The Great Story of Israel: Election, Freedom, Holiness by Bishop Barron

(Park Ridge: Word on Fire, 2022), 352

This is Barron's spiritual and theological commentary on the first half of the Old Testament, which grew out of the Word on Fire Bible project. You can't read or listen to Barron without coming away better informed and more attuned to the workings of God. This is one of my favorite of his works as it reveals both his great erudition and his great love for the Lord and his word.

Barron's introduction places his exegesis in context of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship that was in vogue as he came of age. Like Ratzinger, he recognizes the important contributions of this method such as how it takes seriously the historical grounding of the text. But he emphasizes that we must go beyond this method to appreciate the unity of salvation history as revealed in scripture, which is authored ultimately by God himself.

His commentary then flows from this understanding of scripture, informed especially by Vatican II and the teaching of Benedict XVI. He focuses on what God intends for the story of salvation history and he brings out the great theological themes and patterns in the text.

A first theme offered—in light of the frequent awful brutality of the Old Testament—is the natural consequence of sin. Barron calls this cause and effect a sort of "spiritual physics." Biblical punishment is not arbitrary revenge from a small-minded god, but rather a manifestation of the fundamental moral law that our actions have consequences. The great commandment of the Old Testament is the shema: God is Lord alone, and we are to worship him rather than some facet of his creation. This spiritual physics is most apparent when Israel turns away from God and elevates sometime else in God's place. The worshiping of false gods leads inevitably toward immoral behavior and social disintegration. The only thing that will satisfy the human heart ultimately is the right praise of the creator God.

Barron emphasizes how Israel is set apart for holiness, not for its own sake but for the salvation of the world. Holiness involves the state of being set apart, and through this preparation being made ready to welcome Christ the Redeemer.

Finally, Barron reads the Old Testament in light of the New and is continually drawing our attention forward to how a particular passage is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Jacob's ladder prefigures Jesus as the definitive ladder between heaven and earth, the sacrifices described in Exodus and Leviticus and enacted in the Jerusalem temple anticipate the final and definitive sacrifice offered by Jesus on the cross, Jesus's command to eat his flesh and drink his blood in John 6 reveals his divine identity when interpreted through the lens of the Levitical prohibition against consuming blood, and Jesus connects the bronze serpent lifted up in the desert to the final conquest of sin and death when he is lifted up on the cross.

Barron's commentary is not a comprehensive treatment of the Old Testament, but a rich and spiritually rewarding meditation upon some of its most important theological themes. It is a useful guide after a higher-level introduction to the Bible like Bergsma's Bible Basics for Catholics.




  • Virtues of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship:
    • It takes seriously how the Bible is grounded in history
    • It blocks the temptation to "hermeneutical whimsy", i.e. irresponsibly speculative interpretations of biblical texts
    • Respects the incarnational principle of God cooperating with his creatures (human authors) to write the Bible by stressing the role of the human author
  • Limitations of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship:
    • Loses sight of God as the principal author of the Bible by stressing the role of the human author
    • Eliminates the coherence of the Bible as a whole by atomizing individual books
      • Instead, look to the "canonical approach" that gives a unified reading of the Bible as a whole by scholars such as N.T. Wright
    • Relegates the Bible to the past rather than focusing on its universal value
    • Sees the theological tradition as a distorting overlay rather than a clarifying lens (a set of sola scriptura assumptions)
  • This commentary then:
    • Not a work of historical criticism, but draws upon the findings of that method
    • Is a "theological interpretation"
    • Assumes throughout that the prime author of the Scriptures is the Holy Spirit
    • Takes for granted a deep coherence between the various biblical texts
    • Respects the spiritual and theological tradition
    • Assumes a mutually enhancing relationship between doctrine and exegesis (with Ratzinger)
    • Reads the Old Testament consistently in light of Christ (Augustine's "the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New", cf. Dei Verbum 16 and CCC 129)


Summary: God is other and noncompetitive.

  • Genre is theological poetry: makes claims that have scientific and philosophical implications, but purpose is not scientific nor philosophical (1)
  • Time itself is a creature (2)
  • "To be in right relation to God is to acknowledge one's total dependence upon him; to be in sin is to seek to stand somewhere apart from him, to find some place where or some time when he is not." (2)
  • We learn a lot about God's nature because he is creator (2)
    • Aquinas: God as ipsum esse (to-be itself); God's very nature is to be
    • God is noncompetitive vis-à-vis his creation
    • God creates not through violence but through speech: his knowledge is active and creative, and all of creation is marked by intelligibility
  • The Parataxis of Genesis 1 creates a stately procession of creation, like a liturgical procession of ministers; human beings are last because they lead the praise (5)
  • All are creatures so nothing is to be worshipped except God (Augustine says in The Confessions that the essence of sin is turning from the Creator to creatures). "The entire scriptural story centers around this theme of right versus errant worship." (6)
  • God rests to savor what he has made: Aquinas (in Summa Theologiae 1-2.3.4) says that the two basic moves of the will are to seek the absent good and to rest in the possessed good (6-7)
  • Because the river flows out of Eden, it is a mountain, a place of encounter between God and man (7)
  • Punishments as natural consequences: "God's punishments are not expressions of personal vengeance; they are best read as the consequences that follow naturally from sin...In God, all things hold together; apart from God, they disintegrate." (11)
  • Noah's ark is an anticipation of the temple, and a symbol of the Church (15); his first act upon landing is to offer sacrifice to the Lord (16)
  • Tower of Babel: "God wants humans to be fully alive, but the divine life cannot, even in principle, be seized; it can only be received as a gift." (17)
  • Unlikely birth as a gift (Isaac in this case) is a common theme in the Bible signaling the primacy of grace and importance of trust in divine providence (21)
  • Sacrifice of Isaac: we must recognize how truly awful it is, but also how there is no proper communion with God without sacrifice and the lower goods of the world have to be sacrificed to God in the measure that they have come to take the place of God (23)
  • The conflict between Jacob and Esau leads to the division of Israel and Judah (25)
  • Jacob's ladder is a "master metaphor for the whole of Israelite life: covenant, prophecy, temple, liturgy, sacrifice—all of it will function as a conduit between God and the world he is endeavoring to save"...Jesus is the definitive ladder between heaven and earth (27)
  • Jacob is frustrated with his additional 7 years of service for Laban, but God is accomplishing his own purpose and giving Jacob more than he could have imagined in his twelve sons for the twelve tribes of Israel (29)
  • The story of Joseph (OT) is "one of the most beautifully told, psychologically profound, and theologically illuminating narratives" → read Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers (31-32). His lessons for us include: power is spiritually valid only when it remains tied to truth and love (35), and Israel is meant not for itself but for the whole world (35), and God permits evils within his creation in order to make possible certain good that could not have come about in any other way (38)


Summary: The God of Israel delivers his people from bondage and brings them to a place of freedom. Political liberation is a metaphor for spiritual liberation from sin and death.

  • The burning bush on fire but not consumed illustrates the nonviolent and noncompetitive nature of God toward his creation (43); "The God of the burning bush cannot be grasped, but by the same token, he cannot be avoided." (44)
  • "I Am Who I Am" conveys the qualitative difference between the divine manner of existing and anything other than God (45)
  • God's signs against Pharaoh attack the false Egyptian God's (48)
  • Manna: God sustains us physically, but his ultimate purpose is to sustain us spiritually (52)
  • Israel is given the Law for the sake of the world: set apart for the sake of the whole (55)
  • The Ten Commandments (57)
    • The first and most important commandment: "I am the Lord your God"...Every other form of moral and spiritual dysfunction Follows from this most fundamental distortion, and the necessary first move is the dethronement of false gods. (57)
    • Commandments 4-10 directed at others: "It is simply impossible to love the Lord without loving that which he causes to be." (59)
    • The fourth commandment speaks to the central role of the family: if Israel is faithful, he will make them fruitful (59)
    • Sixth commandment: "The exercise of sexuality in a self-centered, manipulative, or violent way is particularly repugnant to the purposes of God." (61)
    • Eighth commandment: "our speech is meant to serve both truth and love" (62)
    • Ninth and Tenth commandments: these protect us against the type of mimetic desire that René Girard says tends to lead to conflict resolved through scapegoating (63)
  • Ex-24, the sealing of the covenant, is crucially important: climbing of the mountain is symbolic of the arduous effort required to come to a vision of the Lord, while also recognizing that closeness with the Creator is possible only through the free gift of grace (64-65)
  • Ex-24, beholding God, is one of the most beautiful and mysterious passages in the Old Testament: seeing God is the culmination of the spiritual life (66), and the consummation of the divine-human relationship is likened to the sharing of a meal (67)
  • Kant says that religion has fundamentally to do with ethics, and all the trappings of religion ultimately serve this end (69)...not so for the last chapters of Exodus focused on priesthood, sacrifice, ritual, and liturgy (70)
  • Division and separation: holiness involves the state of being set apart (71)
  • Priestly sacrifice brings the people close to God precisely through this symbolic gesture of returning to God what God has already given (73)
  • Right praise is not for God as much as it is for us to find spiritual and moral equilibrium (74)


Summary: Leviticus is an interpretive key for the priestly and sacrificial work of Jesus, and its central theme is separation.

  • The sacrifices described in Exodus and Leviticus and enacted in the Jerusalem temple anticipate the final and definitive sacrifice offered by Jesus on the cross, the final reconciliation between God and his people (83)
  • Unclean animals: symbolically evocative of the moral and spiritual degradation associated with sin (85)
  • Lv-16: the Day of Atonement is the holiest day of the liturgical calendar (87); the priest lays his hand on the scapegoat to impose upon it the sins of the nation and then sends it into the wilderness: God loves sinners and forgives them, but hates sin. (89)
  • Lv-17 is the holiness code, which forbids the eating of blood because God gives life and only he can take it away (91-92); this sheds light on Jn-06 where Jesus' command to drink his blood is only credible in light of his divine identity (93)
  • Lv-18 on sexual relations shows how sex is ordered toward life: the propagation of life is perhaps the surest and purest sign of divine grace (94)
  • Lv-19: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (95)


Summary: Numbers is the 40 year journey from Sinai to the promised land, symbolic of the journey from slavery to redemption. It is 40 years because of the many ways we can lose ourselves. This is the story of Israel's rebellion against God.

  • Exodus is the liberation, Leviticus is the year-long period of instruction at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and Numbers is the 40 year wandering
  • A constant theme of the Bible is the spiritual warfare: our path to spiritual victory is always blocked (100), and the way forward is always through obedience to God (101)
  • Remember that Biblical punishment is not arbitrary or revenge, but expressive of the fundamental moral law that our decisions and actions have consequences. Union with God is irreconcilable with fear (104)
  • Nm-20 the water at Meribah reminds us of the spiritual physics that failure to acquiesce to divine providence is irreconcilable with entry into communion with God (108)
  • Nm-21 the bronze serpent is evocative of sin, which we must see for what it is. Jesus connects this to his passion in Jn-03: by looking upon him on the cross where sin is conquered we are cured of the poison of sin (110)


Summary: Deuteronomy contains the preaching of Moses just before Israel enters the promised land, which is ultimately a symbolic anticipation of Jesus and his Mystical Body. Its central theme: follow the commands of the Lord and you will be blessed; fail to do so and you will be cursed.

  • Moses beings by summarizing the deeds God has done: memory is important to Israel, for its religion is grounded in the actual works of God in history (114)
  • Read Dt-04 not as God's psychology, but the spiritual physics that when we turn our hearts from God and worship something less we are destroyed (117-118)
  • The shema of Dt-06 is one of the most significant passages in the entire biblical revelation (118)
    • The one God is the source of actualization for anything that stands outside of him, and hence he is "Lord alone." (119)
  • The theme of Deuteronomy of "follow the commands of the Lord and you will be blessed; fail to do so and you will be cursed" is applied in the spiritual domain, and we need to exercise detachment as the spiritual ideal (cf. Jer-12 and Thou art indeed just, Lord, 122-123)
  • Ratzinger in Jesus of Nazareth points to Dt-34 ("And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face") as the interpretive key to his work: the only one who could be greater than Moses would be he who is God himself (125)
  • Paul points back to the curse of hanging on a tree in Dt-21 in 2 Cor-05 saying that Christ became sin on the cross: he took the curse that was meant for us (126)


Summary: Joshua means "Yahweh saves", and we interpret Joshua as a type of Yeshua of Nazareth who leads the human race into the final Promised Land of heaven.

  • Rahab: God is pleased to enter into the human condition in all of its ambiguity and moral depravity, precisely because he has come not for the well but for the sick; Israel was chosen not for itself but for the nations (131)
  • Israel's conquest is not just military but moral and spiritual, symbolic of the spiritual combat against sin (134)
  • Why is God so bloody in his conquest of the promised land? (137)
    1. Divine pedagogy: God is gradually revealing his nature and purpose (St. Irenaeus)
    2. Delegated divine justice: God is justified in brining about their death in any manner he chooses (Augustine and Aquinas)
    3. Read this through the book of Revelation and the Lamb standing as though slain: when dealing with moral and spiritual evil, compromise and halfway measures are not called for (Origen of Alexandria—"the Church Father probably best acquainted with Scripture")
  • In Jos-24 the choice is offered: serve God or serve false gods, but we shall answer with "as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Jos-24)
    • Either God receives our highest praise or something less than God does
    • Bob Dylan: "It may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you're gonna have to serve somebody"


Summary: Brutal and violent, Judges shows what happens to Israel when it wanders from the commands of God. Israel falls into a repeat cycle of idolatry, crying out to God, deliverance, and again falling into sin.

  • Gideon "mighty warrior": God names us not according to who we are, but according to who he wants us to become (146)
  • Jephthah's daughter reminds us that we need to cooperate with God but never try to arrange his providence according to our desires (153)
  • Samson: whatever strength we have comes ultimately from God and is enhanced by our devotion to God. Samson's suffering symbolizes our participation in Christ's suffering (157)
  • Samson extending his hands and sacrificing himself against the worshipers of a false God is symbolic of Christ's sacrifice (158)
  • Judges represents a low point in human behavior in the Bible: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Jgs-21, 159)


Summary: God brings about his saving will through our sufferings.

  • Ruth is rare in the Bible in that everything in it is good! (161)
  • Ruth and Naomi's wanderings and trials were not without meaning, but it was though these sufferings that God was able to bring about his saving will (through Obed, Jesse, David, and Christ) (163)

1 Samuel

Summary: Samuel is a treasure of ancient literature and expresses the theme of God's noncompetitive transcendence, or how he is indirectly operative in the whole of the story as the master storyteller.

  • Samuel ranks with the Iliad and Odyssey for its literary craft, psychological perceptiveness, and narrative verve, while surpassing them in its theological content (165)
  • Hannah: the humble person is the one through whom and with whom God can work most efficaciously (167), also David on 175
  • The Law of the Gift (1 Sm-01): Divine grace, once received ,should be given away as a gift, thereby prompting an even greater outpouring of grace. Since God has no needs, a gift returned to him redounds to the benefit of the giver (168)
  • Hannah's great song in 1 Sm-02 prefigures Mary's Magnificat (168)
  • The destruction of Eli and his wicked sons serves as a mirror on the current clergy sex abuse scandal (170-171)
  • Saul's decline shows how bad moral choices have bad practical consequences. His downfall commences with disobedience and ends with self-slaughter, and these two phenomena are related because the latter is but the full expression of the former. (184)

2 Samuel

Summary: 2 Samuel continues the theme that God's plans are higher than our own, even when we don't understand them.

  • 2 Sm-01: David putting the Amalekite to death shows the great reverence for the office of the anointed one (who he could have killed but didn't), and anticipates the definitive anointed one to come (186)
  • David is not just a political leader, he is the heart and soul of the nation of Israel (189)
  • 2 Sm-06: The dance of David before the ark represents the re-harmonization of God and his people (190)
  • 2 Sm-07 gives the promise to David through the prophet Nathan that the line of David would last forever (191)
  • Our plans are not always God's plans: "Sin obviously stands athwart God's purposes, but so sometimes do our own non-sinful aspirations...What God intends for us is always greater than even our own best aspirations and hopes...When we place our desires in the context of God's desire, something greater than what we had imagined becomes possible." (192)
  • David's downward spiral begins with his refusal to fight (194), and even the greatest kings are subject to a superior judgment (196)
  • "God works typically through secondary causes and through the ordinary events of life." (201)
  • Whatever God effects or allows within this world contributes to a purpose that we cannot see with clarity (205).

1 Kings

Summary: The books of Kings show us the interplay between kings and prophets, and the centrality of the temple.

  • "When we place God and God's purposes at the center of our lives, we can live happily with either wealth or poverty, with either fame or obscurity, with either power or weakness." (211)
  • 1 Kings 4–10 is a high point for Israel: Solomon reigning over a united Israel and the building of the temple (212); Solomon is an icon of the splendor of Christ (213)
  • The proportionality of the temple symbolizes the reharmonizing of humanity and all of creation with God (214)
  • Solomon's downfall is a warning against the worship of false gods and bad praise, which lead to political and social disintegration. "One the biblical reading, morality is downstream of liturgy, so the worship of false gods conduces ineluctably toward wicked ethical behavior." (223)
  • The widow of Zarephath in 1 Kgs-17 illustrates the Law of the Gift: what we receive as a gift we must give away as a gift (225-226)
  • Elijah with the priests of Baal in 1 Kgs-18 reminds us that we need to decide whether it is God that we worship or some instantiation of Baal (227). The "master-theme of the Bible" is that right praise alone will satisfy the longing of the human heart (228)
    • Elijah killing all of the priests of Baal encourages us to destroy every last vestiage of false worship in us (229)

2 Kings

Summary: 2 Kings gives the split between north and south after the death of Solomon.

  • "Something like the law of karma does obtain within the biblical universe: sin does have consequence sand sinners are often, sooner or later, punished by God" (244)
  • God even uses a foreign nation to punish Israel in 2 Kgs-17 (246)
  • "We recall that one of the marks of the covenant with the Lord is the fruitfulness of the people, the flourishing of family life, the propagation and education of children. Among the crimes that cried out to God and that conduced toward the Assyrian exile was the most wanton abuse of children imaginable—namely sacrificing them to false gods: 'They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire' (2 Kgs-17). A nation that permits the slaughter of tens of millions of babies through abortion and that countenances the sex trafficking of youngsters, one must admin, is little better." (246-247)

Ezra and Nehemiah

Summary: Ezra and Nehemiah are concerned with the re-establishment of the people of God liturgically and politically after their exile.

  • God can use any vessel he chooses, including King Cyrus of Persia in this case to free the Jews (248)
  • Zerubbabel "represents this generation of Jews who nevertheless were culturally and linguistically formed in a foreign land and who now face the challenge of discovering their religious identity anew" (249)
    • → not dissimilar to the challenge we face
  • The smoke representing the presence of God did not fill the temple at its rededication, and was not filled with God's presence again until Jesus himself entered the temple (250)


Summary: Tobit is at the same time a warmly human story and a triumphant tale of divine activity that both looks back to the Old Testament and anticipates the New.

  • Tobias' prayer with Sarah (Tb-08) is beautiful and an option for the lectionary at a Catholic marriage. It is a biblical grounding for the Church's teaching that sex is expressive of love (willing the good of the other) for it to be integral, and the primacy of love over sex. (263)
  • Tobit then sings his great prayer (Tb-13) that God's providence embraces both darkness and light. (264)


Summary: Judith is an an archetypal tale of the struggle between the people of God and her enemies; Judith means "a Jewess".

  • As a widow, Judith represents the faithful remnant of Israel longing for reunion with its heavenly bridegroom: our task is to pray and wait (270)
  • Then God sends a trial, which is "necessary to effect a distinction between loving God for his own sake and loving him for the sake of the consolations he provides." (271)
  • God does not conquer through weapons of the world, but rather through the instrumentality of those who trust radically in him (272, cf Jdt-09)


Summary: Esther is a meditation as "Jews behind enemy lines" and on the theme of Israel in relation to the Gentile nations.

  • Esther's elevation has overtones of Joseph in Egypt, and is likewise a consequence of divine providence that is meant to benefit the suffering Israel (276)
  • God clandestinely but surely works his purpose out within human affairs; God's providence, though sometimes strange in its expression, never fails (279)
  • The tormented Mordecai is a type of Christ who anticipates his suffering (280)
  • Esther is a type of Mary as a powerful intercessor for her people (280)

1 and 2 Maccabees

Summary: Maccabees shows the time between the second temple and Christ, with the theme of how a purified Israel exists not for its own sake but for the sake of the world.

  • Newman said that the Church moving through cultures is like a foraging animal picking the best. Barron: "A conservatism so absolute that it permits no intercourse with the culture kills the organism of the Church, just as surely as does a liberalism that allows for no distinctiveness." (285)
  • The martyrdoms of 2 Mc-07 points to belief in the resurrection, and this is the only narrative in scripture that points to "creation from nothing" (286-287)
    • "The same God who made (and indeed makes) the whole of a person through creation can certainly remake the whole of a person even after the death of the body through that same creative power. The young man under torture can express his trust that God will give him back his hands, precisely because God made those hands ex nihilo in the first place." (288-289)
  • Finally, purgatory is implied by 2 Mc-12: the impulse to pray that the sins of the dead might be addressed rests necessarily on the assumption that there exists a third state of being intermediate between "heaven" and "hell" (289)

As I bring this chapter—and indeed this entire volume—to a close, might I draw our attention again to the heroic mother of the seven sons? Like Judith and Esther, she could be construed as an embodiment of Israel itself. Under terrible persecution, she confesses the faith in the one Creator God that was bequeathed to the chosen people. Over and against the enemies of the nation, she declares what is most distinctive in Israelite religion: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone" (Dt-06). For the one who created the whole of contingent reality from nothing is not one being among many and therefore can have no competitors. However, in asserting what is most peculiar to Israel, she implicitly asserts what brings all people together. For all things, all peoples, all nations are equally grounded in the creative love of God and are, for that very reason, connected to one another by a bond deeper than those of family, culture, or country. Thus, this unnamed heroine might function as a symbol of Israel, chosen out of the world precisely for the sake of the world. (290)

Topic: The Bible


  • Mom, Christmas 2022


New Words

  • aegis: Sponsorship; patronage (2, 27)
  • internecine: Of or relating to struggle within a nation, organization, or group (25)
  • plenipotentiary: Invested with or conferring full powers (34)
  • soteriology: study of religious doctrines of salvation (51)
  • propaedeutic: providing introductory instruction (65)
  • enigmatic: mysterious (76)
  • desideratum: something considered necessary or highly desirable (142)
  • theonomy: the rule of the self by God (167)
  • dudgeon: A feeling of offense; resentment; sullen anger (174)
  • tensive: causing tension (208)

    - perdure: to last permanently; endure (250)

Created: 2022-12-25-Sun
Updated: 2023-12-05-Tue