God’s Covenant Plan, Lesson 1.3

God’s Covenant Plan

Lesson One: How a Catholic Starts to Read the Bible

Lesson Objectives

  1. To learn how to read the Bible the way the Catholic Church has always read it.
  2. To understand the concepts of “salvation history” and “covenant” and their importance for reading the Bible.
  3. To learn the key points of the creation story in the Bible’s first book, Genesis.

III. Salvation History: The Story the Bible Tells

A. Salvation History and Covenants

With that brief background on how the Catholic Church understands the Bible, let’s turn now to the Bible’s "content."

The first thing to know is that the Bible gives us history from God’s perspective. It shows us that all throughout time, God is working to bring us salvation. That’s why we say that the Bible gives us "salvation history."

This salvation history, in turn, hinges upon the "covenants" that God makes with his people throughout the Bible. The great early Church Father, Irenaeus, recognized the need for studying salvation history in terms of the covenants: "Understanding ...consists in showing why there are a number of covenants with mankind and in teaching what is the character of those covenants" (Against the Heresies, Book I, Chapter 10, no. 3).

What is a covenant? Let’s start with what it’s not. A covenant is not a contract.

Contracts are deals where two parties make a promise that involves some exchange of goods or services or property. Usually they seal their contract by giving their "word" - their name - in the form of their signature.

When parties make a covenant, they swear oaths. Oaths are more than promises. Instead of swearing by their own name, they swear by the highest name, by the name of God.

You know the formula from all the courtroom dramas, you’ve seen on TV: "Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" That’s an oath formula. You ask for God’s help to tell the truth ("so help me, God") and it’s implied that if you lie, you’re going to be punished by God.

Covenants involve, not an exchange of property, but an exchange of persons. You don’t give somebody your services or goods when you swear a covenant oath - you swear to give them yourself.

Marriage is a good example. It’s a covenant because in the exchange of vows, the woman gives herself to the man and the man gives himself to the woman.

As we will see in the next lesson, when God says to Israel, "You will be my people and I will be your God," that’s a covenant. What’s happening is that Israel is swearing an oath to God - to live according to God’s law as His people, His children. In turn, God is swearing to be Israel’s God, its divine parent. There are blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it.

In the ancient world, covenants made families. Even ancient treaty documents between nations used "father-son" imagery. Outsiders were "adopted" into a tribe through covenant oaths. So, when we study the Bible we need to see how the meaning of "covenant" is steeped in that ancient idea of family-making.

The whole Bible can be outlined as a series of family-making covenants.

That’s the "point" of the whole Bible story - how God, through these covenants, reveals more and more of Himself to his creatures and asks them to enter into a family relationship with Him. St. Paul sums up God’s intentions, this way: "As God said: ‘I will live with them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.’....‘I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty." (see 2 Corinthians 6:16-18).

Throughout the salvation history told in the Bible God acts through His covenants to extend the Family of God. He starts small with just two people, Adam and Eve, and proceeds - through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David - until finally all nations are brought into the covenant through Jesus Christ.

The plan from the beginning was to make all men and women into His sons and daughters through the covenants, which are all summed up in Jesus’ New Covenant, where God sends us "a Spirit of adoption, through which we can cry, Abba, ‘Father!’" (see Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5-6).

B. The Old And New Testaments

We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves! The point of what we’ve said so far is this:

The Bible tells the story of salvation history. Salvation history is the story of God’s marvelous work, since the creation of the world, to make all men and women His children, to form from the family of mankind a family of God. He does this through a series of covenants that He makes with key figures at key points in the Bible.

These key covenants serve as the outline for reading the whole Bible. If we know them and understand them, we’ll have a good working understanding of the "plot" of the Bible. And by the end of this Beginner’s Class, you’ll know the covenants and understand them!

There’s only one more thing we need to know before we crack the cover on the Good Book and start reading.

We need to know why the Bible is divided into Old and New Testaments. Lots of Christians ignore the Old Testament because it was what happened before Jesus. But when you understand that salvation history began with the creation of the world in the Old Testament and progressed through the series of Old Testament covenants, then you realize why the Old Testament is so important. The division of the Bible into Old and New Testaments is much more than a literary or historical marker.

Remember, "testament" is just another word for "covenant." And what goes on in the Old Testament is all about preparing the way for and announcing what’s going to happen in the New Testament. Christ and His cross, is like the "hinge" between the Old and the New Testaments. All the covenants that God made in the Old Testament find their fulfillment - their full meaning and purpose - in Jesus, in His "new Covenant."

Continue to Section 4

Other Lessons

  • Lesson Two: Creation, Fall and Promise
  • Lesson Objectives
    1. To read Genesis 1-3 with understanding.
    2. To learn God’s “original intent” in creating man and woman.
    3. To understand the sin of Adam and Eve and understand God’s promise of a New Adam and a New Eve.

    Begin Lesson Two

  • Lesson Three: East of Eden, Headed to Egypt
  • Lesson Objectives
    1. To read Genesis 3-50 with understanding.
    2. To understand God’s covenants with Noah and with Abraham and to see how these covenants look forward to, and are fulfilled in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.
    3. To appreciate the key figures in the story of Abraham - Melchizedek, circumcision, the sacrifice of Isaac - as they are interpreted in the Church’s tradition.

    Begin Lesson Three

  • Lesson Four: On the Way to the Promised Land
  • 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.

    Begin Lesson Four

  • Lesson Five: To Kingdom Come
  • 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: Into the Kingdom of the Son
  • 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