Prophets and Ritual

Prophets and Ritual June 3, 2016

Israel’s prophets excoriate the worship of Israel, in such terms that some commentators have concluded that they are attacking ritual as such. That cannot be, argues Dru Johnson (Knowledge by Ritual). Micah’s answer to the question, “How shall I approach YHWH?” is not to counsel his hearers to ignore Torah: “Micah does not answer the question . . . by suggesting that sacrifice is not needed to approach YHWH. It is a radical claim to say that Micah believes Israel can now approach YHWH empty-handed, sacrificially speaking. Instesad, Micah states that when they approach with their sacrifice, they also need to bring a Torah-centered life and society, illustrative of justice, kindness, and humility” (174). What makes their rites efficacious is “the Torah-centered society and life practices” (174).

This is a persistent theme in Johnson’s book, an insistence that ritual doesn’t begin with the announced beginning of a rite. Ritual begins at home, with the various preparations that precede the rite proper. If one is commanded to bring a cake to offer as a tribute, the ritual begins with the preparation of the cake. If a worshiper brings an animal of his own for sacrifice, then the whole process of raising, feeding, caring for the animal is necessary preparation for the slaughter and offering. Ritual is “Torah listening and living, which comes to a nexus in rites” (172). Anyone who performs the rite without the proper preparation is not performing the rite well.

Sacrifice without obedience is also pointless because it fails to achieve what sacrifice is supposed to achieve: “falsely practiced rituals are futile because they cannot teach or dispose Israel to discern” (174). Israel is given rituals to know and remember, so that they can come to recognize and discern rightly. When they go through the rite without obedience, the rite is more apt to blind than to reveal. Only “properly embodied rites which are prepared in the everyday moral conduct of Israel disposes Israelites to recognize and discern. But the ability of rituals to properly dispose Israelites only happens when their listening to YHWH and embodying the prescribed actions correlate” (178).

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