Monday, May 15, 2006

The Original Worship Wars

Alright, I'm going to try and be slightly more articulate about what I'm noticing here.

I think as I wrote in a previous entry, I was bowled over by the book of Leviticus when I read it a couple weeks ago because I had never realized that it is in essence a liturgical document. The majority of Leviticus is concerned with proper ritual behavior for the new Israelite nation. I noticed for the first time that an essential part of becoming a people was to become a ritualized people--it was necessary to establish ritual guidelines in order to shape their identity as a group.

As I have continued to read through these books at such breakneak pace, I've been able to carry this liturgical lens into the other books. And I've noticed that the theme of worship is never far below the surface of the text.

In 1 Kings 12:28, we read that King Jeroboam de-centralizes the worship practices of the Israelite people by refusing to allow them to travel to Jerusalem anymore. Instead he builds two altars in the north which he requires them to use instead. To make matters worse, he creates two golden calves (or bulls) and tells them: "'Here are your gods (or elohim, in Hebrew, a name for God), O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.' He set one in Bethel and the other he put in Dan." Jeroboam also appointed festivals and priests for these altars.

As we travel through the era of the Kings, we hear that some of the kings did what was evil in the sight of God--they followed in the ways of Jeroboam. Which means they continued the practices of worship at these altars.

In my previous hurried posting, I mentioned Isaiah's cameo appearance in 2 Kings 18ff. (Can I just mention, I thought that was so cool to have Isaiah show up there!) But coming across his name in 2 Kings really triggered something for me, because Isaiah is the ultimate liturgical critic in my mind. The first chapter of Isaiah is a scathing critique of worship when it becomes separated from ethical actions. He cries out:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and
calling of convocation--
I cannot endure your solemn assembies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood
. . . cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow . . .

That's got to be the toughest biblical passage for liturgical scholars. At least it always has been for me. But at the moment, I'm beginning to hear it differently. Because suddenly I've realized that Isaiah is proclaiming these words in a context that had been fraught with worship wars for a very long time.

This emphasis on "correct" worship goes deeper than mere instructions on how to perform an effective ritual. It has everything to do with relationship. The instructions God was giving the people of Israel were not mere busy work. They are not evidence of God's peculiarities. They are the means God provided the people to be in relationship with God. They were a way to cultivate and care for that relationship without being consumed by the Holy One. Not only that, but they were a way of maintaining the people's memory.

When Jeroboam set up two golden bulls and told the people that these were the gods who had led them out of Egypt, he was re-writing history. He was writing Adonai out of that history. And in doing so, he was destroying the possibility for the people to be in relationship with Adonai. God becomes un-known.

The God who led the people out of Egypt was a God who cared fiercely for justice. A God who heard the cries of the people. A God who rescued the oppressed. When the people of Israel forgot the character of their God, then their worship was truly empty precisely because it had ceased to be relational.

This vision of worship does not see God as the object to be worshipped. (As one might worship the golden bull.) Rather, God is fully subject, the Other, the known and inexhaustably knowable. God is exactly the opposite of the object receiving worship from this perspective. God is the one who wants desperately to be communicated to and through the people. Who wants to provide the people with a means to come into God's presence without being consumed.

It is for these reasons, as well, that Jesus' statement in the gospel of John seems even more radical than I'd ever thought. When he is addressing the Samaritan woman at the well, he tells her:
You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:22-24)
Notice he speaks of worshiping "what you do not know." This suggests the alienation from God that had clearly happened over time. The people had ceased to know the character of God.

Okay. That's enough for now.



see-through faith said...

GREAT insights here Jen thanks

"breakneak pace," sums up the Bible in 90 days but it does give a GREAT overview I found.

Keep battling!

Sally said...

I love the thought/ theme of ritual identity... through worship a bond being formed.

LutheranChik said...

I think you've hit on something very important: That how we worship conveys meaning in and of itself.

SingingOwl said...

This was so thought provoking. I can't take time now, but I am coming back to cut and paste it so I can ponder a bit. Thank you.