THE OLD TESTAMENT READINGS OF LENT
Fr Dimitri Cozby
- GOD, CREATION, AND MAN
The Orthodox Church calendar assigns readings for each day of the year. These readings are to be read at Church services of the day and usually come from the New Testament. The week-day readings for Lent, however, are all from the Old Testament. Closer inspection shows that they come from only three books – Genesis, Proverbs, and Isaiah – and that we read the greater part of these books straight through, with few omissions. In ancient times, when the world was mostly pagan, Lent was the time for preparing potential converts (called catechumens) for Baptism. This preparation consisted of instruction in the Orthodox faith, and the textbooks for this course were these three books, Genesis, Proverbs, and Isaiah. Genesis was used because it outlines the basic truths concerning God and creation, the nature and purpose of man, and the promises of salvation which God made to man through Abraham and his descendants. Proverbs was included because of its teaching on morals and human conduct. Isaiah was added because of its prophetic teachings concerning the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. What we have in the week-day readings of Lent, then, are the “home-work” reading assignments of the earliest converts to Christianity. Today, we can still draw from these books many essential truths of the Christian Gospel, and this is what I hope to do in the next few monthly newsletters.
The readings from Genesis for the first week of Lent (chapter 1:1 through 3:20) give us the essential Christian teaching about the relation of man to God and to the world. Unless we know who we are and why we are here, we cannot hope to understand what God expects of us nor why He sent His Son to live among us. The readings begin “in the beginning” with the account of creation so familiar to us all. From this story we learn one essential fact: that the world was created by God, through an act of His divine will, and for His own purposes. All of the arguments about evolution, both pro and con, miss the basic point of this story. Genesis does not intend to tell us how the world and mankind were created (whether they evolved or sprouted or were poured from a bottle). Genesis was written to tell us why we were created: to exist and to live with God and in His love.
A second fact can also be discovered from the Creation story: “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God created a good world, a place of joy and hope, without evil, without corruption, without sorrow. Evil was not in the beginning a part of nature; it came later as nature and man fell away from their original purpose.
God’s act of creation reaches its climax in the making of man. Mankind, according to the Genesis account, is the highest of all God’s creatures, made in His image and likeness. The Fathers of the Church tell us that “image” and “likeness” are not just two words for the same thing. The image of God in man was something given to man as a part of his nature; it is our capacity to reason, to love, to be free, and to commune with God. The likeness, however, was not a set of qualities given to man. Rather, it was a power or a potential implanted in man which would enable him to grow even closer to God, and to live in such a way that his relation with God would mature into complete communion with Him. Man was not created in a static paradise; he was put into the world with the potential to make it a paradise as he himself drew ever closer to God in union and communion with Him.
As we know, the Genesis creation story does not have a happy ending. Instead of choosing to grow in God’s image and likeness, man chose to turn away from God and to exalt himself rather than his Creator. By doing so, man lost the likeness of God and the power it gave him for union with God. He also obscured the image of God within him so that his reason, his freedom, and his love became sources of suffering as well as of good. Man cut himself off from God, the Source of all happiness, and so pain came into his life. Man cut himself off from the Source of life, and death entered the world. Since man was the crown of all creation, his fall disrupted not only his own communion with God but also that of the whole universe. Thus the good in nature was also obscured, and the world as well became subject to evil and a potential cause of pain and suffering to man.
This then is the state of man and of the world as portrayed in the Old Testament. This is the situation that Christ came to correct.
- PUNISHMENT AND PROMISE
The first section above ended on a somber note. After speaking of God’s creation of the world and of man to live and grow in communion with Him, we turned to the fall of man and to his rejection of the purpose and the blessings God had intended for him. The consequences of this rejection were disastrous: God’s image in man was obscured, the good in man and the world became polluted with evil, and sin and death entered our lives. We now turn in more detail to the results of man’s fall, and we look at God’s response, using as a basis the week-day readings in the calendar for the second week of Great Lent.
One of the most disastrous consequences of man’s fall was that he was now cut off from his fellow men as well as from God. In communion with God, men could also enjoy communion with one another; now that fellowship was gone. Instead human society is plagued by alienation, hatred, and strife where once there had been love, understanding, and peace. Man not only sinned against God but also against his neighbor and his brother. The story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) illustrates this point. Man has estranged himself from the Source of all good, of all life, and of all justice. Now he proclaims himself to be the only judge of what is good and right, even determining whether or not his own brother shall live or die.
As a result of his disobedience and arrogance, man became liable to God’s anger and to God’s punishment. This anger and this punishment are not the result of a desire for revenge, however. Rather, God responds like a parent or a generous benefactor who, in spite of all the care and the gifts he has lavished on his people, meets with arrogance and scorn. This is best seen in the so-called “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah (5:1-7). As the poem points out, God has given man everything; there is nothing more He could have done for us. In return He has received neither thanks nor obedience. “Judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? … (I) looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed” (Isaiah 4:3-4,7). The consequence of human disobedience and ingratitude must be punishment.
Still, God is merciful and loving even in punishment. Even after he murders his brother, Cain remains under God’s protection, and God will not allow him to be killed though he has taken another’s life (Genesis 4:13-15). God’s punishment, like a parent’s, is for correction; God desires “not the death of a sinner, but rather, that he should turn from his wickedness and live.” And His anger carries with it a promise of salvation – salvation which is not just a release from punishment but a release from the fallen state which is the source of sin and retribution. The readings from Genesis for the second week of Lent end with the birth of Noah, whose story bears a message of hope and rescue. The Fathers of the Church considered Noah’s adventure a “type” or symbolic prophesy of the coming of Christ and of our salvation in Him. The end of the readings from Isaiah make the promise more specific: “The Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin will conceive and bear a son and His name shall be called Emmanuel (which means ‘God is with us’)” (Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23).
III. THE PROMISE FULFILLED
The second section ended by speaking of a promise. The third week’s readings from the Old Testament foretell the fulfillment of that promise. The promise was that God would redeem His creation and fallen mankind, and would lead them to His Kingdom, which was our goal even from the beginning. The fulfillment of that promise is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the incarnate Son of God.
The Genesis readings for the week (Genesis 6:9-8:21) tell the familiar story of Noah and the flood. The Fathers of the Church considered this story a “type” (a symbolic prophecy) of Christ’s coming and of His work. This does not mean that the Fathers denied that the story of Noah had historical truth behind it. They saw it in itself as an inspiring event in history. But they also looked in the Flood narrative for more profound truths about God’s plan of salvation. The story of Noah gives us a number of clues to the nature of God’s Kingdom and how He will establish it.
The first point that the story of Noah makes is that God is not going to take the easy way out; He is not going to destroy this world and start again from scratch. The Kingdom of God will be a renewal and a regeneration of this world, not a new universe specially created. Instead, as the story shows, God continues to work through the world He has created and through the crown of that creation, man.
Moreover, God will work through a representative, a single man whom He will set apart to realize the renewal of our race and our world. Noah, by whom the world is repopulated after the Flood, is a prophesy or a prefiguring of the One through whom the human race is to be reborn into the Kingdom. Noah is a prophesy of Christ.
The promised Savior is a man representing all mankind, as we see from the Genesis readings. We see from the readings from Proverbs (9:1-6) that He is also a divine being, the Wisdom or Word of God (see John 1). Thus salvation is prepared for us by a person who is both God and man; God and man are united to one another by one who belongs by nature to both. Proverbs uses the metaphor of the arranging of a banquet to speak of God’s preparation for the establishment of His Kingdom. It is interesting to note that Christ speaks of the Kingdom as a banquet (Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24).
The union of the divine and the human into one person is accomplished in the incarnation of Christ, foretold by Isaiah in a familiar verse: “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace'” (Isaiah 9:6). This prince of peace will come from Israel, from the royal family of David (Isaiah 11:10). He will come from Galilee (9:1). In Him the anger and the punishment which have fallen on the world as a result of the human sin are appeased and annulled. He is our comfort and our salvation (12:1-2). The burden of sin and the fear of death which have held man in bondage are taken away; they are replaced in Him by peace and joy (9:3-4).
Isaiah, as we see, speaks at length and in great detail about the glory of the Messiah’s coming. But he also prophecies something else. The Messiah will be a cause of rejoicing and of blessing for His people, but He will also be a “stumbling block” and a “cause of offense” (Isaiah 8:14). We will discuss the nature of that “stumbling block” in the next article.
- LIFE AND THE CROSS
We ended the third week with the prophet Isaiah’s words about the “stumbling block” or the “offense” which was to be a part of the Messiah’s coming and which was to prevent many from finding their salvation in Him (Isaiah 8:14). This “stumbling block” is the “sign raised on a bare hill” (13:2), the Cross. The expectation of a Messiah coming in power and majesty was, and is, an easy one to accept. A Messiah who will come to right all wrongs by a mighty stroke, who in a flash will destroy our enemies and exalt our allies, is one in whom any person can believe with little effort. A Messiah who comes into the world to suffer and to die a criminal’s death is quite another proposition. Such a thing was difficult for the ancient Hebrews to accept, for the Jews and Greeks of Christ’s day to believe, and often for us today to grasp.
That the Messiah comes to suffer as well as to glorify is clear in Isaiah, however. Why is this suffering necessary? Why did Christ have to bear the Cross? Some people suggest that Christ’s death on the Cross is merely an example to us of patience and fortitude or of the persecution of a righteous man, who bears his afflictions “like a man”, with philosophic resignation. But the Crucifixion is more than just an example for us to follow. By His death on the Cross, Christ actually did something to the world: He restored the lost relationship between God and man and the potential for communion which was obscured by man’s fall.
After the fall, having cut himself off from God, the Source of all good and all life, man found himself enslaved to sin and to death. To release man from this bondage, the Son of God first put on our human nature and became a man, taking upon Himself the flesh which had been so long bent under pain, sin, and death. He united Himself to us completely, even accepting death, the penalty man bears for sin, though He Himself was without sin, just as man was originally without sin. And while, as a man, He could accept death, as God, the Creator of life, He could not be bound by it. Instead, He took it upon Himself in order to destroy it and to break its power over man by His own Resurrection on the third day. Thus, Christ restores communion between man and the Origin of all blessings and annuls the consequences of the fall. Christ unites God and man once more, for not only did God take on humanity, but man, by grace, was given divinity in the single divine-human person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The key event in all of this is the Cross. The Cross is the seal of the completeness with which God united Himself to us, just as the Resurrection is the sign of the glory which is ours in Him. In this way we see how necessary the Crucifixion of Christ was, though it presented, and still presents, so many problems to human reason. Isaiah foresaw these difficulties. He also affirmed the truth of the Gospel in spite of them. Just as he talks of the “stumbling block”, so also he speaks of a rock of salvation: “Behold I lay for the foundation of Zion, a costly stone, a choice, a corner-stone, a precious stone …; and he that believes on him shall by no means be ashamed. And I will cause judgment to be for hope” (Isaiah 28:16-17). By judgment Isaiah means Christ’s condemnation and death; by hope he means the hope of the Resurrection and of the Kingdom of God.
The first of the verses just quoted reminds us of another from the Psalms which Christ Himself quotes: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17; Psalm 118:22-23). Through the cruelty and scandal of the Cross, Christ has returned to man the chance for life and eternal happiness which he lost so long ago. This is the Kingdom to which the readings for Lent point and toward which we Christians should direct our lives. This is the Kingdom whose beginning we shall celebrate in just a few short weeks. This is the Kingdom which is assured us by the crucified and risen Christ on His return. Truly “this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”