~ Saturday, May 17, 2008 ~
To whom do Jews bow?
Lately I've been spending what some might call too much time reading LDS blogs. I find something validating about seeing people who grew up in the culture struggling openly and intelligently with the same issues that The Saint and I butt heads over--issues like who or what has final authority and how that authority is conferred, the social and moral implications tied to a person's gender, which laws are eternal and which have expiration dates, the nature of God, how a religion ought to be run, and the like. It gives me hope to know that not everyone in The Church defends those aspects that I find troubling; rather, that some are more likely to say, "Yeah, that's a problem, and I'm trying to figure out what to do about it, and here's something I've come up with."
Anyway, Mr. Nielson at Mormon Matters has a post about what Bruce R. McConkie believed regarding whether Mormons worship Jesus, and in it he refers to a verse in 1 Chronicles that (he suggests) can be used wrongly to conclude that King David's subjects worshiped their king rather than worshiping God alone. He calls this improper interpretation an example of word-offense, and he wants to be sure that it's avoided in interpreting McConkie's words too:
Now through word-offense, it might be easier and more fun to attack McConkie and simplify his full nuanced beliefs into something he never taught, but let’s keep in mind that, thanks to the Bible, this can be done to any Old Testament-believing religion:
1 Chr 29:20 states: "And David said to all the congregation, Now bless the Lord your God. And all the congregation blessed the Lord God of their fathers, and bowed down their heads, and worshiped the Lord, and the king." Through word-offense, I can now make the claim that all Bible-believing Christians and all Jews believe that King David was a god and that he is to be worshiped. And thanks to the single use of the word “worship” for both King David and God, I can wreak some real havoc against any counter arguments about how they are worshiped in different senses of the word. That raised my eyebrows. David's subjects, worshiping a person? So much is made, at least in Jewish Sunday schools around March, of how Jews should emulate Mordechai by bowing down to no one but God, that I thought surely there must be some mistake. So armed with my own triple combination of Lambdin, Jastrow, and Shilo, I went to check the Hebrew version of 1 Chron. 29:20.
There are two verbs that describe what the people are doing in 1 Chron. 29:20. First it says “vayikdu”, and then “vayishtakhavu”. In the KJV rendering of this verse, as we saw, these words are translated as “bowed down their heads” (a near-exact translation) and “worshiped” (not so much) respectively. Vayikdu comes from the root kuf-dalet-dalet, meaning “to bow”, and vayishtakhavu comes from the root shin-khet-hey, meaning “to bow low. So first the people are bowing a little bit, and then they’re bowing lower. Or perhaps some are bowing a little and others are bowing a lot depending on whether they are there just to show their support or whether they are crazy Solomon fans. Anyway, there's a mix.
Compare KJV with MAV
KJV: They...bowed down their heads, and worshiped the Lord, and the king.
MAV: They bowed and prostrated themselves before God and before the king.
Not too different, but the word "worshiped" in the KJV can be more exactly rendered as "prostrated themselves". Its a form of worship, sure, but in this case the distinction matters.
The other thing I found is that in this passage, David seems to be passing the kingship from himself to his son Solomon, so if any human is receiving worship here, it’s likely Solomon, and not David. Two verses later, we read,
…they again king-ified Solomon-ben-David, and they anointed him before God… (MAV)
So now we've got a better picture of why the Jews are apparently falling down and worshiping another person. David and Solomon seem to have been worried about whether the people would take kindly to the transfer of rulership, David having been so successful and Solomon being as young and inexperienced as he was (see 1 Chron. 29:1), but not only was this potential period of conflict avoided; the people went and overcompensated, as if to reassure father and son that everything was cool with them. So maybe we can forgive them for prostrating themselves before Solomon, if it was all a big social display done for the sake of banishing the king's fears of civil unrest? But still, it makes me kinda uncomfortable to see the people express their devotion to a person through bowing. Couldn't they have jumped about or shouted a three-syllable chant instead?
I checked for where else in Tanakh we hear about Jews bowing down, expecting it to be something only done before God, and maybe this is a sign of my not knowing Tanakh very well, but it turns out that Jews in Tanakh bow down to one another pretty often. Apparently, neither one of these bowing verbs implies an action that is only done in front of God. It’s God to whom Jews bow the most, but bowing is also used as a sign of love and reverence between people. All the appearances in Tanakh of the first verb, the less extreme type of bowing: kuf-dalet-dalet
All the appearances of the second verb, the deeper bow: shin-khet-hey
(I really like online concordances.)
So while there are plenty of places where the bower is bowing to God, there are also many places where the bower is bowing to another person. Some of the most telling examples:
Gen 23:7, 12 Abraham bows to the descendants of Khet when they give him permission to bury Sarah in a prime location on their land.
Gen 33:3 Jacob bows down seven times to Esau during their reconciliation scene. Jacob’s household follows suit. Esau asks why, and Jacob explains that he is trying to find favor in Esau’s eyes.
Gen 48:12 In Egypt, after his big reveal, Joseph bows to his father Jacob in response to Jacob saying he never expected to see Joseph alive, much less with sons of his own.
Ex 18:7 Moses greets Jethro, his father-in-law, with a low bow.
1 Samuel 20:41, David, who has been in hiding from Saul, greets his beloved Jonathan with three low bows and many more tears. So whatever this bowing means, it doesn’t seem to necessarily indicate the sort of worship that is reserved for God. It can be used as a way of worshiping God, but it isn’t always.
What, then, do we make of Mordechai's refusal to bow to Haman in Esther 3:2-5? He seems to be saying it's against his religion to bow to anyone but God, and while it's true that it's against his religion to worship any other god, e.g. Ba'al or Asherah, assuming he wasn't ignorant of his own history, he knew there was a precedent for Jews bowing to other people. Was he just fudging the truth to piss Haman off? It sure looks like it, but I don't think we're forced into that interpretation. Perhaps the social language had changed by then, and bowing to people had fallen out of fashion to such an extent that it had taken on an implication that the object of obeisance was divine. Or perhaps Mordechai just meant it was against his religion to bow down insincerely, and he'd be darned if he was going to make a show of reverence and love to a self-absorbed peacock like Haman.I have to say, I'm sort of charmed by the idea of bowing way down to express love and devotion, especially between people who are social equals but who've been away from each other too long. Maybe we can start a trend, you and me.
~ prattled by Miriam at 6:38 p.m. [+]
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