Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

Shofar Blast

Why did some people bring a shofar, a Jewish ritual object, to the January 6th insurrection? January is nowhere near the autumn month of Elul, which includes the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when Jews blow the shofar. There is another wrinkle here: it is unlikely that very many of these shofar-wielders and blowers were even Jewish. Yet the instrument has become a powerful symbol for some Christians—evoking battle and warfare—evident in its use at the insurrection. 

Many different groups of Christians today self-consciously appropriate Jewish traditions, which they find appealing for a variety of reasons. Scholars have discussed the “Jewish-affinity” or “Hebraic-style” practices of Christian Passovers that may make Christians feel closer to Biblical practices, or even to Jews. Or the charismatic feelings they experience during rituals of Christian primitivism that come from hearing Hebrew or doing things they imagine Jesus did.

But the instance of blowing shofars at the January 6 insurrection suggests interpretations that are less about interfaith sharing or inculcating feelings of awe than they are about eschatology and battle. For some Christians, particularly premillennialist evangelicals and some charismatics, the world is moving toward the end times, which will include war on earth, culminating in the battle of Armageddon, and God’s participation in this final battle against evil. Though these end times will be violent, they form a necessary part of messianic prophecies.

“Jews” play a central role in most premillennialist and dispensationalist theologies. And, premillennialists believe, much of God’s plan for the violent end times will unfold in the State of Israel, which helps explain the popularity of Christian Zionism and imagery of the modern state of Israel, like Israeli flags in Christian sanctuaries. Christian Zionists’ love for Israel also includes advocacy for US political and military support in the present. The Jews of the Bible and the Jews of today seem to occupy a single tradition for many Christian Zionists.

The shofars plays a strong symbolic role in this theological world where eschatology, battle, Jews, and the State of Israel come together. Christians talk about the shofar as “a spiritual weapon” and an “instrument of spiritual warfare.” “Our shofars will add an extra dimension to your worship and warfare,” declares one shofar selling company. Seeing shofars in a battle context fits into the widespread largely evangelical practice known as “spiritual warfare.” 

Christians have not invented the battle and warfare associations wholesale, however. They draw on Biblical interpretation. The book of Joshua, for example, uses the word “shofar” as part of the tale of the victory in the battle of Jericho, where the blast of the horn signals everyone to yell, and the walls of the city fall down. Shofar Call International, a Christian political organization, draws on this passage when they say: “We mobilize and train Shofar Blowers and Prayer Warriors around the world and enable them to come together at any event.” The shofar, then, is a weapon of war in the biblical story as well as for the contemporary Christian warriors.

A 2007 gathering of nearly 55,000 people, organized by the evangelist Lou Engle in Tennessee, used shofars to evoke the biblical telling of the victory of Gideon’s army. In that tale, Gideon’s winnowed-down army of 300 men take the weapons and the horns of the 30,000 soldiers or so whom Gideon dismissed at God’s insistence. The tiny army blows their horns during the night attack to give the impression that the army is larger than it is. God delivers victory to Gideon and his army. Elsewhere in the Bible, shofars function in many ways, including as a call for repentance (Is. 58:1, Hos. 8:1), as a signal to gather together (Num. 10:3, Joel 2:15), and as a means of praise (Psalms and Revelation). But military imagery reigns in these political contexts, where Christians use the shofar as a rallying cry for a Godly army.

Although some of the shofar-blowers at the insurrection were women, men dominated. Anthropologist Hillary Kaell has characterized the frequent use of the shofar in messianic Jewish congregations (those who identify with Judaism but believe in salvation through Jesus) as a “male instrument of joy.” She also notes that, often, messianic Jews and Jewish-affinity Christians use these “jumbo-sized” shofars. (For reference, most Jewish ritual contexts use shofars that are about a third of the size of the jumbo shofars seen so frequently in the crowds of the insurrection). Size, domination, and audibility come together in the shofar to assert that God’s warriors are coming to help usher in God’s plan and to vanquish God’s foes. 

It is no accident that the man in this Twitter video clip stood in a high place and trumpeted a call to battle—whether that battle was political or spiritual, metaphorical or literal—to the others gathered on January 6. He is part of God’s army, calling to others in a way that might be seen as simultaneously biblical, eschatological, and very much of our moment.

Sarah Imhoff is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University. She writes about religion and the body with a particular interest in gender, sexuality, and American religion. She is author of Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism (Indiana University Press, 2017) and the forthcoming The Lives of Jessie Sampter: Queer, Disabled, Zionist (Duke University Press, 2022). 

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