Your Family Story: The Old and New Testament

God is the eternal family, the eternal communion of persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And in his mercy, he wishes to share this communal life of love and joy with us. In fact, God loves us so much that he loves us as he loves his only-begotten Son. In uniting himself to us — and making us sons and daughters in and through the Son — he has brought us up into his own inner life. Moral perfection in the natural order couldn’t earn one drop of this divine life. But this is the gospel — this is the goal of salvation history (see Catechism of the Catholic Church260).

Sometimes we speak of the Old and New Testaments, as if these were merely documents. But in fact “testament” is simply the Latinization of “covenant.” The Old and New Testaments refer to the Old and New Covenants, the living reality by which God fashions his people into his family, uniting us with one another and with himself.

This begins in the Garden of Eden, with God’s creation of mankind and his union with Adam and Eve. Man is tested in the garden, not just so God can find out what Adam will do, but so Adam can find out what he’s really made of — so he can experience the transformation of trusting God totally, even in the midst of obscurity and darkness.

God’s Primordial Promise

As it turns out, Adam and Eve lost trust in God’s goodness; they lost trust that God’s ways really are ordered to their happiness and they believed the lie of the Evil One — that God was keeping something back from them (see CCC 397). In every sin, we’re seeking happiness; and when we sin, we lose trust that God’s ways really are ordered to our happiness.

As Eve closely participated in the fall of Adam, so also God promises that a woman will participate closely in the final victory: in Genesis 3:15, God speaks of a “woman,” whose seed will crush the head of the Serpent. Catholics have long referred to this passage as the protoevangelium, the “first Gospel” — the first promise of redemption, pointing to Mary and Jesus and the final victory over the Evil One on the Cross.

As the story continues with Adam and Eve’s children, the godly line of Abel and worldly line of Cain grow ever more apart, until their apparent mingling evokes the judgment of the Flood (see Genesis 6:2). At this point, Noah becomes a new Adam — a new focal point for humanity’s renewal. And after the Flood, God exhorts Noah to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 9:1), reminiscent of God’s primordial promise and command (Genesis 1:28).

God’s Universal Aspiration

Noah’s line (through Shem) eventually leads to Abraham, who then receives a series of promises from God, around which salvation history will crystalize: God promises to make Abraham a great nation; to make his name great; and to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s family (see Genesis 12:1-3).

These three promises are something of a road map for the rest of the Bible. The first promise finds fulfillment in the movement from the Exodus to the Promised Land, with Moses and Joshua, as Israel becomes a nation with its own land for the first time. The “great name” promise is later tied to David’s dynastic line (see 2 Samuel 7:9), and so finds fulfillment in the Davidic Kingdom. The promise to bless all the nations through the seed of Abraham is fulfilled in Jesus — when the covenant family becomes truly international (see Matthew 28:19-20).

The rise of the Kingdom of David represents something of a high point in the Old Testament: for a brief period, during the reigns of David and Solomon, other nations are incorporated into the covenant (see 1 Kings 4:34); and the Temple itself, in its initial founding, reinforces this universal aspiration (see 1 Kings 8:41-43).

The End of the Davidic Line

But such a glorious age was not to last. After Solomon’s death, Rehoboam reigned in his stead. The people approached him, asking for a reprieve of taxes and other such repression which had been levied by his father Solomon. Rehoboam declines, opting instead to assert his authority and power over the people. With that, Jeroboam leads the ten northern tribes in revolt (1 Kings 12), resulting in two separate kingdoms: in the south, with its capital in Jerusalem and the temple as its religious center, the Davidic line ruled over the Kingdom of “Judah”; in the north, Jeroboam began the first of nine different dynastic families ruling over the Kingdom of “Israel,” with its final capital in Samaria. One of Jeroboam’s first acts was to establish an alternative priesthood and religious calendar, and to construct two “calves of gold” for the northern tribes to worship — that way, his people wouldn’t travel south to the Jerusalem temple, which would likely compromise their allegiance to him, since only the Davidic line was sanctioned by God.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel continues until 722 B.C., when it is destroyed by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17). The Assyrians deport massive portions of the population and actually import other conquered peoples into Israelite territories. This mixing and mingling of Israelites left behind with imported Gentiles lies at the origin of the Samaritans and explains some of the hostility between them and the Jews in Jesus’ day.

The Southern Kingdom of Judah lasts until 586 B.C., when it is destroyed by the Babylonians (2 Kings 24-25), an event which sets in motion the Babylonian Exile and the apparent cessation of the Davidic line.

Daniel’s Prophecy of the Fourth Kingdom

By 539 B.C., Cyrus the Medo-Persian brings down Babylon’s hegemony and actually frees the Jews to return to their land, a process that begins in the mid-530s. Notably, at least in terms of etymology and the reality at this time, Jews are from Judah — because that was the only tribe left at this point. That is to say that all Jews are Israelites, but not all Israelites are Jews (an Israelite could be from any of the twelve tribes, while Jews are from Judah). By 515 B.C., the Jews complete the rebuilding of their Temple.

At this time, there’s certainly a sense of salvific renewal, but there remains a sense that God’s restoration is by no means complete (there was no Davidic king on the throne).

The prophet Daniel is taken to Babylon as a young man at the very beginning of Babylon’s dominance over Judah, around 605 B.C. In the midst of Babylon, Daniel sees and interprets a series of images and visions (see Daniel 27) which ultimately refer to a succession of five kingdoms. The first four refer to Gentile kingdoms that will, to varying degrees, oppress the people of God. Traditionally, they are identified as: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. And Daniel boldly prophesies that the Kingdom of God would be inaugurated during the time of the fourth kingdom.

Reuniting the Human Family

In another passage, the Book of Daniel reveals a prolonged exile. Toward the end of Babylon’s dominance (ca. 550 B.C.), Daniel is praying over a prophecy from Jeremiah (Daniel 9:1-2) — which stated that the exile would last seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11). The angel Gabriel comes to Daniel and reveals to him that not seventy years, but “seventy weeks of years” remain for the full purification of God’s people (Daniel 9:24). And this would climax with the cutting off of an anointed one (Messiah?) and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple (Daniel 9:26). The reference to seventy weeks of years is cryptic, but it seems to be a reference to seventy sets of seven years (that is, 70 X 7) — a way of referring to 490 years. It’s difficult to know when this period begins, but the text of Daniel speaks of it starting with the “going forth of the word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” (Daniel 9:25). From ancient times, many Christians (including the historian Eusebius) saw this as a reference to the twin Persian decrees that made possible the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah — when they were both given permission by their Persian overlords to help rebuild Jerusalem, either in rebuilding its walls (Nehemiah), or in rebuilding its culture based upon God’s revealed Torah (Ezra). These decrees, respectively, date from 457 and 444 B.C. — either one of which brings us awfully close to the time of Jesus. In fact, counting from 457 B.C., Daniel’s 490-year period takes us to A.D. 33! Significantly, in Daniel’s prophecy, the culmination of this period coincides with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple — something which happened in A.D. 70. All of this points to the fact that Daniel’s prophecy finds fulfillment in Christ and his Church, the Kingdom of God manifest on earth.

This whole dynamic helps us understand the excitement around Jesus: Jesus brings the Kingdom of God to us in his Person. He is restoring the Davidic Kingdom — promised by God as an everlasting kingdom (see 2 Samuel 7:16), but which had lain in ruins since the sixth century B.C. As described above, the Davidic Kingdom, in its initial founding, was comprised of all twelve tribes of Israel and the surrounding nations. Since the ten northern tribes had been largely assimilated with the Gentiles, it was unclear how they could be restored — yet the prophets insisted that their restoration will go hand in hand with the new covenant and the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The New Covenant established by Christ, which makes God’s covenant family fully and definitively universal, is the fulfillment of both the Abrahamic and the Davidic Covenants. In order to restore the ten Northern tribes, God had to incorporate the nations — and that was his plan all along. In a strange way, then, the exile and deportation of the Northern Kingdom is actually woven into the tapestry of God’s providence — his goal of reuniting the whole human family into the covenant family of God.

Our Entrance into the Story

Jesus is also a New Adam and New Moses. He leads the people through a New Exodus — not from Egypt, Babylon, or Rome, but from sin, death, and the devil (see Luke 9:31). The new Promised Land is heaven itself. And as a New Adam, Jesus conquers the ultimate curse — not merely exile, but death itself (see Genesis 3:19). In the Resurrection, Jesus goes before us as head of all humanity: dying our death, he brings all of us through to the other side, to the risen life of resurrected glory. The Cross is the new tree of life (see Acts 5:30Galatians 3:13) and the Eucharist is the fruit of this new tree of life — that we may “eat and live forever” (see John 6:5158 and Genesis 3:22).

But we have to accept and embrace this new inheritance. Salvation is not merely forgiveness of sins. Salvation in Christ is divine filiation — we become, really and truly, sons and daughters of the Father through Christ and in the Spirit (see CCC 457-460). The reality of our salvation, as we said at the outset, is such that God the Father looks down upon us and loves us as he loves his only-begotten Son. This is the reality of grace — not merely divine favor, but an ontological transformation and elevation that enables us to share in God’s Trinitarian life.

And the way we access this reality of the New Covenant — the way in which we enter this great story and become part of God’s family — is through the sacraments. They really are our entrance into the story; they make salvation history present, so that we can become a part of it.

The Full Grandeur of Our Lives

And as with all the great biblical characters, when God calls someone, he sends them on mission. So, too, with us: he knows each of us by name and has made us part of his family; and now we have a part to play in the story — a part that perhaps won’t be played unless we answer the Lord’s call. In the eyes of eternity, no task is small — we all have a part to play in this great drama of salvation history, a story that didn’t end with the death of the last apostle. Rather, right now we stand waist-deep in salvation history.

How can we better come to grips with this awesome reality and thereby better appreciate the full grandeur of our lives?

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.