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Shrines and Psalms

December 21, 2008

Noth writes in The History of Israel that “In all probability the divine throne of the sacred Ark formed the center of worship”. He continues

It appears that, according to several traditions preserved in the Old Testament, the undoubtedly very ancient tree shrine east of the city of Shechem in the middle of the mountains west of the Jordan was the center of worship of the tribes of Israel; and that seems to have been the earliest state of affairs which it is still possible to discern.

He goes on to say

There is everything to be said for assuming that, even after the center of worship of the tribal association had been transferred to other shrines, the old ceremony still continued to be observed near Shechem…It follows that the shrine near Shechem was probably once the amphictyonic center of the Israelite association of tribes; and that appears to be the earliest state of affairs it is possible to discern with any certainty.

Noth then proceeds to trace the Ark’s movement from Shechem to Bethel to Gilgal and finally to Shiloh. This movement was supported by Kraus who writes in Worship in Israel

The ‘Ark stories’ in 1 and 2 Samuel make it quite plain that at the close of the period of the judges Shiloh was the central Israelite sanctuary. ‘Yahweh’s throne’ was situated in a temple (1 Sam. iii.3), and if we go back to still earlier stages in the cultic history of the tribal confederacy we find Gilgal (Joshua iii-v) and Bethel (Judges xx. 26 f.) as Israel’s ‘chosen cultic centres’. When we find Shechem also mentioned as a station of the Ark in Joshua viii. 33, this statement is no doubt to be attributed to a later interpolation, but at the same time it embodies something that has to be assumed in the earliest history of the ancient Israelite amphictyony, indeed in its very beginnings: that Shechem was the first central sanctuary of the tribal confederacy (Joshua xxiv). The stations of the Ark can therefore be clearly set out: Shechem – Bethel – Gilgal – Shiloh – Jerusalem….We know today that the Israelite tribal confederacy possessed right from the beginning the institution of a central sanctuary as the basis of its cultic life.

Noth writes that

In Israel the central shrine no more excluded the use of other shrines than it did in other tribal associations; at these other shrines local communities and the clans which compromised them practiced their local cults; and further, it was perhaps here that the individual tribes met on their own account and traditional bands of pilgrims came together. But for Israel as a whole only the worship at the central shrine was official, and it was here alone that the basic community of Israel was expressed in worship. The central shrine became a place of worship of particular significance for Israel; and the trend towards an even more far-reaching centralization of religious observances, which was to play such an important part later on, existed in Israel from the very beginning.

F. M. Cross writes in From Epic to Canon

At all events early Israel’s epic cycle seems to have been at home in a number of sanctuaries in the land, and in addition in an old sanctuary in the south. The Ark of Yahweh moved from shrine to shrine, especially in times of Holy War. The league that celebrated the epic events and confirmed its bonds in the pilgrim festivals had no single, central sanctuary. This, of course, is the plain testimony of the tradition that informs the first of Nathan’s oracles in 2 Samuel 7:5-7…. Practice in early Israel ran counter to the so-called amphictyonic institutions of Greece with their focus on a central sanctuary. In Israel in the time of the league there was no single, fixed league sanctuary. Looked at from another perspective, many shrines served as league sanctuaries in the time of the great pilgrim festivals. It may have been that the Ark of the Covenant moved around in its impermanent tent from season to season and by its presence designated a given cultus as the focus of the league. Certainly this was the case in time of war.

If all of the above is correct, to what extent is it possible to link individual psalms with specific shrines? Well it is certainly possible for some psalms, so F. M. Cross has noted that

Cultic materials in Joshua 3-5 stemming from the shrine at Gilgal recapitulate the crossing of the sea, the setting up of twelve massebot at Sinai, in a spring festival. The ‘march to the sanctuary’ symbolizes both the crossing of the sea and the march to the desert mount, the crossing of Jordan, and the march of the conquest of the land.

Upon which H-J Kraus writes

The presence of the Ark as the central shrine of the tribal confederacy and also the emphatic reference to the ‘twelve’ stones in the Jordan and at Gilgal show that this cultic event must have been a very significant act of worship of the Yahweh amphictyony. There is a remarkable echo of the cultic rehersal of the miraculous exodus from Egypt at the Jordan in Ps. cxiv…. This cultic hymn mentions ’sea’ and ‘Jordan’ in direct connection with one another. This combination is so unusual that we can assume that the Psalmist is basing his hymn on the cultic tradition of Gilgal.

Have you found any other links between specific shrines and the psalms?

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