TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 21: God’s Redemptive Work: Covenant and Incarnation

Question C: How does the covenant relationship deepen and transform morality?

1. First, the relationship of the old covenant draws all human life into its context—the context of the relationship with God. Harmony with God, religion, is universally recognized as a human good even outside the covenant relationship, but apart from that relationship it need not be considered the most basic form of harmony. However, the revelation recorded in the Old Testament at once makes it clear that this relationship has primacy. If its perfection is pursued consistently and diligently, every other human good will be served; but if harmony with God is not placed first, nothing else in life will go well. This point is made explicitly in the summary of the law and demand that God be loved above all else (see Dt 6.1–9).

2. Second, the relationship into which Yahweh draws Israel causes God’s people to share in some way in his qualities. Throughout the Old Testament, the primary characteristics displayed by God are loving-kindness and faithfulness; Yahweh is a God of mercy and truth. Moreover, God makes it clear that he wills to act toward humankind not only in conformity with sound human standards of morality but in a way which goes beyond them. He also makes it clear that his people are to imitate him: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lv 19.2). The rest of the chapter which opens with this injunction shows the practical significance of Yahweh’s character for the morality of Israel.7

3. Third, the covenant relationship deepens the moral insights available to humankind. The richness of almost all the basic human goods is unfolded in many ways as human possibilities are opened up. The dignity of human persons, the sanctity of life, the pricelessness of wisdom, and so on are shown ever more clearly in the Old Testament, as the implications of the teaching that human beings are created in God’s image and likeness are explored (see Gn 1.26–27; 9.6; Ps 8.5–6; Wis 7.13–8.8; Sir 15.11–20).

4. Finally, the covenant community provides a fresh perspective for criticizing all conventional morality. No society’s accepted moral standards, not even those of Israel, are beyond question; God judges the ways of all humankind and finds them wanting. Such moral criticism, carried out only gradually in the Old Testament, is pressed farthest by the prophets. Moreover, in the face of repeated disasters to God’s people themselves and nearly universal pessimism in pagan thought about the human condition, the prophets proclaim their hope for a new Jerusalem in which all nations would find salvation.8

7. The transforming impact of revelation on morality is made clear especially in this respect but also in others by Matthew J. O’Connell, S.J., “The Concept of Commandment in the Old Testament,” Theological Studies, 21 (1960), 351–403.

8. Blocks of prophetic material contain criticism of the morality of the pagans (see, e.g., Is 13–23; Jer 46–51; Ez 25–32). The proclamation of a universal hope for salvation is found not in any general speculation about the human condition but in the vision of Jerusalem, saved by Yahweh, serving as the principle of salvation for the nations (see, e.g., Is 60). On these points, see B. D. Napier, “Prophet,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 3:910–20; Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 100–101, 258–63.