Why Read the Old Testament?

The question is not a silly one. We Christians live in the New Dispensation now. We have what Saint Paul calls “a better testament which is established on better promises” (Heb. 8:6). The old Scriptures pointed to a reality that is now present in the New Covenant. When the object of our hopes is made present, hope recedes and yields to possession. So why bother looking at the Old Testament?

Could the only value of the Old Testament be that it makes for good apologetics with Jews? It certainly does that. Just look at this paragraph from the religion text I am using this year at our IHM School:

Take the following prophecies together and see how many persons there are in whom they are verified. A man of the tribe of Juda (Gen. 49, 10) and of the family of Jesse (Is. 11, 1) will be born of a virgin (Is. 7, 14), in Bethlehem (Mich. 5, 2) and come out of Egypt (Osee 11, 1), in the ninth week of years after the prophecy of Daniel (Dan. 9, 24), when the sceptre as passed from Juda. He will be slain, His hands and feet pierced, His garments divided, and lots shall be cast for His clothes. He shall be given vinegar to drink (Psalms 21 and 68). His people shall deny Him, and after His death, another nation shall come and destroy the city and the sanctuary, and the sacrifices shall be abolished (Dan. 9, 26-27). [Our Quest for Happiness, vol. 2, Through Christ Our Lord., pg. 45.]

Yes, we can use the Old Testament to show Jewish people how Jesus fulfilled these prophesies, as well as numerous types of the Old Testament. But is there something more? Specifically, is there something that we Christians, we Catholics, can gain from reading the Old Testament?

The answer, of course, is Yes. The Old Testament is of tremendous importance for us, even though Christ fulfilled the Mosaic Law, which is now both dead and deadly, meaning that it may not be observed without sin by the Christian faithful — as per the teaching of Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Florence.

The Old Testament teaches us about our origins — the origins of the human race and of the true religion — and also, very importantly, it teaches us about the origins and effects of false religion, of heresy, schism, idolatry, and superstition, and how displeasing these latter are to God. The Book of Wisdom, for instance tells us of the beginnings of idolatry, while the book of Numbers helps us to understand how detestable a sin is schism.

The Old Testament also imparts to us a revealed cosmology that puts our race at the center of the universe. The creation account in the book of Genesis reveals man as the apex of creation, with dominion over the lower orders thereof. Thanks to Genesis, we know our place in the universe, even if we have horribly violated the duties arising from that dignity. And that we have indeed botched the job is also revealed in its origins — in the original sin committed in the garden of Eden. Imagine trying to make sense out of the “last Adam” (Christ; cf. I Cor. 15:45) if we did not know about the first one.

The Old Testament gives us important concepts of hierarchy, sacred time, and sacramental things. Besides man’s dominion over the lower creation, other hierarchical roles we learn about from the Old Testament are those of prophets, priests, and kings — men specially selected from among their fellows with divine authority to teach divine things, to offer sacrifice to God, and to rule in His name. While Christ perfectly fulfilled all three of these hierarchical roles, their tasks still exist among men.

Also, on the subject of hierarchy, we also learn about the natural order of the family — the patriarchy, with the husband-father as the divinely appointed head of the family.

As for “sacred time,” the Old Testament enjoined the observance of the Sabbath, as well as a liturgical year with feast days and fast days. We know, therefore, from the Old Testament, the value of setting aside time for prayer, as well as for liturgically celebrating God’s mercies and triumphs in salvation history (Passover, Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Festival of Lights, etc.). We learn also that the center of religious observance is the cult of sacrifice that takes place on an altar by the hands of a priest. Christian fast days, feast days, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the liturgical calendar — all of these things fit into pre-established patterns because, “the law was our pedagogue in Christ” (Gal. 3:24).

Regarding “sacramental things,” we find all over the Old Testament material objects that are used as instruments in the dispensing of grace, healing, spiritual cleansing, and suchlike — even amid Sacred Writ’s manifold proscriptions of idolatry. The history of the Ark of the Covenant, for instance, shows us God exercising His power and bringing His blessings through the instrumentation of this wooden and gold object that He Himself ordered to be constructed. We have the tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple of Jerusalem as instances of sacred architecture, structures which God specially chose to be places where He is adored and where His blessings are bestowed. We also see the religious use of bread, wine, oil, incense, blessings, anointings, sacred music, etc., as well as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that are motivated by a duty towards God. We see words joined to matter, with the effect (if carried out with faith) of obtaining grace. All this is a prelude to the Seven Sacraments of the New Testament and their accompanying rituals. Saint Augustine will later say, “The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament…” (Tractate 80 on Saint John, No. 3).

So closely did the Old Testament anticipate the Sacrament of Baptism with its manifold ritual ablutions, that the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem on an official embassy asked Saint John the Baptist, “Why then dost thou baptize, if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?” (John 1:25). A curious question indeed if the Old Testament did not point towards the Christian Sacrament of Baptism, a Baptism that would be instituted by the Messias when He comes.

The Old Testament establishes other patterns that are yet with us, one of those being the seven-day week we received in creation, which not even the Masonic French Revolutionaries could get rid of. Another pattern laid out clearly is marriage as the union of one man with one woman. The latter corruptions of divorce and polygamy were ended by Our Lord, who restored the original integrity and indissolubility to marriage as He elevated it to a Christian Sacrament: “Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matt. 19:8; compare Genesis 2, especially verse 24 to Matthew 19:3-9 to see the broader context.)

Another reason to read the Old Testament is that it is frequently quoted by Jesus Christ and the inspired authors of the New Testament, for the New Testament stands in perfect continuity with it. The New Testament is part two of a two-part series. Without part one, it would make little sense.

We see also patterns of virtue and vice emerging from the Old Testament that the New Testament authors, and Our Lord Himself, will use to teach us. The Exodus generation, for instance, provides us with some powerful lessons on morals. At some length, Saint Paul uses episodes from this sojourn to enlighten the faithful of the Church of Corinth, going so far as to say, “Now all these things happened to them in figure: and they are written for our correction, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (I Cor. 10:11). The traditional Roman Rite uses this as part of the Epistle reading for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, while the accompanying Gospel reading foretells the destruction of Jerusalem.

And of course, the Old Testament teaches us to pray. The psalms and sacred canticles of the Old Testament are still employed in the Church’s liturgy. In fact, the bulk of the content of the Divine Office (those prayers chanted by monks and nuns, and recited, under pain of sin, by priests) is the sacred psalmody of the Old Testament. Jesus prayed the Psalms, and so does His Mystical Body, the Church.

I hope to follow up with one or two pieces on the right way and the wrong way to read the Old Testament.