OLD TESTAMENT WORSHIP
In the Ancient Near East, covenants were often made by a great king (conqueror) and a lesser king, the vassal. According to these ancient treaties, the great king would promise protection and blessing to his vassal in exchange for his allegiance and obedience to the stipulations set forth in the covenant. The great king would use the resources and power of his kingdom to protect his vassal-kings from enemy kingdoms so long as they remained faithful to their covenant obligations and continued to bring the required tribute to the great king. The structure of a 2nd millennium B.C. covenant included the following: 1. Preamble (introduces king), 2. Historical Prologue (past relations reviewed), 3. Stipulations: general and specific, 4. Witnesses, 5. Sanctions: blessings and curses, and 6. Ratifying Oath Sign.
Old Testament (OT) worship is grounded in the historic, redemptive act of God: the Exodus. It is God’s paramount self-revelatory act of redemption, second only to the Incarnation. Israel’s identity as the people of God was rooted in their covenant with God, which he initiated and established though the Exodus at Sinai (Ex 20:1-20).(1) Of course, God’s self-revelation to Israel at Sinai was in continuity with his revelation to and meetings with the patriarchs, particularly his covenant with Abraham (Gen 12-15). God’s deliverance of Israel from the evil powers of Egypt marked the beginning of his covenant faithfulness to bless the nations through the multiplying of Abraham’s seed. Furthermore, the establishment of the Sinaitic Covenant signals the beginning of Old Covenant, corporate worship. It was through their cultic worship that they offered their tribute to their Deliverer-King, and the Exodus shaped and informed their liturgy. This was taught by Moses, expressed in the Psalms, and reiterated by the prophets. Therefore, OT worship originates in God acting on behalf of his people; it cannot be conjured up and defined by anyone but God. Acceptable worship, then, is Israel’s faithful response to, or continued expression of, their covenantal relationship with Yahweh that he initiated.
Robert Webber discerns from the Exodus the basic structural elements for a meeting between God and his people, most of which parallel the 2nd millennium B.C. covenant form: 1. The meeting was convened by God whereby he recounted his saving acts of the Exodus (preamble and historical prologue). 2. The people were arranged in a structure of responsibility. 3. The meeting between God and Israel was characterized by the proclamation of the Word (stipulations). 4. The people accepted the conditions of the covenant, thus signifying a subjective commitment to hear and to obey the Word (the blessing and cursing sanctions are in Lev 26 and Deut 27-28). 5. The meeting was climaxed by a dramatic symbol of ratification, a sealing of the agreement: “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words”” (Ex 24:8). (2) Afterwards, Moses and the elders, representing Israel, offered sacrifices and ate a covenantal meal before Yahweh (Ex 24:3-8, 11). “The message of the chapter is clear: Israel could draw near to God in his holiness only because of his gracious initiative and provision.” (3) This underscores the importance of the Exodus event as the epicenter of the rest of OT worship and provides a grid to examine the rest of OT as well as New Testament worship.(4) The exile from the presence of God brought about by Adam and Eve’s sin, and experienced by the patriarchs, was (beginning to be) reversed by God’s dwelling presence in the midst of his people in the Tabernacle.
1. Because the primary focus of this paper deals with the corporate of the covenantal community, the primary focus is the Exodus onward. Edenic and patriarchal worship are only mentioned in brief. However, what must be emphasized is that since the Fall human beings have attempted to worship God on their own terms and by their own ability. For this reason, God revealed himself to Abraham and promised hope out of primordial history through the promise of the redemption that would come through his offspring.
2. Webber, Worship Old and New, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 20-21.
3. Peterson, 30.
4. Other significant covenants and covenant structures include: Adamic covenant (Gen 1-2); Noahic covenant (Gen 9:11-17); Abrahamic covenant (Gen 15:18); Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:11); and the New Covenant (Jer 31:31).