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As long as Moses lived, Israel seldom worshipped other gods directly. She broke the First Word by breaking the Second, worshipping God through the calf. As we shall see, God always treats such Liturgical Idolatry as Covenantal Idolatry, but it is far more serious because it is committed by those He has called to Himself, who therefore should know better. To some extent, God overlooks the folly of the pagans; He does not overlook the folly of His own people, as we shall see.

After Moses, however, the people fell into full Covenantal Idolatry, worshipping the gods of the tribes round about. They “forsook Yahweh” and served other gods. Therefore, God brought them under the cultural dominion of those other gods by putting them in bondage to the tribes who created them. When they refused to worship Yahweh, who brought them out of Egypt and gave them the land, then they lost the land and went back into Egypt, so to speak.

By way of contrast, in the Kingdom period we no longer find Israel forsaking Yahweh for other gods; instead they “worship Yahweh and serve the Baals,” seeing to worship Yahweh through the media of images and shrines (image houses) on high places. Thus, in this second period it is the Second Word that is the main problem. As we shall see, however, God refuses to accept such false worship, and counts it as rejection and hatred of Him. Thus, whenever the Second Word is defied, the First is as well.

When Israel entered the land to conquer it, they initially obeyed Yahweh and destroyed the Canaanites and their idols. In time, however, they grew lax, so that Yahweh brought this charge against them: “I said, `I will never break My covenant with you, and as for you, you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me” (Jud. 2:1-2). The Israelites were sinking into the worship of other gods.

This is made more explicit in Judges 2:11-13: “Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of Yahweh, and worshipped the Baals, and they forsook Yahweh, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked Yahweh to anger. So they forsook Yahweh and served Baal and Astartes.” Notice in this statement that “doing evil in the sight of Yahweh” is defined, as far as Judges is concerned, as worshipping other gods, perhaps because “in the sight of Yahweh” is equivalent to “before My face.” Notice also the language of the First Word, “who brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

We read that the sons of Israel “did evil in the sight of Yahweh,” that is, worshipped other gods, in the following places:

Judges 3:7, introducing the bondage to Cushan-Rishathaim, with eventual deliverance under Othniel.

Judges 3:13, introducing the bondage to the Moabites, with eventual deliverance under Ehud.

Judges 4:1, introducing the bondage to the Canaanites, with eventual deliverance under Deborah.

Judges 6:1, introducing the bondage to the Midianites, Amalekites, and “Sons of the East” (Ishmaelites), with eventual deliverance under Gideon.

Judges 8:33, introducing the bondage to the half-Canaanite Abimelech.

Judges 10:6, which makes the sin explicit again: “Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of Yahweh, served the (1) Baals and the (2) Ashteroth, the (3) gods of Aram, the (4) gods of Sidon, the (7) gods of Moab, the (6) gods of the sons of Ammon, and the (7) gods of the Philistines.” For this seven-fold apostasy Israel was sold to the Ammonites in the northwest and to the Philistines in the southeast.

With the possible exception of Cushan-Rishathaim of Mesopotamia, these were all essentially tribal groups that worshipped powers in nature and ancestors. During this period, God broke His people of this tendency, and we almost never find Israelites worshipping other gods again.


A Theology of Ritual:

Mapping the Territory

by Peter J. Leithart

G. K. Chesterton began Orthodoxy by describing the plot of a book that he had never written. Taking a page from Chesterton, below I will briefly map out the territory of a book (or books) that need(s) to be written. Had I but world enough and time–and a small army of research assistants–I would embark on the project. It is, however, always easier not to write a book, and I’ll probably take the easy way out and not write this one. Besides, by next Tuesday, I’ll probably lose interest. Nevertheless, convinced that such a book would be useful, I offer this map in the hope that it will provide stimulation and guidance to someone with more perseverance, discipline, and intellectual energy than I.

Over the past several years, I have had the growing conviction of the need for a Reformed, Vantillian theology of ritual. This conviction arises partly out of my reflection on the provocative and still growing body of writings of James B. Jordan. Another stimulus has been my study of Roman Catholicism, as this study has forced me to try to determine precisely where the fault lines between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism lie. Also influential has been my work on Calvin and the Reformation generally. Questions of the usefulness and efficacy of rites form the subtext for many of the Reformers’ contests with Rome, but to my knowledge no Protestant has ever dealt with ritual in a comprehensive manner. Almost every Reformed work on ritual (or “ceremony”) has been an anti-Roman polemic; I know of no attempt to provide a positive biblical assessment of the place of ritual in the Christian worldview and in practice of the church. (Of course, I may well be ignorant of a huge body of literature; if I am, please someone let me know.)

In terms of systematic theology, I think the question of rites gets to the heart of a central tension in Reformed theology. At least popularly in Reformed churches, I have the impression that election tends to cancel out the covenant, the church, and the sacraments; in modern evangelicalism, personal experience of regenerating grace tends to have a similar effect. By insisting that salvation is a matter of personal knowledge of God through the only mediator Jesus Christ, Reformation theology seems to undermine any need for the church, ritual, sacraments, or clergy; all mediators but Christ are not merely superfluous but idolatrous. Five hundred years after the Reformation, many Protestants live with a bad conscience in regard to the Anabaptists, the nagging question of whether the Reformers really completed the Reformation.

Bad conscience or no, the Reformers were absolutely correct when they insisted that Christian life is life in the church, and that the church cannot escape rites and governments. The Anabaptist solution is not a solution, or rather, it is a solution that conflicts with clear biblical requirements. In fact, the early Reformers seem hardly to have sensed any tension between their excision of superfluous mediators and their insistence on the significance of the church and its orders. Calvin combined a high Augustinian predestinarianism with a high Augustinian churchmanship (as, obviously, Augustine also did). But if the Reformers did not sense the tension, the tension exists today; at least I feel it. Evidence that others feel it as well is provided by the fact that any Reformed theologian who talks too much or too reverently about the Supper is suspected of being on the road to Rome. Part of the proposed project thus would involve an attempt to understand how the Reformers and post-Reformation dogmaticians systematized the doctrines about which we (or I) feel tensions.

A theology of ritual would address the questions posed above from the standpoint of sacramental theology. The question might be formulated concretely as follows: If Jesus brings us into direct communion with the Father, what need do we have of water, bread, and wine? If we are baptized in the Spirit, what use is baptism in water? If we feed on Christ by faith–Augustine said of John 6, “Believe, and you have eaten”–, why feed on bread and wine? It is sufficient as a practical matter to answer, “Because Jesus commands us to.” But a theology of ritual would attempt to provide a more systematic explication of the logic of the sacraments. It would attempt to answer the question: Why, in the New Covenant, when the shadows and types have passed away, do we still have sacraments at all? And what efficacy do they possess?

The sacraments would also be central to a theology of ritual because the sacraments in fact are rituals. It is inadequate to say that sacraments are signs; “sign” connotes something altogether too static. The sacraments are dynamic rites; facta (act) is as essential to the sacraments as res (element) and dicta (word). Thus, a theology of ritual would attempt a refinement of traditional Protestant formulations concerning the sacraments. In addition to treating the sacraments per se, a theology of ritual would address questions of liturgical theology more broadly considered.

It seems to me that it would be most potentially fruitful to approach this refinement of sacramental and liturgical theology from the perspective of the sacrificial system. It seems likely that the biblical understanding of rituals and hence of sacraments would emerge most clearly from texts that deal directly with rituals, which are mainly found in Exodus-Deuteronomy. The meaning and efficacy of the sacraments, then, need to be understood according to the categories and patterns of the Levitical system. For example, a number of the New Testament images associated with baptism (washing, clothing, anointing) hearken back to the rite of priestly ordination. If we wish to deepen our understanding of baptism, Exodus 29 would be a good place to begin. Armed with my extremely limited knowledge of the history of the church, I don’t know of anyone who has ever attempted to formulate sacramental theology from this standpoint in any rigorous way. Especially given some important recent work done on the Levitical system (eg., Jacob Milgrom), this seems like a useful project.

Finally, ritual has for the past century been a subject of considerable interest in the fields of anthropology (Claude Levi-Strauss, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Edmund Leach, Clifford Geertz), sociology (Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, a few hints scattered through the work of Peter L. Berger), literary criticism (Rene Girard), comparative religion (James Frazer, Mircea Eliade, Jonathan Z. Smith) and historical studies (medievalists such as Johan Huizinga, Ernst Kantorowicz, Marc Bloch, and their more recent, mostly French, successors; historians of early modern Europe such as Natalie Davis; classical scholars such as Walter Burkert). A fully developed theology of ritual would interact with this literature. Much of this literature studies the relationships between ritual, culture, and social behavior. A theology of ritual would thus not only impinge on sacramental theology, but also shade into the area of Christian social and political thought.



The Wealth of Nations

by Peter J. Leithart

In the second year of Darius, near the end of the feast of booths, the prophet Haggai encouraged the Jews of the restoration to continue their work on the temple by assuring them that “the latter glory of this house will be greater than then former” (Hag. 2:9). To this end the Lord promised, “Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of nations; and I will fill this house with glory” (2:6-7). David L. Peterson has captured the sense of the verse with the comment that “the nations are being shaken in order to jar loose their wealth” (Haggai and Zechariah 1-8: A Commentary [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984], p. 68).

Though the sense of the prophecy is clear, its fulfillment is not. The phrase “a little while” is somewhat ambiguous, but there is little doubt that it is a time reference. The phrase `od me`at is used elsewhere in the sense of “soon” (cf. Hos. 1:4). In Haggai 2:6, this phrase is interrupted by `achath (fem. of “one”), which may serve “to emphasize the imminence of the time specified" (Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 [The Anchor Bible, 25B; New York: Doubleday, 1987], p. 52). Haggai expected the nations to be shaken in a very short time.

It is possible to take this as a promise of the gathering of the nations as the Lord’s people. The word translated as “wealth” means “precious things” (Heb., chemdath; cf. Hos. 13:15; Nah. 2:9), and refers to objects and vessels for use in the temple. These are often symbols of people (cf. 2 Ki. 25:8-17). The Lord would shake the nations so that many Gentiles would convert and become living stones in the people-temple of God. Such a promise is not unusual in postexilic prophecies, with their frequent emphasis on the international scope of Israel’s influence (cf. Zech. 8:18-23; 14:16).

The setting of Haggai’s prophecy reinforces this interpretation. The twenty-first day of the seventh month was the seventh day of the feast of tabernacles. During the seven days of that feast a total of 70 bulls, representing the 70 nations (Gen. 10), were sacrificed as ascension (burnt) offerings (Nu. 29:12-34), a series of sacrifices that came to an end on the seventh day of the feast. It was thus particularly apt for Haggai to prophesy of the gathering of the nations on this occasion. The cosmic imagery of verse 6, though surely to be taken symbolically, also supports the notion that the precious things are Gentiles. “Heavens and earth” are parallel to “earth and sea,” and both are immediately connected to the shaking of the nations. The three phrases are speaking of the same process in different ways.

At the same time, there are indications in these verses that the primary concern is with the return of Jews who remain scattered throughout the nations. Exodus imagery supports this interpretation. Though Haggai’s word for “shaking” (ra`ash) does not occur in Exodus, it is a good description of what happened in Egypt: Through the ten plagues, the Lord shook Egypt to its roots. Haggai was prophesying that in a similar way the nations would be shaken. Because of the Lord’s shaking, the children of Israel and the wealth of Egypt were jarred loose. Haggai’s promise that the Jews would plunder the nations of their precious things (Hag. 2:7-8) is a promise of another exodus (Ex. 12:35), as is the fact that the plunder of the nations will be used in the construction of God’s house (Hag. 2:7, 9).

Working on the hypothesis that the shaking of the nations was for the purpose of recovering scattered Jews, the fulfillment of Haggai’s prophecy is easier to pinpoint. The only exodus that occurred “a little while” after Haggai’s prophecy was Ezra’s return to Jerusalem (Ezra 7-8). Michael Fishbane has pointed out the references to the exodus in Ezra’s pilgrimage (Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], pp. 362-63). Significantly, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem bearing “650 talents [nearly 25 tons] of silver, and silver utensils worth 100 talents [nearly 4 tons], and gold talents, and 20 gold bowls, worth 1000 darics [less than 20 pounds of gold], and two utensils of fine shiny bronze, precious (Heb. chamudoth) as gold” (Ezra 8:26-27). In addition, Ezra was given imperial authorization to collect donations of silver, wheat, wine, oil, and salt from all the treasurers of the Persian provinces beyond the river (7:21-22). If we accept the short chronology of Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of Darius (= Artaxerxes, Ezra 7:8), somewhat less than five years after Haggai prophesied.

In every particular, Ezra’s mission fulfills Haggai’s prophecy. In Ezra’s mission to Jerusalem, the Lord shook loose Jews who remained in exile as well as the wealth of Persia, claimed the gold and silver as His own, and brought the plunder to adorn His house.