The Torah’s Vision of Worship – Part I – Creation’s Liturgy and the Cosmic Covenant

I don’t suspect that the next number of posts in this series will garner great interest (though I do indeed think Balentine’s work deserves a wide audience).  I have created a page above as I hope these posts will eventually build towards to a contemporary and constructive theological account of the priesthood as expressed in the Pentateuch.

Balentine situates and frames Torah’s vision for worship as first and foremost a vision flowing from creation.  It is not necessary here to outline all the literary motifs that are established in Gen 1-3.  Needless to say what comes from this aggregate vision is a balance between order and fragility that is played out in a ritual and relational world.  Balentine notes the inversion of heaven and earth (1:1) to the earth and heaven (2:4b).  These two movements are always at work and present.

In this conceptualization of creation, the Torah’s vision proclaims that God has endowed the cosmos with certain divisions and boundaries that are essential to observe and maintain if the created order is to continue as God intends.  When these are not recognized, when the order inherent with creation is breached or broken, the creation is threatened with confusion, perhaps even with collapse (86).

It is in the cosmic or creational ordering that human action is guided.  Important to notice here that in as much as the ‘earth’ is created it also creates, the land produces, etc.  However, the pinnacle of creation is of course the seventh day.  It is blessed and consecrated.

Unlike the previous days, the seventh day is simply announced.  There is no mention of morning or evening, no mention of a beginning or an ending.  The suggestion is that the primordial seventh day exists in perpetuity, a sacred day that cannot be abrogated by the limitations common to the rest of the created order (93).

Rhetorically in the text the seventh day also stands as the transition from the work of God to the work of humanity.  “It stands at the intersection between heaven and earth. . . . [W]hen, on the seventh/sabbath day, God rests from a divine creating . . . it is not in order to retire from the world, but rather to wait expectantly – with ‘the heavens and the earth  . . . and all their multitude’ – for the subsequent acts of human making that will bring about new and future creations.” (93, 94).

This is not exactly how things play out as the fragility of this created world turns to violence and God grieves over creation and returns it to the primal waters in the Flood.  The significance in this event is that after ‘dry ground appears’ and Noah et al are out of the Ark God makes a unilateral covenant to never destroy the world in this way, in addition it is here that the first explicit act of worship is recorded.

On exiting the ark, Noah’s first act is to build an alter to YHWH (the first one mentioned in the Hebrew Bible) and to offer sacrifices.  The scene describes an act of worship that combines both ritual and spontaneity.  There is an alter, but it rests on common ground; there is a whole burnt offering of ceremonial clean animals but no priest to mandate or to supervise its implementation.  Instead, Noah’s offering is presented as a natural and immediate response of thanksgiving to God that emerges out of the concrete experience of having been delivered from the consuming waters of the flood. . . . [H]enceforth, in this fragile world, the context most suited for enacting and restoring the cosmic covenant will be worship (101, 102).

God is at work.  God rests after the work is accomplished.  Humanity takes up, enacts, and performs the creative work of God in their lives and relationships.  This is framed by cyclical worship that is also embedded in covenant.  This is the basic movement of the first major pericopes in Genesis.  As Balentine moves into the dynamics of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar he is clear to point again to the unilateral covenant making by God.  God will keep the covenant but humanity is again called up into this now not only cosmic covenant (to never destroy the earth) but relational covenant as we now encounter sustained dialogue (Noah only offers speechless thanks) between God and the protagonists of the Abraham narrative.  This section points to the domestic and relational nature of worship at this time which is based on household not politics.  While Abraham is patriarch of his household Sarah figures prominently in how God establishes a covenant with them.  It is not the firstborn of Abraham (Ishmael) that receives the primary covenant blessing but the first born of Abraham and Sarah.  Sarah also figures in her appeal for justice to God having suffered violence from Hagar.  Already then within this early paradigm of covenant and worship God is demonstrating boundaries of justice that cannot be excluded from any approach to worship.

The themes of worship that emerge early in the Torah include; 1) the mixture of ritual and spontaneity (Noah) 2) thanksgiving for grace (Noah) 3) forms familial practice 4) is met with protest/resistance and submission/reverence (Abram and Sarai) 5) challenges dominant social paradigms (necessary inclusion of Sarai) 6) responds to injustice (Sarai and Hagar).  Moving into the Sinai narrative Balentine focuses and develops the interplay and ultimately fusion between covenant (obedience) and consecration (liturgy).  And this always set within the eternal and human cycle of creation and sabbath.

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