Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Covenant Curses and the Messiah

While rereading St Athanasius' On the Incarnation to teach from it in class tonight, I came across a very interesting passage that I'd not noticed before (para. 35):
But perhaps, having heard the prophecy of his death, you ask to learn what is indicated regarding the cross.  For not even this is passed over in silence; but is expounded with great clarity by the saints.  For first Moses, in a loud voice, predicts it saying, 'You will see your life hanging before your eyes, and you will not believe' (Deut. 28.66).
This rather caught me off guard: how could I have missed such a stark Christological note in Deuteronomy? Looking it up in the ESV, however, I noticed that it was translated:
Your life shall hang in doubt before you.
While it is feasible to get the same sense from this as the Saint does, it is a bit of a stretch.  However, in the LXX (closer to the version that St Athanasius would have used) we have this:
Your life shall hang before your eyes...and you will not believe in your life.
St Athanasius, reading the Scriptures christologically, sees here a potent prophecy against those of the Jewish Faith as to why they don't believe.  We might fruitfully connect this to Romans 9-11, where St Paul's argument is precisely why this is currently the case and the role of the Gentiles (such as the Alexandrian bishop) to rectify the situation.  It is, rather than being a terror passage of Calvinism, a hopeful statement of our co-labor with God in Christ.

What is particularly of interest to me, though, is the connection this makes between the covenant curses found in Deuteronomy 28 and the Cross.  Just as He had warned Adam, so YHWH warns the ancient Israelites: this is the consequence of rejecting Life in Me.  Being separated from our Life in God leads, naturally, to death: from dust we are and to dust we must return.  Man, whether as an individual or as a people, is not naturally immortal: we become immortal by sharing in the eternal life who is God.  The curses, then, are not threats (just as Adam was not threatened, but warned) -- they are an eschatological declaration of what happens when we break the communion with Life.  Corruption, then, is the tendency of all things when separated from the Communion of Christ.  St Paul, again, will pick this up as a prophecy of how the Gentiles will come to the Faith, followed again by the Jews in Romans.  What is fascinating to me is that the Cross is found smack dab in the midst of the curses: they are not general "this will happen any time someone sins" in Deuteronomy, but they are a specific prophecy, given all the way back on the edge of the Promised Land, for what will happen in Christ for the salvation of the whole world.

This means that the point of the curses, in the end, is not juridicial (curses come to satisfy the wrath of God); rather, they are eschatological -- Israel's calling is to go through, in the Person of her Messiah and King, the death of Adam and so liberate the world from the power of sin and death.  She would not, though, understand this ("you will not believe in your Life") and so will have the hard tasks of bringing Adam's sin to the full.  Instead of merely seeking to be "like God" in a way other than that already ordained by God Himself (Gen. 1:26), they will seek to usurp God by putting Him to death.  In that fulfillment, what St Paul calls the condemnation "of sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3), God Himself will trample down death and call all to Himself to partake of the freedom of the sons of God (8:21, etc.).


Virgil T. Morant said...

Nice post. I'm curious. Was the LXX translation you consulted the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint edition?

Russ Warren said...

It was from the OSB, which, if I remember correctly, does use the SAA. I'll look it up when I get to work, just to confirm.