I heard an interesting lecture today by a scholar named Michael Swartz. He was talking about fifth century piyyutim, which are Jewish liturgical poems. The title of his lecture was “From Prayer to Sacrifice: Rethinking the History of Jewish Ritual in Late Antiquity.” He was trying to challenge the popular scholarly idea that Judaism emphasized prayer as a replacement for the temple service, including animal sacrifices. Rather, he argued that the piyyutim were attempts to recreate the Yom Kippur temple ritual for congregants through elaborate (and sometimes exaggerated) descriptions of the priest and the service. Swartz also contended that the poems were considered to be actual sacrifices, not mere substitutes.
Consequently, according to Swartz, the composers of the piyyutim (who may have been priests) saw their work as the preparation of a sacrifice, for they offered their time, talent, and energy to fashion for God the perfect poem, which was to be as flawless as an animal sacrifice without blemish. An argument that Swartz used for his position was the content of the Mishnah, which devotes entire sections to temple ritual. Indeed, this is strange, since the Mishnah dates after the temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. Swartz’s argument seems to be (if I understood it correctly) that post-70 Judaism aimed to recreate the temple service, not replace it with something else.
This lecture coincided rather well with my daily quiet time. I am on Ezekiel 40, which is about the new temple. In v 44, there is a reference to the chambers of singers. I was reminded that music plays an important role in the worship of God. Indeed, the attempt to associate praise or prayer with sacrifice predates rabbinic times, for we see it even in the Bible. Hosea 14:2 talks about offering the calves of our lips. Jeremiah 33:11 mentions bringing a sacrifice of praise, a motif that also appears in Hebrews 13:15. So the song “We bring a sacrifice to praise into the house of the Lord” has biblical roots.
Why does God like music? Does he have aesthetic sensitivity? Perhaps, but I don’t think that he is interested so much in hearing a concert of quality music. After all, he commands everyone to sing praises, and that includes people like me who can’t carry a tune. But I won’t rule out that music adds a majestic or joyful element to worship, as it appeals to our aesthetic sensitivities.
One thing that Michael Swartz was apparently struggling to explain was how composing or singing a piyyut could be a sacrifice. I could be wrong, but I got the impression that he was trying to show that a piyyut took effort. But I don’t see the animal sacrifices as that much of a sacrifice, in the sense that they severely cost the offerer in resources. Many sacrifices were voluntary, and people could keep the vast majority of their animals for their own use. Sacrifices were gifts to God. They were attempts to invoke God’s presence and to make him happy. They were opportunities to honor the Lord through giving.
So that is how I see music. When I sing praises, I am giving to God and making him happy. Most of us like to be praised, but God does not want adoration out of ego. Psalm 50 says that God does not need animal sacrifices because he already owns all animals, so I believe that his desire for praise does not reflect a deficiency or insecurity on his part. Rather, we become better when we praise and honor a being who is better than ourselves. Otherwise, we make the imperfect (ourselves, other people, objects) into an idol, and the result is disastrous. But don’t get me wrong. God’s command for us to praise him is not only to help us out. It is a sin for us not to praise God, since that is a path to moral degeneration. But, going further on this point, God does not want to be worshipped so that we can live moral lives, as if God is a means to an end. He wants to be acknowledged as supreme because he truly is supreme.
But what if a person doesn’t love God? Can God command a person to praise him, when he or she really does not have a desire for God? How can God tell someone to love him? I struggle with this issue. Maybe God wants us to start where we are. Whether or not I appreciate God’s every attribute, I can still confess that I have much for which I can be thankful. A good start is to thank God for the people and things he has given us to enjoy: nature, good food, friends, etc. Hopefully, we can then get to the point where we appreciate God’s goodness, majesty, power, justice, etc.
But doesn’t the sacrifice have to be perfect? I suppose so, yet I do not know what perfection is, and I would hardly call my prayers or praise times “perfect.” My mind can easily wander, and my motivations are not always pure. I think that it is important to recognize God’s majesty, and that was what the laws about perfect sacrifices were designed to impress upon worshippers. Moreover, since Christ is the perfect sacrifice, perhaps his atonement makes our imperfect acts of worship acceptable before God. After all, Romans 8:26 acknowledges that we do not pray as we ought, yet the Holy Spirit still intercedes on our behalf.