The annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature is a delightful opportunity for biblical scholars to get together and talk to each other in a language only they understand, for the most part — and sometimes not.

Sumerian votive worshipers, c. 2500-2700 BCEDuring last weekend’s meeting in Chicago, I heard lots of things I didn’t fully comprehend, but that’s one of the main reasons for going: to be stretched and exposed to new thoughts, some of which might even be useful. I heard a Jungian analysis of Jacob’s struggle with God at the Jabbok, for example (“Take me to the River: the Transcendent Function in Genesis 32”). I don’t know much about Jung’s understanding of transcendence, but I still learned something.

I heard John Dominic Crossan do an illustrated lecture on Medieval “anastasis” iconography featuring Christ emerging from the underworld after his resurrection with Adam and Eve in tow (usually accompanied by David and Solomon, John the Baptist, and a few others). I also heard papers with names like: “That divinely inspired text walks like a duck: theological exegesis and biblical origin,” “You will dip me in filth” (Job 9:31): Job’s subversion of the priestly purity system,” “The kindness of irony: a psychological look at irony in 2 Samuel 11,” and even “Adam as the Alpha Male: Christian Domestic Discipline and the erotics of wife spanking.”

You were tuning me out until the last one, right? But it was a serious topic of discussion.

You will note that, apparently, one key to a successful paper is to have a colon in the title.

I confess, however, that the highlight of the weekend for me came early Sunday afternoon when I skipped one of the sessions and caught a cab over to the University of Chicago, which is host to the Oriental Institute Museum, which has an amazing collection of antiquities from Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia, among other places.

Female worshipers at left from the Nintu temple at Khafajah; male worshipers at right from the Square temple of Abu at Tell AsmarThat’s where I found these delightful worshipers, and wondered how many pastors would like to have a congregation that looks like these ancient images.

In Mesopotamian temples — whether Sumerian, Babylonian, or Assyrian — the sanctuary was not designed as a place for any sort of congregation to gather for exhortation. Rather, in some respects like the Holy of Holies in Israel’s temple, it was designed as a habitation for one of the gods, represented by an elaborate image beautifully clothed. Each day, often twice a day, priests would bring in a table and lay out an elaborately prepared meal and sumptuous drinks fit for a king. Hidden by a linen curtain, the god was believed to “eat” the meal by some mystical absorption process. When the god was finished, the same meal was then carried to the king, who would consume it in a more normal way.

Copper alloy worshipers from Khafajah, 2900-2700 BCE. Note that one was cleaned after excavation.Priests were the only people allowed in the sanctuary, but those who truly worshiped the god, or who wanted to be remembered with favor by the divinity, could access the sanctuary through commissioning an artisan to fashion a votive statue of himself or herself. The priests (probably in return for a suitable donation) could then carry the statue into the sanctuary and place it on a low bench that often surrounded the rectangular room.

Thus ensconced, one’s image could stand in perpetual adoration of the god, while the living worshiper could hope that the daily reminder of his or her presence would lead to divine blessings.

So, if you really like playing golf or sleeping in or shopping on Sunday mornings, perhaps you could get someone to manufacture a nice statue of yourself in a properly prayerful pose, and have it placed in your favorite pew. Then God would honor your desire to offer worship, and richly bless you. Right?

Maybe not.

There are ways in which we can support our church without being there. We can put a pledge card on file and send our offerings; we can offer prayers and email the pastor or staff with words of encouragement — but we can’t worship by proxy. We have to be there.

Preachers sometimes accuse their congregations of being unusually “dead” on a particularly lackluster Sunday, but at least they’re there, living and breathing and making the effort to put themselves in position to worship God and hear a word of encouragement and hope.

That has to be worth something.

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