Old Testament events prefigure the sacrament of reconciliation

By Brian Pizzalato


Sin! Guilt! Is that all the Church ever talks about? The answer is a resounding no. The church teaches far more about holiness, about living in intimate communion, and thus a right relationship with God, both here and in eternity, and about the human person being made in the image and likeness of God. Within this context, inevitably sin must be spoken of. Sin is something that makes us unholy, wounds or severs our intimate communion with God, and disfigures and obscures God’s image.


God the Father creates every person to share in Trinitarian life, thus making us, supernaturally, sons and daughters of the Father.  “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will…” (Ephesians 1:4). God created us all to be like himself.


In the beginning Adam and Eve were created with natural and supernatural life. This means they had the Trinity dwelling in the depths of their souls. However, through the first sin, Adam and Eve rejected the gift of divine life. They wanted to be like God, but without God. God said, “From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die” (Genesis 2:17). Literally in Hebrew this means you will, “die, die,” or “die the death.” But, did they die? The moment they ate, did they drop dead? The answer is yes and no. They did not die naturally, but they did die supernaturally. They no longer were partakers of the divine nature. They committed a mortal, deadly sin.


We too are free to commit such heinous acts. In order to restore the gift of divine life to humanity, which Adam forfeited, God the Father sent the Son, to give us the Holy Spirit in baptism. But, what about those who reject the gift of divine life after baptism? What about those who suffer a death far greater than physical death? God the Father, knowing his children will still be prone to reject him, also sent the Son to give us the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of reconciliation.


To give a proper perspective on the New Covenant sacrament of reconciliation instituted by Christ, we will explore the Old Testament prefiguration of this sacrament. In the next column, we will explore Christ’s teaching in the New Testament.


What did God desire Adam and Eve to do after the fall? He wanted them to show repentance and contrition (sorrow) by confessing their sins. Notice that God tries to draw out a confession from them after the fall. God asks them, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). This is not a question of physical location, but of spiritual condition. Adam, instead of exposing his spiritual condition to God, tries to hide himself physically. God then asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11). Adam’s reply, instead of being repentant and contrite, is, “The woman who you put here with me – she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it” (Genesis 3:12). He does confess, but without repentance or contrition. Instead, he plays the blame game. We must notice that he does not primarily blame the woman; he primarily blames God: “the woman YOU put here with me.” The consequence for this unrepented sin is exclusion from being able to eat the fruit of the tree of life. Access to divine life is cut off by man’s choice.


Another Old Testament event that prefigures the sacrament of reconciliation is in Genesis 4. Adam’s oldest son, Cain, kills his younger brother, Abel. God, like he did with Adam, tries to elicit a confession. God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” Not only does he not confess with repentance and contrition, he lies by saying, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). God administers a punishment and Cain accuses God of being unjust and the rest of humanity of murderous intent. Cain remains unrepentant and unconfessed. The consequence for this sin is exclusion from the Lord’s presence (cf. Genesis 4:16).


Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God continues to call persons to repent, confess and do penance. It also becomes more ritualized. Through the law of Moses, he gave specific ritual ways for individuals to confess their sins. In Leviticus 5:5-6 we read after a litany of sins, “…whoever is guilty in any of these cases shall confess the sin he has incurred, and as his sin offering for the sin he has committed he shall bring to the Lord a female animal from the flock…The priest shall then make atonement for his sin.” There must be a confession of sin, penance of sacrifice, and the involvement of a priest. It is the priest who makes atonement, which means to remove an obstacle to reconciliation. Leviticus 5:10 goes on to say, “Thus the priest shall make atonement for the sin the man committed, and it will be forgiven.”


We also read in Numbers 5:5-7, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites: If a man [or woman] commits a fault against his fellow man and wrongs him, thus breaking faith with the Lord, he shall confess the wrong he has done, restore his ill-gotten goods in full, and in addition give one fifth of their value to the one he has wronged.” There must be a confession and restitution shall be made as a form of penance.


Leviticus also tells us of the consequences of sin. When a thanksgiving sacrifice was offered, unleavened and leavened bread were offered and, “The flesh of the thanksgiving sacrifice shall be eaten…” (Leviticus 7:15). The word for thanksgiving in Hebrew is “todah.” The word for thanksgiving in Greek is “eucharistein.” So this eucharistic sacrifice included flesh and bread, and the consequences for being unclean and eating the flesh was “that person shall be cut off from his people” (Leviticus 7:20). So you must first be made clean through repentant confession, and thus be able to partake of the flesh, so that you may not be cut off from the assembly.  


This lays the ground work for the revelation of Jesus Christ about the sacrament of reconciliation. But let us now begin to repent and pray with King David: “Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offence. Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me. For I know my offense; against you alone have I sinned; I have done such evil in your sight that you are just in your sentence, blameless when you condemn…A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit….Rescue me from death, God, my saving God, that my tongue may praise your healing power…My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart” (Psalm 51:3-6, 12, 16, 19).


Printed with permission from the Northern Cross, Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota.


Brian Pizzalato is the Director of Catechesis, R.C.I.A. & Lay Apostolate for the Diocese of Duluth. He is also a faculty member of the Theology and Philosophy departments of the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England. He writes a monthly catechetical article for The Northern Cross, of the Diocese of Duluth, and is a contributing author to the Association for Catechumenal Ministry's R.C.I.A. Participants Book. Brian is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute and is also in the process of writing the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition program at the Maryvale Institute.


Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.