Formations 07.08.2018: Eating in Worship

Painting of a Feast from the Third-Century Catacomb of San Callisto

Deuteronomy 12:1-11, 28

When the Bible says, “Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places,” what do you do (v. 3)?

As it is, I think about the about the places I’ve come from, in particular Vestavia Hills, a suburb on the south side of Birmingham. Developed around the same time as integration, my high school was founded in 1970 as the Vestavia Hills rebels.

By the time I was in high school, the practice of flying confederate flags from cars had been more or less banned. Still, we had our mascot and our rituals, and as a member of the band, I played my part while the rebel man—plantation owner made colonel—led the team onto the field. After Charleston, however, the school board decided the mascot needed to go, even if they would keep the name.

Maybe they really had always been meant for school spirit, but the board, like those students and parents who started the conversations, saw that the flag and that mascot also pointed to a nation that would have made some members of our school property. They carried in them a celebration of the time when the school system would have denied education to some of its students and some of its teachers. And when they fell, we saw that idols can’t do justice to reality. Ours couldn’t. They obscured horrors of the past. They flattened differences in our present. Some days the Deuteronomist is right.

But I’m not ready to accept this, because I also grew up with stories of my city that you’ve likely heard, headlines you’ve likely read, pictures you’ve likely seen. Holy places were destroyed. Worshipers were arrested, terrorized, and killed. And we didn’t always call it evil. Some days, it was normal. At worse times, it was called good.

These promises and failures surround us still, raising big questions about our memories and our worship, who we serve and who we worship with. When Israel struggled with similar tensions, the Deuteronomist told them all to feast (vv. 7, 12).

This is comforting because even if the text doesn’t say it, I’m Baptist and imagine the people potlucking. Our feasts celebrate differences, at even their most basic level. We embrace each other’s different offerings, the handed-down and store-bought. Among covered dishes and dessert spreads, we share our stories.

Recently, I saw that two Baptist churches starting to potluck around Thanksgiving because they realized that racism and a city block had kept them apart for a century and a half. From a shared origin and different locations, church members told their own stories of this long history. These are hard ones, both to tell and hear. For many, they’re too painful to relive. For others, they’re too difficult to confront for the first time.

The churches know one feast a year can’t heal these wounds. What can be fixed about church members selling other church members to pay clergy? But they also hope these meals might be first steps to worshiping God in new ways in old neighborhoods, not in their sanctuaries but in the everyday ways people worship. So they make plans to sew and tutor together, to eat together but also to feed their homeless neighbors together.

Discussion

• Where in your neighborhood do you see the destruction, vandalism, or removal of holy places and the people worshiping inside?
• What idols are present in your church communities and in your larger communities? What parts of life have these idols kept you from experiencing?
• When you look around your table—at home and in your fellowship hall—who is present? Who is missing?
• What acts of worship might lead you to more fully embrace all of God’s people as your own?

Reference Shelf

Worship and Food

Fourth, the ancient Israelite concept of sacrifice and the communal meal stands as an indictment of modern attitudes toward worship and service to God. For many, worship is an obligation, perhaps a time for meditation and reflection, usually an entirely passive experience. People go to church to fulfill a sense of duty, to be motivated to face a new week, to seek answers to the difficulties of life, to satisfy an esthetic urge. Worship is delivered from the platform to congregants who, for the most part, merely observe—quietly and calmly. The ministers preach and pray; the choir sings; worshipers watch and listen.

What’s worse, the very term “sacrifice” conjures images of loss, denial, and suffering. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, instructs the ancient Israelite to celebrate, to feast, to party! The most significant acts of worship were opportunities to gather, enjoy, and share the bounty of God’s blessing. Israel commemorates the exodus with a family meal. The first Lord’s Supper was probably an “addendum” to a Passover meal. The early church, historians feel, likewise observed the Eucharist after a joyous banquet known as a “love feast” (Jude 12). Table fellowship is a fundamental and universal expression of relationship in human cultures.

Mark Biddle, Deuteronomy, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2003), 228–29.

Presence and Absence

The revolution of Deuteronomy 12 raises questions of motivation and strategy. What compelling theological motivations could justify the daring innovations at issue? Could not the transformation of butchering into something profane make everyday life in Israel feel less holy? Might not centralization of worship in the capital bolster the authority of Jerusalem’s rulers and priests, who would now become guardians of a central national shrine? If so, this would cut against Deuteronomy’s ideal of a covenantal community of interdependent siblings (Heb., ’akhim, 1:16), free from all artificial hierarchies.

[…]

Despite first impressions, Deuteronomy’s centralization theme does not support a Jerusalem power play. Power-craving officials would want people thinking of God tangibly present in Jerusalem, stabilizing the power center. Commonplace biblical scholarship, however, understands Deuteronomy to imagine only the Lord’s “name” (Heb., shem), not the divine self, as present in the capital (see Deut 12:5). Stephen A. Geller puts the position powerfully: “That God shuns the earth to remain forever enthroned in His heavenly abode is the universal belief of Deuteronomic thinkers” (Geller, 39). Benjamin D. Sommer (62) baldly states that for Deuteronomy, “God dwells in heaven and nowhere else . . . the shem [“name”] is only a sign of divine presence [i.e., a token of divine attention], not a manifestation of God Himself.”

Geller, Sommer, and like-minded scholars are both right and wrong. Close study of Deuteronomy 12 reveals that it does resist notions of a stable divine indwelling of Jerusalem. Deuteronomy has no part in any monarchic or priestly power play. Chapter 12, however, does not chase away God’s presence.

[…]

Deuteronomy holds divine presence and absence in radical tension. The two tensive truths lie juxtaposed in 4:36-37. Other texts emphasize one or the other truth. A forceful “voice” at Horeb signaled God was there (5:22). Moses is able to “go near” God (5:27, 31) and receive directly what God writes (4:13; 5:22; 9:10; cf. 10:4). God speaks “immediately and personally” (Deut 5:4, my paraphrase). The Hebrew panim bepanim (“face to face”) signals direct encounter, but encounter lacking literal sightings of God’s real self (see 4:12, 15). Israel must never contact God’s inner, private actuality, lest the people die (cf. Gen 32:30 E; Exod 33:20 E/D; Judg 6:22; 13:22). The simple hearing of God’s words is barely sustainable and threatens the people with death (Deut 5:24, 26). As discussed below, it was Deuteronomy’s apprehension of these truths in tension that led directly to its revolutionary insistence on a single chosen sanctuary.

Stephen L. Cook, Reading Deuteronomy: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the Old Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015), 106–7, 108.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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