Covenant Love, Lesson 4.4

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.

IV. After the Golden Calf

A. Reading Leviticus

The whole character of God's relationship with His chosen people has been changed. God cannot dwell amidst his people. The Levites must stand between God and His people. That is what brings us to the end of Exodus and into Leviticus.

Leviticus is part of the renewal of the covenant made necessary by the golden calf rebellion. Israel's sin was so grave that it required what amounted to a second legislation.

The Ten Commandments had been a moral law, but this second law is judicial and ceremonial, involving the punishment of criminals and the rules for animal sacrifice. This second legislation deals with Israel's fallen condition after the golden calf affair. It takes the rest of Exodus (chapters 33-40), all of the Book of Leviticus and the first ten chapters of Numbers, to explain.

Keep that in mind as you read the chapters of Leviticus. It is the handbook for the Levitical priests. Prior to the golden calf, Leviticus would not have been needed. After the golden calf affair, Leviticus becomes necessary. As you read Leviticus, don't get hung up on all the ritual prescriptions and don't ignore the book because, as Catholics, we don't follow these elaborate codes. Keep in mind, too, that Leviticus is a continuation of the story of the Exodus of God's family.

Remember as you read about the kidneys and entrails and all the gruesome details of the sacrifices - God did not originally desire animal sacrifice. He has no need that millions upon millions of cows and goats be slaughtered. Instead, God wanted praise, a humble and contrite spirit and walking in His ways (see Psalm 50:8-14; Psalm 51:18-19; ).

The sacrificial system is imposed as a kind of corporate penance upon the whole nation. The three animals that God had Israel sacrifice - cattle, sheep and goats - were all venerated as divine by the Egyptians.

God was dealing with Israel as if the people were addicted to idolatry. As we've seen, it was easier to take Israel out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of Israel.

The animal sacrifice requirements would be a daily reminder of their apostasy with the golden calf. Each day they would be forced to relive their sin and do penance for it, ritually slaughtering the "gods" they once worshipped. In this way, God hoped to free Israel's heart from slavery to idolatry (see Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:7-8; Acts 7:39-41).

B. Numbering the Second Generation

The Levites were meant to assist Israel's second generation, to teach them in the ways of holiness, so that this generation wouldn't fall like the first generation. But the second generation didn't learn. We see that in the stories recounted in Numbers, beginning with the departure of the people from Sinai (see Numbers 10:11).

Numbers tells the story of the second generation of Israel's travails on the way to the promised land. The children of those who came out of Egypt are no more faithful than their parents. Finally they are condemned to wander forty years, "suffering for [their] faithlessness" (see Numbers 14:33-34).

Even amid their backsliding, God was giving us signs of the Redeemer He will one day send:

Moses hoists up the bronze serpent to heal the faithless Israelites, giving us a sign of the Cross (see Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14).

And the mercenary prophet, Balaam, sent to trick the Israelites, is used by God to deliver a prophecy that a star shall rise over Jacob and the staff of leadership will rise from Israel. We remember this prophecy in the Liturgy during the Christmas season, as we associate Balaam's star with that followed by the Magi (see Numbers 24:15-17; Matthew 2:1-12).

The unfaithfulness of the second generation, though, culminates on the eastern border of the Promised Land, in the plains of Moab. There Israel is seduced and worships Baal of Peor, a Moabite god (see Numbers 25).

Note the similarities between this story and the story of the golden calf (see Exodus 34). The worship of the false god is accompanied by ritual immorality and is punished with a mass slaughter of Israelites. In the golden calf incident, the Levites distinguished themselves by their swords and zeal. Here, a certain Levite, Phinehas, also takes up the sword in his zeal, slaying an idolatrous couple. He earns the line of high-priesthood - "the pledge of an everlasting priesthood" (see Numbers 25:13).

C. A "Second" Law

What the golden calf affair was to the first generation at Sinai, the Baal-Peor episode was to the second generation on the plains of Moab.

Numbers describes why Deuteronomy is needed. Written 40 years after the Exodus, Deuteronomy is literally "the second law" - meant to govern the 12 lay tribes. It is written immediately following the apostasy and sin of the worship Baal Peor.

Notice that it is a law given by Moses, not God. That's a big difference between the Law given at Sinai, which is presented as God's own words, delivered by God directly. Deuteronomy is the law of Moses, and as Jesus will explain, it is a law for hardhearted people (see Matthew 19:8).

Based on their track record since the Exodus, Moses knows the people can't possibly be expected to live up to the law of Sinai, let alone the standards of holiness set forth for the Levites. Deuteronomy is a law for wayward children. That explains why in Deuteronomy, Moses grants permissions found nowhere else in the Bible, permissions that seem totally at odds with the covenant at Sinai.

Among other things, Moses permits divorce and remarriage (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4); the taking of foreign slave wives (see Deuteronomy 21:10-14), and genocidal warfare against the Canaanites (see Deuteronomy 20:16-17). In every case, these concessions are "lesser evils." For instance, the people are instructed to slay the Canaanites because if don't they will likely fall into worshipping their gods.

This isn't God's holy law, this is Moses' concessionary legislation, his compromises with a stiff-necked people. As God will later explain through the prophet Ezekiel, "I gave them statutes that were not good, and ordinances through which they could not live" (see Ezekiel 20:25).

It wasn't that God had abandoned the idea that the people could ever be holy. By requiring Israel to make sacrificial offerings of firstlings from the herds and flocks (see Deuteronomy 15:19-20) at a central sanctuary (see Deuteronomy 12:5-18), Moses hoped to remind Israel of its call to holiness. But the standard for the people was far below that required for the Levites.

Scholars have noted that while the covenant in Exodus share similarities with "family covenants" in the ancient world, Deuteronomy resembles the kind of covenants that kingdoms would make with vassal states after conquering and enslaving them.

And Deuteronomy is a very hard yoke, put upon Israel like a burden, meant to break the people's hardened hearts. But Moses predicts that this law won't save them from the curses of failing to honor the covenant.

In fact, he prophesies that all the curses of the covenant would befall Israel someday (seeDeuteronomy 30:1-10; 31:16-29).

First, he seems to suggest that the curses are conditional - "if you do not hearken to the voice of the Lord" (see Deuteronomy 28:15), and describes in grim detail punishments of exile, despoilment and the like (see Deuteronomy 28:16-68).

But two chapters later he says with assurance that all these curses will fall upon Israel. Butwhen they do, Moses promises, God will once more save them, again show mercy "if you and and your children return to the Lord, your God, and heed His voice" (see Deuteronomy 30:1-2).

The curses that Israel will undergo, Moses prophesies, will finally bring them to repentance. And at that point, He prophesies: "The Lord, your God, will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, that you may love the Lord, your God with all your heart and all your soul and so may live" (see Deuteronomy 30:6).

Notice that earlier, Moses had ordered the people to circumcise their hearts (seeDeuteronomy 10:16). But here, at the end of Deuteronomy, he recognizes that Israel is incapable of that - that only the grace of God can change the hearts of the people.

This was the promise that the prophets taught Israel to hope for during its years of exile and captivity.

Ezekiel promises that God will give the people a new heart, taking away their hearts of stone (see Ezekiel 36:22-28). Jeremiah, in the only Old Testament passage that speaks specifically of a "New Covenant," says that God will write His law upon the hearts of the people (see Jeremiah 31:31-33).

These promises will await the coming of Jesus Christ for their fulfillment. Moses had prophesied the coming of "a prophet like me" (see Deuteronomy 18:15). Jesus will be this prophet (see John 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22; 7:37).

But the book of Deuteronomy closes with a 120-year-old Moses dying atop Mount Nebo. The land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was within his sight, but not his to enter.

Continue to Section 5

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