A friend of mine once called the Catechism of the Catholic Church the “bible” of Catholicism. If that seems like a ridiculous way to describe it, you’re right. It is ridiculous, and my friend knew it. There is only one bible in the Catholic faith, and that’s the actual Bible. However, there was a method to my friend’s madness; he was using a common figure of speech. When we say that a book is the “bible” of a particular subject, we mean that it tells you everything you need to know about that subject. For example, if I tell you that a certain book is the “bible” of fly fishing, I’m saying that it tells you everything you need to know about how to fly fish.
And in this sense, my friend was actually correct. As a summary of Catholic teaching, the Catechism is the “bible” of Catholicism; it summarizes everything we believe. However, this raises a question: why do we have the actual Bible? If the Catechism is our summary of what we believe, then what role do the Scriptures play in our faith? The answer is that the Bible is more than just a list of doctrines or a depository of things we’re supposed to believe. Rather, it’s a story. It’s the story of how God created a good world, how we messed that world up by sinning, and how God plans to save his children and bring us back to him. Simply put, the Bible is the story of salvation history. It’s the history of God’s dealings with mankind, a chronicle of his plan to bring his children to the goal for which he made us.
Adam and Eve
The first book of the Bible tells us that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and that fact has traditionally been one of the cornerstones of the Church’s understanding of our nature and dignity. Being made in God’s image means several things, but I want to focus on just one: we’re his sons and daughters. Later on in Genesis, when Adam and Eve have a third son to replace Abel (who was murdered by his brother Cain), we read:
“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” (Genesis 5:1-3)
By reminding us that mankind was created in God’s image and likeness, this passage is subtly implying that Seth’s relation to his father Adam sheds light on Adam’s relation to God. In other words, since Seth is made in his father’s image, it stands to reason that Adam is made in God’s image because he is God’s son. Consequently, because we are all made in God’s image, we are all his children, and just like any children, we are supposed to live in loving harmony with our heavenly father.
Unfortunately, our first parents did not live up to this high calling. God gave them free rein to eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden except one, and then they went and ate from that one tree (Genesis 2:16-17, 3:1-6). This was the world’s first sin, and it fractured Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. They no longer lived in complete, loving harmony with him, as symbolized by their expulsion from Eden (Genesis 3:23-24), so God had to formulate a plan to rescue his wayward children and bring them back into his family.
The Role of Israel
God kicked off this plan by calling a man named Abraham and promising him, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:3). Genesis doesn’t tell us what this means, but the New Testament explains it for us. St. Paul says that it was a foretelling of the Gospel (Galatians 3:8), so it was actually a promise to save the entire human race from the predicament of sin and death it had gotten itself into.
God later reiterated this same promise, but he clarified that he would actually save the world through Abraham’s descendants, not Abraham himself (Genesis 22:18). He then gave this same promise to Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and to Isaac’s son Jacob (Genesis 28:14). This is significant because Jacob had twelve sons, and those sons became the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 49:1-28). In other words, by promising to rescue humanity through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God was promising to save mankind through the nation of Israel.
As a result, when God chose Israel as his special people, he didn’t do so because he loved them more than the other nations or because they were different in any way. No, he chose them for the sake of those other nations. They were supposed to be his instruments to save the rest of humanity.
The Fall and Rise of Israel
Unfortunately, like Adam and Eve, Israel too failed to live up to its calling. The Israelites were supposed to evangelize the nations and bring them back to God, but instead, they let the other nations corrupt them and lead them to worship false gods. Consequently, they became just as sinful as the rest of mankind, so they themselves needed to be saved before they could go out and save anyone else. This continual disobedience and idolatry eventually led to their conquest and exile away from their land (2 Kings 17:7-23, 24:20, 25:21), and only a small portion of the nation ever returned. Most of the twelve tribes remained in exile, assimilated into the nations among whom they had been scattered, and only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin along with a few from some other tribes were left (Ezra 1:1-12).
This is where Jesus comes into the picture. When he began his public ministry, the story of the Old Testament was awaiting its completion. Israel was in shambles, and the Jews were anxiously looking forward to the restoration of their nation (Luke 2:25, 38). Those hopes came to fruition in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who chose twelve Apostles in order to symbolize his mission to renew the twelve tribes of Israel. Yes, he died to save all of humanity, but the first recipients of that salvation were Jews. He saved them from their sins so they could then go out to the nations and bring the Gospel, the saving benefits of his death and resurrection, to the rest of humanity.
That is why his own ministry was limited to the Jews, with only a few chance encounters with people from other nations (Matthew 15:24), but after his resurrection he told his disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). He came to restore Israel, to gather around himself a faithful core of Israelites, and then to enable that faithful core to go out and bring the salvation that he, an Israelite himself, won for the entire human race. In this way, God was able to fulfill his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would save all mankind through their descendants.
The Story Continues
But the story isn’t over yet. Through the Church, the story of salvation history continues to this day as more and more people from every nation on earth are saved from their sins and brought back into loving communion with their heavenly father (Romans 8:14-17). Furthermore, as members of various nations are brought back to God, so too are members of the lost tribes of Israel. Remember, they were assimilated into the nations among whom they were scattered, so their descendants today are non-Israelites. As a result, by saving people from all nations, the Church is also bringing members of those lost tribes back to God, thus truly restoring the nation of Israel, albeit in a totally unexpected way.
All in all, while the story of salvation history is long and winding and has many unexpected twists and turns, God has made it turn out exactly the way it was supposed to. He has found a way to remain faithful to all his children, both Israelite and non-Israelite, and that faithfulness will continue until his creation is fully restored in the new heaven and earth (Romans 8:19-22, Revelation 21:1-4). In the face of such great providence, we can’t help but repeat the words of St. Paul:
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)