Worship (in the Bible)

views updated


The common Hebrew word in the Old Testament for cultic service or rite is 'ăbōdâ (Ex 12.25; 13.5). The related verb 'ābad (to work, to serve) frequently has the sense "to worship," but the specific verb meaning to perform a rite, especially by ministering at the sanctuary, is more commonly šērēt (Ex 28.35, 43). The Septuagint translates 'ābōdâ and 'ābad by λατρεία, "worship" and λατρεύειν, "to worship" (Ex 12.25; Jos 22.27) but also by λειτουργία and even the more general ργον, "work" and κάτεργον, "service." The New Testament uses λατρεία and λειτουργία almost synonymously, though the noun λειτουργία occurs more often (Rom 9.4; Acts 24.14; Lk 1.23; Heb 10.11). In addition to the technical sense of ritually serving God these terms may be employed also with the more general meaning of noncultic worship.

Worship in the Ancient Israelite Society. Practically everything related to rites and worship in the Old Testament bears the stamp of official religion. Expressions of popular piety are occasionally found archaeologically in votive objects and in inscriptions. Of interest for the religious and cultural background of rites and worship in Israel is the mention of "yahweh and his asherah" in recently found inscriptions of the 9th or 8th century b.c. at Kuntillat Ajrūd in the eastern Sinai peninsula and of the 8th century at Khirbet el-Qōm. In the Old Testament itself, Asherah is at times the name of a goddess, the consort of Baal, and at times an asherah is a cultic object, evidently of wood, perhaps with symbols of the goddess carved into it. In the newly found inscriptions, the word probably designates the goddess. Her association with Yahweh in them has led some to suspect that the worship of Asherah may have been acceptable in the Jahwistic religious practice of the early monarchical period, in popular piety if not officially, and that Asherah in the worship of that time may have been associated not only with Baal but also with Yahweh, perhaps as his consort, and perhaps as a component in the figure of Wisdom personified in Proverbs 19.

The revision of interpretative assessments of the attitudes towards rites and worship held in various sectors of Israelite society has continued. The view, widespread in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that the prophetic writings of the Old Testament canon represent an emphasis on the word of God opposed to, and superior to, sacrifice and ritual has been significantly modified, but recently there has also been some revision of the view, equally widespread, that the wisdom literature of the Old Testament was produced by persons who took a rather negative view of cultic practices. L. G. Perdue, without denying the lack of interest in matters of worship among the authors of the wisdom literature, or the occasional cynicism about public worship and ritual piety expressed in Ecclesiastes, has argued that persons with the attitudes expressed in the wisdom literature of Israel and of the Ancient Near East considered worship an integral and important part of rightly ordered society.

Sanctuaries. Much of the new information on sanctuaries where the ancient Israelites worshiped has been provided by archaeologists. Remains of sanctuaries of the monarchical period in Israel itself have at last come to light, for comparison with pre-Israelite Palestinian sanctuaries, with contemporary sanctuaries of the Iron Age outside Palestine, and above all with the information on holy places which can be drawn from the Old Testament. A sanctuary discovered in the excavations of Arad in the south included a small temple building with benches along its interior walls and with a niche in the wall opposite the entrance. In the niche, a sort of holy of holies, was a stele representing the divine presence. In the open space in front of the building was a sacrificial altar, which eventually went out of use, as did the niche with the stele somewhat later. If the benches along the interior served as places for food offerings, they are analogous to the table for the offerings of bread in the Temple of Jerusalem. The stele in the niche confirms the numinous sense of the Ark or of the "mercy-seat" (the kappōret ) as the focus of God's presence in the holy of holies in Jerusalem. As the historical accuracy of the tradition, found in the Pentateuchal D and P, that the Ark contained the tables of the Law has been questioned, it has been proposed that the Ark originally contained some object like the sculptured stone stele found at Arad, to represent the presence of Yahweh. The sanctuary of Arad shows that Israelite sacrificial worship at sanctuaries with a house of God distinct from that in Jerusalem actually took place in the early monarchical period, until the religious reforms associated with the Judean kings Hezekiah and Josiah succeeded in abolishing such worship outside the Temple of Jerusalem. Those reforms probably explain why the altar of Arad, and then the holy of holies there, went out of use.

Comparison of the Israelite sanctuary found at Arad with the different kind of sanctuary found at Dan in far northern Israel has led to some new discussion of the nature of the high place (bāmâ ) in early Israel. The sanctuary at Dan, like a similar sanctuary reported still more recently at Tell es-Sebac, had a sacrificial altar which once stood before a raised platform on which no building of the monarchical period has been discovered. It is now widely agreed that this was a typical high place, an open-air sanctuary with an altar and a raised platform, but with no building to serve as the house of God. But the sanctuary of Arad, even though it does have a temple building, has itself been interpreted as a high place, and the building itself has been interpreted as an example of what is called a bêt bāmâ ("house of a high place") in Biblical texts; this remains disputed. So far, no positive archaeological evidence has been produced for or against W. F. Albright's thesis that worship at high places was associated with commemoration of the dead.

Sacrifices. It is perhaps in the study of sacrifices that the refinement of perceptions has been most productive. It was already known that the sacrifice which in the Old Testament is called the zebaš elāmîm was a coalition of two originally distinct types of sacrifice: the zeba (generally translated simply as "sacrifice"), which was originally a sacrifice of individuals or of families, with a common meal an important component (a type of sacrifice retained in the Passover ritual), and the š elāmîm (which has been translated as "peace offering" or "sacrifice of communion"). R. Rendtorff, and then B. A. Levine, have refined our understanding of the š elāmîm as a sacrifice originally considered a gift to God, apt for gaining or retaining his favor, made on solemn inaugural occasions like that of the dedication of a sanctuary, or in fulfilling a vow, or in making a covenant. Levine has encouraged us to accept without embarrassment the rather evident presence of an apotropaic element, somewhat magical in intent, in Israelite rites of sacrifice and purification.

The distinction between the function and purpose of the 'āšām (often translated "guilt offering") and those of the aāt (generally translated "sin offering") remains a difficult problem, because their distinction seems to have been blurred already when the Biblical texts dealing with them were compiled. In this problematic matter B. A. Levine and J. Milgrom, separately, have offered new insights and new solutions. For Levine, the 'āšām was the result of a commutation of an offering of silver or other objects of value into a sacrifice, while the aāt was originally two distinct types of sacrifice: one, eaten by priests, meant to expiate the guilt resulting from certain offenses of the people and their leaders, and another, burned but not eaten, meant to keep the holy place (the sanctuary) and holy persons (the priests) from contamination by what was unholy or impure. For Milgrom, the 'āšām was a sacrifice to be made originally when someone had violated an oath, its use eventually extended to any situation in which someone had violated a stipulation of the Law, while the aāt was essentially not a "sin offering" but a "sacrifice of purification," intended to purify sacred spaces and objects.

Milgrom sees not two but three species of "sacrifice of purification," applied against three degrees of contamination of the holy by the unholy or ritually impure: the aāt eaten by the priests, by which the altar in the courtyard of the Temple was purified from impurity by inadvertent acts of an individual other than the high priest: the aāt not eaten but burned, by which the large room (the hêkāl ) inside the Temple building was purified from a greater degree of impurity caused by inadvertent acts of the high priest or of the people as a whole; and the aāt offered once a year, one the Day of Atonement, by which the kappōret (the "mercy-seat") in the Holy of Holies, the entire Temple building, and the altar in the courtyard were all purified from the greatest degree of impurity, which was caused by deliberate sins.

Phenomena of the Holy and the Unholy. Both Levine and Milgrom perceive that, for the ancient Israelites, the holy or ritually pure as well as the profane or ritually impure could spread by contagion, and that human acts violating the holiness of God's ethical and cultic requirements could, and did, contaminate the sacred spaces of the Temple and the sacred altar, focal points of God's presence, even when such acts were committed at some distance from the sanctuary.

Levine and Milgrom, and M. Haran, have also perceived an applied concept of degrees of holiness. The people of Israel, as Yahweh's own people, was a holy people distinct from its profane neighbors; within the holy people the priests enjoyed a greater degree of holiness, while the highest degree of all was that of the high priest. Spatially, the outer courtyard of the Temple for which Ezekiel 4048 provided was a space holy to a minor degree, while the holiness of the courtyard in front of the Temple building was greater, the holiness of the Altar which stood in that courtyard and of the interior of the Temple building was still greater, and the holiest space of all was the holy of holies at the far end of the Temple's interior. Corresponding to the various degrees of holiness of these spaces were various taboos. Awareness of these gradations in holiness, with their interdictions and taboos, has made it easier to understand why in Ezekiel's plan Israelites, but not heathens, might enter the outer courtyard of the Temple, while priests and Levites (and, in P, ordinary Israelites also, but only to slaughter a victim they were offering) might enter the inner courtyard, but, according to both Ezekiel and to P, only priests could approach the altar of sacrifice in that courtyard or enter the Temple building, and the high priest alone was allowed to enter the holy of holies.

Feasts and Ritual Occasions. The hypotheses of earlier decades whose gradual revision is most evident, in the study of ritual and worship, tend to be those engendered by an interest in feasts and ritual occasions on which certain elements of Israel's religious or historical awareness would have been specifically commemorated, or which served as settings in which certain Old Testament texts, particularly psalms of certain genres, would have been used. S. Mowinckel's postulation, in Psalmenstudien 2 (Kristiania 1922), of an autumnal new year festival in Israel of the monarchial celebrated as a feast of Yahweh's enthronement (with a ritual mime of his victory over chaos at the time of creation performed in order to renew annually the forces of creation, with the earthly king profoundly involved, and with a rite of enthronement of Yahweh as the festival climax) has seen its day, but not all of Mowinckel's imaginative ideas on the matter have been rejected. Assyriologists have pointed out that the Babylonian New Year Festival which served Mowinckel and others after him as a model was neither a feast of the Babylonian god Marduk's enthronement nor an explicitly royal festival, and scholars have been increasingly skeptical about the postulated transfer of the Babylonian mime of Marduk's victory over the gods of chaos to the ritual practice of the Israelites worshiping Yahweh.

The excess of some who came after Mowinckel and expanded his ideas yet furtherparticularly those of S.H. Hooke and the "Myth and Ritual School"have now been discredited, both by Assyriologists and by biblicists. Nevertheless, there is now a certain quiet openness to the possibility that a new year festival in Israel of the monarchical period, when the new year began in the autumnal month of Tishri, may have existed as a festival on which Yahweh's kingship was commemorated, although not specifically as a festival of his enthronement. This might account for some passing allusions to an unspecified autumnal festival preserved in the Old Testament, and it would make it easier to understand why much later, in the second century a.d., when the Jewish new year had been placed in the autumn once more, after the year had begun in the springtime in the post-Exilic period, the Mishna associated the post-Biblical new year festival, Rōš haššānâ, with the theme of Yahweh's kingship. That ideas of Yahweh's kingship were current in ancient Israel, and that his kingship and its effects in the universe are extolled in several psalms, are undeniable.

In the years when interest in covenant as a key concept for interpreting the thought and practice of ancient Israel was high, some scholars, like A. Weiser and H. J. Kraus, accepted the thesis of an autumnal new year festival in the monarchical period but interpreted it as a feast on which covenant with Yahweh was celebrated and renewed. Enthusiasm for that line of interpretation has waned in recent years, and Kraus himself proposed it with less conviction after he first enunciated it in 1951. The existence of a feast on which covenant was renewed has been denied altogether by F. E. Wilms, Das jahwistische Bundesbuch in Exodus 34 (Munich 1973), as far as the Old Testament period is concerned. For New Testament times, however, an examination of the targumim of Exodus 1920, Jewish festive readings, and related Old Testament passages has led J. Potin to the conclusion that by the Rabbinic period, at least, the Jewish Pentecost, i.e., the ancient Feast of Weeks which was originally a feast of thanksgiving for the spring harvest, had become an occasion for commemorating the covenant of Sinai and the giving of the Law.

The interest in ritual occasions as vital settings for various genres of psalms, stimulated by H. Gunkel at the turn of the century, continues, but its alliance with other interests has shifted slightly away from comparative religion of the Ancient Near East towards sociology of religion. An example is E. S. Gerstenberger's effort to reconstruct the vital setting of those psalms which have since Gunkel's days been called "songs of lamentation" (Klagelieder ). For Gerstenberger, they should be called "songs of rogation" or "of entreaty" (Bittlieder ). In his attempt at reconstruction of the vital setting in which they may have been used, he adduces some comparative material from Mesopotamia, but his sociological techniques lead him out of the Temple to secular spaces like river banks, or the roofs of houses, or the spaces just inside city gates, as places where the ritual may have taken place. A sociological interest in personal piety distinguished from official religion has led R. Albertz to see the "songs of lamentation of the individual" in the Psalter as expressions of personal piety, and the "songs of lamentation of the people" as expressions of the piety of Israelite society at large.

The theological rediscovery of the early Christian concept of sacramental rites as memorials of a saving action of the past with effects produced in the present has encouraged a moderate amount of interest in memorial as it is found in the context of feasts and ritual moments of ancient Israel and Judaism, with that Christian concept in mind. This may produce fresh insights into the concept of memorial in certain Old Testament texts, studied for their own sake and on their own terms.

New Directions. The most extensive work published recently on ancient Israelite rites, their material contexts, and the cultic persons responsible for them is M. Haran's Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel. Many of the insights and ideas which it contains had, in fact, already appeared in articles which Haran published, often in Modern Hebrew, in the quarter of a century preceding. His view of the cultic part of the Pentateuchal P, in which so much of the pertinent Biblical material is to be found, is not that of a collection of originally independent libelli containing cultic prescriptions, but rather that of a consistently unified codification of prescriptions achieved long before the Babylonian Exile, and indeed old enough to have served as the inspiration for the cultic reforms of Hezekiah c. 700 b.c.

Although such a view of P is not popular among Biblical scholars, it has found its supporters, especially among Israeli scholars. (It was basically the position of Haran's teacher, Y. Kaufmann.) Although some of the details in Haran's work go beyond the available evidence, and he dismisses at times too readily the arguments of those whose positions differ from his, his knowledge of the rites and the cultic institutions of ancient Israel is impressive, and his theses are well argued. Against P's having served as the inspiration of Hezekiah's reforms it has been objected that, of the relatively little we know of those reforms, somemost notably, the centralization of worshipare not concerns found in P. For Haran, the tradition of the Tabernacle is based on a cultic tent which existed in Shilo and which was really distinct from the "tent of meeting" which he sees as a place for oracular consultation. He has painstakingly distinguished the functions of a sanctuary with a temple building from those of an open-air sanctuary, and he has carefully worked out the concept of holiness as one admitting degrees, reflected in prescriptions for sacrifice, for roles of sacral persons, for distinctions of sacred space.

Haran's dating of P and its cultic material is an example of a tendency, visible perhaps especially in the United States, to move away from positions on the evolution of tradition and of Israel's religious institutions for which a general consensus has existed, with some significant modifications, since the work of J. Wellhausen. An important element in the systematic constructions elaborated by Wellhausen and his immediate followers was the application of views of the evolution of rites, feasts, and especially priesthood to the relative dating of sources. Both Haran and F. M. Cross, in expressing new answers to questions of historical development in priesthood, take pains to disavow Wellhausen, while A. Cody is content to remain basically within the general consensus in his relative dating of the evidence.

Prolongation into New Testament Times. The rites and worship of ancient Israel continued to evolve into New Testament times, until the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 led to the radical interruption of all that was reserved to the Temple alone, but not of other forms of Jewish worship. J. H. Charlesworth, after summarizing major research on the Jewish background of the hymns and prayers in the New Testament particularly, has drawn conclusions of his own in which he is attentive to the need to make distinctions. H. J. Klauck has examined the background to early Christian house churches both in Judaism and in Hellenistic civilization, to move on to interesting reflections on the appearance of priests, of sacrificial concepts, and of buildings for strictly religious use as signs of an early Christian absorption both of Old Testament models and of Hellenistic religious culture. S. Safrai's work on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from the early post-Exilic period until the destruction of the Temple is fairly exhaustive, but it shows a lack of interest in critical evaluation of sources and a failure to be alert to distinctions of time and place.

In general, the view of an earlier generation that rites and worship in early Christianity moved from those of contemporary Judaism to a ritually austere evangelical worship and then on to a less evangelical "early Catholicism" is fading. New impulses arising from the study of Jewish sectarianism like that of Qumran and from the religious sociology of the Hellenistic world have opened scholarly eyes to the presence of diverse lines of development, of an early Christian urge to set out on new paths, with some signs of movement here and there back toward Jewish forms and interpretations. J. Heinemann's and J. Petuchowski's recent studies of prayer and worship in a Jewish synagogue have made it clear that the synagogue was more than a place of assembly and of Biblical reading with homiletic commentary. They have thus made it easier to see the synagogue in the background of the Christian hours of prayer. The synagogue was not a sacred place on Jewish terms, but when the Christian Eucharist came to be interpreted in an overtly sacrificial manner, the places where it was celebrated came to be sensed as sacred places, and those who presided at its celebration came to be identified as priests.

Several studies have appeared on the question whether the Berakoth said at meals of pious Jews provided a direct or indirect model for the structure of Christian anaphoras. Apart from that, interest in emphasizing the Eucharist as a meal in the attitudes of 20th-century Christians has made itself felt in recent studies on eucharistic origins. It is the thesis of W. Bösen that the original Jewish background of the Eucharist as meal lay not in the Passover meal but in the Jewish non-cultic farewell meal, and that the Eucharist only later became a cultic memorial, a dramatic representation of what happened at the Last Supper, ritualized still later. X. Léon-Dufour sees in the New Testament writing two traditions of eucharistic origins: one a cultic tradition, and the other a "testamentary" tradition of the Eucharist as farewell meal, both being meant to sustain a link between Christ's saving actions in the past and ourselves in the presentthe cultic tradition doing so by presenting the Eucharist as memorial, the testamentary tradition by presenting it as fulfillment of the Lord's instructions.

Bibliography: r. albertz, Persönliche Frömmigkeit und offizielle Religion (Stuttgart 1978). a. biran, ed., Temples and High Places in Biblical Times (Jerusalem 1981). w. bÖsen, Jesusmahl-Eucharistisches Mahl-Endzeitmahl (Stuttgart 1980). t. busink, Der Tempel von Jerusalem von Salomo bis Herodes, 2 v. (Leiden 197080). j. h. charlesworth, "A Prolegomenon to a New Study of the Jewish Background of the Hymns and Prayers in the New Testament," Journal of Jewish Studies 33 (1982) 26585. a. cody, A History of Old Testament Priesthood (Rome 1969). f. m. cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1973). j. a. emerton, "New Light on Israelite Religion: The Implications of the Inscriptions from Kuntillat Ajrud," Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 94 (1982) 120. v. fritz, Tempel und Zelt (Neukirchen 1980). j. gutmann, ed., Ancient Synagogues (Chico, California 1981). m. haran. Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, Indiana 1985). j. heinemann, Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns (Berlin 1977). h. j. klauck, Hausgemeinde und Hauskirche im frühen Christentum (Stuttgart 1981). x. lÉon-dufour, Sharing the Eucharistic Bread, tr. m. j. o'connell (New York/Mahwah 1987). b. a. levine, In the Presence of the Lord (Leiden 1974). j. milgrom, Cult and Conscience (Leiden 1976); Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology, (Leiden 1983). j. petuchowski, "The Liturgy of the Synagogue: History, Structure, and Contents," w. s. grÉen, ed., Approaches to Ancient Judaism, v. 4 (Chico, California 1983) 164. l. g. perdue, Wisdom and Cult (Missoula, Montana 1977). j. potin, La fête juive de la Pentecôte, 2 v. (Paris 1971). r. rendtorff, Studien zur Geschichte des Opfers im Alten Israel (Neukirchen 1967). s. safrai, Die Wallfahrt im Zeitalter des Zweiten Tempels (Neukirchen 1981). m. s. smith, "God Male and Female in the Old Testament: Yahweh and his 'Asherah'," Theological Studies 48 (1987) 33340. t. j. talley. "The Eucharistic Prayer, Tradition and Development," k. stevenson, ed., Liturgy Reshaped (London 1982) 4864.

[j. l. ronan/

a. cody/eds.]

About this article

Worship (in the Bible)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article