The Torah's Vision of Worship

By Olson, Dennis T. | Interpretation, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Torah's Vision of Worship


Olson, Dennis T., Interpretation


The Torah's Vision of Worship by Samuel E. Balentine Overtures to Biblical Theology. Fortress, Minneapolis, 1999. 266 pp. $26.00. ISBN 0-8006-3155-2.

BOOK-LENGTH TREATMENTS of the topic "Worship in the Old Testament" last appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. Those earlier works, by scholars such as H.-J. Kraus or H. H. Rowley, were focused on tracing the origins and historical development of various practices of worship, sacrifice, and rituals in ancient Israel. Now, Balentine has given us the first promising installment of a larger project on worship in the Old Testament that assembles a rich collection of scholarship, a depth of theological sensitivity, and a judicious use of historical, literary, and sociological insights to explore the theological underpinnings or "vision" of worship that underlies scripture's laws and stories. This first installment in the project focuses on the Pentateuch or Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Later studies will treat the vision of worship in the Prophets and the Writings (especially Psalms and 1-2 Chronicles).

The book begins with a one-chapter historical overview of worship as a subject in Old Testament studies. Balentine traces the collapse of the history paradigm (history of religions and form-criticism) as dominant modes of inquiry for biblical worship, although they remain important aids for understanding the "historicality" of the Old Testament in its ancient context. Balentine's study focuses on three realities: the textual or "canonical reality" of the final written form of the Pentateuch; the "social reality" of the reconstituted and fragile Jewish community in Yehud or Judah under the Persian empire (fifth century B.C.E.) in which the final form of the Pentateuch emerged; and the larger, "really real" perspective of "religious reality," the world "generated by Israel's unique religious perspective regarding God and the world of humankind" (p. 35). It is this reality that enables the study to move from the descriptive to the constructive theological task of drawing implications for the life and worship of contemporary communities of faith.

The next two chapters examine in more detail the social world that. shaped the Torah's vision, outlining the Persian empire's policies and mechanisms for social control imposed upon the small colony of Jews in Judah. Balentine agrees with some recent scholars that a significant catalyst for assembling the present form of the Pentateuch was "as much the Persian imposition of social and political directives as it was the internal [Jewish] convictions of a fervent faith" (p. 57). Evidence that Persian administrators in Egypt and Babylon promoted the codification of local laws suggests that the Pentateuch was put together under orders, or encouragement, of Persian officials. These and other Persian policies, Balentine argues, contributed to the emergence of the Pentateuch and the shape of its message, but they by no means exhaust the meaning or significance of the Torah's vision of worship.

The theological paradigms for worship that emerge from the Pentateuch are the subjects of the next four chapters in the book. The chapters study the liturgy of cosmic creation in Genesis; the liturgy of covenant as vocation and sanctuary/world building in Exodus; the ministry of priesthood, ritual, and holiness in Leviticus and Numbers; and the new and renewing summons to the Torah's vision of worship in Deuteronomy centered in the first commandment and the sabbath. Each chapter concludes with implications for a theology of worship that appreciates the richness and distinctiveness of each biblical book. …

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