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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Ancient Israel

A clear understanding of the development of Israel's worship eludes us. On the one hand, the priestly, Deuteronomistic, and prophetic traditions suggest that monotheism originated with Abraham; that centralized worship began with Moses; and that Canaanite elements in Israelite worship were syncretistic additions. On the other hand, archaeology and historical-critical textual study suggest that Israelite religion evolved out of Canaanite polytheism over many centuries in a number of stages; that only during the reign of Josiah, in the late seventh century B.C.E., was the public worship of God first limited to a single central sanctuary and “purged” of certain parts of its Canaanite heritage (e.g., “high places,” fertility poles, and necromancy); and that monotheism, as we understand it, developed in the sixth century B.C.E.

A comprehensive understanding of Israel's worship also eludes us. First, most evidence comes from priests who officiated in the public cultus. Little is said in their writings, or in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, about the private practices of clans, families, and individuals; and only slightly more can be inferred from such artifacts as a few household shrines and numerous female figurines. Second, the priests' descriptions and prescriptions focus on ritual actions and materials and tell us nothing about accompanying words and music. While scholarly analysis of the psalms suggests that many were employed in liturgies, the texts are rarely explicit about the occasions for their use. Given what we currently know, we are unable to “reenact” so much as one Israelite ritual. Third, the authors of the Hebrew Bible were men, and the worship they describe comes from their world, Israel's public domain. They provide little information about worship in Israel's domestic domain, the women's world.

Acknowledging such limitations, much can nonetheless be said, or at least suggested, about Israel's worship, particularly about that in Judah during the late monarchic period.

PRIESTS AND WORSHIP. The office of priest was hereditary. Until the exile, there were at least several priestly families. In the post-exilic period, priesthood was limited to descendants of Aaron.

Among the priests, those serving the sanctuary or sanctuaries patronized by the king were of greatest authority and prestige. Headed by a chief priest, they were probably arranged into a system of orders—some performing or assisting at sacrifices, some composing liturgical texts, some singing and playing instruments at the various rituals. Lower in the hierarchy were priests who officiated at local sanctuaries or administered other shrines.

Service in a “house of God,” as sanctuaries were called, required that priests be fit for God's presence—whole of body, ritually pure. Priests had to eat holy food, from the sacrifices, and to abstain from wine and strong drink before entering the sanctuary. They had to wear holy linen garments, to wash their hands and feet before approaching the courtyard altar, and to bathe and launder before entering the sanctuary proper.

Priests cared for God, guarding the sanctuary's integrity, keeping God's house in order, and mediating between God and people at the portal between the common and the sacred. Priests supervised entrances, officiated at purifications, received offerings, presided at sacrifices, pronounced blessings, led festival celebrations, functioned as oracles, taught laws, and assisted in private prayers and rituals.

Sanctuaries were divided into three zones of graduating purity, for sanctuaries were places both of access to God's immanence and of separation from God's holiness.

The first zone was the open-air courtyard where the altar of sacrifice stood. Purified laypersons could enter the courtyard with sacrifices and prayers but were not allowed to come within reach of the altar itself. There various types of sacrifice were offered on behalf of laypersons, priests, and community. The whole-offering was an unblemished animal immolated and sent upward to God as a gift of smoke and sweet savor (Lev. 1.3–17, 6.8–11 ). The grain-offering was a gift of choice unleavened flour mixed with olive oil and frankincense, seasoned with salt, and cooked (Lev. 2.1–16, 6.14–23, Num. 15.1–16 ). The purification-offering was an animal whose blood was used in rituals addressing the consequences of inadvertent sins, of certain deliberate sins confessed voluntarily, and of certain impurities associated with the power of death (Lev. 4.1–5.13, 6.24–30, Num. 15.22–31, 19.1–13 ). The reparation-offering was a sacrifice of expiation, most often for having caused material loss (Lev. 5.14–6.7, 7.1–6, Num. 5.5–8 ). The shared-offering was an animal apportioned between God, the family of the offerer, and the families of the priests (Lev. 3.1–17; 7.11–34 ). This sacrifice concluded with a festive meal that nurtured and strengthened the close relationship between God and people.

Sacrifices culminating in the consumption of flesh dramatized the mysterious cycle of life and death observable in the vegetable world: life rising from death; life nourished and perpetuated by death. Also, the falling axe, flowing blood, and festive eating would have produced that mixture of terror and ecstasy humans associate with experiences of the holy.

One theory of the origin of sacrifice holds that killing and consuming domesticated animals evoked human guilt and that ritual sacrifice was instituted to sanctify slaughter and meat-eating. It is noteworthy that the priests of Israel believed humans to have been created vegetarian and to have become carnivorous only later. When God granted human beings the right to eat meat, it was on condition that the animal's blood—its life-force—not be consumed (Gen. 9.2–4 ). Furthermore, Lev. 17.3–4 apparently forbade “secular” slaughter. Perhaps it was in order to limit human culpability before God and to prevent transgression of the blood taboo that the slaughter of animals was entrusted to specialists in the holy—the priests.

Beyond the sanctuary's courtyard and altar lay a second zone of greater purity—a covered room into which only priests could enter. Morning and evening the chief priest donned a special ephod (garment) and breastpiece with precious stones bearing the names of Israel's tribes, a mantle with a hem alternating golden bells and woolen pomegranates, and a turban with a gold medallion engraved, “Holy to the Lord.” He entered the sanctuary, the bells alerting God to human presence, the stones presenting Israel for divine remembrance, the medallion reminding God of gifts offered on the altar. In the evening, the chief priest lit the lamps. In the morning, he cleaned and dressed them. Morning and evening he offered mixed spices, frankincense, and salt on the golden incense altar. Every day he placed a strong drink offering on the sanctuary table, and each sabbath he placed there twelve loaves of fresh bread. The bread of the previous sabbath was removed and consumed by priests in sacred precincts.

The third zone of the sanctuary, that of the greatest purity, was God's own chamber, the holy of holies. In Solomon's temple this held the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the tablets of the law and had a pure gold Cover. The Cover was God's throne; the Ark, God's footstool. Above them loomed two cherubim whose wings extended from wall to wall. The only person allowed to enter this chamber was the chief priest. He did so, in a condition of absolute purity, only once a year on the Day of Atonement.

LAYMEN, THEIR DEPENDENTS, AND WORSHIP. Laymen maintained the sanctuaries and their personnel through an annual tithe of grain and fruit and perhaps also of any increase in their livestock. The king probably supervised the collection of the tithe.

Beyond that, laymen had duties of pilgrimage and sacrifice. During most of the monarchic period, such duties could be performed at a local, regional, or national sanctuary. When worship was centralized, in the reign of Josiah and the post-exilic period, all pilgrims went to the Jerusalem temple.

Pilgrimage was prescribed for laymen three times a year. The full moon of the month Abib (April) inaugurated the feast of Unleavened Bread, which celebrated the start of the barley harvest. From early in Israel's history, Unleavened Bread was linked to the home-festival of Passover, which commemorated the deliverance of those enslaved in Egypt. According to one reconstruction, the layman slaughtered the Passover lamb outside his home in the late afternoon and presided over a family meal of lamb and unleavened bread that night. There followed seven days of eating unleavened bread and visiting the local sanctuary to present one's first sheaf of barley and to participate in public sacrifices and rituals. Harvesting continued through the intermediate days of the festival, the principal celebrations occurring at the beginning and end. When worship and sacrifice were centralized, most laymen and their dependents had to journey farther and interrupt harvesting, and the Passover lamb had to be slaughtered at the temple. Doubtless, fewer people participated.

The second pilgrimage-festival was called Harvest or Weeks and featured the offering of the first fruits of wheat, which matured four to six weeks later than barley. This one-day feast fell in one of the busiest parts of the agricultural cycle and was observed at the nearest sanctuary. One cultic calendar (Lev. 23.15–21 ) set the date fifty days after the elevation of the first barley sheaf and did not call the celebration a pilgrimage-feast. Perhaps it sought to permit local observance after cultic centralization. Post-exilic practice, however, accorded with Deut. 16.9–12 , which required pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a day of sacrifice and feasting. At some point, Weeks also came to commemorate God's giving of the law on Mt. Sinai.

At the heart of Unleavened Bread and Harvest (or Weeks) was people's belief that crops could not be used for common purposes until their sacred (i.e., first) portion had been given to God, the rightful owner. First offerings also assured divine blessing on the remainder of the harvest.

Into and through the rainless summer months the drying, threshing, winnowing, measuring, and storing of grain took place. August and September saw the ingathering of fruit—grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives. In October, agricultural work ended (except for gathering olives), and people awaited the coming of the fall and winter rains that would renew the cycle. There was time and reason to celebrate. With the full moon of Tishri came the biggest and best of the pilgrimage-feasts—Ingathering, or Booths. King Solomon dedicated his temple during this festival, and long before official centralization many made Jerusalem their Ingathering destination.

Laymen and their dependents assembled locally for the pilgrimage from the common to the sacred. During the journey, relationships were enhanced, and differences in wealth and social status were transcended. Arriving in Jerusalem, pilgrims filled the night with singing (Isa. 30.29 ). Psalms 120–134 may be a collection of typical pilgrimage songs and prayers. With the dawn, people streamed toward the temple, lifting their voices in praise (Ps. 42.4 ), songs of Zion on their lips (Pss. 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 121, 122 ). At the foot of the temple mount, priests and people recalled the ritual and ethical purity required for entering God's dwelling (Pss. 15, 24 ). Thus prepared, they ascended to the place where earth and heaven met; they entered Paradise (Ps. 36.8–9 ). They wandered Zion, and they experienced transforming closeness with God (Ps. 48.9–14 ). Then followed more feasting and music and dancing.

Sometime during the monarchy, the fall festival came to commemorate the sojourn of Moses and the people in the Sinai wilderness—thus the name Booths (temporary shelters). And for reasons that are obscure an eighth day of feasting was appended. Many scholars also associate with the festival in Jerusalem one or two celebrations posited on the basis of psalms believed to have been texts for the observances. The first is renewal of the Sinai covenant (Pss. 81, 50 ); the second, celebration of God's victory over the cosmic waters (releasing the fertile power of the rains) and enthronement as King (Pss. 29, 65, 93, 96–99 ).

At some point, the priests of Jerusalem began observing two days of ritual preparation for the great festival of Booths. At the new moon of Tishri, the blasting of a horn signalled a day of complete rest for the people and of special sacrifices in the temple. On the tenth day of Tishri, the temple and its personnel were purified, and the sins of priests and laity were expiated. It was the Day of Atonement. Laypersons remained at home—fasting, praying, and abstaining from work. In Jerusalem, the chief priest purged the sanctuary of the pollution transferred to it as a result of the priests' and people's sins and impurities during the previous year. One crucial rite involved two he-goats. One, chosen by lot, was slaughtered. Its blood was taken into the holy of holies, and some was sprinkled on the Cover of the Ark to purge the pollution arising from the people's sins. The rest of the blood was taken to the courtyard and used to purify the altar. Afterward, the chief priest laid his hands on the head of the second animal, and he confessed Israel's sins, transferring them to the “scapegoat,” which was then driven into the wilderness, never to return. Thus was Israel spared the punishment it merited—exile. And by the end of the day, temple, priests, and laity were pure and holy, fit for God's presence.

Laymen and their dependents, in addition to celebrating the three pilgrimage-feasts, observed sabbaths and new moons. The sabbath was an institution unique to Israel, a rest from labor recurring every seventh day. Deuteronomic circles linked the day to remembrance of the Exodus and the Sinai covenant. The priests of Jerusalem linked the day to the creation of the world (Gen. 2.3 ). In the towns and settlements, the sabbath was a day of family joy. Some people also visited a sanctuary, if it was nearby, for personal sacrifices or for consulting a prophet. In the post-exilic period, sabbath observance became an ever more important bulwark of Jewish identity against alien imperial cultures. New moons were observed similarly to sabbaths in people's homes. However, the public sacrifices prescribed for new moons were more costly and elaborate than those for sabbaths and included a purification-offering.

Laypeople—both men and women—prayed frequently, in a variety of circumstances. One may speak of three forms of lay prayer: cultic compositions recited by laypeople, or by priests or other ritual experts on their behalf; patterned, yet personal, expressions of thanks, petition, and confession responding to the events of daily life; and spontaneous exclamations responding to sudden or intense experiences of joy, sorrow, and pain. Perhaps prayers offered by laypeople outside the sanctuary helped prepare the way for a new religious institution, the synagogue.

The synagogue's origins are obscure and may never be understood. Many scholars think the institution developed during the sixth century B.C.E., when the Jerusalem temple lay in ruins and sacrifice was impossible. But the Hebrew Bible never mentions the synagogue, and no evidence for its existence antedates the Hellenistic period, when the institution co-existed with the second temple.

The synagogue was a local place for studying Torah and praying to God. It was unconsecrated space and needed no clergy. According to the Talmud, hundreds of synagogues existed in Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. Obviously the synagogue did not just serve those unable to travel to the temple. Priests were in charge of the temple. Laypeople were in charge of the synagogue. Perhaps much of the synagogue's popularity is explained as simply as that.

WOMEN AND WORSHIP. In Israel, as in pre-industrial agricultural societies generally, women's work was bearing, nursing, and nurturing children and caring for the household. Women could attend the public cultus, pray in the sanctuary, make vows in the name of God, consult oracles, and eat the food of shared-offerings. But their participation was allowed, not required. They could not be priests, and they apparently could not bring sacrifice. Women of priestly families and perhaps some women without families did perform domestic tasks connected with the sanctuary: cleaning vessels and living quarters, preparing meals, weaving textiles. They also took part in ritual music and dancing. Some texts associate Israelite women with foreign cultuses. By this the texts may mean that during the first temple period women played roles in the local sanctuaries and shrines of which those seeking to centralize worship disapproved. Because menstruation, pregnancy, nursing, and nurturing restricted Israelite women spatially, temporally, and functionally, the centralization of worship at a single, usually more distant, sanctuary further limited their participation.

The locus of women's worship was probably the home and the local shrine, and their rituals were probably connected to the life-cycle of birth, puberty, marriage, childbearing, and death. Perhaps the female figurines found in excavations of domestic areas relate to such rituals. Either Israelite men did not know women's rituals, or they did not care much about them. Perhaps both. In any event, the men who wrote the biblical texts said very little on the subject, leaving us largely ignorant.

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