This is the second in a series of posts on historical forms of worship, the background of Israelite worship, and modern forms of worship. Hopefully this exposition about worship will resonate with you as we approach the Christian Holy Week and the Jewish Passover.
II. Ancient Middle Eastern Worship
We know a fair amount about worship in the ancient Middle East from the Bible, from archaeology, and from ancient writings.
1. Fertility Rites
The focus of ancient Middle Eastern worship was fertility, both agricultural and human. Some of his worship even included child sacrifice, as we read in these instructions from Moses in Deuteronomy 12:30b-31:
Don’t say, “How do these nations worship? I will do the same.” Don’t worship the Lord your God that way, because the Lord hates the evil ways they worship their gods. They even burn their sons and daughters as sacrifices to their gods! NCV
Fertility rites also involved temple prostitutes, which are mentioned several times in the Bible as something to be avoided.
2. Ba’al Worship
The main god of the ancient Middle East was Ba’al, the sun god, and his equivalents such as Bel (which we find in the name “Jezebel”). Baal’s female consort was Ashtoreth, the moon god. God told the Israelites time and again to worship only him, not the false gods of the region, as we read in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:2-5a):
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God... NRSV
III. God’s Specified Worship
God not only told the Israelites how not to worship, but God laid out in excruciating detail how they were to worship the one true God, Jehovah. The main components of this God-given worship in the Law of Moses were:
1. Animal Sacrifices
Israelite worship focused on atonement for sins through the sacrifice of an unblemished animal at the tabernacle and later the temple. Christians believe that these animal sacrifices point to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The reason we don’t have to sacrifice animals any more is that Jesus accomplished the ultimate sacrifice, once for all. The Book of Hebrews goes into this in some detail.
Another component of ancient Israelite worship was the giving of various kinds of offerings. In particular, the giving of the first fruits of your harvest to the Lord was both a personal sacrifice and a statement of faith. You were giving up instant gratification, and you were trusting in God to bring in a good harvest – similar trust when we give to the church today.
3. Keeping the Sabbath
Another important aspect of Israelite worship was keeping the Sabbath. Before synagogue worship, the Sabbath was strictly a time of rest. Synagogue worship developed when the Jews were away from the temple in Jerusalem during their Babylonian captivity. So eventually keeping the Sabbath not only involved resting, but also worshipping in the synagogue.
4. Holy Days
Another component of Israelite worship was observing the various holy days established by God in the Law of Moses, such as:
Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”),
Booths (or shelters; Sukkot – remembering their ancestors in the wilderness),
Weeks (or Pentecost or Shauvot), and
Trumpets (now the Jewish New Year - Rosh HaShana “head of the year”).
Since the Law of Moses was given, two other holy days have been added: Purim and Hanukkah.
5. Ceremonial Law Observances
The last major component of Israelite worship given by God was to keep what is called the ceremonial law: dietary laws, and other day-to-day rules. The ceremonial law involves rules that have nothing to do with morals or ethics, or the functioning of government.
More on this subject of the history of worship in a future post.