I. Review and Overview
A. One Down, 72 to Go!
It has taken us three lessons - half of this intermediate course - to read the Bible's first book. One down, 72 to go!
It's a good time to review our purpose in this class. We've identified the series of covenants that God makes in the Bible as the master key that unlocks the meaning of the Bible. Remember, the Bible tells the story of God the Father's love for His children and His plan to fashion all people into one holy family. God unfolds this plan of salvation through the series of covenants that we've identified - the creation covenant with Adam, the flood and the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with Moses at Sinai, the covenant with David and the New Covenant brought by Jesus Christ.
If you understand well these covenants, you'll have great insight into the "worldview" of the Bible. This in turn will help you see how all the various books of the Bible fit together to form a single "book." That's why we've spent so much time on Genesis and that's why we're going to devote this lesson to the experience of the Israelites as recounted in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
But go back and look at those first three lessons - you'll notice something you may not have noticed the first time through: We have been ranging all over the Bible to help us understand what we've been reading. We've shown how the various stories in Genesis have been understood and interpreted in nearly a dozen other Old Testament books, in each of the Gospels, in the New Testament Epistles and the Book of Revelation.
Be sure to look up the citations and references we make to other books of the Bible. First, it will give you a greater familiarity with the whole Bible. But secondly and more importantly, it will deepen your reading, helping you to read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old.
In this lesson, too, be on the look out for these types of connections, especially in the Book of Exodus, where we're going to find images and ideas that turn up again and again in the Old and New Testaments - the figure of Moses, the idea of "the lamb of God," the Passover, and more.
B. The Story So Far
By way of a quick review, here's how the story has gone so far:
God created the world out of nothing and created man and woman "in His image and likeness," as His children, to be rulers over His divine kingdom on earth. God made a covenant with them, promising to bestow His blessings upon them, and through them, upon the whole world.
But Adam and Eve broke that covenant, rejected their royal birthright as the first-born children of God. Growing up in exile from the original garden sanctuary, their offspring fill the world with blood and all kinds of wickedness.
So God created the world again, in effect, destroying the wicked and saving the just in a great flood. He started His human family again with the family of Noah. But Noah falls, too, and trouble again fills the earth, symbolized by the effort of all the nations of the world to build a tower to the heavens and glorify their name, not the name of God.
At Babel, God scatters the nations to the four corners of the earth, dividing the single human family into a multitude of languages and cultures, confusing their speech and making it impossible for them to understand and work together.
God again raises up a righteous man, through whom He hopes to establish the family of God He intended in the beginning. He makes a covenant with Abraham and promises to Abraham a line of descendants that would last forever, a line through whom God would bestow blessings on all the families and nations of the world.
At the end of Genesis, Abraham's family tree is a large one, consisting of twelve tribes, each headed by a son of Jacob, who was the son of Abraham's beloved son Isaac. Through many twists and turns, the chosen people of the God, the children of Abraham, now identified as the children of Israel (the new name God gave to Jacob), find themselves in Egypt.
In this lesson, we'll see how the family of God grows from a tribal network of patriarchs to a full-fledged nation, under the leadership of a divinely appointed savior and lawgiver, Moses.
II. Out of Egypt, My Son
A. Moses and Jesus
The start of Exodus should sound familiar to you. What other figure in the Bible is born under a threat of death, facing a tyrannical ruler who has decreed that all first-born Hebrew males are to be killed?
In the Christmas story, we see Herod dispatch troops to Bethlehem to kill all the first-born Hebrew boys (see Matthew 2:16). In Exodus Pharaoh hatches a more subtle scheme of forced infanticide - ordering Egypt's midwives to kill every Hebrew first-born male child (see Exodus 1:15-16).
Moses, incidentally, is saved by being placed in an "ark" (that's the literal word for what's translated "papyrus basket" in Exodus 2:3; the same word is used for Noah's ark in Genesis 6:14).
The infant Moses and the infant Jesus are saved by family members - Moses by his mother and sister (see Exodus 2:1-10) and Jesus by his mother and father (Matthew 2:13-15; Exodus 2:5-10). And both remained in exile until those who sought their life were dead (see Matthew 2:20; Exodus 4:19).
There are many more parallels we could trace between the Moses and Jesus - for instance, Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, just as Moses did (see Matthew 4:2; Exodus 34:28) and just like Moses, Jesus goes to a mount and gives a covenant law to His people (see Matthew 5-7; Deuteronomy 5:1-21).
Moses is the prototype for all the men of God that we read a bout in the rest of the Old Testament and on into the New. The Gospel writers, especially St. Matthew, describe Jesus as a "new Moses," a new leader and king, savior and deliverer, teacher, wonderworker and suffering prophet.
And the story of Moses - especially the Passover, the parting of the waters, the wandering in the desert, the daily bread from heaven - has a deeper, symbolic meaning for Catholic readers of the Bible.
B. God's First-Born Son
Moses is called by God to deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.
What motivates God to act? He was "mindful of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (see Exodus 2:24; Psalm 105:8-11). That's why He repeatedly identifies Himself to Moses as "the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob" (see Exodus 3:6, 13,15; 6:2-8).
God had warned Abraham in a dream that they would be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years, but that God would deliver them (see Genesis 15:13-15). Now the Israelites had been in Egypt for 430 years - the first 30 years as privileged guests, relatives of the prime-minister Joseph, the last 400 years as slaves (see Exodus 12:40).
The time had come for Him to fulfill His promise to Abraham - to make His descendants a great nation and to give them a beautiful and bountiful land of their own (see Genesis 28:13-15).
God sends Moses to tell Pharaoh that "Israel is My son, My first-born" (Exodus 4:22; Sirach 36:11).
We see God here again trying to establish His holy family. We see this when He renews His promise to Moses: "I will take you as my own people and you shall have me as your God" (see Exodus 6:7). This anticipates the covenant He will make with them later at Sinai (see Exodus 19:5).
Watch the "character" of God throughout Exodus - what He says and does. He's not a detached "Creator."
God in Exodus truly reveals himself to be the divine Father of Israel (see too Deuteronomy 32:6). He saves His children (see Exodus 12:29-31), clothes them (see Exodus 12:35-36), guides them (see Exodus 13:21-22), feeds them (see Exodus 16:1-17:7) protects them (see Exodus 14:10-29; 17:8-16), teaches them (see Exodus 20:1-17; 21:1-23:33), and lives with them (see Exodus 25:8; 40:34-38).
In short, He is a Father to them (see Hosea 11:1).
It's not that He is a Father only to Israel. Israel is His first-born not His only son. God is the God of all the nations - and He wants to be a father to all the other nations, too.
But Israel is His first-born, His pride and joy. Israel is called out of Egypt to show the other nations the way to live as His children. But Israel - and its leader - must be righteous before it can preach righteousness to the other nations. That is what's going on in that strange scene before the showdown with Pharaoh - where God tries to kill Moses (see Exodus 4:24-26).
God is serious about His covenant, no one can be exempt from its provisions. Moses was in violation of the covenant with Abraham. His son, Gershom, hadn't been circumcised as God had commanded (see Genesis 17:9-14). Moses' wife, Zipporah, takes matters into her own hands and performs the circumcision, and Moses' life is again saved.
C. Plaguing Pharaoh
Pharaoh is punished, his nation put under judgment, for failing to respect the rights of God's first-born son.
Pharaoh makes the big mistake of mocking the power of the Moses' God (see Exodus 5:2). In the ten plagues God visits upon him, He both punishes punishes Pharaoh and executes judgment on the Egyptians' many gods (see Exodus 12:12; Numbers 33:4):
By these divine actions, worked through Moses, God was demonstrating His power - establishing that Israel's God is "a deity great beyond any other" (see Exodus 18:11; 9:16; 11:9).
D. The Passover and 'Our Paschal Lamb'
Israel's first-born is "passed over" in the last plague, spared the fate of Egypt's first-born.
We have to read the story of the Passover carefully. This story has a great influence on the shape and the meaning of the rest of the Old Testament. It's also vitally important for understanding Catholic beliefs about the meaning of the Cross, the salvation won for us on the Cross, and the memorial of our salvation that we celebrate in the Mass.
The Passover story is one of the Old Testament's defining dramas. But more than that it points us ahead to the defining drama of all salvation history - the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.
Since the earliest days, the Church has understood the Crucifixion and Resurrection as "the Lord's Passover" (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 557-559, 1174,1337,1364,1402). The Eucharist, in turn, is the memorial of the Lord's Passover.
That's why during the Mass the priest presents the consecrated Host to us and declares: "This is the Lamb of God...Happy are those who are called to His supper." The Liturgy is yoking together two New Testament passages (see John 1:29; Revelation 19:9). But what made the New Testament writers talk about Jesus this way in the first place? The answer is the Passover story.
The Church's ancient belief is based on the interpretation of the Exodus story that begins with Jesus and the New Testament writers.
Let's read ahead to John's account of the Crucifixion (see John 19). As Christ is condemned, John notes that it was the "preparation day for Passover, and it was about noon." Why this detail? Because that was the precise moment when Israel's priests slaughtered the lambs for the Passover meal (see John 19:14).
Later, the mocking soldiers give Jesus a sponge soaked in wine. They raise it to him on a "hyssop branch." That's the same kind of branch the Israelites are instructed to use to daub their door posts with the blood of the Passover lamb (see John 19:29; Exodus 12:22).
And why don't the soldier's break Jesus' legs (see John 19:33,36)? John explains that with a quote from Exodus, telling us that it was because the legs of the Passover lambs weren't to be broken (see Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:21).
There are more parallels that we could draw in John's Gospel and in the other Gospel accounts. The Crucifixion is presented in the New Testament as a Passover sacrifice - in which Jesus is both the unblemished Lamb, and the High Priest who offers the Lamb in sacrifice. For the New Testament writers, what we're reading about here in Exodus is a sign that points us to Jesus.
In the Passover, Israel was spared by the blood of an unblemished sacrificial lamb painted on their door posts. The lamb dies instead of the first-born, is sacrificed so that the people could live (see Exodus 12:1-23,27). It is the same with the Lord's Passover, the Cross and Resurrection. The Lamb of God dies so that the people of God might live, saved by "the blood of the Lamb" (see Revelation 7:14; 12:11; 5:12).
"For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed," St. Paul says (see 1 Corinthians 5:7). On the Cross, St. Peter tells us, Jesus was "a spotless unblemished Lamb." By His "Precious Blood" we are "ransomed" from captivity to sin and death (see 1 Peter 1:18-19).
That's what's going on here in Exodus. The first-born sons and daughters of God are being "ransomed" or "redeemed" - bought out of captivity and slavery (see Exodus 6:6; 15:13; Psalm 69:18; Isaiah 44:24; Genesis 48:10).
The Israelites were instructed to remember the first Passover by each year eating the Passover lamb's "roasted flesh with unleavened bread." And in His last supper, eaten during Passover, Jesus instructs His followers to remember His Passover in the Eucharist, where we eat His flesh and drink His blood (see John 6:53-58).
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 him Abraham - 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 (see Exodus 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 (see Deuteronomy 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 (see Luke 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 (see 1 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 (see Exodus 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).
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 (see Deuteronomy 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. But when 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 (see Deuteronomy 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.
V. Study Questions