7 Unexpected Ways the Old Testament Prefigures Mary

As Catholics, we are familiar with how Mary is the New Eve — as well as the many ways that the other women of ancient Israel look forward to the Mother of God. But Mary is also prefigured in some unexpected parts of the Old Testament. Here are seven of them.

Noah’s ark.

We tend to think of the wooden ark that saved humanity from destruction as a type of the cross. (A type is commonly defined as a person, place, event, or thing in the Old Testament that prefigures something in the New.) But some also see it as a type of Mary. For example, St. Alphonsus Liguori envisions Mary as being ‘more spacious’ than the ark. Also, the ark was spared universal destruction due to sin and Mary was preserved from original sin. Moreover, the ark was a refuge for Noah just as Mary is for us (source here).

Jacob’s ladder.

Though the text of Genesis 28 might not have an obvious Marian link, there is a deep-seated association between Jacob’s ladder and Mary in both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. This icon of Mary shows four scenes from the Old Testament which foreshadow the Incarnation in some way. In the lower right is Jacob’s ladder.

Mary is the ladder by which we ascend to God. And, she is also the ladder “through whom the glory of God descended from Heaven to earth and was incarnate as Jesus Christ,” as one guide to the icon explains. Christ is the Mediator and Mary is the medium through which such mediation occurs. She is the sacred space within which God and man intermingle. (Pope Pius IX’s encyclical Ineffabilis Deus also mentions Jacob’s ladder, among many other biblical types, including the one below.)

The burning bush.

The Akathist hymn of the Eastern Orthodox Church proclaims,

“The great mystery of your childbirth did Moses perceive within the burning bush. The youth vividly prefigured this, standing in the midst of fire and remaining unconsumed, O undefiled and holy Virgin. We praise you therefore in hymns to the ages.”

Moreover, the burning bush is also a figure for both the manner in which Mary gave birth as a virgin and carried the divine while remaining human, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. This symbolism is what is behind the mysterious icons of Mother of God of the Unburnt Bush. (See my previous article on this here.)

Ark of the Covenant.

This might seem like one of the stranger types. But it’s actually pretty solid biblically speaking. A close analysis of the Greek text of Luke’s account of the Visitation shows that the gospel writer wove in language from Old Testament accounts of how the ark of the covenant was venerated. (See my previous article here.)

And the woman who appears in Revelation 12 ‘clothed with the sun’ and crowned with the star comes immediately after the ark of the covenant was shown in heaven at the end of Revelation 11, thus confirming the connection. (And remember, when Scripture was written, it did not have chapters and verses.) Just as the ark of the covenant held the Ten Commandments, the word of God, so also Mary bore the Word of God Incarnate.

The cloud of Elijah.

This one is easy to miss. At the end of Elijah 18, after the book’s titular prophet has vanquished the prophets of Baal and ended a drought, he goes up to Mt. Carmel and issues an odd order to his servant: to look out over the sea. The servant sees nothing, yet is repeatedly instructed to go back. Only on the seventh venture does he spy something: “There is a cloud as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea.” Upon hearing this, Elijah notifies Ahab—who is nearby—to leave the mountain before the impending rain comes. Now that might seem unlikely given such a small cloud, but that’s exactly what happens at the end of the chapter.

An interesting and bizarre story, to be sure—but is it Marian? A number of interpreters say yes. Here is one explanation: “Mary is the cloud that rises out of the sea. The sea is saltwater, undrinkable, a vast body of water, next to which the kingdom can still thirst and die. The sea is salty, impure, an image of fallen humanity with its admixture of sin. Mary rises out of this sea, pure and perfect, laden with the water of grace that will pour out through her to all humanity.”

The shut door of the temple.

Some interpreters also discern a type of Mary in Ezekiel’s vision of the temple. Here are the key verses:

“Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary facing east, but it was closed. The LORD said to me: ‘This gate must remain closed; it must not be opened, and no one should come through it. Because the LORD, the God of Israel, came through it, it must remain closed’” (Ezekiel 44:1-2).

The imagery here is readily explainable in Marian terms. Just as the temple of the Old Testament was the place where God’s presence was manifested on earth, so also Mary was the site of God’s Incarnation on earth. These verses particularly hint at Mary’s perpetual virginity. As one scholar explains,

“According to the most accredited exegetical Tradition, this door is the intact virginity of Mary, which before, during and after divine childbirth ‘has always kept intact the virginal seal, as a door sealed, to remain always closed,’ all the more so because, as St. Ambrose says, ‘Christ has passed through it, but not opened it.’”

There is a certain irony at work here. Mary is the ladder — one might also say the portal or opening — between heaven and earth. Yet she is also closed off in a certain sense. She is pure accessibility while remaining entirely untouched. In her then, we see a figure for the Incarnation itself, in which God came to us while remaining unseen in His essence.

The gate of heaven.

Several Old Testament passages talk about a gate to heaven. Psalm 24:9 cries out, “Lift up your heads, O gates; rise up, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter.” Likewise, there is Isaiah 26:2, “Open up the gates that a righteous nation may enter, one that keeps faith.” There is a kind of expectant joy in these verses—one that is distinctly Marian. In both cases the writers demand the opening of the gate knowing that it will be answered—kind of like how an army that reclaims its homeland returns to the city gates.

In Mary, we have confidence and joy because the Incarnation that occurred through her has already assured believers of victory. Just as salvation has entered the world through Mary we may now enter paradise through her. (My source for this type is here.)

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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