The Torah’s Vision of Worship – Part II.1 – The Liturgy of the Covenant; Covenant Vocation

(part of an ongoing series)

The Sinai account in Exodus 19-24 blend (whatever their textual histories) the themes of covenant and holiness. This is embedded in the call to create a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Here we find both the concept of sovereignty and service. A people of the highest lineage (God’s own) that offer service to the world. Balentine expands,

These terms anticipate that covenant-keeping, while consonant with God’s creational designs, nevertheless engages Israel in a vocation that is dramatically discontinuous with the world’s politics. In partnership with God, Israel is empowered to become a kingdom of priests, not of kings, a kingdom of servants, not of rulers. Their capacity for dominion in God’s world resides in their empowerment to serve others, not in any self-assertion of mundane sovereignty. On the one hand, this imagery looks forward to Israel’s subsequent transition into statehood and provides a word of warning and caution: do not abuse power; do not equate the prerogatives of statehood with God’s covenantal commission for dominion through servanthood. On the other hand, this commission looks backwards from the vantage point of Israel’s lost sovereignty under Babylonian and Persian hegemony and offers a word of abiding hope: the people of God are empowered for a dominion that ultimately cannot be negated by the mandates of regnant forces (124).

I am curious to see what extant Balentine understands this motif to function as a warning. What traction does the text itself offer in the face of assuming a role of state for the community of God and to what extent does it deny or reject this move? Balentine gestures towards holiness as the ‘primal’ quality to any appropriate expression of ‘dominion’. Again this leaves many unanswered questions as to the calling and practice of this people. The people are called to the ‘twin poles’ of obedience and consecration; following the covenant and practicing the liturgy. Balentine seems to be creating too many divisions in his work. Perhaps this is due to his respect for the literary history of these texts but does this read too far into his theological understanding of the final form?

Before getting into some these sorts of questions Balentine pauses and dwells on the structure of the Sinai event and demonstrates the extent to which creational or heptadic themes continue to emerge.

  • The people arrive at Sinai on the third month (7-week)
  • In the Decalogue Sabbath-keeping provides the transition between our relationship with God and our neighbour. This recalls the ‘two’ creation accounts in Genesis which transition from God’s work to the invitation of our participation.

In essence, the Torah envisions the sojourn at Sinai to be a sabbath day experience, a virtual suspension of time to enable the community to reflect on the importance of their covenantal commission to become partners with God. . . . As the center around which all commands converge, the sabbath command stipulates that from this point forward in Israel’s journey towards Canaan, there can be no separation between the community’s devotion to God and its commitment to the world. . . . Only when heaven and earth rest from their mutual destinies in the ‘sanctuary of time’ called sabbath, will this partnership be fully realized. In this sense, then, sabbath-keeping is analogous to creation-keeping: it commemorates rest from work as the creational, and now covenantal, means of preparing for fulfilling God’s ultimate goal for humankind (127, 129-130).

Within the laws given in this section this results in a blending of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ laws. The secular or casuistic laws are those relevant and also evident in many cultures dealing with daily interactions. The religious or apodictic laws are specific laws that flow directly from Israel’s relationship with God. The focus of these laws are on the marginal or vulnerable figure in society.

What is striking about this compilation of laws at the center of the Book of the Covenant is the relevant legal material from extrabiblical sources contains no proper analogy to such mixing of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ laws. . . . The internal dynamics of the Book of the Covenant suggests that the context for realizing this most demanding union of the secular and the sacred is worship (133).

Covenant and worship then blend into an understanding that we must worship God because we love our neighbour (why would we not seek God’s blessing for them) and we must love our neighbour because we worship God (who is the one who delivered us from slavery).  Worship and work are one.

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