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Worship in Ancient Israel: An Essential Guide

Worship in Ancient Israel: An Essential Guide

by Walter Brueggemann
In an engaging style--characteristic of the author, Walter Brueggemann--this Essential Guide describes the leading motifs of ancient Israel’s worship traditions in the Old Testament. The author guides the reader through the themes, central texts, prayers, festivals, and practices of that worship. He sees throughout the Old Testament a central emphasis on worship


In an engaging style--characteristic of the author, Walter Brueggemann--this Essential Guide describes the leading motifs of ancient Israel’s worship traditions in the Old Testament. The author guides the reader through the themes, central texts, prayers, festivals, and practices of that worship. He sees throughout the Old Testament a central emphasis on worship as a covenantal gesture and utterance by the community in the presence of God. In addition to being an essential guide to this subject, this book is intended to be in the service of current theological and practical issues concerning worship of the church in its ecumenical character.

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Abingdon Press
Publication date:
Essential Guide Series
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

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Worship in Ancient Israel

An Essential Guide

By Walter Brueggemann

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-6465-3


Orthodox Yahwism in Dialogic Modes

This book, located in the series that it is, intends to consider some of the leading motifs of ancient Israel's worship traditions in the Old Testament. In addition to being an essential guide to this subject, this book is intended to be in the service of current theological and practical issues concerning the worship of the church in its ecumenical character.

Broadly we may say that worship in the biblical tradition that eventuates in Christian practice consists in regular, ordered, public, disciplined resituation of the life of the community of faith and of each of its members in the presence of the God who has called that community into existence and who continues to call that community into a life of praise and obedience. That regular resituating of one's life and the life of the community is enacted through thick, trustworthy utterances and gestures or, as we say in current ecumenical context, through "word and sacrament." This community has to do, in worship, with the elusive presence and inscrutable purpose of the holy God. For that reason such interaction can only take place in mediated ways through signs that are commonly taken in the community to signify a genuine, direct, and serious relationship. Thus the interaction of God and community through trusted, thick signs constitutes worship. Worship then consists in the faithful management of, practice of, and engagement with these signs through which God makes God's self available in defining and decisive ways to this community. This community in turn derives its very life from this God and from God's peculiar and abiding commitment to this community.

The study of worship in the Old Testament is profoundly complex and problematic; for the most part, that study has been understood primarily as a report on the "history of religion," that is, the way in which practices of worship have been ordered and shaped over time in various contexts. Such studies characteristically stop short of articulating the normative accents that were surely present in Israel's practice. The study of the history of worship in ancient Israel is crucial because the evidence stretches over long periods and in a variety of different contexts; care must be taken, moreover, that a normative statement concerning worship should not be reductionist of the rich variety of evidence in the text. Given the present state of our knowledge, scholars believe it is possible to trace, in a rough form, the ways in which worship was practiced in various contexts and then was vigorously adjusted and transformed under continuing contextual pressures to take a variety of new shapes. The location of specific worship practices in specific social contexts has made it possible, in a general way, to reconstruct the course of historical development. The classic assumption of Old Testament interpretation, now greatly in dispute, is that Israelite worship developed dramatically from primitive, mythological, and polytheistic forms into more fully monotheistic, ethical, and critically sophisticated worship. That notion of historical development, however, is greatly impinged upon by the more recent recognition of sociological diversity in the community of Israel. As a result it is clear that there was not at any given time in ancient Israel a single practice of worship; rather in every generation and in every social context, there was no doubt a more formal worship practice geared to large truth claims and allied with dominant social power. At the same time, however, alongside that more formal practice there were always "lesser" worship practices connected to "lesser" subcommunities, such as family, clan, or tribe. These several practices more than likely existed in parallel, occasionally overlapped or influenced each other, but characteristically had their own particular interest, nuance, and witness. Thus one must reckon with a pluriform practice upon which no uniformity could be imposed and from which no simplistic practice could emerge.

It is evident that Israel participated in and appropriated from the worship practices of its environment that were very old and well established, for the propensity to worship was in that culture long antecedent to the emergence of Israel. Indeed, that ancient culture, like every culture, was permeated with worship. As Walter Harrelson notes, a hypothesis about secularization in contemporary life should not be overstated:

What is overlooked [in such secularism] is man's need to celebrate. Human beings, in virtue of their humanity, are evoked to praise by the very process of living their lives. Our response to our work, to our fellow men, to the values and the evils of our time is not a full response unless our lives be centered upon that which must be greeted with praise and upon that which must be greeted with revulsion or the cry of dereliction.... I would insist that man cannot live a fully human life without acts of celebration.

The cultural environment in which Israel emerged offers ample evidence of the need for "acts of celebration." In the ancient world as in the contemporary world, celebration of and encounter with "the transcendent" is an inescapable need. Israel's worship emerged in a cultural environment where that need for celebration and encounter with "the transcendent" was not at all restrained. There were well-established practices and rich resources available to Israel from the outset. While Israel's worship was distinctive in its reference to YHWH, it did not need to reinvent the wheel of worship.

We may identify two aspects of that cultural environment that are important for Israel's worship. First, the great states of the ancient Near East, Egypt and various centers of power in Mesopotamia, developed highly sophisticated mythical accounts of the world that served, at the same time, a theological function in creating a "world" of stability and order, and a political function of legitimating established power. There is no doubt that over time Israel appropriated these great founding narratives for liturgical enactment in ways that featured YHWH as creator God and that identified the Davidic king as human regent for the purposes of the creator God.

Second and more immediately, Israel lived in the sociopolitical context of Canaan, and so inescapably in the midst of Canaanite religion, the character of which we know best from the finds at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit). There are biblical texts showing YHWH in deep conflict with Baal, the principle God of Canaanite religion (as in 1 Kgs 18), and there is a strong interpretive tradition of "YHWH versus Baal." It seems clear, nonetheless, that Israel appropriated for its own purposes much of the religious practice and much of the theological understanding of such cultural religion, transposing it only here and there in order to accommodate Yahwistic claims. The antithesis between Canaanite religion and Yahwistic faith has no doubt been overstated in recent scholarship, for it is clear that much of Israel's worship is appropriated and inhaled from that religious environment. And of course, it is not difficult to understand why. Israel appropriated means and forms of worship from its social environment. Just like their Canaanite neighbors, Israelites had to be concerned over the most elemental processes of life and death and over the inscrutable processes of "nature" that governed the destiny of an agricultural community. The commonality of Canaanite religion and Israelite worship applies particularly to the term "fertility" that has been used pejoratively in much recent interpretation, as in "Canaanite fertility religion" against which scholars have been deeply polemical. Such religion found divine presence and divine purpose at work in the normal course of life processes—birth and death—and understood such "natural" processes as permeated with divine power. While such a concern in Canaanite culture produced religious oddities and excesses that offended Yahwists, it is important to recognize, nonetheless, that Israel also worshiped a God linked to context and powerfully engaged in normal processes of life and death. It could not be otherwise in an agricultural economy. Such "syncretistic" or "heterodox" dimensions to Israelite worship only attests that Israel's worship is generated by and sustained by social-sacral practices that function in the real world. From that inescapable reality, we may in our own time and place realize how deeply contextual the church's worship is, even if we imagine and hope for a more "pure version" that reflects disciplined faith and that is not propelled by contextual, cultural pressures.

Given all of the rich diversity and complexity of worship traditions in the Old Testament, and all of the evident development of practice from one context to another, it is nonetheless possible to identify some thematics in the faith and worship in Israel that are constant, seemingly normative, and pervasive in the many variegated traditions of ancient Israel. This book is primally concerned with the constant, normative, and pervasive, because this investigation looks beyond Old Testament studies to the wider, and contemporary, theological concerns. Such a focus requires, perforce, that we leave out of consideration much of the evidence for syncretistic, heterodox, and seemingly ideosyncratic practice of worship in Israel, and focus instead on what persists and what emerges as the primal claims of worship practice in every context in Israel.

Of this preoccupation, Patrick D. Miller speaks, amid all of the complex evidence, of "orthodox Yahwism" that he characterizes by six accents.

"Exclusive worship of the deity Yahweh was expected."

"The will of the deity was conveyed by means of oracle inquiry and prophetic audition or vision."

"Sanctuaries were erected in various places ... for the expression of devotion to the deity by means of sacrifice, festival meals and celebrations, prayer and praise."

"Certain times were set for the gathering of the people to celebrate the gifts of Yahweh and the deity's acts of deliverance and redemption."

"The moral and ethical sphere was a matter of stress, with requirements and expectations about guarding the welfare of neighbors and providing for the weaker members of society."

"Religious leadership resided especially in the various priests who were associated with the sanctuaries and were dependent upon sacrifice and offering for support, but also in prophets, who were bearers of divine oracles."

Behind Miller's analysis of Israel's worship, there are of course primal theological assumptions of which he himself has written elsewhere. Alongside the claim of exclusive worship, Miller has also observed that Israel's faith and worship are aniconic, that is, without appeal to images. These two marks, exclusivity and aniconicity, are the primal requirements of the decalogue in Exodus 20:3-6 and Deuteronomy 5:7-10. It should be noted that the exclusive worship of YHWH eventuated in monotheism, but the exclusionary claim of YHWH is for a long time asserted before any formal claim of monotheism is ever voiced in Israel. Thus worship in Israel is the presentation and address of all of life to this single loyalty, to the God who summons, forms, rescues, and commands Israel. The claim of YHWH upon Israel, from the outset of the encounter at Sinai, is relational long before it becomes metaphysically self-conscious or speculative. The formal metaphysical claim for the God of Israel as the only God came only later (in Second Isaiah); that, however, did not deter the passionate exclusivism of the covenantal claim from the outset. If we are to understand Israel's worship rightly, then we must pay attention to the presentation of the character of God in the Old Testament texts, for whatever Israel appropriated from its environment for worship, it transposed into a vehicle for interaction with the singular God of the covenant. Thus H. H. Rowley is surely correct in his judgment: "The real meaning of worship derives in the first place from the God to whom it is directed."

The exclusionary presentation of the community of YHWH to YHWH in singular loyalty in acts and words of worship must be understood in terms of the peculiar character and will of YHWH as a God in relation. Unlike much subsequent church theology, the Old Testament has little to say about God in God's self, but much to say about God in relation. That relationship in the Old Testament is termed a "covenant," a bilateral relationship between YHWH and Israel that YHWH initiates in a generous act of commitment and self-giving. Roland de Vaux witnesses to the personal character of the God of covenant, and Miller judges:

There does not seem to be any period in Israel's religious history where the specific recognition of the relation of deity and tribe or people was not expressed in such a pact, though it took different forms prior to the monarchy and during it and may have been understood or formulated differently in the North and in the South.

It is right to say, then, that Israel's worship is to be understood as a practice of covenant whereby Israel variously receives and affirms the covenant, maintains and sustains the covenant, and takes steps to renew and revivify the covenant when it has been violated. It does so by various acts of gratitude and obedience, by gestures of submission and loyalty, and by words of affirmation and praise. Worship consists in words and gestures by which Israel regularly resituates its life in the ongoing narrative of YHWH who creates, judges, and rescues.

This dialogic transaction that is constituted and enacted in worship requires of us an unlearning of some assumptions of conventional theology. On the one hand, the God worshiped through these acts of covenant-making, covenant-keeping, and covenant-renewing is no one-dimensional God of power as is often assumed. Rather, Israel's liturgical texts exercise great freedom and imagination in articulating YHWH in a rich variety of metaphors and figures. Among the most prominent of these are king, warrior, judge, and father, for which Israel is counterpart as subject people, rescued community, condemned or acquitted people, and children who are heirs of the promises of YHWH. Less centrally, the articulation of God in the liturgic environment of Israel may utilize a number of other metaphors that open the way beyond the masculine to a God who is as nurturing as a mother. In its liturgic imagination, Israel explores a rich variety of ways in which its covenantal relationship with YHWH can be presented (and practiced) in all its fullness.

On the other hand, not only do the people who worship this God in praise and in obedience gladly submit to the rule of this God who requires exclusive loyalty, but Israel is also capable of and free to seize the initiative in the relationship. Israel can engage in insistent and candid address to YHWH, thereby summoning YHWH to be faithful to YHWH's own intention and promises. In speaking of Psalm 44, Harrelson comments:

It is far from a model prayer, according to approved taste. The worshiper says in effect that he has heard that old story of God's saving deeds until he is sick of it. No doubt it is true that once God helped his people, saw to their needs, delivered Moses and the slaves from Egypt, provided a rich and good land for their descendants. But look at us now: the land lies in ruins, God's house is a shambles, we have no possibility of making a life for ourselves, and God does not care. Either he cannot any longer help; or he will not—and in both instances he falls under condemnation.

The important point here is that the worshiper says so, and says so passionately. He is as deeply involved in the act of communion with God as is the worshiper who is praising and extolling God's virtues and excellencies. His passion is aroused by the apparent injustice of God, and he pours out his soul in the act of worship. The saving history is for him a bitter irony, and he is not slow to say just that.


Excerpted from Worship in Ancient Israel by Walter Brueggemann. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. A past president of the Society of Biblical Literature, he is one of today's preeminent interpreters of Scripture.

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