Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Easter Vigil Readings: A Celebration of Covenant

Brant, Michael and I belong to a school of thought that sees covenant as a central concept in biblical theology, particularly Catholic biblical theology.  Such an approach has strong support in the text of Scripture and in the tradition and liturgy of the Church, and would seem to be a "no-brainer," yet there are those who oppose it and de-emphasize the significance of covenant for interpreting the Scriptures in the Church.  For that reason, it's necessary periodically to justify this approach.

When I teach biblical theology, I focus on a series of covenants which are central to the economy of salvation: the (1) Creation (or Adamic; Genesis 1-3; Hosea 6:7), (2) Noahic (David Noel Freedman preferred "Noachian"; Genesis 9), (3) Abrahamic (Genesis 15, 17, 22); (4) Mosaic (Exodus 24), (5) Davidic (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89); and (6) New (Jeremiah 31:31; Luke 22:20).  It has always struck me, and my students, how well this overview of the divine economy accords with the readings of the lectionary of the Mass, especially the readings of the Easter Vigil.

I'll proceed to point out how all these covenants appear in various forms in the seven Old
Testament readings that form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Word for the Vigil.

The readings begin with the creation story from Genesis 1, a text concerning the Creation Covenant.  That there was a covenant present at creation is controversial, but it has the backing of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as certain contemporary scholars and a stream of the Jewish tradition.  Benedict XVI's argument for the presence of a creation covenant hinges on the culmination of the creation week with the Sabbath, which elsewhere in the OT is understood to be the sign of the covenant (Exod 31:16-17).  Hosea 6:7 (in Hebrew: "Like Adam they transgressed the covenant") testifies to a very early interpretive tradition which understood a covenant to be present already at the beginning of human history.

The second OT reading is Genesis 22, one of the most central texts in all the Old Testament.  I call it the "Calvary of the Old Testament," perhaps the most important type of Christ's sacrifice on the cross in the pages of the Scriptures of Israel.  Genesis 22, of course, recounts the "Aqedah" or binding of Isaac, in which Abraham comes close to sacrificing his "one and only" or "only begotten" son on the wood of the altar on the top of Mt. Moriah.  God's solemn oath of blessing on Abraham in vv. 15-18 is one of the central texts in all the Bible: arguably, this the culmination of the covenant with Abraham begun in Genesis 15 and continued in Genesis 17.  Although the word "covenant" does not appear in Genesis 22, God's solemn oath in vv. 15-18 was understood as a covenant in subsequent Scripture (e.g. Deut 7:8-9; Luke 1:72-73).  This solemn covenant-oath by God promises blessing to all nations through the seed of Abraham; Easter is a celebration of the fulfillment of that promise, as all nations have been blessed through Jesus the seed of Abraham (Matt 1:1) who pours out the Spirit on all nations through his self-sacrifice on the cross.

The third OT reading for the Vigil is Exodus 14, the account of the triumph of God in delivering the Israelites from the armies of Egypt at the Red Sea.  This corresponds to the Mosaic Covenant (the covenant with Israel through Moses), as the people of Israel had already entered into a covenant relationship with God through the Passover (Exodus 12-13) and were headed out to Sinai where the covenant would be further solemnized (Exodus 24).

The fourth OT reading is a beautiful passage from Isaiah 54:5-14, which, surprisingly, makes reference to the Noahic Covenant  (Isaiah 54:9), and compares the coming “covenant of peace” (Isaiah’s term for the reality described by Jeremiah as the “new covenant,” Jer 31:31) to the covenant made with Noah.  This passage also employs touching marital imagery to describe God’s relationship with Israel.  Marriage was a form of covenant in ancient Israel, so it was natural to describe God’s covenant relationship with Israel in terms of marriage.

The fifth OT reading (Isaiah 55:1-11) is one of my favorite, and one of the most amazing, texts from Isaiah.  In this passage, God promises that at some point in the future, he will offer the covenant of David (“I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my covenant fidelity [Hebrew hesed] for David”; Isa 55:3) to every one who is hungry and thirsty.  He will offer this covenant through eating and drinking (Isa 55:1)!

The sixth OT focuses on divine wisdom, but the seventh and last (Ezek 36:16-28) has important covenant themes.  After recounting Israel’s unfaithfulness to the (Mosaic) covenant, Ezekiel prophesies a coming day when God will sprinkle his people with water and put a new spirit within them which will enable them to keep their covenant with God (“live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees”).  Ezekiel 36 is found canonically in the middle of Ezekiel’s “Book of Consolation” (Ezek 34-37), a long section of Ezekiel in which the prophet offers hope for a new age for Israel, a hope that culminates in Ezek 37:25-28 with the establishment of a “covenant of peace”, an “everlasting covenant” (37:26), Ezekiel’s terms for Jeremiah’s “new covenant” (Jer 31:31).

Thus, all the major covenants of salvation history are referred to in some form in the seven OT readings for the Easter Vigil, and taken together the readings (not to mention the psalms that go with them!) make a beautiful synopsis of the general structure of the divine economy (salvation history).  Since the Vigil, like every mass, culminates in the consecration of the bread and wine which become “the New and Everlasting Covenant” in Christ’s blood, it is appropriate that the OT readings recount the older and provisional covenants that anticipated the new one celebrated in the Liturgy.  Understanding salvation history through the lens of the covenant is an authentically Catholic approach to biblical theology.


servant said...

Thank you for sharing the richness in covenant theology. We are truly blessed.

Susan Moore said...

Part 1 of 6
Good stuff that.
It seems this (?):
Divine Covenant: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen. 1:26 NIV).
God spoke, and this is what happened: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (verse 27).

Susan Moore said...

Part 2 of 6
Covenant with Adam: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:15-17).
THEN God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18), and Eve was formed.

Susan Moore said...

Part 3 of 6
Covenant continued with Ada m AND Eve: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground –everything that has the breath of life in it- I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so” (Gen. 1:28-30).
Although Adam and Eve are both held accountable for their parts in the fall of creation, ultimately Adam is held responsible for breaking the covenant because God told Adam, alone, what was expected of him. Eve had not yet been formed. It was up to Adam, made in God’s image, to love Eve and teach her accordingly.

Susan Moore said...

Part 4 of 6
Adam was with Eve when she was deceived, and yet he did not defend her or stop her from breaking God’s command. He failed to love Eve. He also went along with her and began to worship and serve created things (‘he ate it’ 3:6-7). Adam not only failed to love Eve and protect her from her deception, he chose to remain silent and intentionally go along with her as he rebelled against the authority of God. Adam also failed to claim his God-given authority to rule over the created things that deceived Eve.
(And yet, prior to casting them out of the Garden, God removed the fig leave-things Adam and Eve were hiding behind in their attempts to hide their guilt, and “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (3:21). Now, thousands of years later, it is only through His linguistic metalanguage that He built into His book, our Bible, that we are able to comprehend what it means to not be left with only skin as a covering; to comprehend the power of the resurrection and what it means to have been given this opportunity to ‘clothe ourselves with Christ…because [we] are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29).
How great is our God?

Susan Moore said...

Part 5 of 6
Until Eve was deceived and Adam disobeyed God, all creatures were eating plants (1:30). But after that, creation went berserk: creatures started to eat each other, humans killed and oppressed each other, and the thistles and thorns came out.
But Noah’s covenant is not only a covenant with man, but also with creation, “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come; [the rainbow] –This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on earth” (Gen. 9:8-17).
All the other covenants also address this protective and restorative process, either directly or indirectly. Just as Jesus is our intercessor is restoring the relationship with our Father, we are the intercessor for restoring creation. He has never negotiated our part to work and take care of the garden, or our responsibility to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ And, more than anything else, He has never negotiated His will for us to love Him above all created things, and to love each other as we love our selves.

Susan Moore said...

Part 6 or 6
It came to me this morning how I was to present the Linguistic metalanguage to people there –lay, religious and ordained. That’s a good thing, because for almost 40 years I have not been able to figure out how to present it, even to a doll. But let’s not tarry –I am mortal! I live about 90 minutes away from Steubenville. I can be there Monday, or as early as desired. Please let me know, and please ask the Franciscans to pray.

Michael Ward said...

Why only six covenants? The number seven is the number of perfection, so is there a covenant that has been missed out or a covenant that is still to come?

Anonymous said...

Michael, I think the seventh covenant is the covenant that Jesus established at the Last Supper - the new and eternal covenant. There were 6 in the Old Testament and that wasn't complete - it wasn't until Jesus came that he completed, perfected, finished, consummated God's covenant with his people: "It is consummated." -John 19:30

John Bergsma said...

The number of covenants one counts is a little arbitrary. If you "split" all the covenants in the OT, you could wind up with around 12 all told. If you "lump" them, you can get as few as one: some biblical theologians argue there is only covenant remade and reconfigured through salvation history. For pedagogical purposes, I employ seven, with the last being the "Eucharistic" covenant in Christ. But actually, the Eucharistic is the same as the New Covenant promised by the prophets: they are only distinguished by promise vs. fulfillment.