I was doing my daily bible time not to long ago and came across a verse that never intrigued me before as it did this time.
And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me regularly. -Exodus 25:30
God had just delivered the people of Israel from Egypt, the ten plagues and dividing of the Red Sea deliverance event, and was establishing Israel as a nation. There were many commandments God had for Israel but this time reading over Exodus 25:30 I asked myself why did God want bread placed before him? God never ate the bread. There are times in the Old Testament when the pre-incarnate Jesus makes a cameo but never to eat this bread. David Guzik’s commentary, at blueletterbible.org, comments on this verse saying “bread is necessary for survival, and the link was a reminder that fellowship with God was just as necessary for man.” A little later in Leviticus 24:7 God said it was to be a memorial. So the bread offering was a worship act acknowledging God’s presence with his people and man’s dependence on God being just as important as food… that makes sense though there is much more that can be drawn out of the significance of this bread.
I share all of this because this bible verse helped me to understand better the custom of offering food to gods and venerated ancestors. Offering food is an act of acknowledging that those gods or ancestors presence are with them, or at the very least watching over them in some way. Most Japanese don’t think that deeply about it, they just see it as part of the culture… Though they do it wholeheartedly.
The kamidana, a miniature household alter built into the side of a wall in Japanese homes, is one place where food is offered. Usually it’s rice, a piece of fruit, or water. I asked my wife’s grandma what god her kamidana is for and she said it was the god of fire so that the kitchen wouldn’t burn down. The kamidana is after all next to the kitchen.
Many Japanese homes in the countryside that are culturally Buddhist have a butsudan. It’s like a cabinet where past ancestors are acknowledged and worshiped. My wife’s family doesn’t have one as they have Tenrikyo roots. It’s kind of strange, no one in the family really practices Tenrikyo except for Grandma… And Grandma doesn’t really believe and accept it. Grandma’s husband, who passed away many years before, was connected with Tenrikyo and she practices the customs out of respect to his family. They use something that’s like a really big kamidana that functions like a butsudan.
There are pictures of ancestors like what you might find in a butsudan but the setup is totally different, though there is a space to offer food.
Reading and looking more into Exodus 25:30 helped me to understand more about the strong traditions and beliefs connected with food offerings. I’m not saying that the offering of bread in the Old Testament is exactly the same as the food offerings custom in Japanese culture, but there is some overlap. The bible is a multicultural book and we can learn about other cultures and customs from it. Your interest in trying to understand Japanese customs just might be an extra step to helping someone in that culture gain an interest in wanting to understand and know the God of the bible.