Blast From the Past for Rosh Hashanah 2008 and the Shofar: Blowing Your Own Horn

I originally posted this 21 October 2005.  It’s appropriate with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur upon us, and it speaks for itself.

Everybody likes to blow their own horn whether they admit it or not. Politicians certainly do, especially if they can do it at taxpayers’ expense (this is at the core of the advantage incumbents have.) It was this way in New Testament times: Our Lord commanded us as follows: “When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honoured by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” (Matt 6:2 NAS) He wouldn’t have made this commandment if it were not a problem.

The horn blowing we’re considering today, however, is the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn that was used in ancient Israel and still finds its place in the synagogue. It’s gritty, primitive sound has found its way into Christian worship in many churches. Today we’re told that, when the shofar is sounded, there is a special sweeping of the presence of God which results in praise and worship. We are also told that this is Biblical.

Shofars have cropped up everywhere. At the beginning of this millennium I found myself working for a ministry which had a booth at a major ministry conference. We were right around the corner from the shofar salesman. We spent the entire week listening to one demonstration after another. This will drain the spirituality out of any event. But it got me thinking: is what people really say about this instrument true?

The biggest problem in associating the shofar primarily with worship is that the trumpets actually used in tabernacle and temple worship in the Old Testament were metal:


The LORD spoke further to Moses, saying, “Make yourself two trumpets (Heb. chatsotserah) of silver, of hammered work you shall make them; and you shall use them for summoning the congregation and for having the camps set out. And when both are blown, all the congregation shall gather themselves to you at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Yet if only one is blown, then the leaders, the heads of the divisions of Israel, shall assemble before you. But when you blow an alarm, the camps that are pitched on the east side shall set out. And when you blow an alarm the second time, the camps that are pitched on the south side shall set out; an alarm is to be blown for them to set out. When convening the assembly, however, you shall blow without sounding an alarm. (Num 10:1-7 NAS)

It is interesting to note that the trumpet wasn’t used here for worship; it was used as a signalling device for the movement of the camp and for summoning of the congregation.

But let’s look at the shofar itself. The word appears 72 times in the Old Testament, and the use of the ram’s horn can be broken down as follows:

  • Military application. The shofar was used as an instrument of war. Ancient armies used horns as signalling devices, using different note and rhythm sequences to give different orders in battle to different portions of the front. Proper blowing of the horn was critical in sending orders to the troops in battle: “For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” (1 Cor 14:8 NAS) The shofar, with its distinctive sound and long throw, was ideal, especially since there was an abundant supply of them growing out of the rams’ heads. An example of this was in the siege of Jericho: “Also seven priests shall carry seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark; then on the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets.” (Josh 6:4 NAS) Although many look at this as a praise and worship session, the reality is that the siege of Jericho was first and foremost a military operation which was ended by divine intervention, probably an earthquake. It could also signal a retreat or cessation of hostilities: “Then Joab blew the trumpet, and the people returned from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained the people.” (2 Sam 18:16-17 NAS) Gideon used them in a military setting to unnerve (successfully, again with divine intervention) the Midianites: “And when they blew 300 trumpets, the LORD set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled as far as Beth-pooptah toward Zererah, as far as the edge of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath.” (Judg 7:22-23 NAS)

It should be noted that using trumpets, bugles and the like (not necessarily shofars) survived in military usage through the American Civil War, and are in many ways the basis for modern military bands. A use of a ram’s horn that many of you have seen took place at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Boromir blew his shofar for the last time.

  • Announcements: They were used to announce a new king: “Then they hurried and each man took his garment and placed it under him on the bare steps, and blew the trumpet, saying, ‘Jehu is king!’” (2 Kings 9:13 NAS) It also announced the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem: “So David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouting and the sound of the trumpet.” (2 Sam 6:15 NAS)
  • Alarms: A blast of the shofar in a city frequently indicated impending attack or other disaster: “If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?” (Amos 3:6 NAS)
  • Call to penance: It was used as a call to community penance: “Blow a trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom come out of his room And the bride out of her bridal chamber.” (Joel 2:15-16 NAS) This is where its used survived in Judaism into modern times, in synagogues on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement: “’You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land.” (Lev 25:9-10 NAS)
  • Praise: The one part of the Old Testament that speaks of the shofar as an instrument of praise is the Psalms. “Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and lyre. Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe. Praise Him with loud cymbals; Praise Him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD!” (Ps 150:3-6 NAS) Here it is listed with a list of other instruments, including the human voice. Shouting before the Lord could be done with more than one kind of horn: “With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout joyfully before the King, the LORD.” (Ps 98:6 NAS) The following could better be interpreted as an example of heralding: “God has ascended with a shout, The LORD, with the sound of a trumpet.” (Ps 47:5 NAS)

Our point is all of this is to show that the shofar had a number of uses in ancient Israel, and that praise and worship (which was probably liturgical to some extent) wasn’t the first among them. Today in Israel some of these functions have been taken over by modern military communications in what is, person for person, the finest military force on the earth. Alarms can be sounded through air raid type sirens, radio and television. The Jews, however, have stuck to the shofar when the time comes to have their sins forgiven, and therein lies a lesson for us today.

Evangelicals have been very successful in reducing Christianity to its essentials. In the process they have stripped away many traditions built up over the centuries. A by-product of this process is that evangelical Christianity has lost most of its sense of “culture.” As long as Christians can identify with and lead the culture at large, this isn’t a problem. The problem comes now that Christians in the US find themselves following the culture, usually with disastrous results. Christians need some kind of group culture to help identify the community and keep it together.

Instead of looking at other Christian churches that do have a definite culture and worship traditions, evangelical Christianity has turned to Judaism to try to fill the gaps. The main reason for this is that the Old Testament is the book of the Jews and it is easier to be Biblical (or at least look Biblical) if one follows what’s there. Another factor is the Darbyite change in how Christianity looks at Judaism, jettisoning “replacement theology” with a central place for the Jews in the end-time drama. This strategy has two dangers.

The first is that Christianity and Judaism are different in profound ways even if they have common roots and the same God. The rationale for the separation of the two is well documented in the New Testament. Evangelicals, with their narrow view of the history of Christianity, are unaware that part of the problem with institutions such as Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches is that they considered themselves the real replacements for temple Judaism and many of their liturgical and doctrinal practices are moulded around that vision, especially their concept of the priesthood. Evangelicals thus risk repeating history even as they try to remain faithful to the Word as they see it.

The second is that Evangelical Christians are too quick to mould what they see in the Word around their own view or idea without considering the real roots behind it. The issue of penitential rites—a central use for the shofar—is a case in point. Evangelical churches, largely because of their Calvinistic view of perseverance (not necessarily of election,) have consigned penitential rites to the Roman Catholics and Anglicans. They are simply missing in most Evangelical churches, even those who do not hold a Calvinistic view of perseverance (those in the Wesleyan tradition, such as Pentecostal churches.) But in Judaism the one use of the shofar remains in a penitential rite. Are we so triumphalistic that we think that we never need ongoing forgiveness for sins? “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8 NAS) And then there is the matter of war. Liberals don’t believe it, but evangelicals were drug into the public arena to defend the legality of their religion kicking and screaming. What will happen if and when persecution breaks out on a large scale in the US?

If we want to get back to the shofar’s original use, let’s start by scrapping these sappy “calls to worship” and blow the horn (preferably through the church PA system) to announce the end of Sunday School and the beginning of the service. From there we can have a shofar blast to announce a time of penance—not every now and then, but regularly in our services. Then we can take them to start our marches and public demonstrations. And then…but by then we would be far better off waiting for God Himself to do the job:


For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess 4:16-18 NAS)

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