Biblical Culture-Making: How Sacred Order Shapes Social Order

According to Scripture, humans, as image-bearers of the Creator, are designed to craft the world. This world-crafting runs the gamut of human activities and goes by many names, including “culture-making,” coined by Andy Crouch.1Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008). Sociologist Philip Rieff (1922–2006)2Bruce Riley Ashford, “A Theological Sickness unto Death: Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age,” Themelios 43.1 (2018), 34–44. affirms this reality and extends “culture-making” to development of a social order. He writes:

Unending, world creation comprises the historical task of culture: namely, to transliterate otherwise invisible sacred orders into their visible modalities [namely,] social orders.3Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetic Authority (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 2.

In other words, when crafting the world, humans construct a social order that reflects or corresponds to some kind of sacred order. Peoples from ancient times up to (but, according to Rieff, not including) modern times have developed and ordered economic practice and structures, political rule, family and community life, law and justice, etc. on the basis of their conceptions of the gods (polytheism) or God (monotheism). Sacred order shapes social order; the nature of the gods/God influences the structure of society.

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This profound truth resonates deeply with the biblical witness. I will try to demonstrate this with two examples: the Sinai covenant, which provides a blueprint for a social order shaped by the sacred order of Yahweh, and the book of Judges, which depicts a social (dis)order influenced by the sacred order of foreign gods.

The Sinai Covenant: Yahweh’s Sacred Order Shapes an Israelite Social Order 

Robert Boling maintained that the Sinai Covenant (Exod 19:1–24:11) established Israel as “the nucleus of the earthly half of the kingdom of Yahweh.”4Robert Boling, Judges: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 6A (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 24. To set the context, Yahweh had just asserted his rightful claim on the people of Israel by demonstrating his power over Pharaoh and liberating Israel from his grip. Yahweh had led the people to Sinai to forge his relationship with them. In the preamble to the covenant, Yahweh rehearses this history and then gives Israel a new identity: they are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod 19:5–6). What follows are instructions for how they are to order their society in a way that is consistent with their liberator-God and their calling.5It’s worth pointing out that Sinai’s vision for society is deliberately contrasted with the culture and social order of Egypt, which itself is a translation of the Egyptian sacred order. For a stimulating examination of the contrasting political visions of Egypt and Israel, see Yoram Hazony, “Does the Bible Have a Political Teaching?Hebraic Political Studies 1 (2006): 137–161.

The Ten Commandments—or ten words of the covenant (Exod 20:1–17)—provide the general contours of such a social order. It has been often noted that the Ten Commandments orient its adherents both vertically and horizontally. The first four commandments inspire a right relationship with God (giving undivided loyalty to Yahweh, appropriately worshiping Yahweh, properly bearing Yahweh’s name, and balancing work/rest rhythms of life that reflect Yahweh’s own work/rest pattern). Commandments five through ten motivate a right relationship with fellow humans (honoring parents; valuing life, sexual purity, property, and truth; and rightly ordering one’s desires). It is quite right and helpful to see the two “tablets” of the law here as orienting adherents properly to God and humans, to the divine and the social.

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We should take care, however, to avoid separating these sets of commandments too sharply. On the one hand, the social ramifications implied in the first four commandments are made specific in the second and fourth commandments: improper worship/service will have multi-generational consequences (commandment two) and sabbath has social implications, not least for servants, livestock, and foreigners, not to mention the limits it places on economic production. On the other hand, commandments five through ten are dynamically related to one through four—they naturally emerge from and build on the foundation of the first four commandments. If commandments one through four reveal the character of Yahweh and what allegiance to Yahweh entails, then commandments five through ten detail how you should conduct yourself given that allegiance. 

It’s no mistake, therefore, that the commandments begin with a proper orientation (i.e., allegiance) to God, end with the proper desires of the human heart, and in between, encompass the variety of human and social relationships. Patrick Miller captured the essence of the Ten Commandments when he wrote that they provide the contours for the “good neighborhood!”6Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 276. In general terms, they form the sub-structure for “transliterating” (to use Rieff’s language) Yahweh’s sacred order into an order for a distinctive Israelite society.

Not content with generalities, the Sinai covenant, building on the Ten Commandments, fleshes out how Yahweh’s sacred order should mold Israel’s social order (Exod 20:22–24:11). Combining this with all of the instructions in the Torah (including Leviticus–Deuteronomy), it’s not an exaggeration to say that all realms of private and public life—family households, politics, food production and consumption, civil and social justice, calendar/time, economics and labor, animal treatment, and so on—are to be shaped according to Yahweh’s sacred order.

What would be the flavor of such a society? The kind of society that we expect to emerge in Israel would, for example, show regard for the most vulnerable (widows, orphans, and foreigners), champion justice and mercy, cultivate and care for land and animals in sustainable ways, engage in equitable and responsible economic practice, establish just rule, value hard work and revitalizing rest, and so on—all of these (and more) as tangible manifestations of Yahweh’s sacred order. 

The Settlement of Israel: The Sacred Order of Canaan Shapes an Israelite Social (Dis)Order 

We’re going to fast-forward a couple of generations to the Judges account of Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land, to see how the sacred order/social order dynamic works out in that context. But first, it’s important to note that the intervening history is punctuated by significant moments of covenant confirmation/renewal. One occurs at Sinai (Exod 24), and the people affirm twice that they would obey all the words of the covenant (Exod 24:3, 7). The book of Deuteronomy is like one sprawling covenant renewal ceremony, and in ch. 31, Moses confronts the people with a choice between two ways: a way of obedience, life, and blessing, and one of disobedience, death, and misery. 

Similarly, after the conquest of Canaan, Joshua oversees a covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem (Joshua 24), where he too offers two ways: the way of service/allegiance to Yahweh and the way of service/allegiance to the local gods. This time, the people verbally affirm three times, “We will serve Yahweh” (vv. 18, 22, 24). With these words echoing in our ears, we turn the page to Judges in eager expectation of discovering what wonderful flourishing might result as God’s people translate his sacred order into an order for society in the heart of the Fertile Crescent!

But of course, that’s not what we find in Judges. If we were to describe Israel’s social order based on the events in Judges, we might call it violent, fearful, unstable, chaotic, unjust, tribalistic, self-interested, exploitative, misogynistic, manipulative, miserable, and so on.7To be fair, there is an impression in the book of gradual decline, such that Israelite society is not always and not all at once characterized by these kinds of words. The stories in Judges portray a society in sharp contrast to the vision of society that the Sinai covenant casts. Is Reiff’s conception of the dynamic of sacred/social order, therefore, inadequate for making sense of Israel in the settlement period?

Not at all! In fact, it captures with crystal clarity what we encounter in Judges. In many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the book demonstrates that Israel’s problem in the settlement period is their allegiance, which lies not with Yahweh but with the local deities of Canaan. As I’ve written elsewhere

Framing the exploits of the judges are these phrases [Israel did evil in the eyes of Yahweh and served the foreign gods (with some variation see for example 2:11, 13, 19; 3:6, 7; 10:6, 10, 13)] which indicate the narrator’s (and God’s) evaluation of the situation—of what is actually going in and through the events. On one side of the coin is the concept of “doing evil in the eyes of Yahweh” which is short hand language for covenant-breaking and amounts to rejecting God’s rightful status as divine king (see also the language of “abandoning” [2:12, 13], “forgetting” [3:7], “not remembering” [8:34], “disobeying” [6:10], and “forsaking” [10:6] Yahweh). On the other side of the coin is the notion of Israel’s allegiance to the foreign deities, which is most often expressed with the language of “serving” (which is ironic given Israel’s three-fold commitment to serving Yahweh at the end of Joshua) but also of “going after” (2:12, 19; 10:14), “bowing down to/worshiping” (2:12, 17, 19), “fearing” (6:10), and “whoring after” (2:17; 8:27, 33) the Canaanite gods.

Whether deserting Yahweh or devoting themselves to the foreign gods, the result is the same: the social chaos that the events of the book demonstrate. In other words, by “serving” (i.e., directing their allegiance to) the Canaanite gods, the Israelites had replaced Yahweh’s sacred order with the sacred order of Canaanite “religion,” which then produced a thoroughly Canaanite society in Israel. Behavior such as setting up a local household worship place, sacrificing one’s daughter, mistreating women, defending unrighteous tribal members, and exacting extreme vengeance is consistent with a society shaped by the sacred order of the Canaanite gods. The reason much of the behavior in Judges is so confounding is that it is so at odds with Yahweh’s design for Israelite society.

An Overarching Biblical Theme

Riffing off of Reiff’s dynamic of sacred order/social order, I have explored just two snapshots: the Sinai covenant and Israel’s experience in the settlement period. With more exploration, we would discover that this dynamic permeates the Bible. The prophets, not least those in the apocalyptic genre, seem at pains to encourage (and sometimes brow-beat) communities of faith to consistently work out the sacred order of God in their social order. 

The New Testament, with its emphasis on the kingdom of God, is very much in tune with its Hebraic roots in this regard. This is most evident in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). It permeates Paul’s writing, not least in his reminder to the Philippian community that their citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20), which clearly does not mean that they should wait idly until they get to heaven, but that they should bring the benefits and responsibilities of their heavenly citizenship to bear in their context—or as Paul says elsewhere in the letter, “The one essential thing: conduct yourselves as citizens worthy of the gospel of the Messiah” (Phil 1:27). 

On this, it seems, Rieff’s analysis and the biblical thought-world agree: what one worships is not a trifling thing. The design of the Ten Commandments, beginning as they do with exclusive allegiance and proper worship of Yahweh, does not project a petty deity with self-confidence issues. Rather, it manifests a profound truth that a community’s conception of sacred order inevitably and radically shapes not only their personal lives but their community life, and Judges demonstrates an extreme example of a society emerging consistently out of a pagan sacred order.

The Modern West: A Secular Order?

There are significant implications for people of biblical faith today. Rieff himself was deeply disturbed by what he perceived as evidence that the modern West had divorced itself from any notion of a sacred order, evidence he bluntly called “deathworks.” Not unlike Israel in the settlement period, but perhaps more so like biblical communities living under pagan imperial powers, people of faith today inhabit a social order that is funded by a secular order (which itself is a kind of “sacred” order). 

Precisely how people of biblical faith navigate these troubled waters is not straightforward. Establishing a kind of Jewish or Christian imperialism won’t do (the abuses of medieval Christendom should be instructive in this regard), and retreating into a pietistic and privatized religion is also inconsistent with the biblical vision—in fact both of these extremes are akin to the kind of syncretism evident in parts of Judges. 

Rather, communities’ unswerving commitment to the God of Scripture and to consistently working out the ethos of the Ten Commandments are required for such a time as this. What might emerge are pockets of communities producing the fruits of “lifeworks” which offer an attractive alternative to the “deathworks” of our culture. 

End Notes

1. Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

2. Bruce Riley Ashford, “A Theological Sickness unto Death: Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age,” Themelios 43.1 (2018), 34–44.

3. Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetic Authority (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 2.

4. Robert Boling, Judges: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 6A (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 24.

5. It’s worth pointing out that Sinai’s vision for society is deliberately contrasted with the culture and social order of Egypt, which itself is a translation of the Egyptian sacred order. For a stimulating examination of the contrasting political visions of Egypt and Israel, see Yoram Hazony, “Does the Bible Have a Political Teaching?Hebraic Political Studies 1 (2006): 137–161.

6. Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 276.

7. To be fair, there is an impression in the book of gradual decline, such that Israelite society is not always and not all at once characterized by these kinds of words.

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