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Hebrew worship and the surrounding culture

One of the more important aspects of studying the worship of Israel is to wrestle through the relationship between Israel’s worship culture and that of the nations surrounding it. There are no doubt some similarities, and it is important to explain those similarities for at least two reasons: First, many unbelievers attempt to disprove the reality of a living God who revealed himself by pointing to such similarities and insisting that they prove that Hebrew worship simply evolved from out of the religion of nations surrounding it. Second, some Christians attempt to defend uncritical cultural contextualization in worship today based on the assumption that this is what Israel did in its day. For example, just a quick Google search found this sermon in defense of cultural neutrality in worship that uses this very issue as a basis:

This usage of popular form for the praise of God is nothing new. Ronald Allen, professor of Hebrew at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, has shown that many of the Psalms are adaptations of forms used in the cultures surrounding them including adaptations of the forms used in the worship of the pagan gods. Psalm 93 for example is written in the style used for Baal worship and in fact covers many of the same themes used in Baal worship. The difference is that it is the God of Israel that is praised and He is shown to be far superior to Baal. In verses 1 & 2 the Lord is presented as being girded with strength and firmly established on His throne from everlasting. This is in direct contrast with Baal who only “recently” had gained his position and who could lose it at any time. Verse 3-4 declares that God is greater than all the mighty waves of the sea and floods. Baal’s greatest threat was from his rival pagan god, Yamm, who controlled the sea and water. The psalm was specifically written in the form of Baal worship in a conscious attempt to glorify the true God while debunking Baal.

I have argued elsewhere what I believe to be the best explanation of the similarities between Hebrew and pagan worship as well as the distinct differences between them. To summarize: I would argue that the items of similarities (e.g., temple, priests, altars, sacrifices, etc.) were established by God in the Creation-Fall narrative and thus were in the consciousness of all people as various civilizations evolved over time. Israel’s worship practices were explicit codifications of elements that had been already established in the beginning, and other pagan nations naturally developed similar worship practices (with notable differences) as well.

My concerns with this issue are also rooted in my conviction that culture is not neutral and that blanket, uncritical contextualization in worship is at best unhealthy and at worst a slippery slope toward syncretism (note my articles on this subject in Artistic Theologian as well as this video presentation).

downloadI’d like to highlight another good source that offers another explanation of the issue: God Among the Myths by John N. Oswalt. Oswalt is dealing with the issue from the perspective of literary criticism, but both his method and conclusions bear weight on the worship/culture discussion as well.

Oswalt begins by showing that the whole discussion shifted in recent years. He notes that one of the most influential authors on the topic in the 1950s was G. Ernest Wright, who “argued that the differences between the Israelite way of thinking about reality and the way in which Israel’s neighbors approached that topic were so significant that no evolutionary explanations could account for them” (11). But that changed in the subsequent fifty years such that now “it is widely affirmed that Israelite religion is simply one more of the complex of West Semitic religions, and that its characteristic features can be fully explained on the basis of evolutionary change” (11). He summarizes what may be the default scholarly opinion of the issue:

Modern scholars who cannot admit the possibility of revelation now insist that the differences that were so unmistakable to scholars a generation ago are not really that important at all, but it is the similarities that are vital, showing that Israelite religion is not essentially different from the religions around it. This must be so if Israelite religion is merely one of the evolutionary developments from those religions. (13)

One of Oswalt’s goals in his book is to account for this drastic change in thinking, and his general answer to that question is key: “I am convinced that it is prior theological and philosophical convictions that account for the change and not any change in the data” (12).

I won’t go into all the details of how he lays out his argument (you can read the book for yourself!). But I did want to relate the construct in which he works, which may be helpful for a comparison between worship practices of Israel and its neighbors:

Here were come to the vital philosophical distinction between “essence” and “accident.” When we analyze an object, we try to determine which of its characteristics are “essentials” and which are “accidentals.” If you remove an essential feature, the thing will cease to be itself; but if you remove an accidental, there will be no change in the object’s essential being. So with humanity, hair is an accidental, while self-consciousness is an essential.

But how does this apply to the discussion at hand? What is essential to Israelite religion? Is it the differences between its understandings of life and those found in the religions of its neighbors? Wright and a large number of other scholars of the 1950s would say yes. Remove these characteristics and it would no longer be itself. The many similarities to the religions of Israel’s neighbors were “accidentals.” So the fact that all of the developed cultures of the ancient Near East worshiped their deity (deities) in temples of similar structure is important, but not essential. What is essential was that there was no idol in the innermost cell of the Jerusalem temple. Today, the situation is turned on its head. Now it is the similarities that are understood to be essentials, while the differences are merely accidentals. What is essential is that Israel worshiped a god, as every other West Semitic religion did. The fact that the Old Testament insists from beginning to end that there is only one being worthy to be called “god” is an accidental. (13-14)

This structure provides the framework through which Oswalt explains the similarities and differences:

Now what about similarities and differences? Without any question, there are some significant similarities between the practices of the Hebrews and the practices of the neighboring peoples. The Mesopotamians have law codes, and so do the Hebrews. In fact, some of the laws, as has already been noted, are virtually identical. The sacrificial practices of the Hebrews and their concern for ceremonial cleanness are often similar to what we know of these among the surrounding peoples. The structure of the covenant comes straight out of the ancient Near Eastern world.

There is now some evidence that the Hebrews may not have been the first ones to conceive of their relationship with their God in covenant terms of some sort. The kinds of sacrifices and the manner of their offering, as dictated in Leviticus, can be paralleled in a number of places elsewhere in the ancient world. The layout of the tabernacle and of the temple following it is essentially the same as the layout of contemporary Canaanite sanctuaries. Furthermore, the decoration of the temple seems to have been similar to that of Canaanite sanctuaries. In the light of these kinds of evidence, should we not say that Hebrew religion is just a variant of the general west Semitic religion of its day?

We should not, because these similarities are not the key issues when it comes to describing Hebrew belief. What is significant is the way in which the Israelites utilize these features in a belief system that is radically different from anything around them. Again I want to stress that what is significant about Israelite religion is not that some unique idea appears, but that the whole way of thinking about reality is unique and that it is absolutely thoroughgoing in the Bible. It is not significant whether Akhenaton was a monotheist or not. What is significant is that Egyptian culture abandoned this idea with alacrity as soon as the king was dead. In the same way, it is not significant that they Mesopotamians had law codes, or that they claimed they got them from a god. What is significant is that they could not maintain the idea that not stealing from one’s neighbor is an expression of obedience to the Creator. It is not significant that the Israelite worship center was tripartite, like the Canaanite ones, but that there was no idol in the innermost room.

What is significant about the Israelite religion is the way it puts these components together and what it draws from them when they are put together. We should not be at all surprised if the Israelite culture shows similarities with those around it. It would be much more shocking if there were no such similarities. The insistence that something must be absolutely different before we will admit a fundamental difference is unrealistic. So the issue is not whether some of the components in a pattern are the same as those found in another pattern. The discovery of such similar components says nothing about the similarity of the final patters. And it is in the final patterns that the differences between the Hebrew and the ancient Near Eastern approach to ethics are unmistakable.

Is the form of the Hebrew covenant similar to the form of the Hittite suzerainty covenants? Certainly. Are many of the laws of the Torah similar to those found in law codes elsewhere? Yes. But those similarities are not the issue. What is at issue is what happens when a law code is put inside a covenant with a transcendent God. The result is something unique. . . . (91-93)

Oswalt’s perspective may provide an alternative (and complimentary) explanation for the similarities and differences between Hebrew and pagan worship.

What do you think?

Is Oswalt’s explanation helpful? What implications do his explanation and mine have for our understanding of the relationship between our worship culture today and the culture around us?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

42 Responses to Hebrew worship and the surrounding culture

  1. Whoa!! I can’t wait to see some of the discussions that will be going on this weekend! Btw starters I love the introduction of books in the post its great to have titles of books that we can throw into our libraries that are based on worship.

    Now to the article I think Oswalts explanation is pretty clear. He even goes to show that this is not a Christianity thing that even the Torah has some similarities to that of other cultures. It is something that I am not surprised in either. When you have the resources of a temple or other things as long as they are not an idol or going to be viewed as an idol I don’t see why we can’t use ideas for worship of neighboring cultures. Do I think that there is a line drawn in the sand on what you can use and what you shouldn’t? Yes. But things like buildings or the way a room is set up..I do not find that to be an issue.

    I think that this has a lot with the culture today and our worship culture today. I think a main thing is what the Catholics have done(Dr. Aniol you posted an article about this, this past summer on Facebook) and that is they have not changed anything to their services while all the other faiths have especially that of the Baptist and other Christian denominations and we are seeing that the culture is in need of religious traditions. And since this has been a growing problem I have already been able to see in churches back home and here going from the cool hip churches that are hardly looking like a church with no crosses or Jesus and where to be viewed but just a building with coffee pots in the lobby to a cool hip church that is looking more like a church and trying to add some traditional aspects back into the service as well as to the atmosphere. What do I mean by that? Churches have been just making small changes like putting the actual cross back up in the church. Most churches have taken the cross down and pictures or on walls because people see it and it makes them feel uncomfortable. Church unnamed in the DFW area just recently renovated their prayer room back into a prayer room after 3 years of it being a room with a TV in it for viewing the service. I don’t know if this answers the question but it is what I see happening and needs to happen in the Christian faith since we have taken Christ out of the church the last 10 years in some churches and replaced it with a glorified Joel Olsteen coffee-shop.

  2. It seems clear enough that the pagan nations learned worship from the first humans and the patriarchs.  As discussed in class, we know that things such a animal sacrifices were modeled for the first humans on the planet, Adam and Eve.  We see it practiced (both well and poorly) by their offspring, Cain and Abel.  Frankly it is rather difficult for any other culture to come before the first humans and show them how worship is to take place.  If you will allow me some license I think it entirely possible that as God direct Abram to resettle in Canaan that he may well have modeled the practices found (later) among the pagan nations of the region.  It further seems possible that the pagan nations may have seen polytheism as a way to “one-up” the Israelites.  If one god is good then more gods must be better.  I see the notion of pagan gods being fallible and / or in competition with one another as a reaction to Israel’s God that just didn’t seem to make sense to them.  Israel’s God was just too hard to understand; living according to His law was too hard to do.  Thus they attribute human characteristics that they better understand to their god(s).  If you are making it up, why wouldn’t they act more like humans.

    Ryan Thiessen
    September 05, 2013

  3. I disagree with John N. Oswalt statement where: “it is widely affirmed that Israelite religion is simply one more of the complex of West Semitic religions, and that its characteristic features can be fully explained on the basis of evolutionary change.” While I do believe the Israelite religion to be complex, I do not concur that the characteristic features could be explained through an evolutionary change but instead, I would use the term “radical” to describe it. Merriam-Webster defines “evolution” as “(1) one set of prescribed movement; (2) a process of change in a certain direction; (3) developing” and “radical” as “(1) proceeding from a root; (2) relating to the origin; (3) very different from the usual or tradition.” In other words, evolution suggests change to be progressional while radical denotes change to stem from a foundation but dramatically altered. Hence, I propose change in Israelite religion to be radical rather than evolutionary because of Jesus.

    To further elaborate, Jesus brought upon a radical change when He came to “… take away the first in order to establish the second” (Hebrews 10:9b); note the verb used in the verse, “take away,” does not mean to transform or adjust, but to replace the original (Old Testament worship) with something different (I do not know how to label this “new” worship so I am going to simply call it New Testament worship). Thus, instead of approaching the high priest of Israel to minister on our behalf for God, Jesus became our high priest as explained in Hebrews 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” As well, the final atonement of our sins was made when Jesus died on the cross, from Hebrews 10:11-12: “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He [Jesus], having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.” Since Jesus was our ultimate sacrifice, we are reconciled to God as written in Romans 5:10: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” In addition, our example of sanctification is found in Jesus as explained in John 17:19: “For their sakes I [Jesus] sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.” Then our response in the dedication is to present ourselves as a sacrifice, found in Romans 12:1: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Lastly, our communion with God is not simply a physical feast celebration but a communion that awaits for us in Heaven, where we will be in the presence of God forever.

    In short, the outline of worship above stems from characteristic features of Israelite religion—high priest, atonement, reconciliation, sanctification, dedication, and communion—but dramatically altered as a result of Jesus’ radical act on earth.

  4. I truly appreciate when the author makes a philosophical distinction between “ essential” and “accidentals” because this gives us a better picture of what makes Israel worship culture stands out among pagan worship cultures. The comparison between the worship practices of Israel and its surrounding nations was something that caught my attention a while ago and remained unresolved until I read this article. Frequently, the claim has been heard from scholars of liberal theology- the practices of Hebrew worship simply evolved from the religions of Israel’s neighboring nations. Therefore, Israel worship culture is not essentially different than the religions around the nation. It is such a failure to recognize that the many similarities to the religions of Israel’s neighbors were accidentals. The fact that there was no idol worship in the temple was often overlooked. It is a sad thing that the similarities are perceived to be essentials in today’s worship culture.

  5. Oswalt’s perspective brings to my mind “similarities” between religions, which encompass worship practice “similarities.” Just as some scholars find no distinction between Hebrew worship and the surrounding cultures, the same issue exists for Christianity and other religions today. Over the last few years, I have encountered a great number of unbelievers who simply cannot get past the similarities of various religions. Because Christianity “appears” to be very similar to other religions, it is easy for these unbelievers to hold beliefs such as “all paths lead to God.” Yet, as the true believer knows, and as Oswalt brings out in his argument, the “essence” of religious practices is what actually counts, not the “accidentals.”

    For example, good works (part of worship practice!) in themselves are some of the biggest accidentals in the Christian faith. Moreover, Jesus’ existence could even be seen as an accidental. Why is this? Many religions share these two elements. Nearly everyone associates good works with nearly any kind of religion, and a number of religions also involve the person of Jesus in their stories. So, to the onlooking unbeliever, Christianity appears no different at first glance–until he discovers the true “essence” of Christianity. What is that essence? Christianity is set apart from every other religion in that people are not saved BY good works, but are saved FOR good works (Ephesians 2:10). These are activities done in response/obedience to a loving Father who has saved His children. Christianity is also set apart in that Jesus was not some random, intellectual prophet of His day; rather, He is a dually divine and human being who died a criminal’s death, who was laid in a rich man’s tomb, and who was raised to new life so that He might satisfy the wrath of God for the sake of all mankind (1 John 2:2). Who we believe this Jesus is most definitely affects our worship, because His true identity and involvement in our salvation are what make up the essence of our special faith.

  6. After discussion in class yesterday (Sept. 5), I think it is very important to first establish “worship theology” before trying to analyze similarities between religions. Who/what is being worshiped, how are they worshiping, and why are they worshiping?

    The very essence of God/Christ worship is praising Him for who He is and what He has already done. This is drastically contrasted against other religions that praise a god for what it supposedly can do for them. Christians worship out of thanksgiving and awe for God while other religions worship out of a hope for blessings and fulfillment.

    Not that it is hard to be sucked into that mindset as a Christian. I know that, oftentimes, my prayers only contain requests without praise and thanks. Or my motives for serving my Lord can be traced back to a hope of reward. This thought process is hard-wired into us humans by our sin-nature. We are simply going to be self-centered unless Christ changes us by living through us.

    Laura, I would love to see your reasoning your statement, “Jesus’ existence could even be seen as an accidental.” I see your point on good works. But are you saying that Jesus (when seen as God) can be seen as an accidental in that way? This could very well be me simply misunderstanding your statement, but I would like a bit more of an explanation if you could provide it.

  7. As what I understand from this article is that the similarities between pagan worship and Israel worship is not the significant issue; however, the significant issue is the difference. “There was no idol in the innermost cell of the Jerusalem temple.” I would like to share my experience about this significant issue.
    Please use your imagination while you are reading this paragraph. Each one of us has an object that we worship. For example, I like paper embossing. I spend a lot of money on the materials. I also spend a large portion of my time doing it. I can even cancel my date with my girl friends if I cannot finish my project. In this case, paper embossing is my “god”. (I will call it paper embossing god) If, let’s say, one day, I notice that scrapbooking is more fun and is easier than paper embossing, then I begin to like it. Eventually, I spend more money and time on it and occasionally involve paper embossing god in my scrapbooking project. At this situation, scrapbooking has become my idol. (This is not a true story. I simply make it up. But I do like paper embossing and scrapbooking.) The point of making up this story is to explain that whatever that we place it above God is an idol.
    This idol can be an object, a desire or even a hobby. Even though they are not biblically wrong. The reason it is so easy for us to make things in our live become an idol is that these things are easily seen compare to our unseen God.
    Do we worship God wholeheartedly? Or do we have an idol that we might not even notice it? Any thing that we place it above God, hold on it tightly and not willing to surrender to God is an idol.
    Recently, I experienced this type of situation. For a long time, I had an unmet desire that I placed it above God. I did trust God with this unmet desire, but at the same time I held it tightly in my hands. During this whole time, my life was miserable. Things were just not in place. Even my relationship with God was at risk. Finally, I learned that I had to surrender it to God completely. There was no point for me to wrestle with God. God knew what was the best for me. The moment I made the decision to completely surrender it to God, peace and joy came back to me.

  8. I like Oswalt’s statement “What is at issue is what happens when a law code is put inside a covenant with a transcendent God.” Though we may find that their are similarities in the practices of pagans and the children of Israel, The difference is the God in which the Hebrew people worshiped. The God of scripture is Holy, righteous, Omnipresent, Omnipotent, and Sovereign God. He is over all things, and all things work for his glory. This being said, the practices of the children of Israel came about from God, for his glorification. The pagans try to earn a righteous standing with their god’s, but God initiated the call of atonement for his children. Pagans belief in a works based system, but biblical worship is 100% a work of God’s grace.

    I believe it could also be argued that pagan worship practices to their idols are equally set up by God because he is a Sovereign God (all things work for his glory). The difference is that the hearts of the pagan are hard and their eyes are blinded to God (they reject God with all that they are). This leads them to worship with the desires of the flesh in mind. I also find it interesting how so many pagan religions show just enough of christian worship to make it a mockery of God (Islam is based out of the lineage of Ishmael).

  9. The parting premise of the article—the worship system in Hebrew culture and that of surrounding nations—well portrays some of the challenges Christians face today. As stated, these difficulties stem from the efforts of unbelievers, but also from within the Christian church.
    Dr. Aniol’s proposition (that similarities in worship between Israel and adjacent cultures arise from the latter’s awareness of the Divine prescription born from the Creation to the Fall accounts) affords believers a Scripture-centric option. I am amazed how often we (speaking of the aforementioned Christians) are willing to discredit the Word when either under pressure from the world and its deductions, or for lacking zeal to search the Scriptures!
    Oswalt’s insights regarding “essence” and “accident” were enlightening. Commonalities cannot replace, nor explain, the uniqueness of Israel’s worship system, their typological depth, or the unyielding love of the Creator. I couldn’t help but notice as I drove home today how all the homes surrounding my own had been assembled through the use of wood, concrete, steel, and brick, yet mine was uniquely different. Ultimately, similarities cannot explain away the uniqueness of the Creator’s love.

  10. I like to read Oswalt’s thought about the similarities and difference between the Hebrew and the pagan worship culture. His explanation is helpful. He develops his explanations with “essentials” and “accidentals.” Israel worshiped only one God in its history while surrounding nations worshiped many gods by changing the thrones. Even though he reveals similarities and differences between them, he insists that similarities in the Hebrew and the pagan worship culture are not important. Oswalt says, “What is at issue is what happens when a law code is put inside a covenant with a transcendent God.” Oswalt thinks that the uniqueness of the reality through the Bible and a covenant with God are center in the Hebrew worship culture. Therefore, Israel worship culture becomes unique based on the covenant between God and the Israelites. Because the Israel people are on the covenant with God through their history, their practices in their culture became unique even though their practices were similar with the pagan ones.
    I believe that today our worship culture needs to remember the covenant with God, the gospel. Our worship culture needs to be unique on the gospel. Because of the gospel, our worship culture stands firm on the Bible. Because of the gospel, our worship culture has different result from the culture around us even though two cultures have similarities in practices. Also, our worship culture worships only one God while the culture worships many gods.

  11. By looking at the quotation from Google, which starts with “This usage of popular form for the praise of God is nothing new. “, a question raises in my mind. How do people define who adapted who? In another word, is there a significant proof that those pagan nations actually used those way to worship their gods earlier than the Bible first record of God telling human to worship in those ways? I could not find any clearly stated timeline through the whole quotation. On the other hand, even if there is some record showing that those pagan nations first “invented” those worship patterns, there is still possibility that maybe the earliest record for God’s people got lost or destroyed through the time. Without listing evidence, I think it is not critical for John N. Oswalt saying, “it is widely affirmed that Israelite religion is simply one more of the complex of West Semitic religions, and that its characteristic features can be fully explained on the basis of evolutionary change.” I disagree with this statement. In this statement, the word “simply” makes the whole statement too absolute, just as Jessica said earlier that characteristic features could not just simply be explained through an evolutionary change. I think she made a really good argument on that point. At the meanwhile, I think Oswalt did a good research on the difference between Hebrew worship and the pagan nations’ worship. However, again, even there are similarities, there are still possibilities that maybe both of them come with the same source, instead of considering them adapted one from another.

  12. Topic:
    Hebrew Worship and cultures surrounding
    Is Hebrew culture of worship just one more religion among all cultures and religions surrounding?
    The best example to understand this query it is to prove the authenticity and the supremacy of the Hebrew worship and religion based in the Torah (Sacred Book) and the oral traditions of the Talmud in contrast with other religions. Is not a casual accident that so many cultures in the biblical times and posteriorly, were emerging with similarities in their acts of worship?
    Many has been the attempts to destroy the Jews worship culture and their religious practices from the ancient times, so it is not a surprise that today Liberal Theologians Movement, and intellectual unbelievers are looking how to discredit the Bible and the Hebrew idiosyncrasy.
    In many religions we can find similarities in all their practices, they have a sacred book with a divine revelation, and requirements to accomplish the desires and commands of their gods. So, this means that Hebrew culture of worship is just one more of the big large number of the Oriental, Asian and Europeans religions? Evidently not, with all the possible evidence they can show to support their statement it is the believer who decides if this contradiction will be enough to remove their believes or maintain his credo, because the believer will know what makes so different and special Israel as a Nation and the Jews religion with their culture of adoration, is that, today every person can have access to the biblical history and The End of this History. The Bible in his whole structure is irrefutable because the prophetic words that even today are in deep analysis for the moment of the fulfillment of what is written it is a mystic mystery of the character of a God in three dimensions, manifestations and persons in comparison with the blurred distortion of one idol. There is not possible parallelism with the power of God and His word. The same God Creator and Savior of Humanity in contrast with all the idols of the pagan nations made by man and their foolish mind.
    There is no other culture or religion with so much foundation and veracity like the Hebrew culture and their act of Worship and clear purpose of what they are worshiping.

  13. In class we talked about three possibilities to explain the similarities and differences between Hebrew and the Pagan nations. I agree with Dr. Aniol’s explanation, “similarities were established by God in the Creation-Fall.” The commandments for worship were created in the beginning. Although we started out as one nation, we divided, and the Pagan nations had some of the same practices but they did indeed worship idols that they made up.

    I like that Oswalt distinguishes between “essence” and “accident” which emphasizes similarities and differences in the practice of worship and what we think is essential is really not.

    This applies to the worship culture today because a lot of churches tend to change their worship services to fit the need of the people and to attract them. By doing this, it is taking away from the tradition of worship. We should be worshiping to what God commanded and doing so with full hearts.

  14. Laura, I completely agree with the comment you made about non-believers being led to think, “all paths lead to God”. This summer I was able to witness to a couple of plane riders on my way back and forth from Florida and a reoccurring view showed the thought of all religions pointing to the same God. A common thought was, “As long as I try to be a good person and accept that there is a God I will go to heaven or wherever that good place is.” It would seem that the similarities between these religions and forms of worship are the cause to this thought. But just like Ryan said, many of these traditions are seen at creation before the pagans even existed; God given worship practices have been manifested in our mere human existence.

    I find it so interesting that the Oswalt quote and the Google article quoted relay the same exact information in such an opposite way. The Google article attempts to manipulate the fact that there are similarities into to saying that there should be similarities. Oswalt clearly hits home when describing that the fundamental religion was following the one true God’s (Yahweh’s) commands and not idols or false Gods and that the similarities are irrelevant to the differences in religions. I agree with Malena that the core to finding the true religion is in proving the text and the inherency of scripture. The fundamental aspects of the different religions are completely different. I think it is important to base worship on scripture, to acknowledge the similarities but be able to relay the differences. As Oswalt says the final patterns will be unmistakable. But a church that does not relay those differences is in trouble of misleading their congregation. Some similarities may be hard to avoid because of another religion mimicking Christian traditions; stay true to the word and the fundamental truth will speak for itself. Check to make sure worship is biblical before jumping into the popular way.

  15. Oswalt’s explanation pointed out that a person’s perspective on “essence” and “accident” will determine how that person interprets the interaction between Hebrew culture and the surround pagan culture. He argues that the most critical element of Hebrew faith, “that there is only one being worthy to be called ‘god,’” has gone from being the very essence of their religion to simply an insignificant detail. According to Oswalt, this change in perspective over the last 50 years has brought about a new interpretation of how other cultures have influenced Hebrew culture.
    With this in mind, the writer of the opening sermon found at the top of this discussion, might have had a different argument had his perspective been different. It seems that he is writing under the assumption that the pagan cultures existed first, thus influencing Hebrew culture in worship, such as in Psalm 93. However, had that writer had a different perspective, his argument might have been the complete opposite. If the God of Israel established worship from the creation account, then it would seem that the Hebrew Psalms have had an influence on pagan culture. Perhaps their written worship of Baal is patterned after Psalm 93.

  16. Through this discussion with class yesterday, difference worship between Israel and surrounding(pagan) nations have been building up clearly within me. Oswalt’s notion, ‘essence and accidentals’ are very helpful as well. Over ten years ago, one of my friend said to me like that. “We can find similar bible story from all of the world” after that he told couple of stories and as an example he provided Zoroastrianism. When I listened that, honestly I was little bit confused. I wondered how that is possible. Couple of years ago, I watched document about evidence of Noah flood in Grand canyon. The point is that not only we can find evidence of Noah flood from Grand canyon and like that from the lay of the land of all nations with tracing, we can find evidence of Noah flood also. These flood evidences explain that why similar storys like Noah flood exists all of the world. Oswalt’s proposition helps that it is possible having similarities between worship of Israel and pagan’s cause God created heaven and earth and His common grace began already from Adam and Eve in Genesis. (Dr. Aniol said in class) Clear distinction between Israel’s worship and Pagan nations worhsip is that as Dr. Aniol said in yesterday class, Pagan, surrounding nations worship is doing something their idol, gods is for getting their needs, living even though their worship contents are similar as Israel (as accidentals). However, Israel’s worship definitely initiates from the One God, Yahweh. God of Israel always called His people first. This crucial essence appears in the Scripture. That’s why we, worshipper must start from what bible said for studying true worship. I am so thankful for this discussion.

  17. I was shocked when I heard in class this Wednesday for the first time that there are some Christian scholars have that opinion:“1.Israel borrow other nations’ activities around them to worship their one God 2.God did establish the rules to worship Him, he borrowed the other nations’ activities to worship him.” I have never thought in that way before, now I came to know that there are many similarities between Hebrew Worship and the surrounding cultures. However, from this week’s readings, we can find that the similarities are focus on the “physical response” or “action offering”. Yes, the physical response could be very similar, but I like what Dr.Aniol said in this article:” Again I want to stress that what is significant about Israelite religion is not that some unique idea appears, but that the whole way of thinking about reality is unique and that it is absolutely thoroughgoing in the Bible.” God wants us to worship Him in His commanded way, as we mentioned in class this week, just follow those physical response is not enough, but we also need to have a right heart. The physical response not only appears in the Old Testament but also appears in Revelations, that means God do want us to have physical response to Him in the past, present and eternal. Of course we should always have a right and pure heart to worship Him, but we also need to obey God’s command first. To conclude, God’s command (physical response) and the right heart are both important.

  18. According to Oswalt’s explanation, it is normal that the Israelite culture shows similarities with those around it. All civilization in the world are closely related to culture and, human civilization is a process of learning from each other. Therefore, it is not shocking that the worship practices in Israel share similarities with the surrounding pagan nations.
    I strongly agree with Oswalt that the discovery of such similar worship practices says nothing about the fundamental belief. These similarities are not the key issues to identify Hebrew belief. Instead, the rationale of certain worship practices are far more important than the practices itself. Hebrew belief is rooted in obedience of God. In the Old testament, all the worship practices aimed to fulfill God’s commandment. If we compare the worship practices with other pagan nations, it is more important to compare the reasons behind the practices.

  19. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking discussion on the similarities and differences between Israel’s religion and the religions of the surrounding cultures. I agree with your position that the inclusion of basic worship elements throughout the creation and the fall can account for the basic similarities between the various religions. I also think that general revelation can account for similarities between cultures, religions, and laws as well. (When I say general revelation I am referring that which has God as its source, Romans 1:19, and not human reason) In Romans 1:18-20 we learn that through creation God has made it clear to all that he is Creator and all will be held accountable. Romans 1:21-23 demonstrates how human sinfulness has lead to corrupt religious practices. Romans 2:14-15 tells us that God has placed a natural law within the hearts of men. With these passages in mind it is not surprising that other nations would have similar law codes, temple architecture, and covenantal structures. Of course, all the other religious and legal systems were doomed to fail because they were both the product of man and man-centered. The fundamental difference which Oswalt discusses owes itself entirely to God’s special revelation as well as his preservation.

    While I was reading I was also reminded of a recent discussion in different class about the anthropic characteristic of special revelation. I am amazed at how that God chose to condescend himself to meet us where we might be found. That he chose to reveal himself in ways which people of that era could understand, even though it was not a full picture of who he is (that had to be held back until Christ’s incarnation – John 1:14; Hebrews 1:1-3, ). While I agree that uncritical contextualization is something to be avoided I believe that the example of God’s condescension, both then and now (because we who are finite cannot comprehend the infinite God), bears weight on the matter as well. It seems that Christians may emulate this, in part, by thoughtfully making use of those facets of another culture which affirm or are compatible with Christianity in order to relate with the people and to bring the Gospel to where they may be found.

  20. Oswalt’s mention about “the essential and accidental” explanation were inspired my thought of the worship. Today, we do see the very similar worship form with other many religion worships. Their form, order,structure, temples are very similar with the Christian worship. But it is all the accidental components. The only essential thing is the worship that are based by the heart obeying God. God wants to see to obey through his command, because the obedience bases from the belief. The author said, “ What is significant is that they could not maintain the idea that not stealing from one’s neighbor is an expression of obedience to the Creator.” The example of the Mesopotamians law codes in the passage were focused on the accidental elements that doesn’t be affected if it removed. It couldn’t be the essential element of the worship. The praising for the Creator was getting to be with uncritical contextualization with the pagan culture (the surrounding worship). I believe, even though there are some similarities in both(our worship culture and the culture around us), the most important essential element cannot be same!

  21. I have encountered this critique of Judaism as borrowing from other cultures because it came after other religions, thereby invalidating its authenticity. However, when you start at the true beginning – creation – (and this idea rocked my world and made so many pieces fall together!) and you realize that God established His worship practices in the Garden of Eden, that all of mankind descended from Adam and, therefore, has shared an innate human consciousness from the beginning of time, you see the argument in a whole new light. Of course there are strong similarities among the world’s methods of worship because they all can be traced back to the Creator of the universe! Oswalt is exactly correct in saying that what is important is the fundamental differences between the pagan religions and Hebrew worship (and by extension, Christianity). It would be like saying that two people are pretty much the same person because they both have two eyes, two arms and legs, both walk upright and talk, etc., though never considering each person’s personality and values – the very essence that makes them a distinct individual.

  22. As Ben mentioned, I am also uncomfortable with Laura’s statement that “Jesus’ existence could even be seen as an accidental.” Based on her final sentence, I am assuming she means Jesus’ earthly life, which is also part of other religions, i.e. Mormonism and Seventh Day Adventist. Perhaps Laura is saying that without a proper understanding of Jesus – His complete humanity AND complete deity, His being God’s ONLY son, sent to earth to be our Messiah, the atonement for sin – then Jesus’ mere existence can be seen as an accidental.

  23. Sarah, I think when Laura is speaking about Jesus being an accidental she is looking at it from the perspective of a non-believer who thinks all religions lead to God and that Jesus is just an accidental that seems to reappear in some religions. But the truth is he is not the accidental. In some religions, they do not recognize the true essence of Jesus which is in fact that he is God. Laura does a great job in pointing out the fact that the reoccurrences found in different religions are only being analyzed from a topical perspective and not through understanding the differences of the essences of those reoccurrences. She is indeed saying that without the proper view of Jesus as God and Man, his essence can indeed be seen as accidental.

  24. As Laura mentioned above, “all paths lead to God” is a common phrase that has been heard frequently especially when we discuss Christianity with non-believers. Not only that, people claim that all religions basically teach the same thing experiencing the same God yet expressing in different ways. Jesus in Islam is understood simply as one of the prophets, not the same as Jesus in Christianity who died on the cross and shed His blood to satisfy the wrath of God. There is no religion in the world that teaches someone paid the price by dying on the cross for the death penalty of the undeserving sinners. Non-believers also claim that all religions basically teach to do good works. In Christianity, assurance of salvation prompts us to do good works not because we could have earned salvation by good works. It is important that we draw a clear distinction between “the accidentals’ and “essentials” of Christianity once the comparison between Christianity and other religions is made, and specifically when we encounter unsaved people to share gospel.

  25. The notion that jewish worship was borrowed from its pagan neighbors smacks a bit of the pluralism prevalent in modern times.  There are those that would seem determined strip the Jewish faith of its uniqueness by inferring that because of external practices, it wasn’t all that different.  This sounds a bit like the “All paths lead to God” nonsense that we often hear today.  If that were true, then God, His Son, and the Holy Spirit would not be all that unique, and if they are really similar to other gods why must we worship Him alone?  If all gods are roughly the same why shouldn’t I be free to choose to worship whomever I prefer.  After all there is nothing all that special about the God of the Hebrews or of Christ, right?  There seems a long history among humans to strip God of what makes Him unique; what ultimately makes Him the one true God.  It seems to me then and now a means to justify a life separated from God.

    Ryan Thiessen
    September 09, 2013

  26. Thank you, Danielle and Sarah. I went back and read Laura’s comment after reading yours, and gained a better understanding for what she was saying.

    I definitely agree with the dangers of assuming that “all ways lead to God/heaven.” If I had a nickel for every time I have heard that thought expressed, I would be a wealthy man. One of the most disheartening things that I have ever heard is when a lady told me that her “spiritual experience has simply been different than mine.” She followed this by stating, “I see God as a God of complete love. However I feel that love, must be the way to be in communion with Him. There is no one way.”

    It really is shocking to see professing Christian scholars make arguments that are completely against the Bible. While the exact words do not directly oppose biblical words, I will have to be in agreement with John. At the end of class on Tuesday he said, “This calls into question God’s sovereignty.” God, in His sovereignty needs no help in designating worship practices. He created worship practice and man, in his sin, has perverted certain aspects when it comes to pagan worship (or even some Christian worship!). It is within us to worship, and designated by His commands and decrees how He is to be worshiped. We are not to break His commands in the name of worship, but He does give us certain creative freedom (see the Psalms).

  27. Many including Laura, Ben, Danielle, and Sarah have discussed Oswalt’s mentioning of “essential” and “accidental.” I feel much of the confusion has come from the word accidental. If it is by accident that certain things occur in certain cultures that are similar, I think it takes away from God’s sovereignty. I agree with the thought that their are essentials in being a follower of Christ. One must get the gospel right. This is a gospel by God’s grace alone through faith. I would call the other differences, tier issues. I define a first tier issue an issue of salvation or not, a second tier issue as an issue of denomination (both are saved, but there is a large enough theological difference to make it hard to worship together on a regular basis), and a third tier issue is a difference of opinion that should cause no division in the local body.

    I state the aforementioned ideals because it is not an accident that there are agreements made on the second and third tier issues. Agreements on these issues does not make up for disagreement on the first tier issue. This makes the person not agreeing on the issue of the gospel (as dictated in scripture) lost. All this to say, that even though Israel and pagan nations used some of the same worship practices, salvation comes only to those who by God’s grace have he has saved and melted their heart.

  28. John, in this case “accident” is not being used as we use it today, as in happenstance. Rather, it refers to something not essential to a thing’s essence. It actually goes all the way back to Aristotle, who described predicates or characteristics of a thing that are not part of its essential substance.

  29. I agree with Ben’s comment about the idea of thanksgiving and awe for God. Through his comment, I realize that most Christians tend to focus on themselves in their prayer as well as worship. In the class, Dr. Aniol explained two problems of the Israelites after the exile: their heart that was far from God and teaching doctrines as God’s commandments. I think that contemporary Christians are also far from God like the Israelites. They need to recover their hearts. Christian worship has to be centered on the gospel as I mentioned. When Christians glorify God in worship, worship influences on Christian life. The gospel changes human behavior and culture as Dr. Aniol said in the previous article. Christian life will be changed by the worship when Christians experience the gospel in worship.

  30. Laura, I agree with your opinion. Many people relate good works to religion. Christ followers also believe in doing good works, but the motivation of good works is different. Oswalt’s explanation of “essence” and “accidental” helps us to understand the different motivations of doing good work between unbelievers and believers.
    I would like to use Buddhism and Christianity as my examples. Buddhists do good works to end the suffering of the world. However, Christ followers do good works to share God’s love.
    Buddha, Prince Siddhartha from India, had a luxurious life, which prepared by his father. Prince Siddhartha lived in this luxurious live for a long time, but, soon, he became disillusioned with it and wanted to see the world outside the palace. He made a few trips to observed the world outside the palace. During his trips, he saw suffering, such as sickness, old age, and death. During his last trip, he saw a wandering monk who gave up everything in order to seek a way to end the suffering so he decided to follow what the monk did. Prince Siddhartha meditated and found out the best way to end the suffering was to have kindness and compassion for others. He then went around India and taught the people the way to end suffering. I would argue that Buddha’s teaching of having kindness and compassion for others is “accidental” because everyone believes that having kindness and compassion for others is a good thing to do, even atheists believe it. It is a common belief not a unique belief. On the other hand, Christianity is different. Christ followers do good work not simply because of having kindness and compassion for others, but because they have an “essence”—God’s love in their hearts. They are sharing the love of Christ that they have received.
    We are human; we all have limited kindness and compassion for others. If we have an “essence”—God’s love in our hearts, we will never run out of kindness and compassion for others. For example, my spiritual mentor adopted six kids from China. Four of them are from 3 years old to 6 years old. On top of this, they are all physically disabled. Taking care of them requires a lot of love and patient. Every time, when I visit them, I can see my mentor’s face is full of joy. She never complains about anything. On the other hand, she always shares how joyful she is to have them as her kids. If not because of God’s love is in her heart, I believe she can never take good care of these four precious kids.

  31. Yes, I agree with Jin Young’s opinion. Through this discussion, I remind again, what is true worship and what is the ‘Essence’ of worship. Only worship in essence (One God, who gave us His only Son Jesus Christ to atone our sin. Only the Lord God will save us); in fact knowing this God and response in Spirit and truth is the True worshp. And also only this worship can change people totally and fundamentally. Many people even Christian including us, sometimes can be confused when we listen to other’s arguement about difference between Christian’s worshp and surrounding nations’. Through this topic, once again I meditate deeply God’s love, only He called us first, came to us first, He first bleed the blood of Himself. Compare to pagan’s idol, it is totally distinguish. Who has a Lordship?

  32. Ryan I definitely liked your notion on the pagans thinking of the “one-up the Israelites” I have never really thought of that. And I have noticed that a lot of gods of the pagans have a lot of human traits and are not really pure like they were trying to make a god more relatable and not live up to our God’s Law and how he instructs us to live our lives. Great Post!!

  33. Oswalt pointed out that the “essence” of Hebrew faith was the communion element of worship. He pointed out that many of the laws of the pagan cultures and Hebrews were similar. However, the covenant that the Hebrews had with God gave them a different kind of motivation to follow the law. Oswalt states: “What is at issue is what happens when a law code is put inside a covenant with a transcendent God. The result is something unique. . . ”

    The Bible clearly tells us that all of creation has a knowledge of right and wrong. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.” This verse alone can explain some similarities in law code because God revealed His character to mankind in nature. The communion with God made a distinct difference between the Hebrew culture and the pagan culture. That relationship is also a unique mark between Christianity and other religions that have similar moral codes of conduct.

  34. In relation to Vaden’s first response, I was reminded of a discussion I had with my friend on Friday night. We were discussing aspects of prayer and how people from other cultures approach prayer, even to the same God (Yahweh), differently. Our discussion eventually led to my friend showing me a video on Youtube ( that illustrates how some charismatic practices by Christian leaders resemble the practices of Kundalini from Hinduism. While I was watching the video, I pondered: could the practice of Kundalini possibly be inspired by Christian charismatic practices (since God is the source of culture)? The video argued the contrary and the term “syncretism” came into my mind. Although the discussion with my friend and the Youtube video do not relate to Dr. Aniol’s article, I came to understand Vaden’s view and agree with his statement: “I think a main thing is what the Catholics have done […] and that is they have not changed anything to their services while all the other faiths have[,] especially that of the Baptist and other Christian denominations[,] and we are seeing that the culture is in need of religious traditions.”

    Baptist and other Christian denominations are diverse in the way worship is conducted; even the order of worship varies between churches within the same denomination. I struggled all weekend with writing this response as I tried to imagine and outline religious traditions that could be practiced in every Baptist and Christian denomination; as I wrestled to come to terms with myself, I came to the conclusion in what makes each denomination unique is the different worship styles (“accidental”), while sharing the same belief (“essence”). Although worship styles can differ, the main point that I took from the Youtube video stresses the importance in ensuring the worship practices (in Baptist and other Christian denominations) are rooted in the Word of God (“essence”) or be wary, for syncretism may have crept its way in.

  35. I agree with what Leyi said “…even there are similarities, there are still possibilities that maybe both of them (Hebrew worship and surrounding nations’ worship) come with the same source, instead of considering them adapted one from another.” Our God is the mighty God, I really don not think He will let His chosen people to adopt other surrounding nations’ way of worship to worship Him. For me, it sounds like desecration, using their ways of worship is somewhat equal with idolatry. As a Christian in this changing world, we need to be aware of the way we worship God, and to have a right heart, we should always glorify God’s name every time we worship Him.

  36. I found Scott L. Harris’ sermon (Music in Worship, p. 2), and Dr. Aniol’s additional article (Similarities and Differences between Hebrew Worship and Pagan Worship) provided additional insight to this scholarly discussion, yet for differing reason.
    I appreciate the efforts of Pastor Harris and his staff in making his message available online. In his sermon, he states that, “Scriptures describe all sorts of sounds, even discordant ones, that are used in the worship of God” (p. 1). While I understand the challenges that come with transcribing a sermon, the transcription could have greatly benefited from bibliography, citations, and scriptural quotes. Failing to do so weakens already frail arguments.
    In Similarities and Differences between Hebrew Worship and Pagan Worship, Dr. Aniol references Andrew Hill in the second plausible explanation to the similarities between Hebrew and pagan worship. If Mr. Hill’s assertion that God “demonstrates [His] willingness to accommodate His revelation to cultural conventions” were true, it would negate the uniqueness we seek to establish and validate in the biblical model of worship. But, as Dr. Aniol states, the Israelite model (type) is patterned after the heavenly ([anti-type] Ex. 25:8-9).
    Hill finds common ground with Ronald Allen, whose mistaken assertion uses “culture” (in the ethnos sense) to support a similar position. (Allen cites Psalm 93 as a revealing example of Hebrew worship literature modeled after a pagan structure.) The Hebrew professor fails to recognize that in his attempt to explain the similarities and borrowing by the Hebrews from the pagan worship forms he discredits the witness of Scripture. What good is it to state Psalm 93 is of superior content for worshipping the LORD of Israel if you manage to stoop the witness of Scripture in the process, reducing it to a facsimile?
    This brings me back to Hebrew Worship and the Surrounding Cultures. As stated therein, it is possible that Hebrew worship influenced the surrounding pagan nations; that they mirrored Israel. It is also possible that some of the shared aspects resulted accidentally. Furthermore, it is conceivable the enemy of mankind attempted to dilute what the LORD had so clearly defined in an effort to murk the particulars of the framework, that he may cause man to settle for mediocrity and offer false worship. What better than to cause us to think our worship offering is spotless, when in reality it’s defiled?

  37. This article makes me think that how much Buddhism culture has influenced Chinese Christians. Since Buddhism has such a deep root in Chinese culture, it is very easy for Chinese Christians to just follow the culture without notice that it is not from God, especially the elder generations. As a citizen of a city, which has one of the most famous Buddhist temples in China, I noticed many Christians treated God as a Buda in my hometown. Those Christians consider giving money to church, singing some hymns to praise God and doing good works would “help” God to listen to their prayer. They only go to church during Christmas time, just as the Buddhists usually go to their temple once a year to give money and burn incense. For these Christians, I do not think they really believe in Jesus Christ. They just follow the culture and do the things, which they think is pleasing God, while as long as they still go to church. There may be a chance for them to realize the problem.
    On the contrary, there is also a large amount of Chinese Christians influenced by Buddhism in another way. Since they want to be very distinct from Buddhism, they adding things to be considered holy, which are not mentioned in Bible. For example, they consider everything Buddhists do is evil and Christians should not even touch or say a their gods’ name, according to Psalms 16:4 Their sorrows will be increased who go after another god: I will not take drink offerings from their hands, or take their names on my lips (KJV). Those Christians believe that each sculpture has at least one demon inside of them, those dirty creatures would curse the family. Therefore, any kind of sculpture should not be allowed in Churches, not even some cave on the door. Buddhists bow down on their knees to their elders who passed away and burn food, money and flowers to them. Therefore, Christians should not even bring some flowers to the gravestone, neither bow to the dead. Buddhists cried very hard when relatives died, so Christians should never cry even their parents died, if Christians cry, the dead person may not be saved, their soul will not go to heaven. My grandaunt decided to give up her faith to Christ because other Christians told her that if she kept on crying, her mother’s soul will go to hell instead of heaven on my great-grandma’s funeral. Until now she still hates Christians. There are many other things I saw that Chinese Christians follow along with, just to be distinguished from Buddhism. Is that right or wrong?
    As we discussed in class, although Christians may have the right heart to worship, but if they add things to God’s commandment, that is still not pleasing God. The culture around us could influence us very easily. Chinese people lived in a culture that does not worship the true and only God for thousand years. It is easier for Chinese Christians to fall in the trap of adding, adapting, or against what God wants His people to do. How I wish Chinese Christians could be aware of that.

  38. Danielle, thanks for backing me up! You were on target with what I was trying to say. :)
    I most definitely did not mean that Jesus is not the vital key to our faith. As I had stated in my second paragraph, “…a number of religions also involve the person of Jesus in their stories”; therefore, because the person Jesus appears in these worldwide belief systems, he “appears” to be an accidental—or a non-essential component of faith/worship. For example, many religions view Jesus as an awesome prophet, which is cool, but not essential to their faith. In other words, if He were to be removed from their sacred writings, the religion would still go on. It would not really be affected. On the other hand, Christians know Jesus as much more than this. (I also explain this in my second paragraph above.) In our belief system, and in our acknowledgement of His majesty in our times of worship, we understand that He is THE key to our salvation, thereby making him the primary essence of our faith. Without Jesus, our religion (and our purpose for life!) ceases to exist.

  39. Today The Church of Christ is facing a big challenge in front of the Contemporary Culture. I have realize that our identity as God´s worshippers and as a chosen Nation of God with the purpose of reflect and magnify His name, has become for many Christians a merely issue, regardless the legacy of Israel Worship. For instance, Daniel and his friends were taken captives to Babylon. They were living among a pagan culture who worshipped other gods, with an ungodly behavior. However; they rejected to be influenced for that pagan culture and their worship practices. (Daniel 3: 13-16 NIV)
    I agree with Dr. Scott Aniol and John Oswalt because our God reigns forever and He defeated Baal with his servant Elijah in Mount Carmel.

  40. I appreciate Oswalt’s astute appraisal of the influential factors which lay at the root of the shift in the prominent scholarly view on the similarities between Israel’s religious practices and those of other ancient Near East religions. He contends that while the historical data has remained unaltered there has been a change in the philosophical and theological presuppositions held by many scholars. More specifically, one of the quotes points to the rejection of special revelation, God’s personal and direct communication with His people, and the acceptance of an evolutionary view on the development of religion as the key changes.

    I feel that he does a good job at clarifying the differences between the traditional and modern (read liberal) view on the “accidentals” and “essentials” of religion. It appears that the modern view puts forward the external similarities as being the essential aspects of religion while differences are downplayed as insignificant. However, the traditional understanding views the external similarities as secondary compared to the foundational beliefs at the heart of their divergent practices. So, despite the external similarities with the cultures around them, Israel employed these common elements differently due to their system of beliefs which was “radically different from anything around them.” This radical difference came about because God set out the requirements for true worship and for living in a covenantal relationship with Him.

    Many questions come to mind from this appraisal of “accidentals” and “essentials” of religion. Can Christians share similarities with the surrounding culture and yet still maintain a radically different way of life? If so, will this radically different way of life look the same for Christians living in different cultural settings?

  41. I agree with Sarah that God had established the worship practices in the very beginning of His creation. As God created man and female in his own image, it is true that all mankind share similar mindsets about worship.

    According to Oswalt, worship is an expression of obedience to the creator. God had established the concept of “rule” and “obedience” in his creation. No matter in the Hebrew culture or in the culture of the pagan nations, to worship is to follow the instruction of God. God will be pleased if people obey His law.

    As God revealed the basic concept of worship in his creation, I will argue that the worship practices of surrounding areas are rooted in the Hebrew culture.

  42. I’d like to deal with the meat of this book, rather than arguing just about its implications. The impression I get from the Bible is that God and Moses introduced a Law and a pattern of worship that were new in relation to the religions and civil systems surrounding them. Archaeology shows us that many of the details of that law and that worship were not unique. I get at least two ideas from that information.

    One is that I have always assumed that idolatry would be a big change in a person’s life. Now I realize that for a king of Judah to allow idols to be worshiped alongside YHWH in the Temple was nothing special, to a person who didn’t care about the first two of the Ten Commandments. It was just like all the other religions. Idolatry was easy. We don’t worship statues in Western culture today, but John still says, “Children, keep yourselves from idols.” I suspect it is still easy. Hard to tell when you’ve crossed that line.

    Another is the question of origins. We assume that early people had access to a certain amount of revelation about worship, and as Paul says in Romans, they turned from the true God to serve idols. Maybe putting a visible god in the sanctuary was the only change. Or maybe not. I am open to the possibility that it was the pagans who invented temples and laws and music, and God simply came along and used those temporal forms to communicate a deeper message. He gave us a Law that is bound tightly to culture, but which is balanced, healthy, and even prophetic. God says in Deuteronomy that if Israel will follow his regulations, they will experience “none of these diseases” which were common among the Egyptians. “We worship what we do know,” says Jesus — a real and living God who cannot be limited or represented by images. So in some ways the Law was a return to the source, and in others it may have been an affirmation, a purification, and a placing in context of what is good in other religions.

    I’d be interested to see this chicken-and-egg controversy discussed in reference to the threefold decline of man in Romans 1. When our minds became darkened, and we turned to the worship of images, what changed in the externals of our worship? When we served the creation rather than the creator, what changed in our civil laws? When we abandoned the knowledge of God, how did our ethic of justice change? And how did Paul conceive of all those changes happening in history? What was essential for God to correct through Moses, and what could safely remain the same, either because it was original and universal, or because it was incidental or perhaps a correct view or practice?

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