Lesson One: The Master Key that Unlocks the Bible

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Lesson Outline:
  1. Course Introduction and Overview
    1. How to Read the Bible Cover-to-Cover
    2. The Covenant Principle: Testimony from Scripture and Tradition
  2. What is a Covenant?
    1. The Difference Between Covenants and Contracts
    2. The Meaning of Covenant in the Bible
  3. An Introduction to the Covenants of the Bible
    1. The Number of the Biblical Covenants
    2. The Character of the Biblical Covenants
  4. A Bird's Eye View of the Bible
    1. Reading the Bible as "the Book of the Covenant"
    2. The Course Ahead
  5. Discussion Questions

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I. Course Introduction and Overview

A. How to Read the Bible Cover-to-Cover

How many of you have started out trying to read the Bible from cover to cover, only to find yourselves foundering by the later chapters of Exodus before sinking altogether somewhere in the middle of Leviticus?

You're not alone. Many a well-intentioned Bible reader has quickly run aground on the rocks of Old Testament details - verse after verse of building specs for the ark and the sacred dwelling, the dress codes for priests, the elaborately detailed rules for offering sacrifices and the like. If you make it through all that, you still have all the judges and kings and the side characters and battles to contend with.

Lots of people figure it's easier to cut their losses and skip ahead to Proverbs and Psalms, detouring around the Prophets (who are hard to understand, anyway) and picking the story up again in the New Testament.

In this class, we're going to give you the compass you need to navigate the Bible from start to finish.

That compass is one word - covenant.

Covenant
is the answer to the question: What's the Bible all about? Covenant explains why God does and says the things He says and does in Scripture.

If you understand covenant then everything else falls into place. The details that once seemed so obscure start making sense.

B. The Covenant Principle: Testimony from Scripture and Tradition

A one-word answer to the complex question of how to read the Bible? It may sound crazy or dramatically over-simplified. But it's not a novel idea, or an idea that we are "imposing" on Scripture.

At the Last Supper, Jesus identified Himself as the New Covenant, in words we recall during every celebration of Mass - "This cup is the cup of My blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant" (see Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20).

In fact, as the great scholar of the Bible and liturgy, Cardinal Jean Danielou, S.J., has noted, "We should not forget the fact that 'the Covenant' was one of our Lord's names in primitive Christianity, following the text of Isaiah: 'I have made you: Covenant of the peoples' (Isaiah 42:6)" (see Danielou's "Sacraments and the History of Salvation").

The Fathers of the Church - the bishops and Church leaders in the first generations after the Apostles - understood biblical history as proceeding by means of a series of covenants made by God with His chosen people, a series that climaxes in the New Covenant of Jesus.

St. Irenaeus, who was the bishop of Lyon in late second-century France, said that to understand "the divine program and economy for the salvation of humanity" we have to understand God's "several covenants with humanity" and also "the special character of each covenant." (Against the Heresies, Book I, Chapter 10, no. 3).

This ancient understanding of biblical salvation history is reflected in what we today pray as Eucharistic Prayer IV:

Father....You formed man in your own likeness
and set him over the whole world...
Even when he disobeyed you and lost your friendship
you did not abandon him to the power of death. . .
Again and again you offered a covenant to man and...
in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our Savior.

That's about as succinct a summary as you'll find of what the Bible's all about.

As Father Yves Congar, O.P. writes in his monumental Tradition and Traditions, for the Apostles, Scripture is all about "the vital covenant relationship that God wants to establish with men." He added: "The content and meaning of Scripture was God's covenant plan, finally realized in Jesus Christ...and in the Church."

Finally, we can cite The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which calls God, "the God of the Covenant" (no. 401) and describes him as the God who "comes to meet man by His covenants" (no. 309).

God's covenant love is revealed in the very creation of the world (no. 288), the Catechism says, and each one of us is "called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer Him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead" (no. 357).

That personal covenant is offered to us in the sacraments of the Church. As the Second Vatican Council says: "The renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful and sets them aflame with Christ's insistent love" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, scroll down to no. 10).
 

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II. What is a Covenant?

A. The Difference Between Covenants and Contracts


Ok. We've established that covenant is a key, if not the key to reading and understanding the Bible. It's also the central concept we need in order to understand and live the realities the Bible reveals to us and the Church brings to us in the sacraments.

But what's a covenant?

Let's start with the word. Covenant comes from the Latin word, convenire ("to come together" or "to agree").

Today, we use the word "covenant" almost interchangeably with the word "contract."

But that's very misleading when we try to compare our notion of contract with the biblical notions of "covenant" expressed by the Hebrew word berith and the Greek word diatheke.

The difference between covenant and contract in the Old Testament and throughout the Bible is profound. It's so profound that we could almost say that it's the difference between prostitution (contract) and marriage (covenant). Or between owning a slave (contract) and having a son (covenant.)

There are two big differences between our notion of contract and the biblical notion of covenant.

First, contracts involve promises, covenants involve oaths.

When you enter into a contract, say, to buy a house, you make a promise to the seller, along the lines of: "I give you my word that I will pay you this amount of money for your house." The seller , in turn, makes a promise: "I give you my word that if you pay me the sum we have agreed upon, I will turn over to you the deed to my house."

The "word" you each pledge to the other is your name. And you each sign your name on the contract as a "sign" that you'll uphold your end of the bargain or keep your promise.

Covenants are much different. In a covenant, you elevate and upgrade your promise. Not only do you give your word, you also swear an oath, invoke a higher authority - you call God in as your witness.

Think of the oath we're most familiar with, the oath you swear before taking the witness stand in a courtroom: "I promise to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God."

You've promised, given your word to tell the truth. You've also asked God to help you keep your promise. It's not only you and the judge now. It's you, the judge and God. Now, if you lie under oath, you're not only liable to go to jail, you're liable to be punished by God. The flip side of asking for God's help in an oath is surrendering yourself to God's judgment. You say, in effect, "I'll be damned if I don't tell the truth."

In the old days, we used to have politicians swear on the Bible and the Bible would be opened to the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 28, where the blessings and the curses are recorded. We were asking them to swear to uphold the constitution or suffer the curses recorded in those pages.

Even in our highly secularized society, we retain elements of this older understanding of oaths. We make doctors, police officers, military personnel and public officials swear oaths. Why? Because we depend on them; we literally put our lives in their hands. We want them to swear to God that they'll do their jobs. We can't just take their word for it, we want them to know that they'll have to answer to a higher authority.

Incidentally, did you know that the word "oath" translates the Latin word sacramentum, where we get our word "sacrament"? In a future course, we'll look at sacraments as oaths. But for now, just keep in mind, as we mentioned earlier, that the notion of covenant and oaths is crucial to understanding the sacraments and our relationship with God.

The second big difference between contracts and covenants is this: contracts exchange property, covenants exchange persons.

Contracts involve you promising to pay a certain sum of money and the person you're contracting with to deliver you a certain product or service.

Covenants are much different. When people enter into a covenant, they say: "I am yours and you are mine." In a contract, you exchange something you have - a skill, a piece of property, money. In a covenant you exchange your very being, you give your very self to another person.

Marriage is a covenant. The man swears an oath to the woman, "I'm yours forever." The woman swears an oath to the man, "I'm yours forever."

B. The Meaning of Covenant in the Bible

Now we're ready to see how covenants function in the Bible.

We have examples of covenant-making throughout the ancient world. And there are some similarities between the kinds of covenants that, for instance, the ancient Hittites and others made and the covenants we find in the Bible.

You'll find for instance, that ancient covenants take a certain form: There's a kind of preamble that introduces the covenant, followed by a historical review of the relationship between the two parties; then a series of stipulations that spell out the obligations of the parties, along with a list of blessings and curses for upholding or breaking the covenant. Usually, the covenant is "ratified" in a solemn ceremony that involves a reading of the covenant document and eating and drinking. (If you want a very detailed analysis, try "The Meaning of Covenant" in the SalvationHistory.com Scripture Library.)

We want to focus here, not so much on how covenants are made, but on what God is doing in making the covenants we find in the Bible.

What's God up to in making these covenants? He is forging sacred kinship bonds. He is saying to His people, "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" (see 2 Corinthians 6:16).

By His covenants, God is taking the "creatures" He made and raising them to the status of divine offspring, divine children. By His covenants, the Creator is fathering a family. The human race is being transformed from something physical and natural into something spiritual and supernatural. Humans are being changed from merely a species sharing common traits and characteristics into a divine brotherhood and sisterhood, a family of God.

The story line and the drama of the Bible all plays out against this backdrop of divine family-making.

The Bible begins with God's covenant with Adam and Eve (although the word covenant isn't used, as we'll see next lesson). By the final pages of the Bible, we see that the New Covenant He made in Jesus has embraced the entire world.

Remember all those details of the Bible that seemed so hard to figure out - the laws and commandments, the ritual rules; the oaths that God swears to His people and His people swear to Him; the historical episodes of sin and betrayal and repentance and forgiveness; the punishments and deliverance; the psalms and wisdom teachings, the prophecies of a new and final covenant redemption?

They all make sense when you understand them as part of God's divine plan to make all men and women into His sons and daughters through the covenants, which are all summed up in the 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).

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III. An Introduction to the Covenants of the Bible

A. The Number of the Biblical Covenants

Following St. Irenaeus, we're now ready to look at the number of covenants that God makes in the Bible and the special character of each. God makes six major covenants in the Bible, with:

1. Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26-2:3)
2. Noah and his family (Genesis 9:8-17)
3. Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:1-14; 22:16-18)
4. Moses and the Israelites (Exodus 19:5-6; 3:4-10; 6:7)
5. David and the Kingdom of Israel (2 Samuel 7:8-19)
6. Jesus and the Church (Matthew 26:28; 16:17-19)

It's important to know these covenants well - what God promises and what is required of those who enter into the covenants.

B. The Character of the Biblical Covenants

Now we'll highlight some of the special characteristics of each of these covenants. As we move through this course we'll be studying each of the covenants in greater detail. For each of these covenants, try to learn and remember the five special features:

* the covenant mediator (the person God makes the covenant with) and his covenant role (whom the mediator represents);

* the blessings promises in the covenant;

* the conditions (or curses) of the covenant; 

* the
"sign" by which the covenant will be celebrated and remembered. 

* the "form" that God's family has as a result of the covenant.

The Covenant with Adam (Genesis 1:26-2:3)
The word "covenant" isn't used, but as we'll see in detail in our next lesson, the story of Adam and Eve is told in "covenantal" language. Adam is the covenant mediator in his role as husband. God promises blessings - that their union will be fruitful and their offspring will fill the earth and rule over it. God establishes a sign by which the covenant will be remembered and celebrated - the Sabbath, the seventh day of rest.

And God imposes one condition that they must keep to fulfill their obligation under the covenant - that they not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And God attaches a curse for disobedience - that they will surely die. By this covenant, God's family assumes the form of the marriage bond between husband and wife.

The Covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17)
The word "covenant" is used in the case of Noah, as God promises never again to destroy the world by flood. The covenant is made with all humanity, through the mediator, Noah, in his role as the father of his family.

The covenant includes blessings to Noah and his family (that they will be fruitful and fill the earth) and conditions that must be obeyed (not to drink the blood of any animals, not to shed human blood). The sign of the covenant is the rainbow in the sky. By this covenant, God's people assumes the form of a domestic household, an extended family.

The Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:1-14; 22:16-18)
God swears to give Abraham a great land and to bless his descendants, who will become a great nation. God makes the covenant with the mediator Abraham in his representative role as chieftain. God promises the blessings of land and great nationhood for his descendants, and through them to bless all the nations of the earth.

The sign of the covenant is the mark of circumcision. Circumcision is also the condition that Abraham and his descendants must obey in order to keep the covenant. By this covenant, God's family is takes a "tribal" form.

The Covenant with Moses (Exodus 19:5-6; 3:4-10; 6:7)
By this covenant, made with the mediator Moses in his representative role as the judge and liberator of Israel, God swears to be Israel's God and Israel swears to worship no other but the Lord God alone. The blessings promised are that they will be God's precious and chosen people.

The conditions of the covenant are that they must keep God's Law and commandments.
The covenant sign is the Passover, which each year commemorates Israel's birth as a nation. By this covenant, God's family assumes the form of a "holy nation, a kingdom of priests."

The Covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:8-19)
God promises to establish the mediator David's "house" or kingdom forever, through David's heir, who will also build a temple to God's name. To David in his role as king, God promises to make David's son His son, to punish him if he does wrong but never take away his royal throne.

"Your house and you kingdom shall endure forever" and through the blessings of this kingdom God promises to give wisdom to all the nations. The sign of the covenant will be the throne and Temple to be built by David's son, Solomon. By this covenant, God's family grows to take the form of a royal empire, a national kingdom.

The New Covenant of Jesus (Matthew 26:28; 16:17-19)
The sixth and final covenant made by the mediator Jesus, who by His Cross and Resurrection assumes the role of royal high priest and fulfills all the promises God made in the previous covenants.

The prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, had taught Israel to hope for a Messiah who would bring "a new covenant," through which God's law would be written on men's and women's hearts (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12).

The conditions of the covenant are that men and women believe in Jesus, be baptized, eat and drink His flesh and blood in the Eucharist, and live by all that He taught. The Eucharist is the sign of the New Covenant. By this covenant, God establishes His family in its final form as a universal (katholicos or 'catholic' in Greek) worldwide kingdom, which Jesus calls His Church.
 

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IV. The Bible: A Bird's-Eye View

A. A Book of Covenants

In these six covenants you have a bird's-eye view of the whole Bible and the story of the origins and the destiny of the human race.

If we look at the Bible as the "book of the covenant" it gives us a whole new perspective.

The Bible, then, isn't simply a collection of separate poems and histories and prophecies written over the course of centuries. It's one book that tells a single story. It's the story of God's love for His people. It's the story of how He slowly and patiently unfolded his plan for the world, how He taught His people the reason they were created - to share His life with Him, to be part of His family, to be His children.

Reading the Bible from front to back as "the book of the covenant," we see that with each new covenant, God reveals a little more about Himself and a little more about the relationship that He wants with His people, until finally in Jesus He shows us that He wants us to share in His very Being, to enter into the heart of the Blessed Trinity.

B. The Course Ahead

In the next five lessons, we'll read this whole st ory, covenant by covenant. By the time we're done, you'll have glanced over every book of the Bible and will have a new framework for continuing your own study.

Remember, however, this course is not just a reading exercise. Reading the Bible is intended by our Lord to be a life-changing experience. So as you study the Bible and proceed in this course, try to keep in mind the dignity you have as sons and daughters of God, and the awesome privilege you have of being fully in communion with God in His family, the Catholic Church.
 

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V. Study Questions

1. According to Father Yves Congar, what is the "content and meaning" of Scripture?

2. What are the two major differences between covenants and contracts?

3. What is God doing through His covenants?

4. What are the six main covenants of the Bible?

5. What are the five features that need to be remembered about each of the biblical covenants?

7. What is the Greek word for universal? What does that word tell us about the Church that Jesus established?

For prayer and reflection:

Read and pray over the nine Scriptures and Responses that are traditionally read during the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday night. Ask God to help you understand how the liturgy envisions the promises of the Old Testament being fulfilled in the New Testament, using this prayer that's said during the Vigil after the reading of Genesis and the Psalm:

Lord God,
In the New Covenant
You shed light on the miracles you worked in ancient times:
The Red Sea is a symbol of our baptism,
and the nation you freed from slavery is a sign of your Christian people.
May every nation share the faith and privilege of Israel
and come to new birth in the Holy Spirit.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The readings for the Easter Vigil are as follows:

1. Genesis 1:1-2:2
Response: Psalm 104:1-2,5-6,10-14,24,35
2. Genesis 22:1-18
Response: Psalm 16:5,8, 9-11
3. Exodus 14:15 -15:1
Response: Exodus 15:1-6,17-18
4. Isaiah 54:5-14
Response: Psalm 30:2-6,11-13
5. Isaiah 55:1-11
Response: Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
6. Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4
Response: Psalm 19:8-10,17
7. Ezekiel 36:16-17, 18-28
Response: Psalm 42:3,5; 43:3-
8. Romans 6:3-11
Response: Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23
9. Matthew 28:1-10 (Year A) or Mark 16:1-7 (Year B) or Luke 24:1-12 (Year C)

Article URL: http://www.salvationhistory.com/studies/lesson/covenant_the_master_key_that_unlocks_the_bible/