WorshipConcord Journal, volume 1, number 10 — December 2009



Worship in the Old Testament


How did God’s people worship during the days before the birth of Christ? The Worship of God’s people in the Old Testament is a complicated question. In large part it depends on which period we are referring to.

One thing seems to be clear, that what was common to most cultures in the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world was a twofold combination of sacred space and sacrifice. The worship of the ancient Hebrews and the Israelites had this twofold focus in common with other cultures.

Beyond this twofold generalization, however, we can say that the specific meanings of sacred space and sacrifice varied across cultures. This is particularly true of the worship of God’s people as this is described in the Old Testament. Other Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures worshiped multiple deities. There was a plurality of sacred spaces in the form of multiple temples spread all across the region, with numerous and varied sacrificial practices.

The Israelites on the other hand were monotheistic. They worshiped only the one God who created the heavens and the earth. And they worshiped him in one place, first in the tent of meeting built by Moses during the post-Exodus wandering in the wilderness, then in the temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. While from time to time there were other competing “sacred” spaces, the point of view we have in the Old Testament identifies the temple in Jersualem as the sacred space set apart for the worship of God’s people.

The first reference to worship in the Old Testament already appears in Genesis 4, when Abel and Cain offered sacrifices to God. “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering” (Genesis 4.3-4).

While it is not immediately apparent in this text why God accepted Abel’s offering but did not accept Cain’s, Hebrews 11.4 helps us more clearly to understand it. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” From this perspective, faith is of the essence of worship. This is an important point to remember.

Noah made a burnt offering when God brought an end to the flood and established the covenant with Noah and the rest of humankind never again to destroy all of humanity by means of a flood (Genesis 8.20–9.17). To seal this covenant with a visible sign, God placed the rainbow in the sky, to remind us of his promise.

God instructed Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Just the thought of it is absolutely chilling. How do you reconcile the love of a father for his son with absolute obedience to God? On the surface it’s a real conundrum, since from the beginning the taking of human life by another human was forbidden by God. Yet God made this demand of Abraham. The opening of the narrative tells us why. “. . . God tested Abraham . . .” (Genesis 22.1). The Letter to the Hebrews (11.17-19) unfolds the mystery of Abraham’s obedience by helping us to understand how Abraham trusted that God would restore his son by raising him from the dead, a perspective that clearly points to Christ on several levels. After passing the test, Abraham took a ram and sacrificed it as an offering to God in the place of Isaac.

While each of the preceding examples offers its own peculiar complexities for us to make sense of with regard to worship in the Old Testament, Moses certainly complicates the question to the ‘n’th degree. Until this point, sacred space was typically identified with places where God manifested himself to the patriarchs or to other individuals, who would then respond to the divine appearance (theophany) by building an altar and sacrificing. There was not yet a single place that could be identified as the only sacred space set apart for the worship of all of God’s people.

Moses offered a less individualized, more unified worship experience for the people of God. This unified experience of worship was located around the sacred space of the tent of meeting, where God himself would manifest his presence and speak directly with Moses, “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 25–31; 33.7-11).

It’s significant that instructions for the celebration of Passover (Exodus 12) were given before the detailed instructions for the tent of meeting. A specific rite for family worship was given to God’s people before (and as!) they left Egypt. What unified them in the use of this rite was not the location, but that they all celebrated Passover according to the same precise details—what kind of lamb, how to prepare the lamb, what kind of herbs and vegetables were to be eaten, how to prepare the bread (violations of which were grounds for exclusion from the people of God!), even how to dress while eating it.

In addition to the hearth and home nature of Passover as it was to be observed by future generations within the family setting, Moses was instrumental in receiving specific details for the corporate worship of God’s people (the Book of Leviticus, e.g.). While these details were initially applied to their worship as it was focused on God’s presence in the tent of meeting, in particular the most holy inner part of the tent where the ark of the covenant resided, the details also anticipated the more permanent sacred space of the Jerusalem temple.

Six different offerings were prescribed in detail—the whole burnt offering (‘olah), the grain offering (min-khah), the peace offering (zevakh shelamim), the sin offering (chatat) that was made for unintentional sins, the graded sin offering, and the guilt offering (asham). Detailed prescriptions accompanied these various offerings, including instructions for the killing of bulls, heifers, goats, and lambs. There were specific instructions for burning grain offerings, specific pieces of animals (entrails and various body parts, fat portions, etc.), what could be kept and eaten by the priests, and what could not be eaten.

And there was the pouring and the sprinkling of blood (more allusion to Christ’s sacrifice and the “sprinkling” of Holy Baptism). There was a lot of blood. Probably the most dramatic of all the sacrifices in the Old Testament was the whole burnt offering. During the priest’s enactment of this sacrifice, the entire animal was consumed in the fire.

A constant, unbroken line of smoke ascending into heaven was a visible sign to the people that the sacrificial system of the temple was functioning to propitiate God’s wrath against the sin of his people. The danger, of course, was in trusting in the ritual act of sacrifice without having a repentant heart that embraced God’s mercy by faith. The prophets railed against this. They did not criticize the ritual acts themselves (Jeremiah 33; Ezekiel 20.40; 45.17), but a misdirected attitude that committed blatant idolatry or sought to appease the anger of God through sacrifice without repentance (Isaiah 56.7; Jeremiah 7.9-10; 19.4; Hosea 6.6).

Such an approach to sacred space and sacrifice made Israel’s worship indistinguishable from other ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. This is why the prophets were constantly calling God’s people to circumcise their hearts, a powerful metaphor for repentance and faith (Jeremiah 4.1-4).

No discussion of worship in the Old Testament would be complete without some mention of the Book of Psalms. The Psalms were the hymn book of the Old Testament people of God. Several of the psalms refer to going up to the temple, or dwelling in the house of the LORD, or some other such reference (Psalm 27, 29, 42, 43, 47, 66, 68, 84, 95, 96, 99, 100, 116, 118, 122, 132, 134, 135, 149, 150).

Psalm 150 provides us with an example of diversity of music in the worship of the temple. The psalm begins by exhorting the faithful to “Praise God in his sanctuary!” So the beginning premise of this psalm was the worship life of God’s people in the Jerusalem temple.

As I have already pointed out, in the Torah there were dozens of specifically prescribed forms for the liturgy of the priests and the people. The sacrifices were prescribed in minute detail. The clothing of the priests was prescribed in minute detail (even down to the color and shape of their underwear!). The use of incense was prescribed in minute detail. There was a specific form or structure of worship that God in his wisdom prescribed for his people.

Psalms 149 and 150 also reveal that there was an element of freedom in the execution of the worship of God’s people that went along with all the prescribed forms. In Psalm 150 the psalmist exhorts God’s people: “Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!”

Now, this is not just referring to the private devotion of God’s people at home. Nor can it be rationalized that this only refers to the processions that took place before arriving at the temple, as if it would have been okay to have this kind of diversity outside the temple, but not inside the temple. This exhortation refers to freedom and diversity in the execution of the public worship of God’s people in the Jerusalem temple!

I really didn’t intend for this brief survey of worship in the Old Testament to be comprehensive. It is just a brief survey. There are many other ways of referring to this worship that I have chosen not to go into—for example, covenant (berith), vertical typology (what is done on earth is patterned after what is done in heaven), sacramental (the gracious promises of God attached to the physical means of ritual acts), remembrance (God’s gracious remembrance of his own promises to his people; zachar).

All of these are also aspects of the worship of God’s people in the Old Testament, and they point to the fulfillment of what they promised in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I chose to focus on the twofold structure of sacred space and sacrifice for its simplicity, and for the fact that this structure also seems to encompass all other aspects of worship in the Old Testament.

The simple twofold structure of worship in the Old Testament, sacred space and sacrifice, are both referenced to Christ in the New Testament. From the perspective of the church, all of the offerings in the Old Testament are shadows of the things to come—the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the ritual bath of Holy Baptism, and the ritual meal of the Lord’s Supper. In the next issue of the WorshipConcord Journal we will explore worship in the New Testament.


James Alan Waddell

[A small portion of this article was adapted from A Simplified Guide to Worshiping As Lutherans (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009)]


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2 responses to “WorshipConcord Journal, volume 1, number 10 — December 2009

  1. James,

    I wonder if, in the next edition on worship in the New Testament, you could touch on the question of sacred space in the NT church. You’ve said here that in the NT sacred space is referenced to Christ, but I would appreciate that being explicated further – if possible. Thanks in anticipation.

  2. Hi Mark. Yes, that’s the intent. The article on the New Testament is in progress and not yet complete. One of the many piles I have threatening to bury my desk. It will have both components I focused on in this December article, sacred space and sacrifice. It will be more of a look at what’s in the NT and the practice of the early NT church. However, it won’t have anything about sacred space in the early church beyond the NT.

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