eat in His presence on His holy mountain (see Isaiah 55:1-3; Proverbs 9:1-6).

This hope, too, is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, who speaks of the Father calling a wedding banquet for His Son (see Matthew 22:1-14) and describes the kingdom of God as a great feast (see Luke 14:12-24).

D. The Golden Calf Affair

No sooner had Israel ratified its covenant with God, than the people fell into idolatry. Moses goes up to the mountain to receive the elaborate instructions about the building and furnishing of the ark, the dwelling for God (see Exodus 25-31) and the people down below create the golden calf and begin worshipping it.

The ancient rabbis used to say that what the forbidden fruit was to Adam the golden calf was to Israel. It is a second fall from grace. The calf is an image of Apis, the Egyptian fertility god and Israel's worship of it is a parody of the covenant at Sinai. As Moses did, they build an altar, rise early to offer sacrifices, eat and drink a ritual meal. They also, the Scripture says, "rose up to revel," which is a polite way of saying that they engaged in orgies associated with the cult of Apis (see Exodus 32:1-6).

God disowns Israel. Notice the shift in language. No longer does He speak of the Israelites as His special people (see Exodus 3:10, 5:1, 6:7). He tells Moses that the Israelites are "your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt" (see Exodus 32:7).

Moses intercedes for the people, even offering to bear the curse that the people deserve - to be blotted out of the book of life (see Exodus 32:31-32).

Though they deserve to die for violating the covenant - and 3,000 are slain by the Levites - the people are spared for the sake of God's covenant. But the condition of Israel is forever changed. Never again in the Old Testament is Israel spoken of as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

Not until the coming of the Church will God's plan for a kingdom of priests be realized (see1 Peter 2:5,9; Revelation 1:6).

The first four chapters of Numbers tells us what happens immediately after the golden calf incident. Moses takes an elaborate census (from which the book gets its name as a book of "numbers") and establishes the authority of the Levites.

The Levites, the only tribe not to worship the golden calf and the only ones who answered Moses' call (see Exodus 32:26) are "dedicated" or ordained as priests for the nation (seeExodus 32:26-29). No more will the first-born sons in each family inherit the father's role as priest. The Levites are chosen in place of the first-born sons (see Numbers 3:11-13; 45).

For the first time, a distinction will be made between priest and lay people. Where as once every first-born was a priest (see Exodus 13:2,15; 24:5) now any non-Levite who performs priestly functions "shall be put to death" (see Numbers 3:10).

Continue to Section 4

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