Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Walter Brueggemann, Worship in Ancient Israel: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005).  Pp. 104.  Paper, US$14.00, CAN$19.99. ISBN: 0-687-34336-4.

This volume is the latest offering in a series from Abingdon Press designed to introduce selected topics in Biblical studies to a student audience. In keeping with this aim, the volume is short and the writing clear and engaging. References to secondary literature are kept to a minimum and are presented as endnotes. Also included is an index of references to the Bible and Apocrypha.

Readers looking to this work for a treatment of Israelite religion of the kind produced by Niditch, Smith, or de Vaux (Niditch, Susan. Ancient Israelite Religion. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997; Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Biblical Resource Series. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002; de Vaux, Roland. Ancient Israel. Vol. 2: Religious Institutions. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1965.) will be disappointed. Brueggemann’s interest lies not in examining the institutional, Canaanite or broader ancient Near Eastern context of Israelite religion, but in highlighting some themes and characteristics within Israelite worship. As a result, the work is more theological than it is historical or reconstructive.

Brueggemann begins with a chapter entitled, “Orthodox Yahwism in Dialogic Modes” in which he notes briefly the influence that Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Canaanite culture had on Israelite development and the variegated religion that resulted. From these various traditions, however, Brueggemann emphasizes themes that stand out as pervasive and even normative. Israel’s worship, he argues, “is to be understood as a practice of covenant” that enables a “dialogic interaction in which both parties are fully present, both parties are to some extent defined by the other, and both parties are put to some extent at risk by the transaction” (pp. 8-9). For Israel then, worship is not a reflection on a relationship that is static, but on one that is being ever redefined.

The emphasis on worship as “dialogic interaction” shapes the subsequent chapters of Brueggemann’s work. In chapter two, he examines, “The Gestures of Worship and Sacrifice” and argues that in Old Testament worship, “emphasis is much more on the thing done than upon the meaning of the thing done” (p. 11). What ensues is an examination of the various contexts in which the Israelite festivals and sacrifices are presented.  In both cases, the author emphasises that it is the act itself and not the meaning associated with it that is primary. In support of this contention, Brueggemann observes that in the Old Testament, nothing is said that explains the act of sacrifice. From this he argues for sacrifice as a communal act that “leaves the meaning and intent of the act quite open” (p. 22). This, however, is an argument from silence. The absence of comment on the meaning of sacrifice might just as easily be an indication that its essential meaning was widely understood and so required no formal explanation.

In chapter three, “The Utterance of YHWH in Worship”, the author characterizes the god of Israel as one who “commands, guides, and assures” (p. 26) through both Torah and prophetic oracles. The following chapter treats “The Utterance of Israel in Worship” and touches upon various psalm-types as the primary means by which Israel expressed both its thanks and exasperation to its God. In his concluding chapter, “Worship: Israel at ‘Play’”, Brueggemann examines what he describes as “seven dimensions of indeterminacy that operate in Israel’s worship” (p. 63) that testify to the freedom and ambiguity that existed in the covenantal relationship that connected Israel with its god. Here, for example, the idea of obedience to Yahweh alone is set over against the freedom that Israel had to protest or complain about Yahweh’s acts. While most of the points of indeterminacy Brueggemann identifies highlight reasonable instances of tension in the covenant relationship, some are less clear. It is not immediately obvious, for example, why holiness should be set over against justice (p. 65-67). In light of the author’s declared intent to produce a work that is in “service of current theological and practical issues concerning the worship of the church in its ecumenical character” (p. 1), one wonders if here he is not so much analyzing a tension in the tradition so much as he is reading the biblical material in light of the current tension in the United States between fundamentalist and mainstream Christianity.

With its characterization of Israelite worship as a “dialogic interaction” between God and Israel in which both parties are challenged, redefined, and changed, this work comes across more as a programmatic essay providing a theological foundation for the ecumenical enterprise than it does as an “essential guide” to worship in ancient Israel. For the treatment that it offers of the Israelite cultic calendar, Torah, prophetic oracles, or psalm types, students will be better served by consulting other monographs or the relevant articles in a source such as the Anchor Bible Dictionary. As a basic introduction to Israelite religion and worship, then, this latest volume in the Essential Guide series misses the mark. Its true value lies elsewhere—as an extended theological reflection that sees in Israel’s relationship with God elements that might be helpful for Christians as they wrestle with the issue of ecumenism in the contemporary context.

Brian P. Irwin
Knox College
Toronto School of Theology