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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Debate: Old Testament Insights

Yesterday, I began a discussion concerning the primacy of certain practices in Christian worship services (which can be read here). Specifically, this debate is over the importance of the Word vs. the Table. In attempt to hold the two in a reciprocal relationship, there are some thoughts I would like to share based on biblical, historical, and theological research. Robert Webber argues that worship remembers God through historical recitation and dramatic reenactment.[1] Likewise, worship anticipates God’s desired future through holy living.[2] Thus, worship reenacts, recites, and lives out the glory of God. One way this is seen in corporate worship services today is through the practice of Word and Table.
A foundation for the practice of Word and Table in corporate worship can be found biblically in the Old Testament. Let us consider the idea of covenant, using it as a structuring principle for Biblical worship in the Old Testament.
The covenant form was familiar to the ancient near eastern world. As John Witvliet writes “…the notion of covenant was one of the primary means by which the people of Israel understood their relationship with God.”[3] He steps in as Israel’s suzerain, calling her to be His vassal. The earliest examples we see in Scripture of God enacting covenant are with Noah in Genesis 9 and Abram in Genesis 15 and 17.
            The organization of the suzerain/vassal covenant was generally standardized in the ancient near east. Beginning with a preamble initiated by the suzerain, names and titles of the suzerain were listed. Next, a historical prologue provided the basis for the obligation between the two parties. Stipulations depicting the expectations of each covenantal party followed. If the stipulations were kept, a list of blessings would result. A list of curses stated consequences of not keeping the covenant. Finally, witnesses were called to validate the agreement.[4]
            The Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy present an account of God’s covenant with the Israelite people gathered at Mt. Sinai. Exodus 20:2 opens with a preamble naming the suzerain, “I and the LORD your God,” and ends with the historical prologue, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Exodus 20:3-23:33 provide the stipulations of the covenant. Blessings and curses according to Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant are given in Deuteronomy 28:1-68. Deuteronomy 30:19-20 calls heaven and earth as witnesses to this covenant.
            A covenant was established by both word and action. Covenant-making was typically accompanied by a ceremony of ratification, usually a blood sacrifice. An animal was chosen, cut in two, and the parties involved in the covenant passed between the pieces.[5] An example of this is the covenant made between God and Abram in Genesis 15:1-21. At other times, the partners of the covenant were sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice as is done by Moses in Exodus 24:8. Both of these acts are graphic images of the parties’ identification with the slain animals, as if stating, “May what has happened to these animals happen to me if I fail to keep my oath.”[6] It is remarkable in Genesis 15:17-18, God takes this penalty of breaking the covenant upon Himself: "It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates…'"
Old Testament worship practice applied the covenant to every aspect of Israel’s religious life. In establishing covenantal relationship with Israel, God set forth a certain liturgical pattern they were to follow: Keep the Sabbath as a holy day of rest, observing it as a memorial of Creation and pattern for redemption (see Gen 2:3; Ex 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15); Honor three annual feast days, gathering in God’s sanctuary to offer sacrifices celebrating his bounty, seeking and acknowledge reconciliation and fellowship with him, and eating and drinking together as an expression of joy (see Ex 23:14-17; 34:23; Deut 16:16);  Honor the Day of Atonement, on which the high priest takes blood into the central shrine of the sanctuary to atone for Israel’s sins and releases a scapegoat into the desert as a sign that those sins are now gone (see Lev 16); Keep a regular sacrificial system, involving daily and monthly burnt offerings of a flawless animal, pouring out its blood on the altar in order to make atonement (see Num 28:1-15; Lev 17:11).
Walter Brueggemann remarks that Israel’s covenantal relationship to God shaped a particular and unique lifestyle. Israel was called to set themselves apart through acts of ceremonial cleansing and festival celebrations. He writes, “In sum, all of them intend that this distinctive community of YHWH must live out in visible, palpable, material ways – in thick, freighted symbolization – the peculiar, defining mark of covenant.”[7]
Covenantal worship held together the idea of Word and Table, though perhaps Table was not quite the same as we practice today. Sacrifice was certainly important, but so was feasting. The structure of covenant itself would point us back to a four-fold pattern for worship. This is apparent in Exodus 20-24. The breakdown of the covenant features could be listed and compared as follows:

Exodus 20:1 = Prologue = Gathering fold
Exodus 20:2-23:33 = Stipulations /reading/explanation of covenant = Word fold
Exodus 24:1-8  = Act of Commitment/sacrifice/Meal = Table fold of worship
Exodus 24:1-8 = Blessings/Curses, dedication to live accordingly = Dismissal fold

My next post will continue this idea as we consider how Word and Table come together in the New Testament.

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids, IL: Baker Books, 2008), 48.
[2] Ibid, 66.
[3] John D. Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 72.
[4] Sanrda L. Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 82.
[5] Ibid, 77.
[6] Ibid, 79.
[7] Walter Brueggemann, Worship in Ancient Israel: An Essential Guide (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2005), 16.

1 comment:

  1. A hearty welcome to one of the key questions that made me Catholic :)

    Word and Table in a single worship service (or as we call them in the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist) are, as you noted in the first post, meant to be connected and were from the beginning. As a Catholic who believes that by the power given to the Church by God through the succession of the apostles, Christ becomes truly present in the Eucharist, which is why in the middle ages you see such an emphasis on Table. The reformers who broke from apostolic succession (at least according to the sacramental criteria used by Catholics and Orthodox), would therefore no longer be able to consecrate the elements of Communion, and a natural shift of emphasis to the Word in worship was inevitable.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on Jesus' "Bread of Life" discourses in John 6 as part of your New Testament exploration. Enjoying these posts thoroughly!

    By the way, in regard to your fourth fold, the word "Mass" is derived from the last words in the liturgy, which, in Latin, are "ite missa est," or, "go, it is sent."