If we claim to be under a New Covenant, we must say something about the old. We must explain the Old. Why did it exist? Was it insufficient to its purpose? Why has it been superseded?
I’ll address the first question (the why) here. Perhaps tomorrow’s look at the Hebrews passage will help shed some light on the others. The Old Covenant can be seen to do three things: teach morality, identify sin, and establish a pattern of sacrifice and atonement. In order:
The Old Covenant, as embodied in the Law of Moses, sets forth a standard of behavior. Some of these, such as reproductive, dietary, and hygiene-related laws, were historically specific, providing people in a Bronze/Iron Age environment in the Near East with patterns of cleanliness and health that would help stave off infection and plague. Others capture a core set of restrictions necessary for any group of people to sustain a government and a society: dont’ steal, don’t kill, don’t lie, etc. Still others make explicit the ‘moral code’ we talk about common to all humans, this sense that there is a right and wrong and that given behaviors fall on one or the other side of that line. These are the kinds of rules that you’ll find in most law codes throughout the modern and ancient world, the Law of Moses included. This is not exhaustive, and some of these categories no doubt overlap, but this is an idea of how the Old Covenant acts as a teacher of morality to God’s people.
Additionally, the Old Covenant convicts people of their sinfulness. As Paul so deftly points out, sin is a slippery concept without the Law. Only by setting aside certain behaviors and attitudes as unacceptable can we all realize that we invariably and continually fall short of God’s holiness. If the New Covenant is the good news of the Gospel, the solution to the problem of sin, then the Old Covenant provides the question, the tension that needs to be solved.
Lastly, the Old Covenant establishes a precedent (a pattern, even) of sacrifice, priesthood, atonement, and salvation. It sets forth the language and the mechanisms to understand how we stand in relation to God and how our sin separates us from Him. It lays out how that sin is removed and gives us the necessary concepts to recognize and understand Jesus’ redeeming death and resurrection.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 … a thought experiment* …
Listen up, you should know that the days of democracy and freedom in the United States are coming to a close. It’s going to be very different around here. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are antiquated documents from a time bearing little to no relation to our own. The men who wrote those documents, who argued for the freedoms you all enjoy, made some assumptions about you that have not proven sound. In other words, you let them down. They thought you would use freedom as a means to pursue virtue; you haven’t. They thought that you could conduct yourselves in such a way that your way of life would become a beacon that led the rest of humanity to a better place; you couldn’t. In retrospect, these were foolish and naive assumptions, rendering the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights deeply flawed documents unfit for serving as a foundation for rational government in today’s world.
A new government based on a new philosophy is in order. Gone are the ridiculous assumptions about people being made equal. Gone are the guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Gone is the ridiculous charade of choosing leaders. Once rid of these outdated ideas and priorities, people will be able to live together in peace and security. The US will dissolve and submit to a global hierarchy of regulators and experts. There will be no need to petition the government or stand trial for crimes because the government will always know what you need and what you’ve done. Utopia is coming. The past is gone.
Now, I thought about leaving this to stand alone as my post today, but I didn’t think it worth the misunderstandings that might arise. What I wanted to do, though, is capture some of the shock and offense that the Jews of the first century might have had in reaction to all this language about a New Covenant.
Perhaps even in Jeremiah’s time, people would have been offended by the passages I link to above. But definitely Paul and our author’s comments about a New Covenant being established to take the place of the old is offensive and shocking to Jews in a way that I don’t think most of us would readily grasp. We think, ‘Oh, okay. So they are being told that all the hoops they had to jump through are no longer needed. That has to be good news. At worst, they might feel a bit disoriented about what proper religion is supposed to look like, but that’s not too big a deal.’
But this ignores the fact that the Covenant of Abraham and Moses was more than a set of rules or religious rituals. They form the very identity of the Jewish people. What it means to be Jewish is to have this arrangement set out by God especially for you to interact with Him as His chosen people. Jeremiah and Paul and our author are attacking the very core tenet of Jewish identity.
What is more central to the identity of modern Americans than the enlightenment values of democracy, equality, freedom, and liberty? We are not a nation based on common ethnic ties. We are not a nation based on struggle against outside oppression. We are a country whose very existence is justified by the principles enshrined in our founding documents. To be an American is to represent this idea of mankind and human nature. To insult these things and sweep them away is to destroy any concept of what it means to be an American. Only thinking of the New Covenant language this way can, I think, give the modern reader (at least the modern American reader) the proper sense of how jarring and offensive this language is to the audience of Hebrews.
* Which means nothing in the following two paragraphs represents the real opinions or analyses of NatNav or anyone that the NatNav community considers a respectable thinker.
Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.
— Weight of Glory, ‘Learning in War-Time’
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would have indeed been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
Philosophy is central to our author’s argument this week, specifically the distinction between noumena and phenomena. Noumena are abstract ideals or essential concepts; phenomena are manifestations of the noumena that can be perceived with the senses.
If you’ve ever heard of Plato’s cave, this essentially the central element to his illustration. In the cave, people are strapped down to chairs and can only look forward onto a blank wall where shapes move around that are silhouettes of models and puppets that are being backlit by a fire in the rear of the audience. (It’s very similar in design to a modern movie theater, really.) Those models and puppets are of trees and people and animals and every real thing you’d find outside the cave in the real world. But to the people strapped into the chairs in the cave, those shadows of models of real things are all the reality they will ever know. They cannot perceive (or likely conceive) of anything more real than the dancing black blob on a blank wall in front of them. The people-shaped shadows are people as far as they will ever understand. The interactions of the shapes on the wall are the world as they know it.
Now, Plato was making a political point about philosopher kings and who should rule, but the concept became central to Platonic philosophy through the centuries. The shadows are phenomena; they are the perceivable reality. The real trees/people/animals/etc. that the puppets are based on are noumena; they are (to the cave-bound viewer) abstract forms which are unknowable except through the crude translation of the phenomena.
The argument this week about the Tabernacle and the Heavenly throne room is that the Tabernacle is a phenomenal form of the noumenal Heavenly reality. The only way we can understand and conceive of the throne room is through the process of translating it into an object perceivable by the senses. Exodus does this by using acacia wood and precious stones and metals and precise measurements. Revelation does this by using words that conjure visions of clouds and mirrors and jewels and hybrid creatures. It’s no less a phenomenon because it’s a figurative vision; John saw these things, and that means that the vision was a translation of the reality.
It follows that a noumenon such as God’s dwelling place would be superior in every way to any phenomenon that is a translation. For something as pure as God and Heaven, any translation is going to imply a degree of corruption. What our author is saying in Hebrews is that the Levitical priesthood and the rituals and sacrifices of the Old Covenant are corrupted phenomena that imperfectly represent the Heavenly reality of atonement and justification and communion with God.
The one time noumenon and phenomenon have been united is in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not corrupted by the Incarnation, but He was perceivable to the human senses. Jesus, and the Kingdom He inaugurates, is a meeting point between noumena and phenomena, between Heaven and Earth, between eternity and creation. As such, He is far superior to the Old Covenant of which He is the culmination, the Old Covenant that points (however imperfectly and corruptly translated) to Him.
Yesterday, I noted how the plan of the Tabernacle as laid out in Exodus is patterned after the throne of God in Heaven. Today, the passage in Revelation (and the two bonus passages in the link*) is an attempt by a sinful, mortal man to describe the scene within the severe limitations of human language and understanding.
We get creatures with multiple animal heads covered in eyes. We get fire and glass and jewels and haze. It seems like God had His throne room designed by David Lynch or Tim Burton. Also, unless I missed something, there are no multi-species/multi-headed, eye-covered creatures mentioned in Exodus; so where’s the similarity that we would expect to be borne out if the Tabernacle was patterned after God’s dwelling place in Heaven?
The first thing I have to remind myself is that the Tabernacle is a model of the Heavenly throne room, not an exact replica. What’s in Heaven is not going to actually be on Earth until the end of history. Until then, we get analogies and models and patterns.
Additionally, I have to remember that John’s description here is not a complete depiction of the reality that he saw in his vision. His understanding and language limit his ability to describe what he saw and force him to pass it through the interpretive lens of his words. It’s like Lewis says with Jesus described as ascending to Heaven or walking through walls to where the disciples were eating dinner. Did he really go up to Heaven the way a balloon goes up into the sky? Did he really walk through walls, either dematerializing on one side and materializing on the other or passing through the wall via osmosis? Who knows? All we do know is that the prepositions we’re limited to, like ‘up’ and ‘through,’ best capture the reality that was seen by the disciples on those occasions. The post-Resurrection Jesus, like the Heavenly throne room, inhabits a spiritual plane, a dimension for which we have no normal frame of reference, no prepared set of prepositions.
Because of this, we can look at both the Tabernacle described in Exodus and the throne room described in Revelation as interpretations of the reality of God’s presence, some degree removed from the real thing.
* Fifty Nat-points to the first person to identify the bonus passages by book!
Ah, Tabernacle dimensions; everyone’s favorite part of Exodus. Experience the thrill as we find out just how much acacia wood is required to build a proper ark. Dazzle your friends as you tell them how many almond blossom-shaped candle cups are required for the lampstand. Laugh derisively at the yokels unaware of how wide the gold-molded rim around the bread table should be.*
But note the verses that I’ve linked to above. The key word repeated in both v. 9 and v. 40 is ‘pattern.’ This detailed set of instructions, and much of the mind-numbing minutiae to come in the next few books, isn’t meant to be a recipe for access to holiness, or some kind of secret formula without which the Israelites cannot experience God. He gives them this template because it is patterned after His throne room in Heaven. He is having them recreate a dwelling place for Him on earth as a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven descending to earth to be a venue for man’s communion with God. More on this as we proceed this week.
I will admit, in the interest of honesty, that knowing this doesn’t make the minutiae any more interesting or seem any more worth reading…
* Everyone who’s anyone knows it’s a hands-breadth. Duh!
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.