Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTORY

THOUGH this section has been entitled 'Religious Institutions', to keep the parallel with the three previous sections, the title is not meant to indicate a rigid distinction, for religion penetrated the entire social life of the nation. Circumcision had a religious significance; in the sense defined above, the monarchy was a religious institution; war itself, at least at the beginning of Israel's history, was a religious act; and Israelite law, even where it concerned profane matters, remained a religious law, and allowed for the possibility of an appeal to the judgment of God. In this section, however, we shall discuss those institutions which are directly concerned with the external worship of God.

By 'cult' we mean all those acts by which communities or individuals give outward expression to their religious life, by which they seek and achieve contact with God. But since God, as Creator, necessarily takes precedence of every creature, man's action in cultic worship is basically the response of a creature to his Creator. Lastly, cultic worship is essentially a social phenomenon: even when an individual offers such worship, he does so in accordance with fixed rules, as far as possible in fixed places, and generally at fixed times. If we take cult in this, its strict sense, it cannot exist without ritual.

The usual Hebrew word for the cult is 'abodah: it is a 'service', like the service given to the king ( 1 Ch 26: 30). The primary meaning of 'serving' God is giving him outward worship ( Ex 3: 12; 9: 1, 13, etc.). The Bible speaks of the 'service' of Yahweh ( Jos 22: 27), of the 'service' of the Tent ( Ex 30: 16, etc.), of the Dwelling ( Ex 27: 19, etc.) and of the Temple ( Ez 44: 14, etc.). The same word is used for a particular act of cultic worship ( Ex 12: 25-26; 13: 5).

By 'rites' we mean the outward forms which this service takes. Israelite ritual may be similar to the rituals of other religions, or even borrowed from them; but its important feature lies in the new meaning which these rites received, a meaning which was determined by the religious ideas of Israel's faith. Without trespassing into the domain of biblical theology, we must underline the characteristics of the Israelite cult, and see what distinguishes it from other Oriental cults, even when the rites are the same.

(1) The Israelites worshipped a God who was the only God. From the first settlement in Canaan almost to the end of the monarchy, this did not prevent them from worshipping in several sanctuaries, but it did mean that in all these sanctuaries the same God was adored, and that any worship offered to gods

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