Stories from a life in progress.

When worship looked like a party (literally)

In reading through the entire Bible, I’ve made it into 1 Samuel. It’s been a long time since I read this book through, definitely before starting seminary classes last summer, and so I can really tell what a difference my deeper understanding of culture in the ancient Near East makes to my understanding of the text. I can fill in some things that the writer didn’t spell out because they were obvious in his time, and those things make more sense of the narrative.

Here’s one example that I missed before. It shows up several times in this book. This is the beginning of 1 Samuel 16:

The LORD said to Samuel, "How long do you intend to mourn for Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with olive oil and go! I am sending you to Jesse in Bethlehem, for I have selected a king for myself from among his sons."

Samuel replied, "How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me!"

But the LORD said, "Take a heifer with you and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.' Then invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you should do. You will anoint for me the one I point out to you."

Samuel did what the LORD told him. When he arrived in Bethlehem, the elders of the city were afraid to meet him. They said, "Do you come in peace?"

He replied, "Yes, in peace. I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." So he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. (1 Samuel 16:1-5 NET)

As highlighted, the part I’m looking at right now is about sacrifice. The thing I never realized before is what a sacrifice really was, or what happened when one was held.

The basic sacrificial system is laid out in Leviticus 1 through 7. But all of this sacrifice business is so foreign to my culture, I don’t think a lot of people understand it very well. I certainly didn’t without learning about it in class.

Many Christians assume that sacrifices were mostly about atoning for sins, because that’s a strong message of the New Testament. That’s not exactly true. It’s not false, it’s just imprecise. Not every single sacrifice had to do with sins at all; some of them were simply about honoring God.

One such type of sacrifice, often called a “fellowship” or “peace” offering, was accompanied by a celebration. An animal was slaughtered, and part of it was burned as an offering to God -- but most of it was taken away by the offerer, who cooked it and threw a feast. That feast was not separate from the worship, it was the worship. It was part and parcel with the sacrifice. It was an important way the people honored God -- by acknowledging that he provided for them, and then enjoying what he gave.

So that’s what’s going on in 1 Samuel 16. To give Samuel cover from the reigning king while he goes to anoint the king’s successor, God instructs Samuel to take along a heifer and offer it as a sacrifice. That means, when he gets to Jesse’s town, he will slaughter the heifer, offer part of it to God by burning it up, and throw a feast with the rest. The elders of the town, and Jesse and his sons, are invited to the party.

A similar scene plays out in 1 Samuel 9, when Samuel anoints Saul himself for the kingship. Saul goes looking for Samuel about a different matter, but he finds the prophet on the way to celebrate a sacrifice, and Samuel invites him. If you read the entire story, it’s clearly describing a feast, but it calls the event a sacrifice -- because those two things were not separate.

Jumping back further, at the very beginning of 1 Samuel, understanding this idea of sacrifices as worship-celebrations explains something that happens in 1 Samuel 1. The woman Hannah goes to the sanctuary to pray. What she does looks fairly ordinary to a modern reader -- she prays silently, her lips moving, but not talking out loud.

The priest in attendance doesn’t think she’s praying; he assumes she’s drunk.

What? How does a priest not recognize prayer?

One of the things in play here, again, is that this was a time of festival. It was a set time of year when many people brought their sacrifices, offered the necessary part to God on the altar at his sanctuary, and then took the rest off to party. Some people let the partying get out of hand, and ended up drunk. That wasn’t the right way to worship God, but it happened anyway. So the priest was used to seeing drunken people around at festival time. Sadly, apparently, he was more used to seeing drunks than people at prayer, which is a topic for another day.

1 Samuel 1 never says the people were partying. It never specifies there was a celebration going on, in those words. What it says is, the people went to the sanctuary to “worship and sacrifice to the LORD.” It’s up to us to fill in the details -- that this “worship and sacrifice” entailed celebration. That sometimes, the people worshiped God by throwing a party.

This is exactly the kind of information I wanted to enroll in seminary for, to learn the pieces that help us make better sense of scripture. I hope this one, my kind readers, helps you fill in a few gaps too.