Worship as God’s Discomforting Eden

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought1 Comment

Eden, Texas…NOT the real EdenOne of the things that you’ll find in Robbie Castleman’s Story-Shaped Worshipwhich you will read in few other worship books these days, is a more robust way of looking at the Bible and its theology of worship.  You especially don’t hear this kind of reflection on the Old Testament happening very often among New Testament Christians.

Eden as a House of Worship

Taking her cues from Peter Leithart,* Castleman encourages us to recognize how God’s design and ordering of the tabernacle (see Exodus 25-40) was meant to cause Israel to remember Eden. The tabernacle is an artistic replication of the first garden.**  It seems that Moses himself (the author of the Pentateuch) was aware of this because of the way he described the creation account.  In a rather technical essay, Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham outlines eight ways in which Moses’ account of the Garden of Eden was being described to its readers as an “archetypal sanctuary”:***

  1. “Walk to and fro” (Gen 3:8) verbally hints at the same terminology used to describe the divine presence in the later tent sanctuaries (Lev 26:12, Deut 23:15, 2 Sam 7:6-7).
  2. The “Cherubim” guardians of the garden (Gen 3:24) mirror the traditional ancient Near Eastern view that such beings were guardians of holy places and sanctuaries (e.g. 1 Kings 6:23-28).
  3. The tree of life: the tabernacle menorah was a stylized tree, and a basic principal of sacrificial law is that fulness of life is to be found in the sanctuary
  4. Adam’s job to “till” and “keep” (Gen 2:15) the garden are very specific liturgical words used to describe Levitical priestly duties later (Num 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6)
  5. God’s “clothing with tunics” of Adam (3:21) is the language used of priestly ordination (Ex 28:41; 29:8; 40:14; Lev 8:13).
  6. The garden’s water has many links with later sanctuary design (e.g. the rivers of Eden akin to sanctuary “water,” which is often a liturgical symbol of life)
  7. The “good gold” (Gen 2:12) looks to tabernacle furnishings which were made of “pure gold.”
  8. The tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:9) is described (Gen 3:6) with strikingly similar language to how the Law is described in Psalm 19:8-9, which was kept in the holy of holies.

What Does This Mean for Us?

The upshot of all of this for worshipers, pastors, and worship leaders is that the Bible encourages us to view our worship services as pregnant with cosmic meaning.  In other words, the event of worship catches us up into a kind of timelessness that should cause us to look both backward and forward.  God wanted the tabernacle to point to Eden precisely so His people would long for its restoration once again.  Good worship causes the people of God to long for the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21)–the newer and greater Eden, brought forth from a newer and greater Adam.  To put it in more technical theological language, worship is an “eschatological event” (everyone should read Jean-Jacques von Allmen [esp. chap 3] on all of this, too).  

Worship should be simultaneously fulfilling and dissatisfying.  People should leave a worship service feeling unburdened by the gospel of Jesus Christ, yet parched with unquenchable thirst for the consummation of all things. Christians should exit worship shouting, “Jesus came!” AND groaning, “Come, Lord Jesus!”  “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12, ESV).

One more quick thought. What if our little worship skirmishes in our churches (song selection, what kind of liturgy, instrumentation, loudness, etc.) are not not only petty manifestations of our idolatry but evidence of worship’s inherently dissatisfactory nature? What if we became more comfortable with the fact that worship is discomforting? What if we recognized that we should end a service feeling a little unsettled and not quite right? Perhaps that simple thought would allow us to inject a little more grace into our post-service “evaluations” and conversations about how “good worship was today.”  

*Peter Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2000). 
**Robbie Castleman, Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), 68-69.
***Gordon J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,” in I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Gen 1-11, ed. Richard Hess and David Toshio Tsumura (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 400-403.

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