The Eucharist in its Jewish Context
This article was originally published in The Catechetical Review 3.4 (Oct-Dec 2017)
Although the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life,”[i] many Catholics are unfamiliar with its rich Old Testament and Jewish background. In this article, we will look at four aspects of this background: the king-priest Melchizedek, the Passover, the manna, and the bread of the Presence.
Melchizedek: Priest of God Most High
The first prefiguration of the Eucharist goes back to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek in the book of Genesis. This Melchizedek, called “king of Salem” and “priest of God Most High,” brought out bread and wine to Abraham and blessed him (Gen 14:18-20). His name means “king of righteousness” in Hebrew, and Salem—a shortened form of “Jerusalem” (cf. Ps 76:2)—derives from the word shalom (peace), so Melchizedek’s name also means “king of peace” (cf. Heb 7:2). Melchizedek is mentioned only in two other places in the Bible. In Psalm 110, the psalmist says to the Davidic king, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4); and the Epistle to the Hebrews identifies this Davidic king-priest with Christ (Heb 5:6-10; 6:20-7:17). The Church sees in Melchizedek’s offering to Abraham a prefiguring of her own eucharistic offering, in which Christ is presented to the Father under the species of bread and wine.[ii]
The Passover: Redemption from Slavery
But why bread and wine? In the Old Covenant these were offered in sacrifice “among the first fruits of the earth as a sign of grateful acknowledgment to the Creator.”[iii] Bread and wine acquired a particular significance in the context of the Passover and Exodus. When God delivered Israel out of Egypt, He commanded each Israelite family to slaughter a lamb, sprinkle its blood on the doorposts of the house, then eat the roasted lamb together with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (symbolizing the bitterness of slavery and haste of their imminent departure) (Ex 12:1-11). The sprinkled blood of the lamb protected the Israelite firstborn sons from the plague against the firstborn Egyptians and marked the beginning of their redemption from slavery.
For the Jewish people, the celebration of the Passover would henceforth remain a perpetual memorial of God’s deliverance.[iv] Eventually, four cups of wine were added to its commemoration, representing God’s four redemptive actions during the Exodus.[v] The Catechism tells us that the fourth cup bears particular significance for the Christian faith:
The “cup of blessing” at the end of the Jewish Passover meal adds to the festive joy of wine an eschatological dimension: the messianic expectation of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he gave a new and definitive meaning to the blessing of the bread and the cup.[vi]
It is within this joyful context of redemption and hope that Jesus instituted the Eucharist, offering his body and his Blood to fulfill the Passover, initiating a new Exodus and redemption from the slavery of sin and establishing the New Covenant that the prophet Jeremiah had formerly announced (Mt 26:26-29; Lk 22:14-20; cf. Jer 31:31).
By celebrating the Last Supper with his apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning. Jesus’ passing over to his father by his death and Resurrection, the new Passover, is anticipated in the Supper and celebrated in the Eucharist, which fulfills the Jewish Passover and anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the kingdom.[vii]
As the Catechism indicates, every liturgical celebration connects the past, the present, and the future. It includes, first, a commemorative remembrance of God’s saving actions in the past; second, it actualizes these actions or makes them present for each believer; third, it prophetically looks forward to the ultimate fulfillment of the same actions in the future. The Jewish Passover looks back at God’s redemption of Israel during the first Passover and Exodus; it makes these events present, so that every Jew must consider that God took him or her personally out of Egypt; and it looks forward toward God’s final redemption in the future messianic age and new Jerusalem. Likewise, Jesus’s Last Supper looked back at the Jewish Passover; it transformed its meaning through His institution of the New Covenant; and it looked forward to Jesus’ own “new Passover”—his death and resurrection. For us, at every Mass we look back at Jesus’ Paschal Mystery; it is made present in the person of the priest, in the words of consecration and especially in the Lord’s eucharistic Body and Blood;[viii] and it looks forward to his ultimate manifestation in His future Second Coming.
The Manna: Food for the Journey
Another important type[ix] of the Eucharist in the Old Testament is the manna. During the Exodus, God provided “bread from heaven” for the wandering Israelites to nourish them as they journeyed towards the Promised Land. In addition to providing physical sustenance, the manna reminded Israel that “man shall not live by bread alone” but by the bread of the Word of God (Deut 8:3).[x] When Jesus multiplied the loaves and fed the multitudes, the miracle not only recalled the miracle of the manna in the desert; it also prefigured “the superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist.”[xi] According to the Gospel of John, Jesus seized this opportunity to deliver his famous bread of life discourse when he announced that he was the bread from heaven and bread of life, and that it would be necessary to eat his flesh and drink his blood to receive eternal life (Jn 6:30-59).
Sinai Covenant and Tabernacle: God Dwells with His People
The theophany at Mount Sinai was by far the most important event of the Exodus. There, God revealed himself to Israel, adopted them as a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (Ex 19:6), and gave them the Torah—the Law. God also gave instructions to Moses to build a sanctuary—the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting. After Israel departed from Mount Sinai, the Tabernacle would become a “portable Sinai” where God would continue to dwell among his people. God’s holy presence was “concentrated,” so to speak, in the innermost Holy of Holies, “above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the covenant” (Ex 25:22). The ark contained a jar of manna (Ex 16:32-34), together with the tablets of stone on which were written the Ten Commandments (Deut 10:4-5) and, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Aaron’s rod symbolizing his priesthood (Heb 9:4). In other words, God’s Presence over the ark was represented by the heavenly bread, the Word of God, and the priesthood. It is no coincidence that the New Testament describes Jesus in the same terms—as the bread from heaven (Jn 6:35), the Word of God (Jn 1:1), and the eternal high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5:10).
In the holy place of the Tabernacle were three other sacred furnishings: on the south side was the golden lampstand or menorah (Ex 25:31-40), representing God’s spiritual illumination and blessings upon Israel. On the north side was the table of showbread, with the twelve loaves of the “bread of the Presence” upon it (Ex 25:23-30), representing God’s material blessings and sustenance to the world.[xii] Between them, in front of the veil to the Holy of Holies, was the golden altar of incense, which represented the balanced combination of God’s spiritual and material abundance. The symbolism of these sacred objects is familiar to Catholics: at every Mass we see on the altar candles recalling Christ, the Light of the World (Jn 8:12); we see the bread of the Eucharist becoming Christ, the Bread of Life; and incense is often offered as well, representing the prayer of the faithful rising up to God in thanksgiving.
The Bread of the Presence: Sign of God’s Love for His People
The meaning of the “bread of the Presence” (called “showbread” in older translations) is particularly significant.[xiii] Priests would bake the twelve loaves every Sabbath and set them on the table in two stacks of six, along with frankincense. The priests would then eat the loaves from the previous week. The loaves in the sanctuary were set “before the Lord continually on behalf of the sons of Israel as a covenant forever” and as a “most holy portion” (Lev 24:5-9).
The “bread of the Presence” thus served as a sign of the “everlasting covenant” between God and Israel. In Hebrew, it is called lechem hapanim, which means literally “bread of the face.” While the Tabernacle worship commemorated God’s covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai when Moses and the elders “saw the God of Israel,” and “beheld God, and ate and drank” (Ex 24:9-11), so the bread of the Presence recalled this sacred meal of communion. Just as the earthly Tabernacle was a visible sign of God’s invisible heavenly dwelling, so the earthly Bread of the Presence was a visible sign of the invisible heavenly face of God.[xiv]
Once the bread had been offered to God in the sanctuary, it became “set apart” or “consecrated.” Ancient Jewish tradition recalls that the bread acquired supernatural properties so that it provided miraculous sustenance to the priests who ate it: “every priest, who obtained a piece thereof as big as an olive, ate it and became satisfied with some eating thereof and even leaving something over.”[xv] Another tradition recalls that during the pilgrim festivals in Jerusalem, the priests would display the bread to the people and say to them: “behold, God’s love for you!”[xvi] In other words, the bread of the Presence was not only the sign of God’s enduring covenant with his people; it was also the manifestation of his love for them and communion with them, expressed in the priests’ eating of this supernatural bread.
An ancient Jewish commentary on Genesis further connected the bread of the Presence with Melchizedek’s offering. According to this midrash, the bread that Melchizedek offered alluded to the bread of the Presence, and the wine to the libations offered in the Temple.[xvii] In other words, the bread of the Presence links the Sinai covenant and Tabernacle worship from Melchizedek to Jesus, the high priest of the New Covenant according to the order of Melchizedek who turned the bread and wine of his last Passover meal into his own Body and Blood for the eternal eucharistic sacrifice.
To sum up, the Eucharist is foreshadowed by several sacred institutions of ancient Israel: the offering of Melchizedek, the “king of righteousness” and “priest of God Most High,” anticipates Christ’s eternal priesthood and eucharistic offering. The unleavened bread and four cups of the Passover, which commemorate Israel’s redemption from slavery, foreshadow Christ’s Paschal sacrifice and redemption from sin. The supernatural “bread from heaven”—the manna—which sustained the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings, foreshadows Christ’s Eucharistic nourishment of his body, the Church. Finally, the bread of the Presence in the Tabernacle and Temple—which ancient Jews saw as “the primordial sacrifice of Melchizedek—the miraculous food of the Holy Place, the Bread of the Face of Almighty God,” and “a living, visible sign of God’s love for his people” also foreshadows the Eucharistic Presence in enabling the people of God to “catch a fleeting glimpse of the ultimate desire of their hearts: to see the face of God and live, and to know that he loved them.”[xviii]
[i] Lumen Gentium, art. 11, Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), par. 1324.
[ii] CCC, par. 1333; cf. also CCC, par. 1350.
[iii] CCC, par. 1334.
[iv] On the Passover background to the Eucharist, see André Villeneuve, “The Feasts of Israel: Foreshadowing the Messiah. Part 1: The Spring Festivals,” The Catechetical Review Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jan-Mar 2017): 25–28.
[v] The four redemptive actions are based on Exodus 6:6-7: “I will bring you out… I will deliver you… I will redeem you… and I will take you for my people…”—corresponding respectively to the cups of sanctification, deliverance, redemption, and hope (or blessing).
[vi] CCC, par. 1334.
[vii] CCC, par. 1340.
[viii] See CCC, par. 1364: “In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present.”
[ix] The use of “types” in Scripture (or “typology”) points to how God’s works of the Old Testament prefigure the person or works of Christ in the New Testament. See CCC, par. 128-130.
[x] CCC, par. 1334.
[xi] CCC, par. 1335.
[xii] According to the Talmud, the Sages said: “One who wishes to become wise should go south, and one who wishes to become wealthy should go north. This is alluded to by the location of the Menorah in the south and the Table of the Showbread in the north.” (Baba Batra 25:b).
[xiii] Cf. Mishnah Menahot 11.7. The Mishnah is the oldest codification of Jewish oral law and the first major work of Rabbinic literature. It was compiled and edited around 200 A.D. but contains traditions that are much older, some dating back to the time of Jesus.
[xiv] Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (New York: Image, 2011), 122.
[xv] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39a. Cf. Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, 129.
[xvi] Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29a. Cf. Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, 130.
[xvii] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 43:6. Cf. Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, 127. A midrash is an ancient rabbinic interpretation or commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).
[xviii] Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, 133.