Every so often the subject of reading the Scriptures comes up for discussion. And, very often, I find that people are unwilling to read the Old Testament before beginning the New. They want to start right out with Matthew, Mark, and Luke before they have given any time to Adam, Abraham, and Moses. Some of this comes from the relative size of the two Testaments, for the New Testament is only slightly more than a quarter of the size of the Old. But some of the reluctance comes from the misconception that the Old Testament is of no use now that we have the revelations of Jesus Christ.
However, without at least a passing awareness of what took place among God’s people before the time of Christ, it is hard to understand the significance of what took place during and after His time. Without the Old Testament, we really do not see the vision of God’s plan for mankind; nor do we appreciate the more favorable way in which God treats His people under the dispensation of Jesus Christ. We also fail to understand what the New Testament writers were saying when they referred to things that were intimately familiar to the Jews of Christ’s time.
Today’s epistle is a good example. What is Saint Paul saying about people “eating and drinking and playing” and “perishing at the serpents” or “perishing at the destroyer”? Paul is presuming that those reading his epistle have a knowledge of the Exodus; the escape of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Specifically, he assumes that his readers have read the Book of Numbers and its 14th and 21st chapters. After being delivered from Egypt, the people were often rebellious, complaining that their deliverance from slavery also meant a great deal of hardship and insecurity as they wandered through the desert. They murmured, they complained, and often enough they gave themselves over to the worship of the false gods of the nations with whom they came into contact. God likened their behavior to adultery, accusing them of unfaithfulness, much like a husband might reproach his unfaithful wife. On a number of occasions it is only through the intercession of Moses that God consents not to destroy the people right there in the desert.
The story of the serpents is typical, and quoted in several other books of the Bible. The people had just witnessed the miracle of Moses drawing water from a rock in the desert by tapping it with his staff at God’s direction. They were trying to avoid the foreigners who lived in Edom, and passed south and east through the desert. Conditions were again harsh and many complained, which caused God to send a plague of poisonous snakes to punish those not trusting in His providence. But, at Moses’ intercession, God allowed him to cure those who had been bitten. The cure was effected in a way that modern people will find odd—Moses was instructed to make a brass replica of a snake and to raise it up on a forked stick—those who looked upon the brass snake were cured of their poisonous snake bites.
One can almost visualize the snake lifted up on the forked stick—an animate body lifted aloft on a wooden structure—as looking something like a crucifix. And, our Lord related precisely this similarity when He explained to Nicodemus the need for Baptism and predicted that God’s love for His people would move Him to sacrifice “His only-begotten Son ... so that the world might be saved through Him”—“as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that those who believe in Him may not perish but may have life everlasting.” The Sacrifice of the Cross and its Eucharistic analog in the Mass would cure God’s new people of sin, just as the serpent lifted up cured his people of old from the punishment for their lack of trust in His providence.
It likewise helps to understand today’s Gospel if we are familiar with the role played by the city of Jerusalem in the Old Testament. Jesus was not weeping over just any city; New York, London, or Paris, or any of the cities of the ancient world would not at all be the same. Jerusalem was the site where Abraham, the father of God’s people, prepared to offer up his beloved son Isaac in a sacrifice of obedience to God, and where God provided an alternate victim to take the place of the boy. Jerusalem was the site where Solomon built the Temple, perhaps a thousand years later. And the Temple was unique in the world, for it was the one place on earth where God would receive the sacrifices offered to Him—the one place on earth where God’s presence (the divine shekinah) would remain more or less continuously, in the Holy of Holies, until its veil was ripped from top to bottom, when the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities conspired to capture the Son of God and “lift Him up” to the death of the Cross. At the time Jesus wept over it, Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Temple was God’s home on earth.
The idea of the Prince of Peace going into the Temple, overturning the tables, and chasing the sellers and the money changers out with a whip is almost incomprehensible to us unless we appreciate the zeal of the Old Testament Jew for the holiness of God’s most unique house of prayer.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all recount the weeping of Jesus over Jerusalem, and His prophecy that it was soon to be destroyed—as it was by the Romans about thirty-five years later under Vespacian and Titus. John doesn’t mention it, for his Gospel was written after the fact, when the destruction of Jerusalem was no longer prophecy but had become recent history. But all four evangelists relate the fact that Jesus had driven the money changers from the Temple.
The Old Testament, you see, helps us to understand the events of the New. There are many other examples—many cases in which the Apostles and Evangelists refer to things revealed by God to the Jews, hundreds or thousands of years earlier, and then being fulfilled in the events surrounding our Lord Jesus Christ.
But perhaps the greatest value of being familiar with both Testaments lies in being able to see the contrast, and the opportunity presented by that contrast. We spoke about this last week, but it is often worth repeating. In the Old Testament God regarded His people much as an employer regards his paid workers; they do their work, he pays their wages, and at the end of the day both go home and forget about each other until the next work day. But, in the New Testament, God allows us to become His adopted sons and daughters. He does not send snakes to punish us; instead of the brass serpent we have the crucifix and Holy Mass. He does not drive us out of His house with a whip, but invites us in to share His home, and to enjoy His divine company in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Thankfully, God is faithful and generous to His sons and daughters. He still expects much of us, but He expects it as a father from a child, and not as a master from a servant. There will be trials upon this earth; life will not always be smooth and pleasant. Jesus tells us that there will even be persecutions at times: “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
But in spite of all the difficulties we may encounter, and even the hostility of those hate Jesus Christ, and His Father in heaven, we have a promise that He will be with His faithful ones “even to the consummation of the world.”
Perhaps if we look back at all the difficulties endured by the people of the Old Testament and the New, and we see God’s continuing patronage and protection, and even His Fatherly love for us, we will accept with faith what Saint Paul tells us today:
“God is faithful, and will not permit you to be tempted beyond your strength, but with temptation will also give you a way out so that you may bear it.” God always gives His grace to those who are willing to cooperate with it.
 Epistle: 1 Corinthians x: 6-13.
 Deuteronomy viii: 15; Wisdom xvi: 5 1 Corinthians x: 9; John iii: 14.
 John iii: 14-16.
 Genesis xxii: 2; conjecturally about 2000 B.C.
 About 970 B.C.
 Matthew xxi: 12-16; Mark xi: 15-18; Luke xix: 45-48; John ii: 13-17
 John xv: 20.
 Matthew xxviii: 20.