As a cradle Catholic, I had never given much thought to the Old Testament. Sure, I heard passages read at Mass and I think we talked about it some in high school. But my overall impression of the Old Testament was that it was long, convoluted, and downright weird at times. As a Christian, only the New Testament is really relevant to my life anyways. Or so I thought.
However, as I began writing on the daily readings, I found myself trying to understand the relevance of the first reading and the context of the passages. I started stitching together the pieces but realized there was so much I didn't understand still. I finally broke down, bought a wonderful bible, and started lifting the veil.
Based on conversations with family and friends, it seems like my initial impression and limited experience of the Old Testament is common among Catholics. But having now uncovered a wealth of insight that can be gained from these books, I want to share 3 reasons why every Catholic should get familiar with the Old Testament. After reading these insights, I encourage you to read my "15-Minute Old Testament" guide to start from the beginning of Salvation History!
1. It reveals insight about Catholic our faith. There are many tenants of the Catholic faith that find their roots in the Old Testament. Let's look at a few examples:
Passover and the Eucharist: As a final push to get Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, it is announced that the Angel of Death will come over each household and take the life of the oldest son. The Israelites would be protected, however, if they slaughtered an unblemished lamb and wiped its blood on their doorposts. They were also to eat unleavened bread with their staff in hand, ready to escape from Egypt at any moment. There are many parallels between this meal and the Eucharist, in which Christ, with his saving Blood, is the ultimate Sacrificial Lamb and the Bread of Life. This parallel reinforces that Jesus' Body and Blood, even more than the body and blood of the passover lamb in Exodus, has the power to save us from enslavement to sin, to give us everlasting life, and to sustain us on our journey to Heaven.
The Ark and Mary: In Exodus, the cloud of God overshadows the tabernacle where the Ark made of pure gold resides. God's presence makes it holy - so holy that it cannot even be touched. It contains within it sacred items - the 10 commandments, Aaron's priestly staff, and the manna from Heaven. Later the Ark is brought to Jerusalem with King David leaping joyously in front of it. In the New Testament, Mary is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit when she becomes pregnant with the Son of God. She carries within her Jesus who is the Word Made Flesh, our High Priest, and the Bread of Life. When she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist, sensing the presence of God, leaps in Elizabeth's womb. This parallel tells us that Mary is to be honored as the mother of the Son of God. She is not worshiped, but she is made holy by what she carries - God, who alone is deserving of our adoration.
2. It provides context to the events of Jesus' day. Context is really key in understanding the significance of Jesus' teaching and people's reactions in the New Testament. Let's look at a few more examples:
The Good Samaritan: Maybe you know that the Jews didn't like the Samaritans, but that's as much as you know about it. A look at the Old Testament tells us that the northern kingdom, which contains Samaria, was conquered by Assyria and that their peoples intermarried and many of the former Israelites turned to pagan gods. Therefore the Jews saw the Samaritans as heathens and as inferior to their pure Jewish race. But Jesus speaks of the Samaritan in the parable as the true "neighbor" and a model for how we should act. Knowing the backstory puts the shock value of this parable in a whole new light and reinforces that goodness can shine forth from anywhere.
Response of the Pharisees: There are several occasions in the Gospels when Jesus and his followers "violate" the Jewish customs. Jesus heals multiple people on the Sabbath, he and the disciples eat with unclean hands, and they spend time with sinners. And the Pharisees become infuriated. An understanding of the Old Testament sheds some light on their reaction. During the time of the Greek occupation, Antiochus IV tried to eliminate everything the Jews held sacred and eventually Greek culture and pagan beliefs began to make their way into Jewish life. Some Jews (the Sadducees) went along with the Greek influence, but others (the Pharisees) fought fiercely against it. Therefore they held tightly to anything that was a part of their Jewish identity and would see anyone not following their laws as a threat to their religion.
3. It demonstrates God's commitment to us. All of Salvation History is the story of how God gives us everything, we turn away from him and cause harm to ourselves, and he lifts us out of our misery. From the very beginning God gives humanity all of creation and perfect happiness. Adam and Eve show their gratitude by disobeying the one commandment He gives them. At that moment, God promises that he will send a redeemer to re-establish the harmony that has now been broken. Later, God frees the Israelites from slavery and the Israelites turn right around and start worshiping a golden calf. He gives them the Promised Land, a place where they can be free from any human oppression, answering only to God. But they insist on putting themselves under human leadership in the form of a king. God does grant them a king, a good king, a man after God's own heart. And within one generation, the kingship under David's son Solomon, is already worshiping pagan gods. The Israelites are constantly turning their backs on God who only wants what is best for them. And God never gives up on them. Even as they continue defying Him, God constantly reminds them that, when the time is right, he will send them a Savior who will redeem them. This has huge implications for our lives. No matter how far we have strayed personally, and no matter how dark times may seem, we can look at the events of Scripture and see that God never leaves us. Whatever mess we have gotten ourselves into, he will be right there to pick us back up.
These are just three reasons that the Old Testament is so important as our lives as Catholics, but there are so many more. If this has sufficiently piqued your interest, I encourage you to check out my "15-Minute Old Testament" guide. It provides a high-level overview of major Old Testament events and reveals connections to the New Testament.