Some of the Psalms could have been sung at the dinner table, while working, or on a journey. If there was a system of prayer and devotion in the home, we don’t know about it. The literature that was passed down is associated with the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was by far the best place to address God (praise, requests, thanks) and celebrate being God’s people. Although local shrines existed early in Israel’s history, the main teaching is that there is only one legitimate Temple, and that is the Temple in Jerusalem. If you did not live our website in Jerusalem, this meant a journey.
Given a particular need, an individual or family could travel to Jerusalem at any time. The main emphasis was on pilgrimage festivals , when the whole nation was supposed to gather in Jerusalem for a week at a time. These festivals were originally agricultural, celebrating the three major harvests in the early spring, late spring, and fall. The festivals would have been fun. The Israelites gathered from all over, saw extended family, sang, and danced. They brought offerings to God of meat, fruits, and vegetables. Fortunately, God only took a little and the people shared most of it. Sharing was an emphasis.
Today, Judaism celebrates the festivals in the home. Since 70 CE there has not been a Temple in Jerusalem at which to hold the festival. Catholicism has a concept of pilgrimage journeys to holy sites (often with more emphasis on the journey than the destination), but there is no requirement or a particular time or place to make a pilgrimage. The practice of pilgrimage continues most in Islam. The Arabic word haj is a variation on the Hebrew word for pilgrimage festival, hag . Muslims who are able are expected to journey to Mecca (the city in modern Saudi Arabia where Mohammed began to prophesy) at least once in their lifetimes.
The Israelites conceived of their God as an ethical God who expected ethical behavior from God’s people. The concept of an ethical God is enduring, but the specific standards of ethical behavior have changed over the millennia. Christians today are often disappointed when they read the Old Testament, particularly if they are expecting ethical guidance. In some cases the ideals seem impossible, and in other cases they seem barbaric by today’s standards. The Hebrew Bible can also be surprising in the way it mixes together practical laws for an impartial judicial system, with ideals that could never be enforced, such as “love God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The ideals for economic justice laid out in the Hebrew Bible may never have been fully followed. It was forbidden to charge interest on loans to fellow Israelites or to deny loan requests. Debts were to be automatically cancelled every seven years. That kind of financial plan will not get you too far in the business school, but the Israelites proposed a super-natural financial system, one in which God guarantees prosperity, particularly for those who share their prosperity. The goal was clear, “There shall be no needy among you-since the LORD your God will bless you in the land.” Deuteronomy 15:4
On several matters the Israelites were perhaps better than their ancient neighbors, but still hard to accept as ethical by our standards. It was a fundamentally patriarchal society. At least as far as the law was concerned, women were the property of the men who controlled them (father, then husband). Their rights were limited and could be overruled by men. They were excluded from religious authority and many of the major religious practices (at least the ones we know about from the Bible, perhaps they had others of their own). There are many double standards in which the expectations for women are different from those of men. In fact, the entire Bible is written from a fundamentally male perspective. There is much that is not acceptable today, but it is still possible for feminist Jews and Christians to read past these problems to find inspirational and positive messages for women. In particular, if we compare the biblical laws to the cultural context in which they were written, they are actually pretty progressive for their day, and seek to protect womenpared to a society in which men can do whatever they want, the biblical restrictions on sexual relationships benefitted Israelite women.