The Crisis of Worship

Nestor Ravilas

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offering.” The Lord utters those vitriolic words through prophet Hosea.

Any serious reader of the Old Testament, especially of the prophetic literatures, will not miss the apparent tension between the prophets and the temple people. Fraught with deriding comments against temple activities one would prompt to ask, “Did the prophet hate the temple rituals?” If yes, why? What caused their irritation for temple people and their activities that prophets never had to mince word on their criticism?

The prophets are actually annoying bunch, they are sort of irascible people. They have not only flexed their muscle against the temple, they pestered even the monarchy. A kind of personality that explained well their sudden disappearance in the modern days leaving no trace, while the monarchy and the temple surprisingly perpetuated and evolved in the forms of government and church.

Prophets and temple priests are actually contemporaries. They emerged in the period where the world was demystified by pushing the divine outside, in the ethereal sphere away from human reach. But the world cannot totally divorced from the one who created it. It must be somehow remained attached to its source. This needs for connection is the essence of the giving of the Torah. The new dispensation was introduced. The link between humans and the divine is now mediated with rational promulgation of codes and legislation, and everyone is subject to these laws, including the kings.

Therefore, the exiled God is present on earth when the Torah is observed and practiced.

The temple priests however have another way of coping with the problem of a distant God. Like the prophets, they wanted to reach outside and convince God to return and live again among humans as in the primeval history. They turned to rituals and sacrifices to achieve this. Jonathan Klawans mentioned two organizing principles behind the practice of sacrifice by the Israelites. Working with those offered rationale for the practice of killing and burning animals as sacrifice, Klawans’ second principle says that the purpose of the sacrifice is to “invite and lure God to come and stay in the tabernacle,” or in the whole land for that matter.

Against the common conception, sacrifices were exercised not only to atone for sins. Rather, the ritual has its own productive effect, to invite God to visit them. And the regularity and frequency of sacrifice is to ensure that God will not only pay visit, but hoping Her presence will stay.

It is these two ways of filling the void created by the absentee God that the prophets and the temple collided. For the prophets, as long as justice and righteousness, which are the foundation of the Torah, roll in the land, the presence of the Lord is with them. For the temple, as long as smoke of burnt offerings emits in the air and all the people see it, the Lord’s presence is with them.

The tension occurs when the smoke keeps on wafting the air but outside the temple there are massive killing, pillaging, oppression, and other odious violation of the Torah. In the priestly tradition itself, shedding of blood, sexual sins and idolatry are grievous sins that could cause the departure of the presence of the Lord from the land. It is tempting at times to ignore the offended God to keep the business going. They kept burning meat, therefore, despite of blatant infringement of the laws. As long as there is smoke filling the air, and the smell of burning meat wafting the whole land, it would give the people the impression, or an illusion rather, that God’s presence is with them. Who cares for stinking blood outside when the Lord was lured to come and consumed the offerings?

In the midst of the festivity, of singing, dancing and crackling of musical instruments, the single voice of the annoying prophet calling out saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream’’ (Amos 5:21-24). As for the prophet, the Lord’s presence has already gone, but the theatrical and production illusion created by the soothing sounds, dancing lights, and jubilation cajoled them to live in spiritual pretension.

Every Sunday I received hundreds of notification in my Facebook account of pictures of modern day sacrifices. Large and small groups, from mega to house churches, singing at the top of their voice and stretching out their hands as offering or worship to God. For them, God is not distant; their offering and worshiping was received and they were visited and touched in return by the divine. With such glorifying picture not a single hunch will make you think the God has abandoned this nation. Such rituals are done regularly and frequently, and in almost all places. Which amount to the thought that God has not only visited us, but She stays with us.

Outside, the land is filled with blood of thirty thousand killed in the war against the poor of this government. So much blood shed that even the gallant King David has not able to elude and was eventually punished for such profuse letting of blood. Sex perversion was normalized and turned into mere jokes and received with adulation by the admiring people. Idolatry is pervasive as the people execute the fist-bump salute to pay homage to the idol now sitting in the throne. Murder, sexual sin, and idolatry, all three sins the Lord detest in priestly tradition permeate the land.

Unfortunately, we don’t have prophets among us now to shatter the illusion. What we have is the incessant emission of the smoke of worship, of singing and dancing and stretching of hands every Sunday, including other appointed days, that wheedle us to believe that the presence of the Lord is with us, and here to stay with us!