Rediscovering worship in the Old Testament

October 8th, 2014

Be honest. You read that title and expected me to talk about sacrificing goats, didn’t you?

Before you start reminding me of Hosea 6:6 or Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, hear me out. Because worship in the Old Testament is more than bloody and fearful. In fact, I think the Old Testament has a lot to say about worship, much of which can help guide church leaders seeking to reimagine worship for twenty-first century settings.

The Value of Holy Space

The ancient Hebrews had a deep understanding of holy space that is largely lost on modern minds. Put simply, in the Old Testament, God’s presence is more palpable in certain places than in others. The Old Testament contains various, sometimes competing traditions about where these holy places are, but it universally affirms that they exist. In these places, the lines between heaven and earth are blurred and a powerful encounter with God is possible.

God appeared to Israel’s ancestors at Shechem, Bethel, and Beer-sheba, among other places, and these became sites of worship. Jacob’s encounter at Bethel is particularly illuminating, because Jacob sees a vision of a staircase connecting heaven and earth (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob recognizes that this place is an entryway between earth and heaven. He has stumbled onto God’s front porch, as it were, and names the place Bethel, House of God (verses 17-19).

Moses on Mount Sinai, Jean-Leon Gerome, 1895-1900

Something similar can be said of Mount Sinai, a holy place where Moses must remove his shoes (Exodus 3:5) and the Israelites must observe ritual boundaries (Exodus 19:9-15). Here, God descends upon the mountaintop and Moses goes up; God and Moses meet in the intersection between heaven and earth. When the Israelites leave Sinai, the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, become this holy space where earth and heaven meet.

Many innovations in worship are being driven by a desire to remove the lines between the holy and the profane, to carry the church’s worship into the world. In such efforts, worship can take place virtually anywhere: outdoors, in coffee shops, in private homes. But as boundaries between sacred and profane are eliminated, care must be taken so that God’s presence can still be felt. However it happens, worship must offer an occasion for our hearts to be lifted up from earth to heaven.

The witness of the Old Testament seems to be that worship should not happen just anywhere. Rather, care should be taken to seek out, recognize, and honor those places where God’s presence can be deeply felt.

As we reimagine worship in the twenty-first century, are we providing a space for heaven and earth to connect, a place for people to encounter God?

Worshiping God the Creator

As I have taught and studied the Old Testament, I have been struck by the deep connections between its creation narratives and Israel’s life of worship. Many aspects of Israel’s worship, directly or indirectly, celebrated God’s identity as the Creator of the world.

The commandment to observe the Sabbath is intended so that humans will imitate the Creator God, who rested on the seventh day of creation (Exodus 20:8-11). The long narrative of the Tabernacle’s construction follows a format suggestive of the first creation narrative, where God gives instructions and those instructions are precisely carried out (Exodus 25-31, 35-40). The levitical sacrificial system, in which some animals are acceptable for sacrifice and others are not, reflects the patterns of order that God has built into the created world. Carvings in the Tabernacle and Temple contained garden imagery, recalling the Garden of Eden.

In all these respects, Israel’s worship reflected its worldview, in which their God was the creator of the world. This worldview was embodied in the worship space, whether Tabernacle or Temple, and enacted through rituals such as Sabbath observance and sacrifices.

Our worldview has changed more than slightly from that which was held by the ancient Israelites. We confess Jesus Christ as Lord and hold that God is Triune, among many other differences. But we still believe that God is “the maker of heaven and earth.” And in the 21st century, this is still a radical claim. It means we must acknowledge that the earth belongs neither to us nor to our children, but that we are stewards of it on behalf of God. It means that we are not finally in control of our world, however much we are responsible for climate change and however much technology promises to give us power over our surroundings. It means that the processes of life, from sex and childbirth to agriculture and forestry, are not ours to manipulate and do with as we please. And it means that we are created in God’s image and therefore deeply valuable. We are created on purpose, and that purpose is not to be “employees,” “constituents,” or “consumers” but to delight the One who made the universe and everything in it.

When our worship spaces and practices reflect such a view of creation, it is a powerful message to our churches and the world around us.

How can worship in the 21st century embody our conviction that God is the maker of heaven and earth? What symbols or practices most fully communicate this reality?

What other insights does the Old Testament offer for worship?

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