The book of Deuteronomy’s discourse on worship is so focussed on the requirement of offering cultic service exclusively in the place that YHWH will choose for his name to dwell that it is easy to overlook the joyful character of worship itself. Strict limitation, after all, does not usually evoke notions of gladness.
Yet enmeshed in the long, complex sentences about the sacrificial cult comes—recurrently—the observation that the people are to rejoice in its moment:
And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you … And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you together with your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levites who reside in your towns (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you) … these you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God at the place that the LORD your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God in all your undertakings.
Cultic presentation and cultic feasting, in the view of this fifth book of Torah, are to be occasions for that lightness of heart that interrupts the wearying burden of ordinary cares as one seeks proximity to the Lord. Indeed, the precision with which Moses’ rhetoric in Deuteronomy guides the people away from the sexually charged cultic practices of ‘the nations’ and towards the centralized practice for which the book of Deuteronomy is rightly famous or notorious seems intended in part to safeguard the pristine purity of liturgical joy.
Not unexpectedly, the psalms take up this same topic of joyful proximity to YHWH, albeit somewhat divested of its cultic context. In the seventieth psalm, a poet so hard pressed that he is doomed unless YHWH quickens his pace and hurries to save him delivers himself of the literary dualism:
Let those be put to shame and confusion
who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who desire to hurt me.
Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!”
turn back because of their shame.
Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, “God is great!”
In a literature that so hardily acquaints itself with all that is dark, that does not avert its gaze from life’s deep and persistent sorrow, it is remarkable to discover that where YHWH is, there joy is to be found.
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