Liturgy and Biblical Interpretation
The Sanctus and the Qedushah
- ISBN: 9780268200015
- Published By: University of Notre Dame Press
- Published: January 2021
What Sebastian Selvén attempts to do in Liturgy and Biblical Interpretation: The Sanctus and the Qedushah is ambitious. He focuses on the use of Isaiah 6 in the liturgy in not one but two traditions—Jewish and Christian (not to mention the various traditions within Christianity he examines, including medieval Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism). Because Isaiah 6 has been used in Jewish and Christian liturgies (i.e., in the Qedushot and in the Sanctus), Jewish and Christian worshippers come to the text with liturgically informed understandings of it, some of which may not be obvious from the biblical text itself. To make this argument, Selvén highlights three aspects of the text as they are understood in liturgical traditions—the identity of the seraphim as angels, the function of Isaiah 6, and the locus of divine presence. These are discussed, respectively, in chapters 1, 2, and 3, which together make up the entire book.
In the introduction, Selvén asserts that, by selecting a biblical text for use in its prayers or worship acts, the liturgy shapes the way we come to interpret that particular biblical text. In this sense, worship becomes "an instantiation of biblical interpretation" (1). Moreover, as Selvén rightly points out, the words of the liturgy, as performative language, do not describe a theological idea or a doctrine, but rather enact it (9). Treating the Bible as mere texts and ignoring its liturgical dimension is analogous to reducing a play to its script (8). Thus, it is unfortunate that the liturgy has continually been neglected in biblical studies.
In chapter 1, Selvén notes that biblical scholars tend to draw a distinction between “seraphim” in Isaiah 6 and “seraphim” elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, such as in Numbers 21, where the same root denotes poisonous snakes that attack humans (30). This, in Selvén's argument, is because of subsequent liturgical interpretations. In the Jewish Qedushah deAmidah, for example, Isaiah 6 is combined with Ezek 3:12, and as the texts are read, the congregation stands with straightened legs and turns their heads from side to side in imitation of the angelic creatures (34). According to Selvén, in medieval Christianity, because of Dionysian angelology and the ubiquity of angelic imagery in churches, worshippers readily understand the seraphim in Isaiah as angels and not as serpentine creatures.
In chapter 2, Selvén considers how Isaiah 6 comes to be understood as a text that reveals the heavenly liturgy, or a call to join the angels in celestial worship, or a text about the Trinity, or even an exhortation to confess sins in the face of holiness. Depending on how we understand its function, different elements of Isaiah 6 are highlighted. For example, if it is seen as a text about confession, then the prophet's regret at his own uncleanness in Isaiah 6:5 comes to the fore (66). In chapter 3, Selvén looks at the ways in which Isaiah 6 complicates the portrait of divine presence in Jewish and Christian traditions. Isaiah 6 describes a God who sits on a throne, whose hem fills the Temple, and whose glory fills the whole earth. The location is ambiguous. In the Jewish tradition, the divine presence is deliberately mystified here (93-94). In some Christian traditions, when the Sanctus is placed in the context of the eucharistic liturgy, it says something about the presence of Christ in the sacrament (97, 99-100). Some post-Reformation Christian traditions, however, after rejecting the doctrine of the real presence, change the status of the Sanctus in their liturgies, thus making a theological point about Christ's absence in the eucharist (112-115).
The main strength of Selvén's work is that it shows how much the liturgy, which involves the worshippers in both speech and act, influences biblical interpretation. Indeed, it is difficult for those in liturgical traditions to see Isaiah 6 without any liturgical "lens" (127). The Bible is a liturgical book (3), and as such, the interface between liturgy and biblical interpretation must be explored. Thus, Selvén has made a worthwhile contribution to the fields of biblical, reception, and liturgical studies. However, some criticisms can be raised. The first concerns his choices of materials. By dealing with the Sanctus in medieval Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism (often shifting between them), Selvén's treatment of Christian liturgy lacks focus. Relatedly, there is a mismatch in content when he looks at the Qedushah (of Second Temple and rabbinic roots but also "omnipresent in modern Jewish liturgy" [10, emphasis added]) and the Sanctus in Christian traditions from the medieval or the Reformation periods. It is still not clear to me why it is better to start with medieval Christianity, rather than a liturgical tradition that would be more familiar to many modern readers, especially since the Sanctus is still used in a number of Christian traditions today.
Second, his treatment of Christian traditions takes a few leaps, often without at least acknowledging some relevant history of developments. To give just one example, in chapter 1, he looks at the dominance of Dionysius' angelology as well as the prevalence of angels in ecclesial art. Medieval Christians, thusly influenced, imagined the seraphim of Isaiah 6 to be androgynous angels with wings, even though Isaiah 6 itself barely tells us anything about what the seraphim look like (43). This jump from Isaiah to Dionysius and medieval churches (though understandable for such a short study) ignores other important reasons why Christians see the seraphim in Isaiah 6 as angels. Since the early Church, Christians have come to this conclusion after reading Isaiah 6 in light of other biblical intertexts about angels, including New Testament passages (such as Tertullian in On Prayer, 3). Visual cues from medieval churches may be important, and I am not denying that Selvén has a point here, but biblical/canonical cues seem to provide the most direct explanation as to why the seraphim came to be seen as angels, and this should have been acknowledged.
Still, despite these criticisms, Selvén has written an important work upon which future scholars of the Bible and liturgy can further build.
Tyng-Guang Chu is a PhD student studying Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Duke University.Tyng-Guang ChuDate Of Review:October 15, 2022