Much of this text is drawn from Deuteronomy 28:10, and the phrase “the first to hear the word of God” is now included in the Great Intercessions in the Catholic Good Friday service. In Catholic worship the phrase replaces the most unfortunate description of the Jews as “perfidious,” the official text until well into the 1960’s. Paragraph 63 continues the “rolling out” of God’s revelation in the people of Israel.
The 1993 movie “Gettysburg” portrays the heroics of, among others, a Maine college professor named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (played by Jeff Daniels) who leads the Maine regimen in a dramatic tactical move to defeat the Alabama forces at Little Round Top. Historians agree that this tactic, which Chamberlain had read in a Greek history book, saved the Union Army from a crushing defeat at Gettysburg. (A clip of Chamberlain’s dramatic moment is available here on YouTube.) The next day Chamberlain is summoned by the Union field commander, Benjamin Scott Hancock, who has now heard of the professor’s feat.
Hancock asked Chamberlain what he taught at Bowdoin College (Maine). Chamberlain replied that “I am a professor of rhetoric and natural and revealed religion.” I found it interesting that Bowdoin’s curriculum of 1863 made the distinction between “natural” and “revealed” religion, given that the 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church follows something of the same format. For many months, we discussed what man can know about himself and about God from the natural world around us and from the fashion in which man’s capacities have been formed by God.
Revealed religion as understood by Judaism, Christianity, and some other world religions, is another base of information, and this is where we presently find ourselves in the Catechism study. Revelation or revealed religion assumes the natural instinctive understanding of God and reality and proceeds to a deeper realm of divine knowledge that is transmitted in history, data so to speak that would not be available to the mind of even the greatest philosopher. The Judeo-Christian tradition has understood Revelation or revealed religion as God’s interactions with Israel and its Christian sons and daughters of the Apostolic era. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are the written narratives of the experience with the divine thought and deeds of God.
For this reason, the Catechism—as is true with catechetics in general—begins with encounter with God’s Revelation, and the work of theology in general is understanding and explaining this Revelation to present and potential believers. One of the interesting things about the Bible is the evident hand of theologizing by its composers. The Book of Deuteronomy, the source text for para. 63, is an excellent example of the “rolling out” of God’s revelation in history.
The first five books of the Hebrew Scripture—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are collectively known as the Pentateuch (from penta, five). In Jesus’ day, the shorthand of discourse for the Scripture would have been “the Law and the Prophets,” though the Hebrew canon of inspired books contained other works as well, such as the Psalms. The Pentateuch is not simply a code of laws; Genesis combines pre-history and early factual history of the age of the Patriarchs, and much of Exodus is the delivery of the Israelites from slavery. The Law as such begins with Moses’ descent from Sinai with the tablets, the essence of the contract between God and his special chosen people Israel.
Deuteronomy is part of this Law ensemble, but it presents something of an advancement in understanding of the Law itself. It is written as a summary discourse delivered by Moses before the entry of the Chosen People into the promised land. Deuteronomy describes the death and burial of Moses, a point that undermines the longstanding belief that Moses authored the Pentateuch. A summary address on the Law and the deliverance of Israel by Moses seems fitting enough. What intrigues scholars is that the Law described in Deuteronomy is evolved some from the earlier texts of the Pentateuch. In fact, the English name “Deuteronomy” means “second law.”
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary 1990 commentator Joseph Bleckinsopp observes that the Deuteronic Law is an effort of special care in the regulation of life, and that there are changes in law governing slavery, for example, and much more in line with what we might call prophetic justice—on the side of the disadvantaged classes. (p. 95) Bleckinsopp goes on to describe Deuteronomy as “the mature formulation” of the Law described in the previous work. Deuteronomy is described as “utopian.” Or what Israel might look like if it maintained full observance of the prophetic vision of Law.
Deuteronomy was composed many years after the events it describes. While precision is never a given in such studies, there seems to be a connection between Deuteronic law and the exile of 589 B.C., when much of Israel was deported to Babylon. The Exile was a time of deep reflection for Israelites, and there is conjecture that Deuteronomy may have been composed during the Exile years or shortly after the return to Jerusalem in 539 B.C. Chastened by the experience, the sacred authors sought to recalibrate the intention of the Law.
Bleckinsopp comments that one of the most important aspects of Deuteronomy is its association between people and land, or as he puts it, “One God, one people, one sanctuary.” It is true that after the Exile the Israelites put great energy into rebuilding the Temple (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah) as well as in the discovery of the Law and its solemn reading at the Water Gate. In the Sunday Gospel of November 6 this year, the disciples in Luke’s text comment to Jesus about the glories of the Temple, then being expanded by King Herod. Jesus uses their marvel as the point of origin for his description of the horrors of the last days, when one stone would not rest upon another.
It is not surprising, then, that in discussing the Revelation of God to Israel, the Catechism draws from Deuteronomy, which serves as summary piece for the kind of holiness God had longed for in his chosen people.