Prophets as Religious Critics

Prophets as Religious Critics January 2, 2015

Biblical prophets were passionately concerned with the working function of the Israelite cult, especially the way external ritual related to personal thought as well as both individual and communal repentance. We see this quite clearly in a number of prophetic texts. Through the prophet Amos, for example, we encounter some very explicit religious criticisms. Amos presents the God of Israel saying:

I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. 22 If you offer Me burnt offerings — or your meal offerings — I will not accept them; I will pay no heed To your gifts of fatlings. 23 Spare Me the sound of your hymns, And let Me not hear the music of your lutes. 24 But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream. 25 Did you offer sacrifice and oblation to Me Those forty years in the wilderness, O House of Israel? (Amos 5:21-25; JPS).

It’s difficult to imagine that with this statement, Amos was calling for an end of temple worship (though some scholars have made this suggestion). People in the ancient world would have had a difficult time conceptualizing worship of a deity without ritual offerings. In context, Amos’ point seems to be that as long as poverty and debt slavery existed in the covenant community, Israel’s sacrificial worship amounted to hypocrisy in every sense of the word.

The answer to his rhetorical question, “Did you offer sacrifice and oblation to me those forty years in the wilderness” implies the response, “No! They did not.” It’s clear from this statement that Amos does not know the Priestly account in the book of Exodus that Moses established the cult of Yahweh in the wilderness. Amos was a prophet in the eighth century BC during the time that the first documentary source in the Pentateuch (the Elohist or E source) was probably being composed in the North. The Priestly source seems to have been initially developed in the sixth century and was probably not finished until the Exilic era (i.e., after 586 BC). So Amos doesn’t know these traditions.

By asking Israel if her ancestors performed sacrifices to Yahweh in the wilderness, Amos shows that he knows an exodus tradition, but not the one that appears in the Pentateuch. His point is clear. Israel needed to remember a valuable lesson. People could serve God in other ways, not simply through ritual performances, and Yahweh wanted his people to serve him by establishing financial equity in the covenant community.

Perhaps influenced by Amos’ critique, the book of Isaiah begins with similar rhetoric:

11 “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says the LORD. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. 12 That you come to appear before Me — Who asked that of you? Trample My courts 13 no more; Bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, Proclaiming of solemnities, Assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. 14 Your new moons and fixed seasons Fill Me with loathing; They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. 15 And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime — 16 Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow (Isaiah 1:11-17; JPS).

From Isaiah’s perspective, any defense that the covenant community had not forgotten Yahweh, since he was given regular offerings and ritual worship through holy festivals, would prove ineffective. As an “attorney” representing Yahweh, Isaiah, therefore anticipated their defense. Isaiah teaches that what God really wants in terms of worship is social justice. Israel should aid the poor, uphold the rights of the widow and defend the cause of the orphan. If this is not done, then cultic worship results in condemnation rather than blessings.

Similar prophetic critiques appear in Micah 6:6-8 and Hosea 6:6. In each of these instances, the prophets were not condemning ritual worship. Instead, the prophets consistently taught the principle that practicing religion is more than simply going to the temple, synagogue, or church. To serve God is to practice justice, and as important as sacrifice was, it did not accomplish this goal. Instead, it might give people the false impression that they had fulfilled their obligations to a God who throughout the Hebrew Bible appears deeply concerned with the needs of the poor.

These were radical religious messages that would have been deeply offensive to many people of the elite and upper class. The prophets were highly critical of priests, government officials, and the wealthy. Ironically, however, these were the very people who compiled and edited the prophetic books. Only a small portion of the community could read and write in ancient Israel. Most people were far too occupied with agricultural existence to receive training in the art of literacy. Scrolls were expensive treasures stored in temple archives. Consequently, the scribes who edited the prophetic books were part of the very political and religious establishment that the prophets called to repentance.

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