Catechetical Questions in the Torah by Pastor Andrew Richard

I recently read an excellent article by Pastor Ryan Loeslie entitled, “Say It!” Says the Little Girl.  In it he noted the childlike nature of Luther’s catechism question: “Was ist das?” meaning, “What is it?” or “What is that?”  Luther’s question is brilliant in its simplicity.  And like a good theologian, he lifted it straight from Scripture.

I was translating Exodus 16:2-21 this morning, one of the choices of Old Testament reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.  It’s the account of the Lord feeding his people with bread from heaven, “Manna” as it came to be called.  And the name “Manna” comes from the question the Israelites asked when they saw it: MAN HU in Hebrew, or, “What is it?” (Ex. 16:15).

Moses explains, picking up the language from the question, “It (HU) is the bread that Yahweh has given to you to eat.”  As a good catechist, Moses takes the simple language of the question and uses it to give a simple answer: “MAN HU?”  “HU HALLECHEM.”

In the Septuagint it reads, TI ESTIN TOUTO, “What is this?”  To which Moses responds, HOUTOS HO ARTOS…, “This is the bread…”  In the Vulgate Jerome transliterates the Hebrew, MAN HU, then puts QUOD SIGNIFICAT QUID EST HOC, “which means, ‘What is this?’”  He then translates Moses’ answer, ISTE ES PANIS, “This is the bread…”  Luther likewise transliterates then translates: “Man hu? (Das heißt: Was ist das?)” – there’s the famous catechism question.  Moses answers, “es ist das Brot.”  Thus in the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and Luther’s German the translators preserve the simple question leading into the simple answer.

“And the house of Israel called its name MAN,” literally, “What?” (Ex. 16:31).  You can picture the catechetical repetition happening daily in the home: “Time to go gather the what.”  “What is it?”  “It is the bread that Yahweh has given to us to eat.”

Another significant question comes up in Exodus 13:14 concerning the redemption of the firstborn and its connection to the Passover.  “And it shall happen that your son will ask you in time to come…”  Then the ESV, RSV, and NIV translate, “What does this mean?” just as we often see Luther’s question translated into English.  But it shouldn’t surprise us that the question literally reads, “What is this?” MAH-ZOTH? in Hebrew.  “And it shall happen that your son will ask you in time to come, ‘What is this?’”

The Septuagint has TI TOUTO, “What is this?”  The Vulgate has QUID EST HOC, “What is this?”  Again Luther has, “Was ist das?”  If there were any debate about the source of Luther’s catechism question, that should settle it.  It’s from Exodus 13:14 and 16:15.

And here’s something interesting: While the father in Ex. 13 does not pick up the language of his son’s question, do you know who does?  What comes immediately to mind when you see these words: “What is this?”  “This is…”  This is the exact language that Jesus uses when he institutes the Sacrament of the Altar!

TI TOUTO?  TOUTO ESTIN SOMA MOU.  QUID EST HOC?  HOC EST CORPUS MEUM.  “Was ist das?”  “Das ist mein Leib.”  “What is this?”  “This is my body…”  Jesus himself picks up the catechetical language of ages past (in truth, the catechetical language that he himself authored) and speaks it at the Last Supper.

What’s the point?  Luther’s simple question, “Was ist das?” comes directly from the Torah.  Luther was incredibly creative, but it’s because he gladly inherited the best of what had come before him.  And in spite of his marvelous ability to turn a phrase, he still preferred the sound language of his fathers over innovation.  He wasn’t looking to be a schismatic or invent his own way of speaking.  Rather, with the attitude of “if it’s good enough for Moses and Jesus it’s good enough for me,” he gave us the simplest and arguably the most brilliant Catechism the Church has ever known.

A note to parents: You can teach your children to ask the question, “What is this?” by asking it to them.  This is also typical of catechesis, for example Rev. 7: 13-14, “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’  I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’  And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation…’”  Children love a good question, and they tend toward, “Why?”  You can introduce them to “What?”

While you sit in church before service (or while having devotions or looking at Christian art at home), point to various things and ask, “What is this?”  If they know, excellent, and if not, then you say, “This is…”  Eventually, children will learn to ask the question on their own.  In this way the daily catechetical question-and-answer of the God’s people (now over three millennia old) will become the common language of your family as well.

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