An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: I am a Jealous God

In the book. Reading the Old Testament, the authors and editors (Baodt, Clifford, Herrington) tell us that God’s living word is revealed in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament.

The Old Testament has important and valuable and useful things to reveal to us.

In the New American Bible, we find the following translation of Deuteronomy 5:1-10:

“I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.  You shall not have other gods besides me.  You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.  For I, the Lord, your God am a jealous God, inflicting punishments for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

According to the timeline presented in the Bible itself, the situation and events to which the words of Deuteronomy 5:1-10 were addressed, appear to have been shortly after the exodus event, perhaps around 1200 B.C. in Canaan when it was still largely occupied and controlled by groups other than the twelve tribes of Israel.

In reality, these words were written five to six hundred years later, around 650 B.C., by a writer referred to as the Deuteronomist.  To understand the Deuteronomist, a quick timeline composed of several parts will be helpful.

  • 1000 to 921 B.C. is the time of the Unified Kingdom of all the tribes of Israel under the leadership of Kings David and Solomon.  The capitol city in which David and Solomon live is Jerusalem which is in the southern area of Israel.
  • In 921 B.C., after the death of Solomon, the Unified Kingdom of Israel split into two parts, the Southern Kingdom composed of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and the Northern Kingdom composed of the other ten tribes.  The name of the Southern Kingdom was Judah.  The name of the Northern Kingdom was Israel.  This Divided Kingdom lasted until 721 B.C..
  • The Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in 721 B.C.  From that point on, all that remains of the once Unified Kingdom of Israel is the weakened Southern Kingdom of Judah.  There is no longer  a Divided Kingdom.  What remains is the seriously weakened Southern Kingdom.
  • In 587 B.C. the Southern Kingdom of Judah is conquered by Babylon.  The Kingdom of Judah ceases to exist.  All of Israel as a nation state ceases to exist.
  • The period form 587 to 537 B.C. is referred to as the Babylonian Captivity of Israel.
  • In 537 B.C. Persia conquers Babylon.  One of the first acts of King Cyrus of Persia is to allow those Jews in Babylon who wish, to return to Israel and start over.  This event is sometimes called The Restoration.

During the Unified Kingdom, the people of Israel were united in the understanding that their covenant with Yahweh was rooted in and centered upon the land of Israel, the messianic Davidic royalty, and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.  Writing around this time of the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, an author referred to as the Yahwist, wrote in exactly these terms.  This period around 950 B.C. was a prosperous and safe time to be a resident of the land of Israel.  The monarchy was strong.  The members of the somewhat autonomous tribes of Israel were loyal to the King of Judah who lived in Jerusalem.  Religious events and religious consciousness of the faithful were organized around the Jerusalem Temple, envisaged by David and built by Solomon.  It seemed clear to everyone that the promised land on which they lived, the messianic Davidic royalty they followed,  and the Jerusalem Temple in which they worshipped; that these were central to the Jewish religion, Jewish culture, and Jewish identity.

However, this religious and spiritual centrality of land, king, and temple begin to erode once the Kingdom splits in 921 B.C.  Sometime later, between 800 and 700 B.C., we see another writer, called the Elohist, redefining Jewish religion and culture and identity around sites and practices and ideas other than the land, the temple, and the messianic Davidic kingdom.

By the 650s B.C. we see this reduced emphasis on land and king and temple, even more strongly in the writing and editing of the Deuteronomist.  Consider, for example, this Deuteronomist quote from Judges 21:25, “In those days there was no King in Israel; everyone did what was best in his own eyes.”  During this time of uncertainty and upheaval following the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the weakening of the Southern Kingdom to vassal status, we see the Deuteronomist continuing the Elohist’s trend of redefining Jewish religion and spirituality.  The Deuteronomist’s writings indicated that God’s grace and covenant did not require the possession and control of land to be valid.  A focus on interior spiritual qualities replaced the exterior attachments to temple and political association.  The focus now was on law, purity, holiness, justice and faith based on interior devotion and on written documents of revelation as a spiritual guide which will become parts of what we now call the Old Testament.  Israel was changing from a religion and culture of stone and government authorities to a religion of the written word and of individual interior devotion.

And then, the land of Israel, the royalty of Israel, and the Jerusalem temple actually cease to exist.  In 587 B.C. Babylon conquers the Southern Kingdom.  Babylon destroys the Temple and the land.  Babylon exiles those members of the royal family, they did not kill, to captivity and slavery in Babylon.

A few years later, having also been exiled to Babylon, a writer whom we now call the Priestly source, appears.  The Priestly author will also reorganize Jewish attachment to God and covenant around things other than the Temple, the land, and the messianic Davidic kingship.

The Priestly author, traumatized by his own experience of the Babylonian exile and captivity, focuses on rigid understandings and practices of personal piety and religious worship in more local settings.  Laws, now better matched to the reality of a people in exile, will become a focus of religious practice.  His writing emphasizes the Sinai-Exodus events more than kingship.  Instead of a focus on a permanent temple and King, there is emphasis on a tent which travels with the people within which is found the Ark of the covenant; a traveling covenant; not a stationary covenant.

With the loss of the Davidic kingdom, the Priestly author changes the focus to the study of law, the right ordering of one’s lived-life, and the universal rule of God over all aspects of life.

The Priestly author speaks about practicing one’s faith in times of hardship.  To this end, the Priestly author writes a story about creation which begins with a description of a chaotic earth which is without form and void, and is an abyss flooded with darkness over which the wind howls.  We see this writer appropriate the stories of the homeless wandering family of Abraham and of the slavish behaviors of the Israelites in an exodus.  The Priestly author is writing and appropriating these stories, not to glorify past events.  Rather, the Priestly author is using these stories to describe what his audience is actually experiencing in their current reality; their exile and captivity and slavery in Babylon.   The Priestly author writes and appropriates and uses these older events to convince his people in Babylon, that God is now with them in the actual conditions of the exile, and that they can be as close, if not closer to God now, then when their ancestors were once idolatrously attached to the externals of land, temple, and royalty.

Around the time the Priestly author is doing these things, the prophets of Israel appear and in their writings, they too emphasize the necessity of individuals and families to focus on religious and spiritual interiority so as to know and follow God’s will.

Having been released from their Babylonian captivity soon after 537 B.C., many Jews return to Israel to start over.  Many; however, feel just as comfortable starting lives and forming Jewish communities in other parts of the world.  Though separated from the land of Israel, this diaspora, still retain all of their spiritual and religious impulses and desires.  The land and temple and kingship no longer forming a significant element of their spirituality, the diaspora transfer their religious and spiritual urges and desires to individual spirituality, family religious practices, and community religious and social observance focused on local synagogues.  In these places, in these groups, in these ways they concretize what they have learned about spiritual interiority from the Deuteronomist, the Elohist, the Priestly author, and the prophets of Israel.  

Perhaps a century later, around 450 B.C., a writer or group of writers associated with the person named Ezra, will gather and organize the writings of the Yahwist, Elohist, Deutronomist, the Priestly author, and the prophets.  This Ezra Consolidator will create what we will one day be called Torah or the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Historical Writings, the Wisdom writings; the Old Testament.  And embedded throughout this consolidation and editing is the opinion that a covenantal relationship with God is not based on externals such as land, kingship, and temple; but on a spiritual interiority expressed religiously in a community of faith.

For centuries, beginning around 1000 B.C., the religion and spirituality of the Jews had been percolating.  Some times the religious cauldron boiled.  Sometimes it only simmered.  One set of attachments and ideas, such as the covenantal relationship with God being associated with land and temple and kingship, lessened.  Other, more interior attachments grew.  This interior spirituality flowered into exterior practices of service and community.

I am sure it was a dark sad day as each Jew in his/her individual spiritual interiority began to realize that religion no longer involved external attachments to the land of Israel, the Jerusalem Temple, and the messianic Davidic kingship.

Not many days ago, many became sad when they learned that the names of three hundred Roman Catholic priests who had sexually or physically abused over a thousand children had been released in a statement by the Attorney General of the State of Pennsylvania.  Over the next two months, a number of other instances of sexual and physical abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, similar in type and number, were revealed to the public.

Reactions to these revelations included:

  • In many ways, some parishes seemed immune to the ongoing and current sexual abuse crisis.  These parishes had more members than ever before.  Some were now multi-ethnic and multi-racial parish.  Many of these parishes were beehives of activity with dozens of different enrichment and ministerial groups and programs active within the parish.  The parish schools attached to some were thriving.  Financial contributions continue to be adequate.  Good pastoral leadership teams were present in these parishes and their dioceses.
  • In regard to this example of seeming parish normality in response to the sexual abuse crisis, Nicolas L. Bottan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Ricardo Perez-Truglia of Harvard  “report the shock of the scandals didn’t shake people’s faith”, [and that the scandals] “had no significant effect on personal belief in God and the afterlife.”
  • It seems that many traditional practicing Catholics do not see this crisis as an existential threat to the Church.  They believe the Church will respond to this terrible situation and correct it, just as it has responded to many crises within the Church in its two thousand year history.
  • However, there are very few young adults present in our parishes.  Once teens leave home, and before they have their own children; this segment is nearly absent from the parish.
  • Opinion sections of major newspapers and online news networks have had a number of recent articles in response to the sexual abuse crisis, by young single and married adults who no longer participate in the Roman Catholic Church nor consider themselves Roman Catholic anymore.  One referred to the current Roman Catholic Church  as a “cesspool of hypocrisy”. These persons seem to consider the current sexual abuse crisis to be an unique existential indictment of the Roman Catholic Church; that the Church is not or at least is no longer, a community instituted by Jesus Christ.
  • The exodus from the Church might include older adults as well.  Forty years ago, when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, 90% of all Irish Roman Catholics went to mass weekly.  When, last month, Pope Francis visited Ireland, it was reported that under 40% go to mass weekly.
  • Different studies report that, in the United States, the number of participating Roman Catholics dropped from 82 million in 2014 to 74 million in 2017, that those who self-identify themselves as Roman Catholics has dropped from 55 million in 2007 to 52 million in 2015, and that today 30 million persons in the United States identify themselves as former Catholics.
  • Around 4 billions of dollars have been paid in sexual abuse reparations by dioceses in the United States alone.  Due to these payments, many dioceses are facing bankruptcy.  The significance of diocesan bankruptcy is that many pastoral and catechetical works cannot be performed.
  • This financial crisis is not just felt in chanceries but has rippled out to all parts of the Church.  In a report written by Charles Zech, an economics professor at Villanova University’s Center for Church Management and Business Ethics, is the statement, “The bottom line is that the U.S. Catholic Church is in financial distress on nearly every level.”
  • In a 2015 parish-by-parish analysis, Bottan and Perez-Truglia show that the scandals caused contributions to the church to decline by an estimated average of $2.36 billion per year.  This may represent about a 20% reduction.
  • And finally, in terms of current reactions to this most recent flare up of the sexual abuse crisis within the Roman Catholic Church, there are indications that ideological factions within the hierarchy are using the sexual abuse crisis to support their ideological views.  One group wants the Church to re-embrace its historical traditionalism by reenforcing moral doctrines in regard to homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, gender selection, and other current social movements.  Another group wants the church to become more pastorally open to these same groups by means of including toleration of their chosen lifestyles.  Both groups seem to want to use this crisis to concretize their ideological views into the doctrinal and moral and pastoral teachings and practices of the Church.

A few days after the Attorney General of Pennsylvania released his report, on August 15th, the conservative magazine National Review published an article by a Michael Brendan Daugherty.  Daugherty wrote,

“If the Church cannot govern itself from within, then it will be governed from without.  That’s not a policy, but the iron law of history.”

Daugherty’s comments imply a monumental change to the governance of the Roman Catholic Church may come.  Daugherty’s statement is correct; it is “an iron law of history” that any institution which cannot govern itself from within will be governed by someone else from without.  History has many examples of large and powerful institutions which, when hollowed out from within by political or social decay or conflict, are eventually occupied by someone or some group who takes over and redirects the activities of those institutions.

This sexual abuse crisis will lead to a response or responses on the part of the hierarchy of the church or on the part of the Roman Catholic laity or on the part of non-Catholic persons and/or groups.  At this point, we do not know if the current leadership of the Church will retain its control, or if some other group will assume control of the Church; nor do we know in what direction those in control will direct the Church.

Four possible responses are:

  • The Church continues in its current hierarchical and diocesan structure.  The Church continues to limp along, struggling to balance those who favor a pastoral approach with those who favor a conservative-clerical approach.  It is likely the Church will hemorrhage membership and money.  The ability of the Church to assume a significant presence at various political and economic discussion tables will be diminished.  The Church’s responses to social needs will be diminished.  Or,
  • The official hierarchy of the Church embraces the merciful pastoral style of Pope Francis.  There will be a liberalization of some or many of current Church laws and teachings regarding divorce and reception of communion, marriage of homosexuals, acceptance of gender selection and redefinition, married clergy, the ordination of women, and other modern social movements.  This will entail a hierarchically controlled repudiation of clericalism.  This may lead to a schism. Or,
  • The Church hierarchy will largely abdicate its presence among the wealthy of, and in, the 1st and 2nd worlds.  It will focus its efforts and energies among the poor, and especially the poor within the 3rd and 4th worlds.  The Church will become hyper-conservative in moral and doctrinal teachings.  Power will be retained among the clergy.  Or, 
  • The episcopacy and the papacy could cease to exist, in which case the Roman Catholic Church would adopt a lay-leadership-priesthood-of-all-believers as it is manifested in evangelical and protestant churches.

Whatever form the response or outcome takes, some, perhaps many, ordinary faithful-Church-going-Roman Catholics will be confused by that response or outcome.  Some may be deeply troubled.  The faith of some may be shattered.  It is possible the confused and troubled and shattered may include those Catholics for whom things such as papacy, the episcopacy, traditional laws and doctrines, the largeness and political influence of the Church, the Church’s presence in the 1st and 2nd worlds; for whom things such as these are nearly as central to their faith as are the Eucharist and Jesus.

If it should happen that central aspects of Roman Catholicism change as they have never changed before, Roman Catholic Christianity will survive, just as Judaism survived the loss of land, temple, and kingship.  People will always carry with them their religious and spiritual needs, desires, and urges.

We may learn, that like the Deuteronomist’s jealous God, our God may be utilizing the current trauma in our Church to help us learn what it means to not be attached to externals but to the interiority of a covenantal relationship with God.

Some of these confused and troubled and shattered ones may need your help; the hope and guidance which you can give them, to help them return to a relationship with God.  If their prior relationships with God were focused on external attachments, your job might be to help these persons find a personal covenantal relationship for the first time.

For these hurting persons and to these hurting persons, you can share the example of Israel and the Jews learning to let go of attaching their spirituality to things such as land and the Temple of Solomon and messianic Davidic kingship.  You can share with them that these people never lost their spiritual desires and urges.  Their faith remained.  You can share with them that over time, these people learned to develop their spiritual interiority.  They learned that land, and temple, and political power and social pre-eminence were not central to faith.

Perhaps using these Old Testament examples, you can help our hurting-shattered-ones learn that they too can develop a consoling, healing, empowering, joy-filled relationship with God without needing the externals to which they were once attached.  And in learning they no longer need these externals, they can discover the joy of interior spiritual devotion, the joy of being with a faith community, the joy of identifying and serving the needs of others.