In the Old Testament God chose the people of Israel and made a covenant with them as a symbol and preparation for the Church
At the General Audience of 30 October the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the mystery of the Church. The twelfth talk in the series was devoted to the Old Testament, and the Pope said that the choice of Israel as the people of God was meant as a prophetic sign of the new covenant which would come in Christ. Here is a translation of the Holy Father's address which he gave in Italian.
1. According to the Second Vatican Council, which quotes St Cyprian's text which we reflected on during the preceding catechesis, "The universal Church is seen to be 'a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit' " (Lumen Gentium, n. 4; cf. St Cyprian, De oratione dominica, 23: PL 4, 553). As we have explained, in these words the Council teaches that the Church is above all a mystery rooted in the triune God: a mystery whose primary and fundamental dimension is trinitarian. It is in relationship to the Trinity, the eternal source from which she arises, that the Church "is seen to be a people" (Lumen gentium, n. 4). Thus she is the people of God—of the triune God. We wish now to devote this catechesis and the following ones to this theme, always taking as our guiding principle the teaching of the Council, which was wholly inspired by Sacred Scripture.
2. The Council states precisely: "God has willed to make men holy and save them, not as individuals without any bond or link between them, but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness" (Lumen gentium, n. 9). This plan of God began to be revealed in the history of Abraham by the first words God spoke to him: "The Lord said to Abram: 'Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk ... to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you' " (Gn 12:1-2).
This promise was then confirmed by a covenant (Gn 15:18; 17:1-4) and solemnly proclaimed after the sacrifice of Isaac. Following God's request, Abraham was ready to sacrifice his only son whom the Lord had given to him and his wife Sarah in their old age. But God only meant to test his faith. In this sacrifice, then, Isaac did not die, but continued living. Abraham, however, had consented in his heart to the sacrifice and this sacrifice of the heart, the proof of a magnificent faith, obtained for him the promise of innumerable descendants: "I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore" (Gn 22:16-17).
3. The fulfilment of this promise was to take place in different stages. Abraham, in fact, was destined to become "the father of all who have faith" (cf. Gn 15:6; Gal 3:6-7; Rom 4:16-17). The first stage was achieved in Egypt, where "the Israelites were fruitful and prolific. They became so numerous and strong that the land was filled with them" (Ex 1:7). By now Abraham's stock had become "the Israelite people" (Ex 1:9). However, they were in the humiliating condition of slavery. Faithful to his covenant with Abraham, God called Moses and said: "I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry.... I have come down to rescue them... Come, now! I will send you ... to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt" (Ex 3:7-10).
So Moses was called to lead that people out of Egypt. However, Moses was only God's agent in fulfilling his plan, the instrument of his power, for according to the Bible God himself led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. "When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son", we read in the book of the prophet Hosea (11:1). Israel, then, is the people of God's favour: "It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations. It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers" (Dt 7:7-8). Israel was not chosen to be the People of God because of their human qualities, but solely by God's initiative.
4. The divine initiative, the Lord's sovereign choice, assumes the form of a covenant. This occurred in regard to Abraham. It occurred after the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The mediator of this covenant at the foot of Mt Sinai is Moses: "When Moses came to the people and related all the words and ordinances of the Lord, they all answered with one voice, 'We will do everything that the Lord has told us'. Moses then wrote down all the words of the Lord and, rising early the next day, he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel". Then sacrifices were offered and Moses splashed half of the blood of the sacrifice on the altar. "Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people", once again receiving from those present the promise to obey the words of God. Finally, he sprinkled the people with the other half of the blood (cf. Ex 24:3-8).
5. In the book of Deuteronomy the significance of this event is explained: "Today you are making this agreement with the Lord: he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees, and to hearken to his voice. And today the Lord is making this agreement with you: you are to be a people peculiarly his own" (Dt 26:17-18). The covenant with God is a special "promotion" for Israel. In this way Israel becomes "a people sacred to the Lord [their] God" (cf. Dt 26:19). This means that they belong to God in a special way. Even more it is a reciprocal belonging: "Then I will be your God and you shall be my people" (Jer 7:23). This is the divine arrangement. God commits himself to the covenant. All the infidelities on the people's part at the various stages of their history do not affect God's fidelity to the covenant. One can say at most that in a certain sense these infidelities open the way to the new covenant foretold in the book of the prophet Jeremiah: "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts" (Jer 31:33).
6. In virtue of the divine initiative taken in the covenant, a people becomes the People of God, and as such they are holy, i.e., sacred to the Lord God: "For you are a people sacred to the Lord, your God" (Dt 7:6; cf. Dt 26:19). The meaning of this consecration also clarifies the words of Exodus: "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Ex 19:6). Even though during the course of their history this people will commit many sins, they do not cease being the People of God. For this reason, Moses appeals to the Lord's fidelity to the covenant which he himself established and addresses a moving petition to him: "Destroy not your people, your heritage", as we read in Deuteronomy (9:26).
7. For his part, God does not cease addressing his word to the chosen people. He speaks to them many times through the prophets. The principal commandment continues to be to love God above all things: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Dt 6:5). This commandment is joined to the commandment of love for one's neighbour: "I am the Lord. You shall not defraud or rob your neighbour.... Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Lv 19:13, 18).
8. Another element appears in the biblical texts: the God who makes a covenant with Israel wants to be present among his people, present in a particular way. During the pilgrimage in the desert this presence is shown by the meeting tent. Later it is expressed by the temple which King Solomon builds in Jerusalem.
In regard to the meeting tent, we read in Exodus: "Whenever Moses went out to the tent, the people would all rise and stand at the entrance of their own tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at its entrance while the Lord spoke with Moses. On seeing the column of cloud stand at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and worship at the entrance of their own tents. The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another" (Ex 33:8-11). The gift of this presence was a special sign of divine election, which is revealed in symbolic ways and almost as the omen of a future reality: God's covenant with his new people in the Church.
L'Osservatore Romano November 4, 1991