Scripture and Worship: Some Thoughts

Ponder with me a moment one of the less-read sections of the Scriptures, Exodus 28:

Exodus 28:1-43  Exodus 28:1 Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests– Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.  2 You shall make sacred vestments for the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron.  3 And you shall speak to all who have ability, whom I have endowed with skill, that they make Aaron’s vestments to consecrate him for my priesthood.  4 These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a checkered tunic, a turban, and a sash. When they make these sacred vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests,  5 they shall use gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen.  6 They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, skillfully worked.  7 It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together.  8 The decorated band on it shall be of the same workmanship and materials, of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.  9 You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel,  10 six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth.  11 As a gem-cutter engraves signets, so you shall engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel; you shall mount them in settings of gold filigree.  12 You shall set the two stones on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance.  13 You shall make settings of gold filigree,  14 and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.  15 You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work; you shall make it in the style of the ephod; of gold, of blue and purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen you shall make it.  16 It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width.  17 You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald shall be the first row;  18 and the second row a turquoise, a sapphire and a moonstone;  19 and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst;  20 and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper; they shall be set in gold filigree.  21 There shall be twelve stones with names corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes.  22 You shall make for the breastpiece chains of pure gold, twisted like cords;  23 and you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece.  24 You shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece;  25 the two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings, and so attach it in front to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod.  26 You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod.  27 You shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder-pieces of the ephod, at its joining above the decorated band of the ephod.  28 The breastpiece shall be bound by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a blue cord, so that it may lie on the decorated band of the ephod, and so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod.  29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a continual remembrance before the LORD.  30 In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the LORD continually.  31 You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue.  32 It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it may not be torn.  33 On its lower hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the lower hem, with bells of gold between them all around–  34 a golden bell and a pomegranate alternating all around the lower hem of the robe.  35 Aaron shall wear it when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the LORD, and when he comes out, so that he may not die.  36 You shall make a rosette of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the LORD.”  37 You shall fasten it on the turban with a blue cord; it shall be on the front of the turban.  38 It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take on himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering that the Israelites consecrate as their sacred donations; it shall always be on his forehead, in order that they may find favor before the LORD.  39 You shall make the checkered tunic of fine linen, and you shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a sash embroidered with needlework.  40 For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics and sashes and headdresses; you shall make them for their glorious adornment.  41 You shall put them on your brother Aaron, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests.  42 You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh; they shall reach from the hips to the thighs;  43 Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die. This shall be a perpetual ordinance for him and for his descendants after him.

Quick question: does this get-up strike anyone as being normal street-clothes of the time? That is, do you think your average Israelite guy would get up in the morning, go over to his closet and say to himself, “Hmmm. Which ephod should I wear today—the emerald or the sapphire one? Well, I do have that big meeting with the Moabites; better make it the emerald one…”

Two specific points to draw out:

  • The priestly status of Aaron and his sons are bound with wearing the clothing. (“…they make Aaron’s vestments to consecrate him for my priesthood…” and “You shall put [the vestments] on your brother Aaron, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests.”)
  • The survival of Aaron and his sons as they go about their service are bound with wearing the clothing. (“Aaron shall wear it when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the LORD, and when he comes out, so that he may not die.” and “Aaron and his sons shall wear them [unclear–does this refer to the last mentioned piece of clothing (the undergarments) or the whole outfit?] when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die. “

According to the biblical text, these aren’t just pretty clothes—this is safety gear to ensure that Aaron and his sons make it out of the presence of the Lord alive.

In the Hebrew Bible, worship is intimately related to encountering the holiness of God and its potentially lethal consequences. Not only can worshiping the wrong way (Numbers 16) or wearing the wrong clothes at worship (see above) get you killed, merely touching holy things even for a good purpose can get you killed too:

2 Samuel 6:6-7  When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it.  7 The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God.

The biblical text contains a strong sense of holiness as a tangible power—a potentially deadly power. As has been written here before, early medieval Christianity also nurtured a strong sense of holiness as tangible power no doubt drawn from these biblical texts.

What do we do with it? I think most often we dismiss these narratives and write them off as either 1) primitive perspectives reflecting a view of God we don’t believe in any more , or 2) manipulative texts written by a privileged group who use tales of divine punishment as a means of bolstering their own hegemony.

Are those the only two options? Should we expect more from our encounters with holiness?

7 Replies to “Scripture and Worship: Some Thoughts”

  1. May God deliver His priests from calloused hands and hearts when we serve at his altar, and when we bring the sacrifice of praise & thanksgiving.

  2. I look forward to more essays and comments on this subject. In my own tradition (Celtic Catholic) the combined Epiclesis, Words of Institution, and Anamnesis are begun and ended with three bows by the priest, praying, “Have mercy on me, O God” with each bow. The whole thing is called The Most Dangerous Prayer. When explaining this, I generally simply say that it is imperative that I not falter, stumble, or wander in my thoughts during this prayer. But the name means more than that. Obviously it is a remnant from a time when Christians took the perils of holiness more seriously than we do now. I’m all in favor of the Enlightenment, but it has made it so I simply can not really understand what is meant by calling this most holy set of words “Most Dangerous.” In my private meditations I try to understand it. I have not made much progress yet.

  3. In conversations about holiness, as of late, I keep thinking about Ephrem the Syrian and how in his Hymns of Paradise, he speculates that the forbidden fruit in the garden was only forbidden because Adam and Eve were not yet ready to eat it. One day, Adam and Eve would have been sufficiently prepared to eat it and it would no longer be forbidden. The fruit, of course, was not evil in itself and eating it was only devastating because they were not spiritually prepared.

    I’d like to think that all these niggling instructions in the Old Testament were for preparing the spiritually unprepared to handle things and interact with the Divine in such a way that it would not be destructive to them. Uzzah, who had the best of intentions, was struck down because those good intentions did not make up for preparation. In some ways, all of these instructions were so humanity could — if I may — “fake it until they made it”. One day, humanity would be able to waltz into the presence of God, but until that day, put your ephod on and go in under the cloud of smoke.

    I, too, struggle with the factual-ness of these stories, but I think the ring of spiritual preparation is still very true. In many ways, I couldn’t take Algebra II if I had not taken Algebra I, let alone elementary mathematics. I think that we are often reaching for the higher spiritual truths, without first realizing that we are, in actuality, still struggling with spiritual basics. Perhaps it is no wonder that some even self-destruct after a time period of reaching beyond for what they’re prepared for (I’m thinking specifically of the late Bishop James Pike). We shouldn’t reach for things we are not ready for, whether they be the fruit in the garden, to walk into the Holy Place or the Sacrament of the Altar. There will probably come a day when we can approach the Eucharist without fear and trembling, but until then, put on your vestments and keep your head down.

    But, in all of this, I think everybody’s favorite virginal recluse said it best, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—“.

  4. I am reminded of what the writer Annie Dillard said about worship – that the ushers should hand out crash helmets, rather than service leaflets! In our headlong rush to make God “accessible” (by which I think we mean to say “intimate”) we have often blundered into domesticating God with a semi-divine coziness. Somehow the concepts of God’s majesty and sovereignty and power have become invisible to much modern Christianity (unless we’re asking for our own prayers to be answered). That leads to the view that any sort of spiritual/liturgical preparation prior to coming close to God is somehow spiritually elitist – including the wearing of vestments. CS Lewis says something about that in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” – about Aslan being good, but not being a tame lion. We have equated God’s goodness with a lack of fierceness that (imho) impoverishes Christian faith.. It’s one of the reasons why I find so many of the early 20th century British hymns helpful (eg Hymnal 1982 #435, #665, #573).

    I read this text in Exodus as being prepared for service to the Lord who is the power and energy of the universe whom we can only faintly comprehend.

    Vicki McGrath+

  5. This is why I still find the vesting prayers such a powerful meditation to participate in prior to worship. I know that I am a sinful being, and the prayers help me recall that with each piece I put on, I am asking God to come to the forefront and help me step into the background.

  6. I wonder about the connection between OT passages like this and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5?

    In my younger Baptist days these scenes always played out like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now, in my (mildly) older Episcopalian days these scenes still play out like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

  7. Thanks for the provocative post, Derek. I think we (modern westerners) have an altogether domesticated image of God. It is not biblical and it is not consistent with the experience of the saints.

    Just this morning I came across these two passages in my daily devotions:

    “Before the unutterable goodness of God I am struck with amazement. . . .the supernatural struck me with amazement; it was terrifying and forced me to shrink back, The ineffable beauty of that which appeared to me wounded my heart and attracted me to infinite love.” – Symeon the New Theologian

    “I will fear you,
    God my Lord;
    who will help me
    when I stand before you
    And who will deliver me
    from your terrifying judgment?
    No one but yourself,
    The righteous God.”
    – Hildegarde of Bingen

    But I do not think holiness is just about fear of judgment. Beatrice, transfigured as she has been by her sharing in the glory of God as one among the blessed of heaven, withholds her smile from Dante lest the radiant beauty of it burn him to ashes before he is himself able to bear it.

    FWIW, I’ve posted something inspired by this post here:

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