A Father Who Keeps His Promises (Paperback)
Everybody felt it: a moment of eerie silence, a low rumble and then the ground began to shake. Buildings swayed and buckled, then collapsed like houses of cards. Less than four minutes later, over thirty thousand were dead from a magnitude 8.2 earthquake that rocked and nearly flattened Armenia in 1989.
In the muddled chaos, a distressed father bolted through the winding streets leading to the school where his son had gone earlier that morning. The man couldn’t stop thinking about the promise he’d given his son many times: “No matter what happens, Armand, I’ll always be there.”
He reached the site where the school had been, but saw only a pile of rubble. He just stood there at first, fighting back tears, and then took off, stumbling over debris, toward the east corner where he knew his son’s classroom had been.
With nothing but his bare hands, he started to dig. He was desperately pulling up bricks and pieces of wall-plaster, while others stood by watching in forlorn disbelief. He heard someone growl, “Forget it, mister. They’re all dead.”
He looked up, flustered, and replied, “You can grumble, or you can help me lift these bricks.” Only a few pitched in, and most of them gave up once their muscles began to ache. But the man couldn’t stop thinking about his son.
He kept digging and digging—for hours … twelve hours … eighteen hours … twenty-four hours … thirty-six hours…. Finally, into the thirty-eighth hour, he heard a muffled groan from under a piece of wallboard.
He seized the board, pulled it back, and cried, “ARMAND!” From the darkness came a slight shaking voice, “Papa…!?”
Other weak voices began calling out, as the young survivors stirred beneath the still uncleared rubble. Gasps and shouts of bewildered relief came from the few onlookers and parents who remained. They found fourteen of the thirty-three students still alive.
When Armand finally emerged, he tried to help dig, until all his surviving classmates were out. Everybody standing there heard him as he turned to his friends and said, “See, I told you my father wouldn’t forget us.”
That’s the kind of faith we need, because that’s the kind of Father we have.
The Father’s Grace: Free, But Not Cheap
Scripture testifies to how God has cared for his family throughout the ages, making a way for his children to live with him forever. The biblical record shows that our Heavenly Father has kept each and every one of the promises he swore concerning our redemption—at the cost of his only beloved Son. Because of God’s grace, the gift of salvation is free, but it is not cheap.
The story of that unfailing love is the story of this book. We’ll examine together what God has done in history to make us his family and to save us from the wretched misery of our own sin and selfishness. Along the way, we’ll discover anew how passionately he seeks us, how firm is his intention to make us whole again and how deserving he is to receive our gratitude, trust and obedience.
For Fathers Who Aren’t in Heaven
We constantly hear about fathers who become so engrossed in pursuing a career or some other goal that they end up seriously neglecting their children. The trite phrase “quality time” often describes their efforts to make the most of the little time they do give. Even the best of fathers are all too human, flawed creatures who sometimes break their promises or fail to be around when their children need them most.
I know that’s true in my own efforts at fathering. Despite my best intentions to follow through on family commitments, inevitably some other pressing concern arises to wreck the plans we’ve made together and take me away from home. Even though I try very hard not to make explicit promises I might not be able to keep, still my kids are disappointed when the expectations that I encouraged are dashed by unexpected circumstances—some of my own making.
I want to help you catch a vision of a very different kind of father, the eternal Father who never fails to fulfill his word. No matter what obstacles arise, he never loses sight of his goal: to form and fashion a human family to share in the infinite love of the Trinity. As we consider what the Scripture tells us about how God has fathered his people over the ages, we should realize more fully just how great is God’s personal love for each and every one of us, as members of his covenant family.
Scripture, the First Love Story
A few years after resigning my Presbyterian pastorate, as a newly converted Catholic, I found myself at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve back in my hometown, a suburb of Pittsburgh. The standing-room-only crowd buzzed with excitement, almost as if the Christ Child might appear. Candles added a warm glow to an altar arrayed with poinsettias, while the sweet fragrance of incense wafted its way to the back of the church where I sat.
I was barely seated when the solemn tones of a cantor could be heard, chanting an ancient lyric that introduced the liturgy of the vigil Mass. Few seemed to be paying attention; however, I sat there enthralled by the celestial melody, which conveyed a message that I knew quite well, though I hadn’t heard it sung before. Weeks later, I still remembered the profound impression it left but not the words. So I asked around until I found someone who got me a copy of the actual song. The printed page cannot do it justice, but the lyrics are enough to make a point:
The twenty-fifth day of December in the five thousand ninety-ninth year in the creation of the world from the time when God created the heavens and the earth, the two thousand nine hundred fifty-seventh year after the flood, the two thousand fifteenth year from the birth of Abraham, the fifteen hundred tenth year from Moses and the going forth of the people of Israel to Egypt, the one thousand thirty-second year from David’s being anointed king, in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel, and one hundred ninety-fourth Olympiad, and the seven hundred fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome, the forty-second year in the reign of Octavius Augustus, the whole world being at peace, in the sixth age of the world, Jesus Christ, the eternal God and the Son of the eternal Father, willing to consecrate the world by his merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception, was born in Bethlehem in Judea of the Virgin Mary, being made man, the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
Perhaps my delight over the chanting of this message puzzles you. After all, who cares about “the two thousand nine hundred fifty-seventh year after the flood,” much less “the one hundred ninety-fourth Olympiad”? Maybe I should tell you something about that point in my life so that you can appreciate my sense of excitement over the message of this ancient song.
After spending a decade intensively studying Scripture, I had finally begun to see the “big picture” of salvation history, and how all of the innumerable puzzle pieces fit together into a big, beautiful divine love story. All the many names, places and events in Scripture often leave first-time readers feeling overwhelmed and bewildered. Honestly, it took me years before I formed a “mental map” to find my way around Scripture, especially the Old Testament, without getting lost. But once I mapped out the peak events of the mountain range of salvation history, I finally got the big picture.
Then one night I found myself at the Christmas vigil Mass, surrounded by hundreds of ordinary Catholics, listening as a cantor sang an ancient rendition of my newly formulated mental map of salvation history. Slowly it dawned on me that I had just spent a decade of study reinventing the wheel. All this time God had been providing his children—in the Church’s living Tradition and liturgy—with the means to map out the scriptural record of his fatherly plan for his covenant family in history; if only we would avail ourselves of these merciful provisions.
The exact dates attributed to the events by the ancient liturgist were debatable, of course, but that wasn’t the point. The basic message was undeniable. Here was a panoramic view of salvation history hearkening back to the scriptural signposts that offered proof positive of God’s enduring love for the human race. Looking back on that night, I realized that the congregation was being invited into a deeper awareness of how much went into preparing the world and all nations, the whole human family, for Christ’s coming.
The Mystery of God’s Love in the History of Salvation
This superbly condensed version of biblical history made it perfectly clear: Our Heavenly Father has been watching over us throughout all of history, saving us from destruction over and over again. He longs to convince us of his passionate love for each one of us, that relentless mercy which calls—and enables—us to share his own divine life, that fiery outpouring of love by which the Father eternally begets the Son in the Holy Spirit. Only an infinite, raging love such as appears among the Blessed Trinity can explain the mysteries of human sin and salvation.
Let’s face it, we humans really don’t want God to love us that much. It’s simply too demanding. Obedience is one thing, but this sort of love clearly calls for more than keeping commandments. It calls for nothing less than total self-donation. That might not be a difficult job for the three infinite Persons of the Trinity, but for creatures like us, such love is a summons to martyrdom. This invitation requires much more suffering and self-denial than simply giving up chocolate for Lent. It demands nothing less than a constant dying to self.
You may be wondering, Why do we have to love like God in the first place? Scripture gives us an answer in two parts: First, the Old Testament shows that we were made to live like God by sharing love within the human family during our earthly stay; second, the New Testament shows that we were remade to live in God by sharing the love of the Blessed Trinity for eternity in heaven. Both elements are essential for understanding what it means to be truly human, but only the second one is our true and ultimate end, what theologians call the Beatific Vision. We would completely fall short were we to attain anything less.
This means that from the outset, our stay on earth was only meant to be temporary. This explains why the New Testament views the Old Covenant as a period of probation—unnaturally prolonged because of sin—out of which man failed to pass, until Christ (see Heb 2:6-9). We can also see how the New Testament integrates the “this-worldly” orientation of the Old Testament into God’s fatherly plan to teach his children—in different stages—to desire and obtain that which is divine and eternal.As Jesus taught, the only way into heaven is to lovingly divest ourselves of the temporal goods of earth (see Mt 5-7). This is not because earthly things are bad, for in that case they’d be useless as sacrifices. On the contrary, it’s precisely because earthly things are so good—second only to heavenly ones—that we’re able to sacrifice the former to gain the latter. Also, if temporal loss can bring eternal gain, then seemingly extreme forms of temporal punishment, like those God meted out to Israel throughout its history, suddenly make a lot of sense: for “God is treating you as sons…. he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:7-10).
Sin is thus exposed for what it really is, our refusal to live according to the perfect love of the Trinity. This divine love is reflected in the sacrificial requirements of the laws of the covenant. At the same time, we are enabled to grasp the inner logic of salvation, and to comprehend how it could only be accomplished through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. For that is where Christ took our humanity and transformed it into a perfect image and instrument of the Trinity’s life-giving love, as a sacrificial gift of self.
The essence of sin is our refusal of divine sonship, because of its sacrificial demands; so Christ’s death atoned for our sin by taking it out right at its source. “He … partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb 2:14-15).
The cross needs to be understood as a trinitarian event, but one that we weren’t ready to receive, or even comprehend, until God took us through a long preparation. That’s what the Old Testament is all about, and why we need the New Testament in order to see it.
If all of this sounds pretty heavy, or if it flew by too fast, don’t worry. That’s what the rest of this book is for. We’ll take a closer look at important people and events in Scripture, and see how they fit into the various preparatory stages of God’s family plan. Then after we’re done, perhaps you might want to come back and reread this section. Chances are it will make even more sense.
History With an Attitude
As one of the most valuable family heirlooms we possess, Scripture records the highlights of a divine drama. These pages present not a dry, impersonal history lesson but a passionate love story, the astonishing tale of a God who came to seek and to save the lost at immeasurable cost to himself.
We often read Bible stories as if they were simply morality tales. The hero in the white hat defeats the villain in the black hat and rides off into the sunset to live happily ever after—with the beautiful woman, of course. Yet God inspired Scripture to teach us something much more profound than a simple moral. This book is a long love letter from the Father to his beloved children still on their earthly pilgrimage.
We’re often tempted to view the Old Testament as a dull list of “begats.” Instead, these pages come to life as we take a closer look at these very real people, people much like you and me. They overcame obstacles and tasted defeat, laughed and cried, loved and lost. And who watched over them through it all? God the Father, who brought his light into the human darkness, making a way for us to come home to live with him forever.
Our problem in the West is that we tend to reduce history to a secular chronology of politics, economics, technology and war. As a result we are preoccupied with elections, depressions, inventions and military battles. Not that these things are unimportant, it’s just that the ancient Jews discerned deeper currents of divine purpose and action in history. And tracing such currents calls for faith in God’s providential governance of nature and the events of history.
From a Hebrew perspective, the primary purpose of biblical history is to recount humanity’s familial history in the light of God’s covenant plan for his people. To achieve this essentially religious goal, God inspired the biblical writers in their use of literary figures, poetry, parable, prophecy and many other things you wouldn’t expect to find in modern history books. But that does not make it any less historical, just distinct—very distinct.
The biblical view of history also stands in sharp contrast to the mythical view that was widely held throughout the ancient Near East. Time was understood in terms of a never-ending cycle (“the myth of the eternal return”). This was combined with a fatalistic view of the gods, who controlled every person’s destiny. The net effect, in most ancient societies, was a deep pessimism about time, both past and future.
The modern Western approach to history is antithetical to the ancient Near Eastern perspective. If the modern view is linear, progressive, optimistic and secular, the ancient outlook tended to be cyclical, regressive, pessimistic and mythical. Meanwhile, the biblical outlook falls somewhere between both extremes.
Consequently, modern readers sometimes miss an important aspect of the biblical message, one that reflects the ancient Hebrew outlook on time as salvation history. Even devout readers sometimes approach Scripture with a Christian heart but a secular mind. Such a combination is a mixed marriage, at best. Instead, a Christian heart calls for a biblical mind; but this requires careful effort.
For one thing, the prophetic nature of the biblical narrative of salvation history must be understood. The ancient Israelites believed that God created the world, just as he guides its history according to his saving plan. Moreover, they believed that God’s Spirit moved the biblical writers (Moses and the prophets) to make them bearers of divine meaning. The saving deeds of God (creation, Exodus, conquest, kingdom, exile, restoration) are thus described in terms of the covenantal pattern of divine justice and mercy.
In other words, God “writes” the world like men write words, to convey truth and love. So nature and history are more than just created things—God fashions them as visible signs of other things, uncreated realities, which are eternal and invisible. But because of sin’s blinding effects, the “book” of nature must be translated by the inspired Word of Scripture. This in turn calls for a truly sacramental imagination, which will enable people (once again) to interpret history and creation in terms of the sacred symbolism of Scripture.
When men write words in order to express love, they usually resort to poetry. And in a real way, the same is true with God. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” So our ears must be attuned to this divine poetry.
This is the purpose and value of typology, which studies how Christ was foreshadowed in the Old Testament (Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Melchizedek, Passover lamb, temple), thereby revealing the profound unity of the Old and New Covenants. Thus, typology is what enables us to discern “in God’s works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son” (#128).
In sum, salvation history is a sacred mystery—conveyed in the divine poetry of Scripture. As typology reveals the rhyme scheme, so God’s covenant unveils the overarching purpose and meaning. For this reason, our book will focus primarily upon the typological and covenantal dimensions of the biblical narrative.
Kinship by Covenant
Once you begin looking for what was important to the biblical writers themselves, you’ll find that the concept of covenant is a central thread woven throughout Scripture. The dramas that we’ll examine describe how God the Father, through a series of covenants, has moved from dealing with one couple—Adam and Eve—to the whole world. Each step along the way has moved us further up the pathway to heaven, providing yet one more crucial component in God’s plan to form a family of faith. Viewing the history of salvation through the lens of covenant helps us to see the fatherly wisdom and power of God, and will offer a clearer perspective on the human family.
We’ll find ourselves in good company as we examine salvation history through this lens. St. Irenaeus, one of the greatest theologians of the early Church, once said: “Understanding … consists in showing why there are a number of covenants with mankind and in teaching what is the character of those covenants.” By examining the divine covenants in salvation history, we will grow in our knowledge of God’s fatherly ways and share more fully in the life of the Spirit, which Christ died to give us. This is why God has revealed himself—and still speaks to us—in Sacred Scripture, so that we might come to know, love and imitate him as the covenant Father who keeps all of his sworn promises.
Growth by Oath
What exactly is a covenant? It comes from the Latin word convenire, which means “to come together” or “to agree”; the English term “covenant” involves a formal, solemn and binding pact between two or more parties. Each party must live up to its end of the bargain. By this definition, a covenant is similar to a contract. In fact, modern secular law tends to treat covenants and contracts as virtually identical; whereas in biblical terms, covenants involve much more than contracts. While there are several differences, we can only touch upon two: first, solemn oaths versus private promises; and second, the gift-of-persons versus the exchange of property.
First, a contract is made with a promise, while a covenant is made by swearing an oath. In a promise, you make a pledge (“I give you my word”). A contract is made binding by your signature, your name. In oath-swearing a promise is transformed by invoking God’s holy name for assistance or blessing (“so help me God”). The oath-swearer places himself under divine judgment and a conditional self-curse (“I’ll be damned”). The oath is thus a much stronger and more sacred form of commitment.
Even our largely secular culture still recognizes some sort of contrast between promises and oaths. For example, in the courtroom, we take an oath and place our right hand on the Bible before taking the witness stand, because our society still considers justice in the courtroom to be an extremely serious matter. In the eyes of the law, lying under oath is not merely a sin but a serious crime: perjury (oath-breaking), which is punishable by a jail term.
Consequently, doctors, police officers, military personnel and public officials all take oaths whereby they swear to fulfill their duties to the community. They swear their very lives to God in the service of others. The oath (Latin, sacramentum) thus serves as the essential foundation of the covenant. Taking an oath binds a person by covenant in a way that transcends mere legality. A covenant is personal, absolute and utterly secure, because it is a holy commitment made before—and enforced by—a holy God. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that covenant oaths are never violated—but when they are, God’s judgment is triggered in the form of covenant curses.)
Another example of a covenant oath is the sacrament of marriage—again, a commitment made not just to the new spouse but to God—which binds two people so closely that they become “one flesh.” God’s intention is that husband and wife not be separated. Properly understood, the marital sacrament is an encumbrance that paradoxically yields freedom. The wife is free to grow old and wrinkled without fear of divorce, while the husband is likewise free to become bald and potbellied without fear of his wife’s abandonment.
Covenants forge bonds of freedom in commitment on the basis of oath-swearing. This is how God deals with his people, to whom he gives personal promises and covenant oaths. A passage in Hebrews explains this within the context of God’s covenant with Abraham:
For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise. Men indeed swear by a greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. HEBREWS 6:13-16 (emphasis added)
God’s ultimate purpose thus rests upon the weightiness of an oath, so when he “desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, … we … might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us … a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (vv. 17-19).
If you remember this while reading about the key figures in Scripture, you’ll discover one of the most significant differences between the Old and New Covenants: the Old Covenant is administered by God with human mediators who came under oath and then sinned—like Adam (see Rom 5:12-21) and Israel (see Heb 3-4)—thereby triggering the covenant curses. In contrast, the New Covenant is established by the God-man, Jesus, but only after he had fulfilled the terms—and borne the curses—of the Old Covenant. He thus became the mediator of the New Covenant (see Heb 8-9), which he ratified by oath-swearing.
In this connection, it hardly seems like a coincidence that the Latin word for “oath” is sacramentum. From ancient times, the early Christians understood the sacraments in terms of covenantal oath-swearing, as the means that Christ had instituted for keeping—and renewing—the New Covenant.
Saving Bonds of Sacred Kinship
Another major difference between contracts and covenants may be discovered in their very distinctive forms of exchange. A contract is the exchange of property in the form of goods and services (“That is mine and this is yours”); whereas a covenant calls for the exchange of persons (“I am yours and you are mine”), creating a shared bond of interpersonal communion.
For ancient Israelites, a covenant differed from a contract about as much as marriage differed from prostitution. When a man and woman marry, they declare before God their undying love to one another until death, but a prostitute sells her body to the highest bidder and then moves on to the next customer. So contracts make people customers, employees, clients; whereas covenants turn them into spouses, parents, children, siblings. In short, covenants are made to forge bonds of sacred kinship.
Scripture reveals how God has used covenants to forge family bonds with his people in every age. This is echoed in the common formula used throughout Scripture to describe God’s covenant bond with us: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people…. I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters” (2 Cor 6:16-18). Of course, the climax of the process is the New Covenant, when Christ opened up the inner family life of the Trinity for all of us to share.
So if you want to get to the heart of Scripture, think covenant not contract, father not judge, family room not courtroom; God’s laws and judgments are meant to be interpreted as signs of his fatherly love, wisdom and authority. This does not imply a lower or less strict standard of justice, however, since a good father requires more from his son than the judge expects from a defendant, or the boss from his employee.
The terms of a covenant call for certain actions to merit rewards or benefits, while a breach of the commitment results in specific penalties and damages. This follows the pattern of family life, where children work to get an allowance, and when they grow up and prove their maturity, they can reasonably expect to be rewarded with an inheritance. However, if they persist in serious sin, they face the prospect of disinheritance. This is the biblical pattern of the covenant as well, for the Father blesses his children when they keep the covenant, just as he punishes them for breaking it. All of this is spelled out in the covenant, in terms of blessings and curses (see Dt 28). The blessings mean life, while the curses mean death; so God urges his people to choose life and behave in such a way as to enjoy his fatherly blessing.
Peering Into the Eyes of the Father: A Forever Commitment
The Father wanted to convince his children, “the heirs of the promise,” that he’s absolutely faithful, unchangeable in character. He knew that the ancient Israelites were surrounded by peoples with fickle gods, benevolent one day and vindictive the next. Why should the Hebrews not expect more of the same? No wonder God went to such great lengths to convince his people that he was different. He swore an oath to “strengthen” their trust, accommodating himself to their weakness of faith in his initial word of promise. Like those ancient Hebrews, we need to hold on to hope as a “sure anchor of the soul,” especially since we have a better covenant (see Heb 8:6), based on better sacraments, for “it was not without an oath” (Heb 7:20).
The basic message God wants to convey by a covenant, then, can be stated simply: “I love you. I am committed to you. I swear that I will never forsake you. You are mine and I am yours. I am your father, and you are my family.” How astonishing that the Creator has such profound love for his creatures!
The more I learned about how God has fathered his children down through the centuries, the more this reality of covenant came alive. It ceased being an abstract theory and instead opened the doors of my mind to new dimensions of God’s love. Much more than just an ancient term from biblical culture, it came to represent for me all the richness of family commitment. The Old Testament characters took on flesh as an awesome yet understandable web of kinfolk, the household of faith.
The Gravity of Covenant Law
As you study Scripture, you’ll see how covenant laws are not arbitrary stipulations but fixed moral principles which govern the moral order. Moreover, they reflect the inner life of the Blessed Trinity. In short, “covenant” is what God does because “covenant” is who God is.
Covenant law is to the moral order of human relations what the laws of nature are to the physical order. We are familiar with certain fixed laws—like gravity—which govern material things like our bodies. Suppose one day I grow tired of the law of gravity and how it restricts my bodily freedom; so I climb to the top of a tower and jump—just to assert my freedom from the law of gravity. Would I break the law of gravity? No, I would only demonstrate it. The only thing broken, most likely, would be my bones.
The same thing holds true of covenants in the spiritual realm. We might protest and complain in the midst of painful conflict and walk away from a committed relationship. We even try sometimes to walk away from God in a sort of mute protest. But we don’t thereby break or invalidate the natural moral law of the covenant, binding us to God and to one another. We only break ourselves and the lives of our loved ones. The moral order of human life may be invisible, but it is governed by covenant laws that are no less firmly fixed than the laws of physics.
Once we understand the permanence of the covenant, we begin to appreciate its grandeur. We can use it as a lens with which to view human history. We begin to see from a heavenly perspective how God has worked from generation to generation to keep the human family together. And when we peer through that same lens from earth toward heaven, we see the eye of our Father peering back at us, keeping watch over his people.
This mutual bond of obedient trust and committed love is the heart of the covenant. It’s what the ancient Hebrews called hesed; sometimes translated as “loyalty” or “favor,” its essential meaning is that kind of “covenant love” that is shared by family members.
Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son to give a poignant illustration—in concrete terms—of the beauty and depth of the New Covenant he had come to establish (see Lk 15:11-32). When we read the story, we might focus on the young man’s sinful life; but that would be the same mistake that his envious elder brother made.
Instead, we need to remember that the point of the parable is not the son’s failure but the father’s constant love. No matter what the young man did to try to break or escape the family bond of covenant connecting him to his dad, he never succeeded. Even when he was far away in a foreign country feeding pigs, the covenant embraced him. It’s what eventually brought him back home.
Parents who have had to agonize over their own “prodigals” know the kind of stubborn love we’re talking about here. It’s like an abiding law of nature: Our kids may test our love for them, but they can’t break it. Jesus once told his listeners (see Mt 7:11) that if we—sinners that we are—are able to show a deep commitment to our children’s welfare, then how much more confident should we be that the love of God for us will never be exhausted or overcome.
Our Spiritual Ancestors
Supported by a cast of thousands, the main characters in our covenant love story will be familiar to you: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. What do these five men have in common? Each of them shared an intimate bond of friendship with God, a relationship initiated by God and founded on a personal covenant. In fact, this series of covenants leads up to and climaxes in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who instituted the New Covenant and thus changed the course of history.
As you read through the Old Testament, you are literally studying your own family story, your own roots, your own spiritual ancestors. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David are all truly our older brothers in God’s family. Pope Pius XI once said, “We are of the spiritual lineage of Abraham…. Spiritually we are all Semites because God’s plan from the beginning has always encompassed the whole family of man.”
God’s Family Tree at a Glance
For an overview of the divine love story that encompasses the lives of these figures, let’s describe briefly the promises God made—and fulfilled—for each one of them:
- God called Adam to share in his blessing in the covenant of marriage with Eve (see Gn 1:26-2:3), and promised to deliver them from sin through the promised “seed” by crushing the head of the diabolical serpent tempter (see Gn 3:15).
- The Father pledged to Noah to keep him and his household safe through the flood, and then promised never to wipe out the human family that way again (see Gn 9:8-17).
- God promised Abraham the Promised Land where his natural descendants might be blessed as a nation, and then a kingdom, until eventually all the families of the earth would be blessed through him and his seed (see Gn 12:1-3; 22:16-18).
- The Lord used Moses to lead the twelve tribes of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, and to ratify a national covenant that made them a holy nation (see Ex 19:5-6), called to occupy the Promised Land of Canaan as their inheritance (see Ex 3:4-10).
- God covenanted with David to build a worldwide kingdom, by establishing an everlasting throne with the son of David, who was destined to rule—with divine wisdom—over all the nations, united as a royal family in their common worship of the heavenly Father within his house, the Jerusalem temple (see 2 Sam 7:8-19).
- Finally, the Father kept all of his previous promises by the gift of his Son, Jesus, who bore all the curses of the previously broken covenants—in order to ratify the New Covenant—in the self-offering of his flesh and blood that permanently binds all of us together, both Jews and Gentiles, in one universal divine family: the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church (see Mt 16:17-19).
If we look closely at our own lives, we’ll find that all these fatherly promises apply to us: to deliver us from the mess our sins have made; to preserve our marriages and our families; to meet our needs; to make us strong; to unite us to others; and for God to be with us always. When we consider our corporate life as the people of God, we’ll see how the Father has fulfilled each and every one of these promises to us as a whole—with loving wisdom and merciful ingenuity—by transforming his flawed and fallen children into the spotless bride of Christ.
A Broadening Focus
With each succeeding covenant, God broadened the focus of his dealings with the human family. At the dawn of creation, God made the first covenant with Adam in the form of a marital bond, under the sign of the Sabbath. “God created man in his own image … male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27). And he blessed them and called them to be fruitful; this is why he made the marital covenant with the founding father and mother of the human family.
Our founding father, Adam, represents the entire human family. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II made the point that at the time of creation God established a covenant with all of humanity. He sees this as the foundational covenant from which all of the others in Scripture spring—culminating in the New Covenant sealed by Jesus, whereby God’s original covenant plan is fulfilled and renewed. Citing Eucharistic Prayer IV, he describes Christ’s accomplishment: “He and he alone satisfied that fatherhood of God and that love which man in a way rejected by breaking the first Covenant and the later covenants that God ‘again and again offered to man.’”
Ten generations later, God made a second covenant with Noah and his household, under the sign of the rainbow. As a result, God’s family now assumed a domestic form. As you may recall, Noah was a married man with three grown sons who were also married. Together they formed an extended family. Can you imagine these four married couples trying to get along while living together within the confines of the ark for an entire year? Noah must have run a tight ship!
After another ten generations, God made a third covenant with Abram, with the sign of circumcision (see Gn 17); so God’s family was enlarged to tribal proportions. When called to leave his birthplace, Abram was a patriarch who ruled over a clan, and in time he became the chieftain of a veritable tribe. In addition to his own relatives who accompanied him (such as Lot), this one man oversaw domestic servants by the hundreds, possibly even the thousands (see Gn 14:14). The covenant included this entire group. So the people of God grew from a married couple to a household to a tribe, which was made up of many households and many more marriages.
The fourth covenant was made by God with Moses at Mount Sinai, signified by the Passover, which transformed the twelve tribes into God’s national family, Israel. This made it absolutely necessary to form a much more elaborate system of laws; God gave the Ten Commandments and other statutes to Moses so that Israel would have its own national constitution.
God established the fifth covenant with David, under the sign of the everlasting throne of the Son of David in order to elevate Israel to a kingdom, (see 2 Sm 7). This meant elevating the nation of Israel over the surrounding nations and city-states, incorporating them into the covenant, by giving them a subordinate role as colonies and vassals under God and his royal priestly Son of David. Since kings exact tribute from subject nations, this also meant that foreigners would be making annual visits to Jerusalem, where they would be able to hear God’s law, and learn his fatherly wisdom from Solomon. As a result, the Gentiles learned to worship the one true God, while the Father prepared them to be eventually restored to his family, after the coming of the real Son of David, Jesus.
As you can see, each one of these covenants is fundamentally familial in nature. God always deals with his people in a personal way, fathering his family and overseeing kinship relationships and obligations through each of these covenants. His ultimate purpose, of course, is to reunite the entire human race, which was broken by sin, pride, injustice and violence. Much like Humpty Dumpty after his great fall, the human race cannot mend itself and restore unity through our own efforts alone. No matter how hard we try. Only God can put us back together again and reconcile all of us to himself.
How could such a gigantic task possibly be accomplished? By the coming of Christ, the only begotten Son of God. God himself came to save us. We will see that Christ didn’t abolish the Old Testament; rather, he fulfilled and perfected it.
The sixth covenant was made by Jesus Christ, with the Eucharist serving as the sign of the New Covenant, making God’s family truly universal (katholikos in Greek), otherwise known as the Catholic Church. So Christ’s kingdom is not restricted to one region or race; nor is it governed by political coercion, military force and human fear, but by spiritual means, sacramental graces and divine mercy and love.
This is the constitution of the New Covenant, and it is actualized within the Catholic Church. All human beings are now called to become members of this universal family of God in order to serve as instruments in the Father’s work of reconciliation through the Son and by the Spirit. Human power alone is incapable of such a task.
Thus we see how God fathers his family by means of the covenant throughout the various periods of history. At each and every stage, the covenant is what God uses to maintain the spiritual solidarity and structural unity of his family, as it keeps growing from one age to the next, until at last his children form a fully international household of faith.
This is the very thing that our world needs most at the present time: a new vision of real and lasting family unity under God the Father. Western society has become a culture made of people who share in common little more than the commercial freedoms needed to pursue our own private interests as individuals. What we really need—and long for—is the covenant love of a family, God’s family.
The Trinity Is the Eternal Covenant Family
What is it that unites people as members of one family? Flesh and blood and a common name. Accordingly, the members of God’s universal family, the Church, are united in the sacrificial family banquet we call the Eucharist—Christ’s flesh and blood. Similarly, just as a common name unites a family, we as Church are united through baptism, rebirth and adoption into God’s family in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The sacramental bond of baptism reflects a covenant oath, which Christ has established as the New Adam, the founding father of this new family. And this bond is perfected and strengthened when we receive the flesh and blood of the Father’s firstborn Son, the Passover Lamb of the New Covenant, in the power of the Spirit.
Thus, the Trinity is the eternal and original covenant family. As Pope John Paul II writes: “God in His deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since He has in Himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love.”
The Trinity is the eternal source and perfect standard of the covenant; when God makes and keeps covenants with his people, he’s just being true to himself. In short, “covenant” is what God does because “covenant” is who God is. From a sinful, shameful couple cast out of paradise, to God’s glorious, redeemed worldwide family of saints at home forever in heaven—that miraculous transformation is the covenant story of the Scripture. God’s widening circle cannot be confined. God’s family covenant has become universal and everlasting in and through his Son, Jesus. From the beginning, the Father planned that Adam and Eve would be the first members of a worldwide family circle, swept up into the eternal love of the Trinity. Now we turn to take a closer look at that initial covenant between God and our race, where the divine love story began.
1. The fatherly pedagogy that is revealed in the different stages of the divine economy of salvation history is summarized by St. Augustine: “The education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible. This object was kept so clearly in view, that, even in the period when temporal rewards were promised, the one God was presented as the object of worship, that men might not acknowledge any other than the true Creator and Lord of the spirit, even in connection with the earthly blessings of this transitory life…. It was best, therefore, that the soul of man, which was still weakly desiring earthly things, should be accustomed to seek from God alone even these petty temporal boons, and the earthly necessities of this transitory life, which are contemptible in comparison with eternal blessings, in order that the desire even of these things might not draw it aside from the worship of Him, to whom we come by despising and forsaking such things” (City of God, Book X, 14).
2. Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia: “The cross of Christ stands beside the path … of that wonderful self-communication of God to man, which also includes the call to man to share in the divine life by giving himself … and like an adopted son to become a sharer in the truth and love which is in God and proceeds from God” (v. 7).
3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q1. a.10: “The author of Sacred Scripture is God, in whose power it is to accommodate not only words for expressing things (which even man is able to do) but also the things themselves.” He notes: “Now as words formed by man are signs of his intellectual knowledge; so are creatures formed by God signs of His Wisdom” (III, Q12. a.3).
4. For a fuller treatment of the familial aspects of covenants and oaths, and how they relate to the divine plan of salvation history, see S.W. Hahn, “Kinship by Covenant: A Biblical Theological Study of Covenant Types and Texts in the Old and New Testaments” (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1995).
5. Against Heresies, Bk. I, ch. X, no. 3. See Wisdom 12:21.
6. See D. Michaélidès, Sacramentum Chez Tertullien (Paris: Études Augustineiennes, 1970), who shows how Tertullian introduced the Latin term “sacramentum” into the Western tradition not only as a translation of the Greek term, “mysterion,” but also with reference to the divine promises in salvation history that were backed by a covenant oath. See J.D. Laurance, ‘Priest’ as Type of Christ (New York: Peter Lang, 1984), 60–64. Also for a profound and insightful treatment of the sacrament of baptism done in terms of covenantal oath-swearing, see M.G. Kline, By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1968).
7. This explanation of covenant in terms of sacred kinship reflects a broad consensus among scholars from among the various traditions. For a Catholic perspective, see D.J. McCarthy, S.J., Old Testament Covenant: A Survey of Current Opinions (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1972) 33: “There is no doubt that covenants, even treaties, were thought of as establishing a quasi-familial unity. In the technical vocabulary of these documents a superior partner was called ‘father,’ his inferior ‘son,’ and equal partners were ‘brothers.’” Also see Paul Kalluveettil, Declaration and Covenant (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1982), 212: “The idea, ‘I am yours, you are mine’ underlies every covenant declaration. This implies a quasi-familial bond which makes sons and brothers. The act of accepting the other as one’s own reflects the basic idea of covenant: an attempt to extend the bond of blood beyond the kinship sphere.” From a Protestant perspective, see F.M. Cross, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Biblical Colloquium, 1991), 10: “The language of covenant, kinship-in-law, is taken from the language of kinship-in-flesh.” And: “The failure to recognize the rootage of the institution of covenant and covenant obligations in the structures of kinship societies has led to confusion and even gross distortion in the scholarly discussion of the term berit, ‘covenant,’ and in the description of early Israelite religion” (p. 14). See D. Smith, “Kinship and Covenant in Hosea,” Horizons of Biblical Theology 16 (1994), 42: “Both the language of biblical covenant and treaty language developed in a social environment in which kinship was the primary model for understanding all human interaction. It was natural … that international treaties, national (league) covenants, and individual covenants used kinship language to describe their content.” From a Jewish perspective, see D.J. Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel (London: Transaction, 1995), 38: “Covenant links consent and kinship.” Also see J.D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1993), 40: “To us, these covenantal uses of familial language seem to be straightforward metaphors, but that is only because our culture makes a sharp distinction between biological and other types of relationship and attributes greater reality to the former.... Ancient Israel, following a different convention, could comfortably see a father and a son or two brothers in people who were known to have no blood relationship.” See C. Baker, Covenant and Liberation (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 38: “We might take as our working definition of covenant … a solemn and externally manifested commitment which strengthens kinship and family concern between both parties.”
8. See N. Glueck, HESED in the Bible (Cincinnati, Ohio: Hebrew Union College Press, 1967), who defines “hesed as the mutual relationship of rights and duties between the members of a family or tribe” (p. 38). Elsewhere he notes: “Between the members of an alliance, just as between blood relatives, hesed was the only possible mode of conduct” (p. 46). He states: “The hesed which Israel showed Yahweh was the hesed that members of a family were obliged to show toward one another” (p. 60). And: “Hesed was the content of every berith [covenant] as well as every covenantal relationship” (p. 70).
9. Cited in J.L. McNulty in “The Bridge,” The Bridge I (1955), 12.
10. Redemptor Hominis (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1979), 17. Also see his encyclical Dives in Misericordia: “This covenant, as old as man—it goes back to the very mystery of creation—and afterwards many times renewed.” (v. 7).
11. Pope John Paul II, Puebla (Boston: DSP, 1979), 86. Notably, the next line reads: “This subject of the family is not, therefore, extraneous to the subject of the Holy Spirit.”