What earlier Christians knew well

“Salvation is from the Jews,” as Roy Schoeman has reminded us in a recent book by that title. “It is impossible for a Christian to be a Christian,” the late Cardinal Lustiger once remarked, “without the Jewish people.”

But my purpose in introducing these quotations is not to raise difficulties in Catholic-Jewish relations, or risk inflaming hurt feelings. Rather, I wish to reflect briefly on some things that used to be taken for granted among Catholics, because of their familiarity with the history of Israel in the Old Testament, but which seem now largely lost.

My reflections are the fruit of a resolution recently to read through the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Most of us have read these over time in drips and drabs: but try reading them through successively, like a novel.

What you see is a dramatic and even romantic story, of how God long ago mysteriously called Abraham to leave a distant country and settle in Palestine. Then, there is the story of Joseph--one of the greatest stories in literature, except this story is history and actually true--of how God brought good out of evil, by using Joseph’s betrayal into slavery by his brothers as the occasion for blessing Joseph and saving his family in a time of famine.

In Egypt, Joseph’s descendents flourish, becoming a strong nation. After they are enslaved by Pharaoh, God chooses Moses to lead them out of slavery and into the desert, where they are established as a people selected by God and groomed by Him to be His own.

The story of Moses is so dramatic that Hollywood made a very successful, masterpiece of a movie based on it. But what comes next is equally dramatic: the account of this nation now huddled in the desert, relying on God, who guides them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a twisting tower of fire by night, and who feeds them, gives them a law and a plan for worship, and leads them eventually into the Promised Land, obtained through the conquest of the Canaanite pagan nations.

We know the outlines of the story, which foreshadow salvation from Christ, and yet the details are equally instructive. When reading the story it became clear to me that many lessons in this history of Israel had been firmly impressed on the minds of Christians over earlier generations, but that we in contrast are impoverished, because we are unfamiliar with it.

One such lesson is that liturgy is from God, not man, and that God cares about the details of how he is worshipped. To see this, read with faith the account of how God conveyed to Moses the details of the ark, altar, candle lamp, and meeting tent that he wanted constructed, and the careful specification of sacrifices to be offered to Him. Reflect on how God dealt with divergences from this plan: for example, when the sons of Aaron, the high priest, once took things into their own hands and improvised divine worship, they were destroyed by a fire that flamed out of the meeting tent and consumed them. Then pose the question: has God’s purpose and concern changed so completely from the way it was then, or does he similarly care today that Catholics worship him in a fully lawful way, and with great attention -- in love -- to the details of the liturgy?

Call the attitudes now required “reverence,” “lawfulness,” and “refinement.” My point is that those attitudes are hardly salient for us.

Another lesson involves courage. Everyone knows that the Israelites grumbled against God, “after they had seen His works,” and they were punished for that by being required to wander in the desert for 40 years before they could enter the Promised Land. But what was their principal offense? It was a lack of faith, taking the specific form of cowardice. Soon after the Israelites were brought out of Egypt, God led them to the threshold of the Promised Land and ordered them to commence a military invasion. The Israelites sent scouts, who returned and told stories magnifying the difficulty of the attack, which the Israelites believed, not trusting in God’s power to help them be victorious. So God resolved that they would not enter the Promised Land until every warrior then alive had died, which was 40 years.

The lesson is: the first test of faith is courage to succeed in something that we would otherwise fail at without God’s help. But how widespread is that sort of courage among us?

One last lesson: It’s not entirely accurate to say -- only, as we often hear -- that “God’s love is unconditional.” Certainly friendship with God is conditional, on our keeping his commandments. Of course Christ taught this: “Your trespasses will not be forgiven, if you do not forgive those who trespass against you,” and “If you love me, keep my commandments.” But the lesson was pressed home firmly upon the Israelites. Admittedly, they were given the Promised Land solely because they were children of Abraham, but precisely because of this they were required by God to reject the practices of the Canannites that were expelled before them.

If one thinks about Canaanite practices -- including sexual promiscuity, child sacrifice, and other perversions -- can we be sure that Catholics today have grasped this lesson?

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological

Sciences in Arlington, Va.