Saturday, September 17, 2016

Two testaments, the New Covenant in Jeremiah and Ezekiel

Two Testaments
1.  Why do we say “Testament”? The Bible books were written in Hebrew and in Greek. Then it was later translated to Latin. For a long time Christians did not have access to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek. They relied on the Latin Bible. It was only on around the 15th century when ancient manuscripts were recuperated. So for a long time Christians read the so called Vulgate Bible, that is, the Bible in Latin. The first Latin translation was done in the 4th century. The Latin Bible used the word Testament. It was the word used for “Covenant”. The Bible is really the book of two covenants, the old and the new. Today we say “Old Testament” and “New Testament”.
2.  “Testament” means the initiative of someone. This is a juridical term, it is used in legal cases. So when someone takes the initiative to present an evidence in court, that person is making a “testament”. The Latin word tells us then that God took the initiative to present to us his truth, his plan, his vision for us. He first chose Israel and he took the initiative to establish a Covenant with that people. Testament means therefore that God took the initiative to elect his people and make a Covenant with them.
3.  Before it was even written, the Covenant was an event. In that event the status of the people of Israel was determined. They were given the identity of a people living a specific life of being God’s people following the Laws stipulated in the Covenant.
4.  In the Bible we can note some indications of showing that “Covenant” was also understood as “written text”. We read, for example, the phrase “a scroll of the covenant” (1Mac1/57). We read also the expression “All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the Law which Moses commanded us as a heritage for the community of Jacob” (Sir 24/23).  St. Paul used the expression: “when they read the old covenant” (2 Co 3/14). We can see that a little before the start of the Christian era “Covenant” was interpreted as a written text—something written. This was continued to the Church times. When people referred to the written scriptures they would use the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament”, that is, the Old and the New Covenants.
5.  We see the expression used for the first time “New Covenant” in Jeremiah 31/31. This Covenant, said the prophet, will be written but “in the heart”. (The Latin translation, however, did not translate this as “Testament”….but we need not go into this technical discussion.)
6.  The Latin expression Novum Testamentum, New Testament, appears in Lk 22/20 and 1 Co 11/25. (See also He 8/8; 9/15; see 2 Co 3/6 and 2 Co 3/14.)
7.  In 2 Co 2/12 – 4/6) St. Paul states the “superiority” of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant. Before misunderstanding St. Paul, let us make it clear that when he said “Old Testament” or “Old Covenant” he referred to the written texts as the phrase attest: “when they read the old covenant” (2Cor3/14). When St. Paul mentioned “New Testament/Covenant” he did not mean written texts. The New Testament as we now know it was not a written text yet. So the written texts as we read them now were very unknown to St. Paul.
8.  Two Testaments are Two Covenants
9.  Ok, we see that when we encounter the word Testament it will still trigger in us the notion of two written sections of the Bible. But in the deeper sense Testament should really awaken the notion of Covenant. It is more than just written texts and translations.
10.       Let us pick it up from Jesus. Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mtt5/17). Jesus was to accomplish what was in the previous historical stages, from the birth of Israel to the prophets. He was not to destroy the original Covenant God had with the people of Israel. He was to “renew” it, “deepen” it. Make its fuller sense come out. He was to reveal the fullness of God’s intention in the Covenant.
11.       The people of Israel had enormous difficulty staying faithful to the Covenant. Somehow they just could not get their act together and be the people of the Covenant. The prophets over and over again criticized the people, telling them about how unfaithful they were to the Covenant. So it became necessary to renew the Covenant. It became necessary to reveal the deep meaning God wanted in the Covenant. A “new Covenant” was necessary. The word “new” did not mean dropping the “old”. It simply mean deepening it and making it more interior to the people—in their hearts. The Covenant established with Moses was still “external”, it was not completely “internalized”. So the New Covenant would be an internalization of God’s initiative.
12.       We Christians retrospect on the prophets, notably Jeremiah and Ezekiel, to see how they were pointing at the fulfillment of the New Testament in Jesus. We read Jeremiah and Ezekiel in terms of Jesus Christ. We say that what Jeremiah and Ezekiel wrote was already pointing to the fulfillment of the New Covenant for all nations and it was Jesus to fulfill it.
13.       When we go to mass we hear the priest pray, “This is the cup, the cup of the New and Everlasting Covenant” and it will be “shed for all”. The mass picks this up from the event of Jesus during the Last Supper. St. Paul recorded the meaning of that Supper when he wrote: “In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ (1Cor.11/25). It is the New Covenant in the blood of Christ. Jesus fulfilled the Covenant of God through the extreme giving of his blood. Now he has established the real communion with God, the real bond with God—a bond that has been aspired in the early Covenant. From the start God took the initiative to call us in communion with him—he already gave his “testament”. Now it is definitely fulfilled in Christ.
1.  Towards the later period of Jeremiah’s ministry the Southern Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Babylon. It was a total destruction of Judah, the Temple—center of the Jewish nation—was destroyed, the city was devastated. The basic places that served as reference for the Jews were lost to ruins. A big part of the population was exiled. The year was about 586BCE. Remember King Josiah earlier reformed the Jewish society and the majority of the people took that seriously. But now, as the people underwent the exile, they asked deep questions: why this devastation? Why this exile? Has the Lord God abandoned his people? Has the Lord God been so weak and powerless?
2.  Let us read from Jeremiah and see how the pain was expressed.
Let my eyes stream with tears night and day, without rest, over the great destruction which overwhelms the virgin daughter of my people, over her incurable wound.
If I walk out into the field, look! those slain by the sword; If I enter the city, look! victims of famine. Both prophet and priest ply their trade in a land they do not know.
Have you really cast Judah off? Is Zion loathsome to you? Why have you struck us a blow that cannot be healed? We wait for peace, to no avail;
for a time of healing, but terror comes instead. We recognize our wickedness, LORD, the guilt of our ancestors: we have sinned against you.
Do not reject us, for your name’s sake, do not disgrace your glorious throne.
Remember! Do not break your covenant with us. (Jer 14/17-21)
3.  During that time people of the different nations in the region believed that their gods were fighting along their side. The victory of an army was attributed to the god of the people. Defeat meant that their god was powerless. When a nation, therefore, lost a war, the people would shift allegiance to the god of the victorious.
4.  For the Jews it was different. They continued to stay firm with their identity and they tried to see a different profile of their God. Two prophets heled them here, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
5.  Of course the situation with Babylon was a trauma for the people. Even Jeremiah could not understand well. Did God really reject his people? Or maybe…was God just an illusion, he cannot do anything with the violence hitting the people?
6.  Jeremiah did not doubt God. He continued his faithfulness. Jeremiah remembered the sins of the Jews: “We recognize our wickedness, LORD, the guilt of our ancestors: we have sinned against you” (Jer 14/20). Yet Jeremiah also reminded God of the Covenant : “Remember! Do not break your covenant with us” (Jer14/21). Jeremiah stayed firm in his faith. While everything went falling apart around him he announced a new covenant. He never lost hope in the human capacity to step out of human violence. Jeremiah did not doubt the plan of God. He knew that the love for his people was stronger at that moment.
Hear the word of the LORD, you nations, proclaim it on distant coasts, and say:
The One who scattered Israel, now gathers them; he guards them as a shepherd his flock.
The LORD shall ransom Jacob, he shall redeem him from a hand too strong for him. Shouting, they shall mount the heights of Zion, they shall come streaming to the LORD’s blessings: The grain, the wine, and the oil, flocks of sheep and cattle; They themselves shall be like watered gardens, never again neglected. Then young women shall make merry and dance, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will show them compassion and have them rejoice after their sorrows.
7.  Jeremiah could not accompany the people to exile. He was kidnapped and brought to Egypt and there he died.
8.  Jeremiah spoke about the “new covenant”.

See, days are coming—oracle of the LORD—when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke my covenant, though I was their master—oracle of the LORD.
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, “Know the LORD!” Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me—oracle of the LORD—for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin. (Jer31/31-34).

9. When we say “covenant” it means that God and people form a
solidarity, a pact. God will be the God of his people (see for example Dt 29/9-12). Jeremiah mentioned this too: “I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jer31/33). The covenant will, however, be new. God led the people out of Egypt and gave them a new life. God was to protect his people and care for them, he was “master” in this sense. This was part of the election of the people. But the people were also to engage in the Covenant—they had their role to play. That was to live properly in the new land they were given; they were to live according to the Law that liberated them from repeating slavery. People had to recognize the Lordship of God, a Lorship of liberation and Law. But, as Jeremiah said, “They broke my covenant, though I was their master—oracle of the LORD” (Jer31/32).
10.A covenant also meant accepting and following the agreements.
It meant attachment to the agreement of the Covenant. It became necessary to give one’s whole for the Covenant (see Hos 4/1-2; Hos 66; Is 11/9). In the New Covenant God was to place the Law in the heart!   
11. God promised to place the Law inside the hearts of people.
As Isaiah said, “They will no longer teach their friends and relatives” (Jer 31/34). There will no more be lessons. God will make effective his lessons without need for new prophets and teachers and rabbis. In the hearts of people—by their own initiative—the people will assure their fidelity to God. Why? Jeremiah says: “For I will forgive their iniquity” (Jer31/34).
12. In the future God will assure reconciliation. The Law will
not be an imposition on people. It will be a response of the people. People will live according to the Law of the heart—the law of Love. This will be basic in the new covenant. People, by their own initiative, will assure obedience to the Lord God.
13. In the old covenant God communicated his will. He had to
tell people what they had to do, in accordance with the Law. In the new covenant God will have a new style. The Law will not be from the external, it will be from within, the heart. People will have the capacity to recognize and accomplish God’s will. We Christians understand this to mean the giving of the Holy Spirit who will work in our hearts (see Rm 5/3-5; 8/1-17).


1.  A year before the big exile, in 587BCE, Jerusalem was already ransacked by the Babylonian army. The Temple was destroyed. A group of Jews were already deported. Ezekiel was one of them. He was a Temple priest. He was among the first exiled to Babylon. His insights were given in symbols and visions. He accompanied the exiled people. For him God did not abandon his people. God continued to accompany them. He had a vision. Let us read.

The word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. There the hand of the LORD came upon him.
As I watched, a great storm wind came from the North, a large cloud with flashing fire, a bright glow all around it, and something like polished metal gleamed at the center of the fire. (Ez.1/3-4).

2.  Above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne that looked like sapphire; and upon this likeness of a throne was seated, up above, a figure that looked like a human being.
3.  And I saw something like polished metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed on all sides, from what looked like the waist up; and from what looked like the waist down, I saw something like the appearance of fire and brilliant light surrounding him.
4.  Just like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day so was the appearance of brilliance that surrounded him. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speak. (Ez 1,26-28)
5.  The vision showed something very new in the religion of the Jews. To the traumatized people Ezekiel announced that God was not linked to a Temple, not to a region or place, not to sacrifices and rituals. God accompanied his people wherever they were. He was with them in their exile.
6.  Let us read another passage.

You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair? Are not your ways unfair?
When the just turn away from justice to do evil and die, on account of the evil they did they must die.
But if the wicked turn from the wickedness they did and do what is right and just, they save their lives;
since they turned away from all the sins they committed, they shall live; they shall not die” (Ez.18/25-28).

7.  This was an insight common to the prophets and here we read it in Ezekiel. In the region of the Near East people of the nations believed that their destinies relied on divine will. The gods planned and executed their plans. People just had to accept their fate in the divine plans. Ezekiel saw it differently. He saw that the human was responsible for human destiny. Ezekiel promoted an idea of humanity free in choice and paths to take in life. The refusal to walk in the path of the good led to death.
8.  Now, recognizing fault and turning in conversion led to life. Moral life now had a very big role in religion. To please God meant living morally as proposed by the Laws of the Covenant.
9.  While the people were on exile they started a new practice in their religion. There was emphasis on listening to the Word of God and faithfulness to the Ten Commandments. In Babylon they started a new practice of meditating on the written texts. Religious practices no longer revolved around Temple sacrifices and the other rituals. Now religiosity turned to celebrating the Word, meditating on it. Commenting on it and praying.
10.               The prophet then focused a lot on the moral life of people. He looked around him and noticed the ways of the people. He reminded the people that their choices had undeniable effects and consequences.
11.               Yet Ezekiel remained a man of hope. He knew the faithfulness of God; he reminded the people of God’s fidelity. Let us take an example.

I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them. (Ez 36/25-27).

12.               The insight of Ezekiel will become important for the meditations of later Bible authors. The question about human destiny will continue to be asked in a world marked by violence and injustice. In fact during the time of Ezekiel the first eleven chapters of Genesis started to be written. The point is, a new view of human life and God’s relationship will emerge.

No comments:

Post a Comment