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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?

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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.