The Woman in Salvation History
God used various people, places and events in the Old Testament to prefigure realities later revealed in the New Testament. Guided by Church Tradition, we can discover how various Old Testament events and persons point to truths about Christ´s mother.
by Curtis Mitch | Source:
How can Catholic Tradition make so much of Mary when the New Testament seems to say so little about her? Do the unique quality of biblical passages about Mary sufficiently compensate for the lack of quantity?
Early on I learned that much of the Bible’s teaching about Mary exists in the form of Old Testament types. This means, among other things, that direct prophecy was not the only way that the Old Testament announced the glorious advent of the New. In addition to prophetic oracles about the future Messiah and His Mother (e.g. Gen. 3:15, Is. 7:14), God used various people, places, events and institutions of the Old Covenant to prefigure the mysteries He would later unveil through Christ. God was not bound to speak to His people only with words; He also adapted created things for His purposes and invested them with spiritual and prophetic significance.
In biblical language, these historical preparations for the Gospel are called types (Gk. Typos). This word was used by the New Testament writers to mean “copy,” “model,” or “figure” and literally refers to a stamp or mark made when one object strikes another. For example, an impression made in clay by a signet ring or seal would leave a mark that resembled its crafted image, yet differed from it as a copy differs from an original. Old Covenant “types” thus referred to historical persons and things that looked forward to greater realities yet to be revealed. These reflections of the New Covenant in the Old Testament were part of what made the entire Bible a living source of the Church’s teaching throughout the centuries.
Treasury of Marian Types
Catholic Tradition has culled numerous Marian gems from the rich mines of the Old Testament (cf. Catechism, no. 489). Pope Pius IX, when defining the Immaculate Conception, gave a brief index of Marian typology that figured prominently in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Noah’s ark (Gen. 7:7), for instance, prefigured Mary’s singular purity and immunity from sin, for it alone escaped the dreadful judgment of God upon the world for its wickedness. Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:12) typified the Blessed Virgin as a heavenly intercessor, stretching up to the Lord and serving as the avenue whereupon angels and blessings pass between heaven and earth. The burning bush (Ex. 3:2) is a type of Mary as a mother enveloped in divine love – just as the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin remained uncharred by the raging flames of God’s presence in her womb.
Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 8: 10-13) likewise foreshadows the mystery of her divine maternity: As God’s glory filled the sacred building, so Mary became a sanctuary housing the glory of God’s Son. The Litany of Loreto similarly addresses Mary as the Ark of the Covenant. Just as the golden ark held within it such things as the tablets of the law an a sample of heavenly manna, so Mary bore within her womb Jesus Christ, the living law of the New Covenant and the Eucharistic Bread of Life.
In addition to the symbolism of inanimate objects, Mary is also typified by the women and mothers of the Old Covenant. These outstanding figures exhibit a real but limited likeness to the mother of the future Messiah and prepared Israel to welcome her as their most exemplary and virtuous kinswoman.
Foremost among these ancient women is Eve, the mother of all the living (Gen. 3:20). The Church Fathers, following the same trajectory that St. Paul traced when contrasting Adam with Jesus (cf. Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:22), likewise recognized Mary as the blessed counterpart to Eve. Unlike the first woman, the Virgin always obeyed God, was always at enmity with the treacherous serpent, and was made the mother of all who are spiritually alive through grace.
Rebekah prefigured Mary in her maternal concern to secure blessings for her son Jacob and shield him from the plots of his envious brother Easau (Gen. 25-27). Like this matriarch, the Blessed Mother protects her children from the tactics of the enemy, gives them wise counsel and petitions the Father to bless them.
The mother of the Maccabean martyrs (2 Mac. 7) is a striking prototype of Mary in her maternal anguish. She encouraged her sons to trust unswervingly in God despite torture, unconvinced that God would vindicate her sons and raise them again from the dead. Echoes of this event can be heard in the background as Mary stood at the foot of the Cross, pained at the spectacle of her tortured Son, yet full of motherly confidence in the divine promise of resurrection.
Precedents for the royal dignity of Mary can be traced to the prominent queens of the Old Testament era. Queen Esther (Esther 1-10) was a remarkable heroine whose privileged position in the Persian kingdom enabled her to avert a planned massacre of her fellow Jews in exile. Mary similarly uses her heavenly authority and intervention as Queen to protect God’s people from deadly schemes of the devil.
Queen Bathsheba was known as a powerful intercessor exercising great maternal sway over her son, King Solomon (1 Kings 2:13-25). Her royal advocacy in the kingdom of Israel speaks prophetic volumes about Mary’s greater and more effective intercession before Christ, the true successor and Son of David enthroned in heaven (cf. Mk. 16:19; Lk. 1:32).
We might ask ourselves, with some justification, whether these Marian types found in the Old Testament are instances of mere fanciful creativity, or examples that are firmly anchored in the inspired text of Scripture. That is, how do we know that Marian types are in the Bible and not just in the minds of its interpreters?
We will better understand the Church’s interpretive tradition when we examine how the New Testament itself confirms Marian typology and gives the Church an advantaged angle for seeing the Virgin throughout biblical history.
Blessed Among Women
When we look to Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth (cf. Lk. 1:39-56), on the surface the episode appears dwarfed and overshadowed by the towering mysteries which surround it. Nothing extraordinary seemed to characterize this event until the two women finally met. All of a sudden, the Holy Spirit descended mightily on Elizabeth, the infant John jostled with joy in her womb, and she burst out in one of the most exuberant cries in Scripture: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk. 1:42).
Were it not for the nudging impulse of the Spirit, we might have thought Mary’s cousin was overstating things a bit. How could Elizabeth have already known that Mary was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah? How could she (and John!) have a clear picture of the mystery within her before Christ was revealed to the world? It had to be the Holy Spirit who illumined her mind and moved her soul in this way.
What did the words “Blessed are you among women” really mean? For the Catholic reader, this expression immediately recalls the beloved prayer, the “Hail Mary.” For Elizabeth and Mary, however, these words were strikingly similar to certain appellations in the Old Testament.
The first time a statement like this appeared in the Bible was centuries earlier in the Book of Judges. The story is told of a heroine named Jael who stands out as one of the most valiant women in Old Testament history (cf. Judg. 4-5). Though a humble woman without any known expertise in the art of war, she single-handedly brought low the chief enemy of God’s people. She crept stealthily to the Canaanite commander’s bedside, and drove a tent peg through his skull.
For this reason Deborah hailed her with the exalted words: “Most blessed of women be Jael…of tent-dwelling women most blessed” (Judg. 5:24). This is the first biblical echo that whispers – if not shouts - behind the words of Elizabeth in Luke 1:42.
The Book of Judith furnishes us with a second. Like Jael, Judith stands out in the Old Testament as a woman of unforgettable courage. She too lived during turbulent times in Israel’s history, when the ambitions of foreign empires posed a constant threat to God’s people. After careful planning, Judith wasted no time in seizing the moment when she took General Holofernes’ own sword and cut off his head! Quickly she slipped out of his tent with the ghastly trophy of the commander’s head tucked in a bag and returned to her beleagued city of Berthulia.
All rejoiced that the Lord wrought such an astonishing victory for Israel through the humble maiden Judith. The episode reached a climax when the city magistrate Uzziah came to her exclaiming: “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God, above all women on earth” (Judg, 13:18). In the end, Judith’s performance proved to be a turning point in Israel’s history – like Jael, she was a “blessed” vessel chosen by God to crush the stronghold of the enemy.
With this background now in the forefront of our minds, it is nearly impossible to imagine that Elizabeth could have spoken such words as “Blessed are you among women” without triggering a flood of biblical associations. Indeed the Spirit Himself - the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures - must have chosen such words for this very purpose. We can now see Mary standing in a long tradition of valiant biblical women whom God selected to carry forward His saving plan. Jael and Judith played such pivotal roles in the Old Testament as types that they prefigured the mission of the Messiah’s mother.
The common denominator linking together the experiences of Jael and Judith is the violent downfall of God’s adversaries. Both women were chosen to strike down the enemy forces with a lethal blow to the head. The question that immediately presents itself to us is obvious: What possible connections could such brutal details have with the quiet life of Mary? In what specific way was she really like these biblical heroines?
The Mystery of Mary
Questions like these inevitably push the attentive reader into the historical context of ancient Judaism, a world with magnificent hopes for the coming Messiah. Like any and every Jew, Elizabeth would have known many ancient prophecies foretelling the advent of Israel’s deliverer. Doubtless, then, she knew well the very first prophecy of the Old Testament: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). With this promise, God announced far in advance of its fulfillment that the devil’s triumph in the Garden of Eden would eventually end in defeat, with his head being crushed or bruised under the trampling blows of the Messiah and His mother.
We can safely say that Jews would not be prone to forget such bright promises so graphically depicted. Elizabeth was no exception. In a flash of inspired intuition, this ancient prophesy (Gen. 3:15) converged with the ancient types of Jael and Judith in the mind of Elizabeth, yielding a biblical portrait of the maiden standing before her.
She realized that this humble, expectant mother was to play a leading role with her Son in the great drama of redemption. Thus while Mary’s blessedness was prefigured in the lives of Israel’s valiant women, the comparisons worked out to her advantage – for both the enemy fought (Satan) and the victory won (over sin) would be immeasurably greater. This Mary was at one level the mirror image of women like Jael, Judith, and other memorable heroines; at another, she stood far above them as the most exemplary woman in history.
Stunned by the impact of this mystery, Elizabeth could do nothing but clothe her thoughts in the poignant words of Scripture: “Blessed are you among women” (Lk. 1:42).
The role of Mary in Sacred Scripture can seem like both a puzzle and a hurdle – for practicing Catholics, non-Catholics, and returning Catholics alike. Guided by the Church’s Tradition, however, we can be led from the surface of the Bible into the depths of its Old and New Testament teaching concerning the life of the mother of Our Lord.
This article is a condensed version of a chapter from Catholic for a Reason II: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mother of God. Reprinted with permission from Catholic Lay Witness ( 1-800-693-2484). All rights reserved.