Thirtieth Sunday: The Old Testament in Light of the New

WE CANADIANS pride ourselves on being tolerant, which, paradoxically, means that we are extremely intolerant. To demonstrate our intolerance, let me recite three words that represent attitudes that are universally and harshly condemned: racist, homophobic, sexist. Anyone foolish enough publicly to espouse one or other of these would be pilloried, whipped through the streets of Mississauga and dragged before the Ontario Human Rights Commission. It is fortunate that members of that Commission have not read the Bible, for, to their ideological minds, it offends in all three categories; it is, as they would use the terms (inappropriately), racist, homophobic and sexist, and soon it may well be banned from our libraries and schools . . . if, that is, it has not already been removed from the shelves. It also espouses violence to a disconcerting degree. By and large, you are unaware of these facts because the Bible you know from the readings at Mass have bypassed the sections that would give offence.

Consider Psalm 136/137. The final verses are brutal, all the more shocking, given that the Psalm is otherwise tender. It begins thus:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and wept, remembering Zion. . . .
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! . . .

Then, at the end, like a blow to the face we have the lines:

O daughter of Babylon, you destroyer!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

I wonder what you would think to hear these lines coming from the choir during Mass. Such sentiments are by no means rare in the Old Testament. Psalm, 108/109, known as “the cursing Psalm,” is similarly strong stuff; you won’t find it in the lectionary. A line or two demonstrate why not:

May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit!
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children!

And so on. Nor is this attitude limited to the book of Psalms. Consider one of the most barbaric practices of ancient warfare, “the ban.” This was a command from God to destroy the enemy completely, to kill all the men, women and children, to raze the city to the ground and to destroy all the cattle and possessions of the conquered people. I see I have raised questions that would require a book to discuss adequately. Allow me, nevertheless, to point out one of several aspects of this matter that will not only allay your intellectual qualms but also use these hard passages to confirm your faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ.


The fact is that the Old Testament changer over time, moving from an exclusive focus on the fortunes of the Jewish nation and its tribal mentality to an emphasis on individual responsibility and what we would call a social consciousness. Today’s Bible readings illustrate the final stage of this development. First from Sirach: “The person whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted, and his prayer will reach the clouds.” Then Saint Paul: “There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord . . . will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” And finally, the Gospel, “‘[The tax-collector prayed,] ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’ [And Jesus said,] ‘I tell you, that man went down to his home justified.’”

The Psalms, too, emphasize personal responsibility and concern for others (Ps 14/15):

O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent? . . . He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right, and speaks truth from his heart; who does not slander with his tongue, and does no evil to his friend, nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour.

Another development occurred that considerably broadened Israel’s attitude towards the gentile nations. History was the agent of the change. In 587 B.C. Jerusalem fell to the enemy, the temple was destroyed and the people were exiled to Babylon. A crucial decision was thereby forced upon the nation. According to the common mythology of the ancient Near East, when a country was defeated and dispersed, its gods were also destroyed or made subservient to the gods of the conquerors. The Jews, consequently, had an option: they could abandon the Lord God, or they could recognize his hand at work in the actions of the King of Babylon. Their faith in God was so strong that they could not but choose the latter. Babylon was thus viewed as nothing more than an instrument in the hands of God who had employed him to punish the sins of his people. (As always, they interpret natural or political calamities in moral terms.) But then they came to the realization of a further implication of their belief in one and only one God. If the fate of Israel was in his hands, then so must the destiny of all the nations of the world be equally under his control, under his care. The prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, et al.—were inspired by the Holy Spirit to proclaim this startlingly new insight into the meaning of divine providence, but without, of course, surrendering the unique status of Israel in God’s plan. They came to view the chosen people as the entry point of God into human history, but with an ever-increasing awareness that one day the privileges of Israel would be made available to all the nations of the world. Many passages of the prophetical books witness to this conviction, as in the second chapter of Isaiah:

It shall come to pass in the later days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, . . . and all the nations shall flow to it and many peoples shall come and say: Come, . . . that he may teach us his ways and the we may walk in his paths.

Or consider the exhortation of Psalm 116/117: “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him all peoples! . . .”

The Messiah

But how was this marvel to be accomplished? For the prophets it was to be God’s doing. One day he would send a Messiah who would re-establish the Kingdom of David to its full grandeur. Thus, we find in Ezekiel (ch. 34):

And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them.

A similar prophecy is found in the book of Micah (5.2), and is quoted by Matthew in his account of the interview between the magi and King Herod: “But you, O Bethlehem, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Given that David came from Bethlehem, the new David, the Messiah, would also be from Bethlehem.

Well, the Messiah has come and his name is Jesus Christ. I have described the Old Testament as an ongoing, developing revelation of God to his people. This implies a directed movement, a goal for sacred history. The climax could hardly have been predicted, but once known, it is surpassingly right: God completed the gradual unveiling of his person to mankind by sending his own Son into the world to accomplish once and for all, definitively, what the patriarchs, kings and prophets of Israel had long desired: “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, . . . so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal 4.4-6). It follows that in encountering Jesus we have direct contact with God himself, and the more profound is our appreciation of this fact the more enlightened we shall be about God’s interventions as recorded in the history of the chosen people.

A good way to describe our attitude to the Old Testament is that, as Christians, we read the Bible backwards. By that I mean that we start with the figure of Jesus Christ and use him to understand what preceded him. Saint Paul is our best guide here: the people and the events of the Old Testament, he said, are for our instruction (cf. 2 Cor 10.6). If there was an original Adam who was the progenitor of the human race, there will be another Adam who will give a new start to all mankind. Was there a Moses who gave the Hebrews a code of law that defined their national identity as God’s special people? There will be another Moses who will deliver his law, not from Mount Sinai, but from the Mount of the Beatitudes to establish a new and universal chosen people, what Saint Paul called “the Israel of God” (Gal 6.16). Was there a David who was like a shepherd to his people? There will be another shepherd: “I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me” (Jn 10.14). We are the sheep of his flock and we follow him because we hear and recognize his voice.

We have a noble calling. Christ has conquered sin and death, and we have died and risen again with him in the waters of baptism. The Christian life may seem demanding, but we are made for heroism, and, to quote Psalm 18, we are powerful for good, “like a strong man, running his course with joy.