Mystery in the Old Testament
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
Sacramentum is a Latin word that is a vow or an oath to a sovereign authority. When St. Jerome translated the Vulgate from Greek into Latin, he translated the Greek word mysterion into Sacramentum, which is translated as Sacrament in English. The simple meaning of mysterion is a mystery or something hidden. God’s mode of existence is a mystery to our limited understanding, but God does not leave us in ignorance. God reveals certain aspects of himself to us out of a desire for us to be in better relationship with him.
Mysterion can refer to several different aspects of the mysteries of God. Most fundamentally it can refer to how God is present in his creation and how we can know and relate to him. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “God is in all things; not, indeed as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works” (Aquinas, ST I, Q 8, A 1, co). Additionally, mysterion are the aspects of God that would be hidden from us unless he chooses to reveal them and the ways that we should respond to him in our rites and ordinances.
God’s very first act in the Bible gives us a very important hint about him and his presence in his creation. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void” (Genesis 1:1-2). We first see that this is a God who has the power to create all contingent beings out of nothing. This may make us wonder why such a powerful, transcendent being would bother to create anything at all. This is a God that relies on nothing for his existence and hence does not need to create.
As we follow the stories of creation, God gives us an idea as to why He chooses to create. He creates many things and he sees that they were good. His creation participates in his goodness. He not only creates in the beginning, but he continues to be present in a mysterious way to all of his creation to maintain them in existence. He calls his creation good until he gets to the pinnacle of the physical world which is man. He creates man in his own image and about this creation He says that it is very good (Genesis 1:27-31). God desired to communicate his goodness through his creation. He loves everything into existence and he shares it especially with men that we might know his love and his glory.
God created us as physical, sensual beings. He is also the source of the goods we need to know His love for us, both physically and spiritually. We rely completely on God for our wellbeing. Nonetheless, shortly after our creation our first parents decided to trust themselves more than God. They disobey God and thus sin and death enter the world (Genesis 3:6). Our relationship to God was damaged.
However, the story of God’s love was not over. No matter how foolish or selfish man is, God calls us back to Himself in love. God called Abram to be the father of his people- sending him from his own country (Genesis 12:1-3). Although Abram did not fully understand the Lord, he was faithful and allowed God to work through him. God worked through Abram to begin to bring about our redemption and restore our relationship with him.
From the time of Abram to the time of Moses, God slowly leads his people back into a right relationship with himself. We can see how he revealed religious truths to his people and to us via the Church and Scripture. He tells us how he created the world and points us toward why. He patiently shows us how things went wrong, and in Moses he gives us a special glimpse into a piece of his nature and foreshadows how he will redeem the world.
In Exodus, God calls Moses to free his people just as the Lord will send his son to free us from sin. However, Moses is reluctant and does not think the people will listen to him. He asks God who he should say sent him. “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’” (Exodus 3:14). With this, God revealed a shocking aspect of his identity. God is not a being; God is being itself! Being itself loves us and wants us to be redeemed. This first redemption from slavery to the Egyptians foreshadows a later release from slavery to sin.
God reaches down to us by using the physical world to communicate with us. He demonstrated his power instrumentally through Moses to Pharaoh and also to us. He first showed his power by changing Moses’s staff into a serpent as well as giving him the ability to change his hand from leprous to clean and back again (Exodus 4:1-9). God used Moses to show he had the power to control the physical world he created. God revealed to Moses both his transcendence and his immanence. He is above all contingent beings and at the same time He deigns to work in the world.
Similarly, God shows himself to be in control in the book of Daniel. In a dream, God warns King Nebuchadnez′zar that the kingdoms of the world will be thrown down and a great kingdom will rise who will never be destroyed (Daniel 2:1-3). However, the Lord hides the content of the dream in signs and symbols. It is only through the interpretation that God gives to Daniel that his plans are revealed (Daniel 2:36-45). God shows his mysterious plan to the Babylonians, but reveals its truth through Daniel.
Having seen various ways that God is revealed in the world, both as to who he is and also how he can work in the world, we must also consider how we should respond to him. A relationship requires persons to commune with each other. In the Old Testament, worship of God required sacrifice. We take something of value and destroy it to make atonement for the wrong we have done.
After the great flood, Noah built an altar and made an offering to the Lord (Genesis 8:20). Noah was saved from the flood and his first act is to offer to God in thanksgiving. The text indicates that Noah was correct to do so by describing God as being pleased. Thus, Noah uses a physical sacrifice to communicate his contrition and thanksgiving to God.
Later, when Abram wonders when and how God will fulfill his promise to make his descendants as numerous as the stars. God specifically instructs him to bring “a heifer... a she-goat... a ram... a turtledove... and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9). Abram does as instructed and he sacrifices them to the Lord, driving away all the scavengers. Abram makes sacrifice to the Lord to show his trust. The Lord then sends a dream to Abram that night to show how he would fulfill his promises. Thus, Abram uses the world to respond to God and God demonstrates his power by sending a dream to Abram.
However, the sacrifice is not just an external action. It requires an interior disposition; the physical action reflects that interior conversion. In the book of Numbers, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rise against Moses and insisted that they were equal to Moses and Aaron (16:1-3). Pride had filled their hearts and they demanded to be priests and made offerings to the Lord. However, God did not accept their sacrifice because it was not made in contrition and humility. They demanded to be priests, but did not realize that the Priesthood is a gift bestowed by God upon whom he will.
Similarly, in the book of Samuel Eli’s sons were priests. However, they desired only to enrich themselves instead of honoring God (1 Samuel 2:28-29). Their sacrifices were worthless because they were made for the wrong reasons. Our ordinances and rites need to demonstrate turning our hearts to God. They should help us relate to God more closely in love with the fullness of truth.
God is mysterious to our limited intellect. His presence in the world and his identity are shrouded. However, he does not leave us without hope. He reveals to us through the Church, both in Scripture and Tradition, hints about his identity, his presence, and his plans for us. Through the matter of the world he communicates to us about himself and demonstrates our need to be in relationship with him to more fully understand him and our end in him. Just as God uses the external world to demonstrate his glory to us, our external actions need to accompany an interior conversion toward him.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, Kevin Knight, 2017, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/. Accessed 3 March 2020
The Holy Bible. Rev. Standard Version, Meridian, 1962.