Worship in the Bible Often Looks Strange. How Can It Inform Modern Worship?

If you immerse yourself in the religious life of a Bible-believing community and then step out for a moment, you might find that our worship practices aren’t all that intuitive. In fact, they look pretty weird: money put in a plate or given via a QR code; eating and drinking (or watching someone else eat and drink); swaying-while-singing with eyes closed, hands up, and heads down; deluged with smoke and water, whether by incense or fog machine; bowing, kneeling, sitting, standing, marching—all on cue, and all conveying something to an audience other than the humans around us. We can only hope this audience is receptive, because we look pretty silly otherwise.

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But how much of this is biblical? Or is worship in the Bible even a good barometer for evaluating worship practices? There’s a lot of wild stuff in there, after all. Things like:

  • Whittling a figurine out of firewood (Isa 44:13–17)
  • Making a bonfire out of perfectly good steak (Lev 1:1–17)
  • Getting drunk at a dinner party (1 Cor 11:21)
  • Starving yourself of food and water (Exod 34:28)
  • Growing out your hair (Num 6:5)
  • Cutting off foreskins (Gen 17, Exod 4:25–26)
  • Talking in no discernible language (1 Cor 14:1–25)
  • Line(?) dancing (Exod 15:20)
  • Orgies (Exod 32:6)
  • Slaughtering a baby animal and dousing “dirty” things in its blood to “clean” them (Lev 17)
  • Human sacrifice (Gen 22, Judg 11:29–40)

Now obviously, not all of this is defensible, much less commendable. But all of these are our own spiritual ancestors’ worship practices dedicated to the God of the Bible. Never mind whether God accepted them; many of these are illegitimate, but they necessarily exist in a conversation about worship in the Bible.

So what gives? How did a concept so central to religion come to (d)evolve so much over time into the familiar behaviors that mark our era? And if even half of the acts listed above aren’t legitimate—they aren’t—how can we be sure that our worship practices are?

To address this question properly, we’ll take a brief chronological look at these various practices of worship in the Bible and their consequences in Scripture.

Cain and Abel

The Bible’s first brothers-at-odds give us a powerful and universal snapshot of human worship in the Bible. Genesis 4:3–5 tells us that in the course of time, Cain brought to YHWH an offering from the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought from the firstborn of his flock and from their fat portions. And YHWH regarded Abel and his offering, but not Cain and his. This tells us three things about worship: a) that it somehow mediates the human–divine relationship, b) that it entails the human giving something (back) to the divine, and c) that it can be accepted or rejected.

Should we say that only Abel worshiped God? Or that only Abel’s worship was legitimate? In a sense, both. Plenty of things can look like, or claim to be, worship; just like stalking can look like, or claim to be, love. But in a relational context, the accepted act is made legitimate by its acceptance, and the rejected one isn’t. And in a covenantal context (which is all of the Bible), the accepted act is legitimate to the covenant while the rejected one is not. God speaks frequently in the Bible about accepting/rejecting sacrifices, so we should take His opinion of our worship acts very seriously—it alone legitimizes or delegitimizes what we’re doing.

The Patriarchs: Altars, Sacrifices, and Covenants

As we continue through Genesis, we see various key figures of early history worshiping God. After surviving the Flood, Noah builds an altar and takes from all the clean animals—the very ones he spared!—to burn them as an offering to God. God smells it and blesses Noah, making the first explicit covenant mentioned in the Bible (Gen 8:20–9:17). Down his family tree, we find Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all erecting altars to God and making various kinds of sacrifices. In Abraham’s case, a very particular sacrifice is used to ratify a second covenant (Gen 15:8). And beyond the patriarchal family, a roughly contemporary Job is said to have made sacrifices regularly on behalf of his wayward sons (Job 1:5).

From these, we see a few more accomplishments made in worship. They don’t just pay homage to a deity; they are milestones in the human–divine relationship. In this era, they appear in key locations, usually after God has somehow blessed the person—Abraham at Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, and Mount Moriah; Isaac in Beersheba; Jacob in Shechem and Bethel. In these cases, the physical location of worship is significant but entirely situational. For the patriarchs, it is reactionary to God’s interventions in their lives. In the case of Job, it is preemptive to cover his children’s sins.

Another note should be made about worship practices in this era and beyond: the Hebrew of the Old Testament doesn’t categorize its terms the same way a theologian might prefer. There is no abstract biblical verb like “to worship” that simply serves to categorize others. Often, we find concrete verbs like zabach (Hb זָבַח “to slaughter”) or shakhah (Hb שָחַה “to bow”) as synecdoche for a more complicated process that requires many verbs to complete. For example, in Gen 22:5 Abraham tells his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; I and [Isaac] will go over there venishtachaveh (“and we’ll bow”) and come again to you.” Obviously by “bow” here he meant the whole act of ritual worship that such a journey would entail. We also have terms for verbal actions like barakh (Hb בָרַך “to bless”) and halal (הָלַל “to praise”), as well as symbolic actions like yadah (Hb יָדַה “to stretch out a hand”) and zamar (Hb זָמַר “to make music”).

Each of these words has other uses outside of worship contexts. This suggests that whatever “worship” practices we find in Scripture are unique alterations of otherwise normal human actions in service of the human–divine relationship. This will be crucial in discerning what makes a worship act “legitimate,” because it places legitimacy on something extrinsic (namely, God’s view of our action) rather than “intrinsic” (as in, the intent or nature of our action). Sorry Leonard Cohen, but there probably was no “secret chord” that David played and it pleased the LORD. The music he would go on to make would please God for a reason other than its sound. More on that later.

Moses and Early Israel

By the time we meet Moses in Egypt, Israelite worship practices fade into the background. We know shockingly little about what the children of Israel did to maintain their cultural memory and its ties to a patriarchal God while enslaved in Egypt. But the specific request Moses makes of Pharaoh betrays a common understanding in all worship of their time. The request, “please let us go out into the wilderness a three-days’ journey, that we might worship the LORD our God” qualifies the action by place. This “worship” (zabach, “slaughter”) cannot be just anywhere. God is very specific with Moses: it must be done at Mount Sinai (Exod 3:12).

At Sinai the Tabernacle is built, and along with it comes an enormous collection of instructions for proper worship. No more indiscriminate altar-building, says Deuteronomy 12:13–14. All burnt offerings are to take place at the Tabernacle, but other slaughterings are welcome in your own town. And not only does place become fixed, so does time. Amid scores of new rules governing where and when to sacrifice, two common worship practices mark the human–divine relationship: feasting and vows. The former accompanies slaughtered sacrifices, and the latter exists within a whole host of offerings in a very complex system designed to mediate the human–divine relationship on a national level. These will carry through the wilderness into Canaan, and on through the period of the Judges as well.

Another thing that will carry into Canaan is syncretism: the mixing of Israelite worship with pagan practices like fornication, idolatry, self-mutilation, and human sacrifice. Scripture has no shortage of condemnation for these acts, and it is imperative that we understand they are illegitimate, rejected by God. No claim of good intentions can change that, and even the most sincere worshipers can be led astray into them (1 Kgs 14:6, 16:26). These warnings in Scripture should be sobering for us, keeping us alert as to the purity of our own practices (1 Cor 10:1–12).

Kingdom, Psalms, and Temple

By the era of the monarchs (Saul, David, Solomon, etc.), Israelite worship acquired a sound of its own. As a people, the Hebrews certainly had musical instruments and a host of cultural songs prior to this time. And as in any culture, their music accompanied war (Josh 6:4), celebration (Num 21:17), commemoration (Exod 15), instruction (Deut 31), and recreation (Gen 31:27). But it’s hard to make a case that the Israelites would have called these musical moments “worshipful.” Again, the terminology even for something like praise doesn’t quite line up with our current English concept. The presence of music didn’t make a ritual act de facto worship; an offering of some kind did.

Thus we see David’s innovation in the inclusion of ritualized music in the Tabernacle (1 Chr 25). Between his many psalms and exhaustive administration, David left a musical legacy unparalleled in the history of worship in the Bible. It’s hard to say whether the norms David set prompted the latter prophets to envision heavenly choirs, or whether he simply introduced the eternal heavenly model to an earthly paradigm. In either case, the Davidic era saw human melody become a legitimate offering in worship. But it’s not just the beauty of melodies that makes them acceptable offerings. David is revered as an exceptionally virtuous king who regularly combines righteousness of conduct with firstfruits of offering. It’s this mixture that makes God favor him so (1 Kgs 3:6). And the lack of it makes God disfavor and reject others (Amos 5:23–24).

When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, worship norms underwent their next massive shift. For about 500 years, proper worship had been conducted at fixed times, and now it would occur at a fixed place, too. The place of worship could no longer follow the Tabernacle from city to city; it all had to take place in the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, the Ark of the Covenant was moved just a few hundred meters from Mount Zion to Mount Moriah for this (1 Kgs 8:1). All the way through the Temple’s destruction in the 6th century BC, its rebuilding at the end of that century, its desecration and purification in the 2nd century BC, and its second destruction in the 1st century AD, the Temple remained inseparably tied to biblical worship. In fact, many still believe the site can never be unhitched from biblical worship (1 Kgs 8:13). Are they right?

We find a stunning example of this question in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4. In their conversation, she says, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you [Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where we ought to worship.” A Samaritan standing in the shadow of Mount Gerizim, this woman refers to the Samaritan Pentateuch’s unique version of Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21, which includes an 11th commandment of sorts: that when Israel inherits the land of Canaan they must recreate the tablets of stone on Mount Gerizim and worship there.

The dispute in question isn’t a matter of how or when we worship, but has returned to where we worship. You would expect a Jewish teacher like Jesus living in the (Herodian) Temple’s all-time greatest era to argue eloquently for Jerusalem and the clear preeminence of the Temple. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he prophesies a removal of where from the worship altogether:

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know. For salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:21–24)

The first century saw enormous shifts in Israelite worship, and this statement highlights the crux of them all. Jerusalem, a heavily divided political and religious center, was becoming unstable. The Essene community of Qumran believed that it was hopelessly tainted by metropolitan sin and thus illegitimate. Palestinian Jews writ large still flocked to the Temple regularly, but significant portions of the Diaspora would live and die without seeing it once. And with the stolen Ark of the Covenant missing from the Holy of Holies, we’re not even sure if Temple sacrifices were widely considered legitimate anyway. So when Jesus answers this Samaritan’s question of place with a prescription of manner, he was speaking into something much larger than the Jewish–Samaritan divide.

1st Century Onward: New Paradigms

For the next 40 years, early Christians and Jews would all still go to the Temple, but then would gather in smaller communities (the synagogue and the ecclesia) over shared meals, songs, Scripture, and prayer. After the Temple’s second destruction in 70 A.D., non-Christian Jews would eventually replace sacrifices and pilgrimages with daily prayers. Christians would find a new paradigm altogether in their doctrines of salvation and take communion in remembrance of Christ’s all-fulfilling sacrifice, permanently ending the era of Temple sacrifice in worship (Heb 10:1–22).

It’s sobering to see what a drastic change occurred over the course of biblical history. Slaughtered sacrifices became a thing of the past. Altars were either foregone or repurposed for communion. Major religious centers like Sinai, Bethel, Shiloh and Zion were long out of use. Jewish and Christian communities alike have worship practices that look to those of their ancestors but are decidedly not the same. They’re tailored for a new era with new needs, and a human–divine relationship that is still unfolding.

Understanding Worship in the Bible

So again, how can we know if our worship practices today are legitimate? How do we know that God accepts them and communes with us in them? I’m not sure we can get past Jesus’ prescription of manner: that God seeks people who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. This prescription doesn’t give us a map with correct places to worship, or a liturgical calendar of correct things to say and times to say them. It doesn’t even offer so much as a model of legitimate acts to imitate. Rather, like many of his teachings, it broadly invokes a higher calling and a seriousness with which we approach God and the things of God.

This teaching should dispel the naive assumption that just because we intend to worship, God somehow has to accept it from us. He doesn’t. But when tied to a righteous life and rooted in the paradigms that worked before, the testimony of Scripture suggests that whatever we offer God will be accepted. Without these specific connections, they won’t (Hos 6:6, Matt 23:23).

So it might be hymns, new songs, tithes, donations, incense, prayers, creeds, vows, sacraments, ordinances, or nearly anything else that hopes to foster the human–divine relationship. Whatever we offer God will either be accepted or rejected. And my prayer is that they’ll be accepted when offered in the way of love, in light of Christ’s own sacrifice (Eph 5:2). Otherwise, we’ll just be wasting our time.

If you still wonder, as I do, how we can assess our own practices for evidence that they are accepted by God, stay tuned for a part II where we’ll closely consider the significance of worshiping “in spirit and in truth.”

Image created by Rubner Durais

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