03. Guardians for the Way of Wholeness

In chapter two, we saw that at key moments in the story (such as the calling of Abraham, the exodus, and the renewal of life in exile), God acts out of pure mercy.  God provides salvation as a gift—given out of God’s healing love, unearned, even unmerited by the people.

The story presents the two institutions linked with salvation, Torah and sacrifice.  Both initially served as responses to the gift.  First, the people received God’s acts of deliverance, then came gratitude.  Such gratitude led to responses of obedience to God’s will for social life.  These found expression in Torah and in ritualized expressions of commitment to God via sacrifice.

As the Hebrews’ political structures expanded and became centralized under the office of the king, their religious structures concomitantly became centralized around the Temple.  With this, the original purposes of the Law and sacrifices changed.

Torah originated as the framework for the Hebrews to concretize their liberation.  Torah arranges for the economic viability of each household, resisting social stratification.  Inheritance legislation, Sabbath year laws, and the ideal of the Year of Jubilee all pushed in the direction of widespread participation in economic wellbeing.  The Law also placed special emphasis on the community tending to the welfare of vulnerable people in the community—widows, orphans, and aliens (“for you too were aliens in Egypt before God delivered you,” Leviticus 19).

Walter Brueggemann: “Something like ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’ is deeply rooted in Israel’s testimony, so deeply rooted as to be characteristic and definitional for Israel’s speech about God.  The claim is not a belated, incidental addendum to Israel’s ethical reflection, but belongs integrally and inalienably to Israel’s core affirmation of the character of Yahweh.”[1]

The sacrificial practices, above all else, were intended to be linked with the faithful responses of the people, in gratitude, to God’s liberating work.

Problems with Law and Sacrifices

Neither the Law nor the sacrifices were meant to be means to salvation but rather responses to the saving works of God.  The Law and sacrifices were meant to foster justice in the community.  Once they were established, though, the danger inevitably arose that either or both would be separated from their grounding in God’s merciful liberating works.

As the intent of the Law faded, the community tended to focus on external expressions, easily enforced and susceptible to becoming tools of people in power.  These tendencies led to legalism and, eventually, in the prophets’ views, to removing the Law from its living heart of liberation from slavery and concern for the well-being of vulnerable people.

As the original intent of sacrifices was lost, many Israelites tended to treat sacrifices as means of salvation, ritual acts separated from practical justice in the community.  Especially, as they centralized religious structures, people in power used sacrifice as a tool to enhance their standing.  Presenting sacrifice as a necessary means to salvation, enabled people who controlled access to sacrificial rituals (e.g., in the Temple) to exercise enormous power in the community.

Voices of accountability arose to challenge such distortions, the voices of the prophets.  Moses himself fits in this class.  The prophets emerged following the establishment of kingship as the voice of loyalty to Torah.  They challenged Israel’s practices when they contradicted the covenant relation.  “The prophets repeatedly utilize the old legal traditions to determine the present status of Israel.”[2]

One great kingship-era prophet, Elijah, established the basic prophetic concern.  Elijah challenged Israel’s king when the king departed from God’s ways—and pointed back to the law of Moses as the basis for his challenge.  A poignant story in 1 Kings 21 illustrates this dynamic.

Israel’s king, Ahab, desired the fruitful vineyard of the Israelite Naboth.  At first, Ahab offers to buy the or exchange the vineyard.  His offer, however, reflects his lack of respect for the inheritance practices of Israel.  The land does not simply belong to Naboth.  He refuses to sell it because it belongs to God and is for the use also of Naboth’s parents and his children and their children.  It is his inheritance.  This term inheritance contrasts with Ahab’s term, vineyard.[3]

“Inheritance” recognizes the land as the Lord’s, cultivated by the family through the generations for their livelihood.  The Lord wills that the land stay in the family so that they will not be dispossessed and future generations made landless.[4] When all have their own vine and fig tree to cultivate, the community will be healthy.  That health is why inheritance matters.

“Vineyard,” on the other hand, as used by King Ahab, views the land as a commodity, something simply to be bought and sold with little concern for the wholeness of the entire community.  Those who are wealthy and powerful may accumulate more and more.  The other people become landless, disinherited—a recipe for poverty and vulnerability.

Naboth refuses to part with his inheritance.  Ahab falsely convicts Naboth of blasphemy and executed him. Ahab takes the land.  He assumes that since he is the king he may do whatever he wants.  The main weapon God has against corrupt kings such as Ahab simply is the word of the prophets, reminding people of God’s will and exposing the violence and injustice of this corruption for what it is.

King Ahab goes down to the vineyard to take possession of it (1 Kings 21:16).  But, he meets an old acquaintance when he gets to the vineyard, the prophet Elijah—who had confronted Ahab before and had to flee for his life.  Ahab remembers Elijah.  “Have you found me, O my enemy” (1 Kings 21:20).  Earlier, Ahab called Elijah a “troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17).  Indeed I have found you, says Elijah.  The Lord has told me the injustice you have done to Naboth.  You are the troubler of Israel.  You are the one who has disregarded the Lord’s commands.  You are the blasphemer—not Naboth.  You, King Ahab, will suffer consequences.

To his credit, Ahab does respond.  He humbles himself.  We are not told that he changes his ways.  But we are told that because of his response, the disaster waits until after his death.  The word of the prophet has had power.

Elijah, as the prophets to follow, reminds people.  He reminds Ahab of God’s will for human life, as expressed in God’s commands.  Be suspicious of people in power.  Do not blindly trust their claims but test them thoroughly.  But also: remember who God is, what God has done for you, and what God’s will for your life is.

“Prophets arise in Israel when covenantal modes of existence are endangered.  It is the work of the prophets to insist that all of Israel’s life is to be lived in relation to and in response to Yahweh’s will and purposes, and to enunciate the consequences of a life live without regard to this defining relationship.  The prophets are to invite a ‘turning’ in Israel, a turn from pride to trust, from despair to hope, from abusiveness to covenantal neighborliness.”[5]

In challenging the distortions of law and sacrifice, the prophets reiterate the meaning of salvation.  They re-emphasize that salvation is God’s liberating gift, and that following Torah and offering sacrifices are responses to God’s gift, not means to try to gain it.

In this chapter, I will focus on the first wave of “writing prophets,” those who ministered in the eighth century BCE and whose proclamations were gathered into books bearing their names—Amos, Hosea, and Micah.  These prophets’ message set the tone for much of the prophetic critique to come.  Even more importantly, in terms of what is to come, these prophets exerted a profound influence on Jesus.  I will argue that salvation according to these eighth-century prophets and salvation according to Jesus are very closely related.

Salvation in Eighth-Century Prophetic Proclamation

One of basic issue facing the Hebrew people, according to prophetic witness, is that the community has departed from the will of their liberating God.  “The more I call them, the more they went from me” (Hosea 11:2).  Hosea frames the “departure” in terms of idolatry.  Amos focuses more on injustice.  Micah emphasizes both.

Originally, the people needed liberation from non-being, the barrenness symbolized by Abraham and Sarah’s lack of a future.  God provided this family with a child.  Around them, the Promise arose.  However, within a few generations, the people stood in need of liberation.  They again faced non-being as slaves.  God again gave them a future—this time as a nation with its own unique law-code, its unique religious rituals, and—eventually—its own land.

At the time of Joshua, the story portrays the Hebrews living in a state of wholeness, with a world of potential for creative growth and witness.  They lived at the point with a large measure of harmony with God, due to God’s generosity.  “The gracious gifts assured by the prophets derive not from what Israel does but from who Yahweh is.”[6] However, as the generations passed, this harmony turned to disharmony.

What Causes the Disharmony?

All three of the eighth-century prophets, Amos, Hosea, and Micah, spoke in response to the disharmony they perceived among the Hebrew people.

The earliest of the three, Amos, had lived in the southern kingdom of Judah but traveled north to Israel to speak the words recorded in the book that bears his name.  Amos prophesied during the time of King Jeroboam II of Israel, who ruled from 786 to 746 BCE.  Scholars place Amos’ prophecies at around 760 BCE.  Amos presented himself as an independent, “lay-prophet.”  He had no official standing, relying only on the power of his words.

As his basis for critique, Amos drew on the shared traditions.  He several times reminded his listeners of their belief that Yahweh had brought the Hebrews out of Egypt and placed them in the land (Amos 2:9-10; 3:1-2; 9:7-8).  The Hebrews’ “immoral and unethical treatment of those who are unable to defend themselves is juxtaposed [to God’s] protective treatment throughout their early history when they were unable to defend themselves.”[7]

Amos prophesied, assuming that the people of Israel would share his starting point.  Their liberating God had directly given them Torah with its clear instructions regarding the nature of covenantal life.  Liberation and land are linked inextricably with Law.  Yahweh delivered the people from the injustice of Egypt’s slavery and for justice in the covenant community.

In Amos’s view, the people have always known that Yahweh expected justice.  He breaks no new ground in terms of moral and legal expectations.  He draws directly on tradition, taking for granted that the people would know Torah.  He expected no debate about the centrality of justice for the covenant community—only over the extent of injustice current in Israel.

Likewise, Hosea also draws directly on the liberation story that formed the core of Hebrew consciousness.  His indictment in chapter 11 begins with these words: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1).  Hosea then goes on to outline how the people did not remain faithful to the ways of their loving God.

Hosea came onto the scene about a generation later than Amos.  He prophesied in the northern kingdom in the years just prior to the Assyrian empire laying waste to Israel in 721 BCE.  Whereas Amos spoke directly about injustice in Israel and used legal types of imagery, Hosea relied more on personal relationship-type imagery.  Israel broke Yahweh’s heart by cultivating relationships with other gods.

The third of these prophets, Micah, prophesied in Judah, the southern kingdom.  He entered the scene in the years after the northern kingdom’s fall.  His period of prophecy ended around 701 BCE.  Like Amos and Hosea, Micah centrally emphasized the exodus and Torah, basically ignoring the Davidic-Zion kingship tradition.  For Micah, unlike many of his fellow Judeans, Jerusalem was not inviolable.  In Micah’s view, violating the covenant in the way his contemporaries had rendered the nation’s future uncertain.

It is not that Yahweh had changed from loving to wrathful; rather, a society founded on Torah-justice will become deathly ill when Torah-justice is disregarded.  To draw on Amos’ imagery, we may say that where there is justice there is life; the community will be strong and healthy.  Injustice, on the other hand, in inherently unhealthy.

All three of these prophets saw the key for the Hebrew’s health to be Yahweh’s love and liberating work.  This divine, life-giving initiative of God—Torah—included detailed guidance for liberated living in justice and Shalom.  “The reason the commands are so urgent and insistent is that they are Yahweh’s (and therefore Israel’s) strategy for fending off a return to pre-Exodus conditions of exploitation and brutality within the community.”[8]

Certainly, the prophets do speak words of threat, anger, even judgment.  However, they understand themselves to speak out of Yahweh’s love.  They speak because they believe God desires the community’s healing.  All three books conclude with hopeful visions of such healing.  The people are being confronted in hope that they will return to trust in their liberating God.

These prophets themselves were without recourse to means of actually punishing anyone.  They were not interested in marshalling the power of the sword against wrongdoers.  They relied on rhetoric, on their vision of Torah and of Yahweh’s justice, to seek to effect healing—not to inflict pain for pain.

The people’s break with the covenant with Yahweh may be seen in terms of the expressions in their communities of injustice, violence, idolatry, and vain religiosity.

Injustice. According to these prophets, the people had changed their original social structure.  Torah had provided for an decentralized social order characterized by widespread land ownership.  Within this, all were to be given access to means for sustaining their livelihoods and none were to gain the extreme wealth that may be accumulated via the disinheritance of large numbers of community members.  By the eighth century, a transformation had occurred leading to increased social stratification—a few wealthy, many poverty-stricken.  Amos and Micah zeroed in on this stratification as evidence of a fundamentally unjust social order.

God’s judgment on Israel is immanent, “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7).

This injustice goes contrary to the will of God expressed in Torah and, indeed, in creation itself.  “Do horses run on rocks?  Does one plow the sea with oxen?  But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (Amos 6:12).

Micah also speaks of the corruption of the community departing from God’s will.  “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds!  When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power.  They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).

Micah lays responsibility for this corruption directly at the feet of Judah’s leaders.  “Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel!  Should you not know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron” (Micah 3:1-3).

Judah’s rulers foster injustice, not justice.  They turn their responsibility as agents of Torah on its head.  “Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!  Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priest teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money” (Micah 3:9-11).  Though Hosea focuses more on idolatry than injustice, the prophet sees the two as interrelated in his challenge to Israel’s leaders.  “You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies” (Hosea 10:13).

The presence of widespread injustice among the Hebrews contradicted the dynamics of liberation that characterized Yahweh’s original intervention.  Much earlier in the story, when the Hebrew elders expressed their desire for a king “like the nations,” Samuel warned of a return to Egypt.  The king will take and take, and the people will again “cry out” as they had when they were slaves (1 Samuel 8:10-18).  Yahweh formed this community to be an alternative to Egypt’s injustice.  According to the prophets, this alternative was no more.

Violence. All these prophets identified violence as a key manifestation of disharmony.  Amos begins his prophecies with several statements against the practices of Israel’s neighbors, focusing on their violence.  Among other images, we read of Edom pursuing his brother with the sword (Amos 1:11) and of the Ammonites ripping open pregnant women in Gilead (Amos 1:13).

Amos drives home the point of Israel’s guilty.  Of Israel we read: “See what great tumults are within it, and what oppressions are in its midst.  They do not know how to do right, says the Lord, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds” (Amos 3:9-10).

Hosea, of the three prophets, speaks of the curse of violence the most forcefully and extensively.  The Lord’s first words to Hosea refer to the house of Jehu’s responsibility for “the blood of Jezreel” (Hosea 1:4).  This reference alludes to the violence of the Northern Kingdom’s kings in their practice of power politics.  King Ahab, under the influence of his Baal-worshiping Phoenician wife, had murdered Naboth in order to expropriate his vineyard (1 Kings 21).  Ahab’s action then set in motion more violence in Israel.  Jehu arose to instigate a bloodbath to avenge Naboth’s murder.  Jehu assassinated King Joram in Naboth’s former home property and followed that by killing Judah’s King Ahaziah, who had been visiting Joram.  Jehu then killed Ahab’s widow, Jezebel, and oversaw the massacre of Ahab’s seventy sons (2 Kings 9–10).

Hosea is not convinced that Jehu’s violence was justified, and he presents God as condemning it.[9] Hosea seems to believe that all Jehu actually did was contribute to the ever-deepening spiral of violence in Israel that may soon result in the nation’s final demise.

Hosea reiterates the indictment in chapter four: “Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel; for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.  There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land.  Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed” (Hosea 4:1-2).  The problem with violence is that it does not lead to resolution; “bloodshed follows bloodshed.”[10]

According to Hosea 6:9, “priests are banded together [to] murder on the road to Sheehan, they commit a monstrous crime.”  Hosea links together violence with rejection of Israel’s old Mosaic traditions.  Shechem was a cite valued by pilgrims loyal to the old tradition.  It was the location of an ancient sanctuary of Yahweh.

The reference to Gibeah in Hosea 10:9 (“Since the days of Gibeah you have sinned, O Israel”) is likely alluding to the terrible violence of Judges 19–21, when the tribes united to lay waste to Benjamin in retaliation for the murder of the Levite’s concubine.

Violence only leads to violence; preparing for war leads to war.  If you trust in the sword you shall die by it.  Hosea continues: “You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.  Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, there the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed” (Hosea 10:13-14).

Micah also critiques the role of violence in the Southern Kingdom.  “You rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war” (Micah 2:8).  Those who seek to remain faithful to Yahweh’s shalom are themselves treated violently.

Micah’s vision of peace, of swords being beaten into plowshares (4:1-5), contrasts with Judah’s present violent reality.  Its reiterates Micah’s own loyalty to the old tradition’s sense of Yahweh’s purposes in liberating the Hebrews and giving them the land.  Yahweh seeks peace for all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3), and seeks to use the Hebrews to spread this peace.

In working for this goal, Yahweh’s judgment on Judah focuses on the nation’s war-making resources.  “In that day, says the Lord, I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots” (Micah 5:10).  The accumulation of horses and chariots reflects the priorities of Judah’s elite classes.  “Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths” (Micah 6:12).

As does the problem of injustice, so also the problem of violence brings into clear focus Yahweh’s intended priorities in calling the Hebrews.  According to Abraham Heschel, “the prophets were the first [people] in history to regard a nation’s reliance upon forces as evil.”[11] Yahweh’s priorities, according to these prophets, included, at their core, justice and peace.

To the prophets, the covenant community denies in its life of the character of its founding God.  They see Yahweh not first of all as a wrathful, angry, retributive God.  To the contrary, the prophets see Yahweh as a loving, gracious, merciful God.  Yahweh liberated these vulnerable people from slavery with the plan that the people would be agents of liberation for the whole earth.  Yahweh’s anger stems from grief at the failures of the people to live out their liberation.  The prophetic rhetoric of judgment does not stem from God’s retributive eye-for-an-eye justice that must punish wrongdoing.  No, this rhetoric stems from God’s continuing love and is meant to call the people back (see Hosea 11:8-9).

Unbelievably, though, from the prophets’ point of view, the people steadfastly loved by Yahweh do not trust in Yahweh as God.  The prophets link the injustice and violence with idolatry—the trust in other gods.[12] And they merge them all together to portray the Hebrews’ religious practices as serving the opposite of their intended effect; the vain religiosity actually becomes an occasion of further sin, not a means of reconnecting with Yahweh.

Idolatry. Interestingly, Amos’ sharp critique of Israel says little about idolatry.  The most urgent problem was to be found in their injustice and violence.  Clearly, a people cannot be worshiping Yahweh while practicing such blatant and widespread oppression.

On the other hand, does Hosea place the central focus on idolatry.  Idolatry seems to be the root cause for the injustice and violence.  The book begins with a direct reference to idolatry, “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (Hosea 1:2).  Hosea portrays Yahweh as deeply attached to the Hebrew covenant community.  This close attachment explains Yahweh’s deep hurt when the people turn to Baal and violate their covenant with Yahweh.  But “the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods” (Hosea 3:1).

Baal was a Canaanite god, “clearly the most active and prominent.”  He was often portrayed as the great storm god on whom the fertility of the land depended.[13] The Hebrews found Baal worship attractive, given their own dependence upon the rains and their being surrounded by cultures deeply shaped by Baalism.  The Baal religion likely threatened the Hebrews’ exclusive Yahwism more than any other Ancient Near Eastern faith.[14]

Just as the prophets hold the political leaders responsible for leading the Hebrews into the paths of violence when the leaders were called to foster peace, so Hosea presents the priests as responsible for leading the Hebrews into the paths of idolatry (5:1).  Instead of seeing harvesting the fruits of their field as a time for remembering Yahweh’s work on their behalf and offering sacrifices of thanksgiving that would reinforce the people’s commitment to lives lived according to Torah, the people, according to Hosea, are making the offerings to Baal (9:1-9).

As Psalm 135:18 points out, people become like that which they worship.[15] So, to offer sacrifices to Baal instead of Yahweh leads to a society becoming violent instead of peaceable, given Baal’s status as the source of violent storms.

Hosea critiques Judah’s practices.  “Do not rejoice, O Israel!  Do not exult as other nations do; for you have played the whore, departing from your God.  You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors” (9:1).  Grain piled on threshing floors is “prostitute’s pay” because Israel takes the harvest as the gift of Baal.[16] Micah also points to idolatry as a central concern of Yahweh’s in relation to Judah.  “I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you, and you shall bow down no more to the work of your hands” (Micah 5:13).

Vain religiosity. All three prophets forcefully express their rejection of the possibility that the Hebrews’ rituals effectively connect them with Yahweh.[17] However, they do not reject religious or cultic practices per se; they reject religious practices separated from their original intention.   “For them, worship and ritual were means; justice and righteousness were ends.”[18]

The prescribed religious rituals, in, say, Leviticus, meant to reinforce justice for all in the covenant community.  The rituals meant to be linked inextricably with Yahweh’s liberating love, especially oriented toward widows, orphans, and resident aliens.  With this link broken, the rituals become worse than simply ineffective.  They become themselves occasions for sin and alienation from God.  They reinforce the illusion that the covenant community can tolerate injustice, violence, and idolatry and still connect with Yahweh through ritual.

As Abraham Heschel writes: “Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”[19]

Amos begins his critique shockingly naming Israel’s profound trouble to be due to its identity as Yahweh’s elect, not in spite of this status.  God holds the people accountable to their commitment to Torah.  “Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:1-2).

Amos mocks the Israelites: “Come to Bethel—and transgress; to Gilgal—and multiply transgression” (4:4).  Bethel and Gilgal were traditional sanctuaries.  For Israel, in Amos’ view, worship and transgression have become synonymous.  “The more the people attend the cultic rites, and the more zealous they are in performing the manifold attendant rites, the more they continue to offend and transgress.”[20]

In a famous assertion, Amos presents God’s perspective on unjust Israel’s religiosity: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps” (5:21-23).

Hosea echoes Amos’ warnings.  God places special responsibility upon the religious leaders, the ones called to keep religious practices and the demands of Torah linked together in the awareness of the people.  “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you [O priest] have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me.  And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children” (Hosea 4:6).

Israelites will present their sacrifices to God, Hosea warns, but they will be to no avail.  “With their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the Lord, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them” (Hosea 5:6).  In fact, the attempts to sacrifice, in the context of unfaithful living, only make things worse.  “When Ephraim multiplied altars to expiate sin, they became to him altars for sinning….Though they offer choice sacrifices, though they eat flesh, the Lord does not accept them.  Now he will remember their iniquity, and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt” (Hos 8:11,13)—reiterating Samuel’s prophecy about the return to slavery.

Like Hosea and Amos, Micah sees simply offering of sacrifices as of little avail.  He follows Torah in understanding right living as the core of authentic faith.  He references God’s liberating work, “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery” and gave you the promised land, “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord” (6:4-5).  But the people seem not to remember.  Micah asks, how might life be renewed in the context of alienation?  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7).  The answers are no, no, no.  These are ritualistic tactics tried and failed due to the injustice of the community.

The disharmony the prophets perceive will never be healed through rituals in and of themselves.  Contrary to the logic of retribution, the Lord does not require sacrifices.  The Lord’s favor is not to be regained by sacred violence within the community.

How is Harmony Restored?

The prophets raised their critiques for the purpose of helping the Hebrews to find healing.  They “sought to bring the people to realize that at the depth of the catastrophes which shook their lives and brought intense suffering, God was present, providing the impulse for the return from a road leading to ruin and offering a new life.”[21]

The prophets reject a sacrificial approach.  The proper role of sacrifice is as a response to God’s initiative, not as a means to turn God back toward the people.  The prophetic assume that God remains the source of wholeness, that God still loves the people in the same way as God had in the time of Moses.  Hence, the restoration of harmony is not complicated nor is it something God withholds.  Hosea 12:6 captures what is needed in a nutshell: “Return to your God, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.”  Repent.  Do kindness and justice.  Trust.

Repent. Behind the prophetic all to “return” or “repent” lies the presumption of God’s availability.  The alienation follows from what happens on the human side.  God simply wants a turning back from problematic beliefs and practices, and then offers mercy.  Hosea articulates this in the conclusion of his prophecies.[22] “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.  Take words with you and return to the Lord; say to him,  ‘Take away all guilt; accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips.  Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon our horses; we will say no more, “Our God,” to the work of our hands.  In you the orphan finds mercy’” (14:1-3).

When Amos speaks against vain religiosity, he offers as an alternative that the people “seek the Lord and live” (5:6).  “Seek” may be understood as a kind of technical term for turning to God in a service of prayer; in this context such turning is contrasted with making pilgrimage to the main religious sites.[23] The call to repent or return rests upon a certainty of God’s receptivity.  In Amos, especially, the weight of inequity is so heavy that Israel seems doomed.  But the way out is simple—“seek the Lord and live,” that is all.[24]

Justice. Should the people truly seek God, their lives would bear the fruit: justice and mercy (two complementary concepts).  According to Amos, when the people seek God their common life will be transformed in practical ways.  In order to live, the people must “seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.  Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:14-15).

This call to seek good simply calls to return to observing Torah.  The love of Yahweh had created this community and provided clear guidance for its functioning.  To live justly does gain God’s favor; it rather returns to living consistently with the favor already granted.

Micah contrasts empty rituals with authentic faith.  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings [and other sacrifices]?  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6,8).  Hosea also links living justly and righteously with salvation.  “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and reign righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:11-12).

In calling Israel to justice, the prophets does not call for impersonal “fairness” nor, most definitely, for eye-for-an-eye vengeance.  They call to covenant community.  Doing justice relates to salvation in that saved people know themselves to be loved by the justice-seeking God, and out of this love, walk in God’s paths.[25]

Kindness. Hosea and Micah both call upon the people to do kindness (that is, to do mercy and to practice steadfast love) as part of their core proclamation regarding salvation.  They link this call to kindness with justice as two closely related and complementary emphases.

“Hold fast to kindness and justice” (Hosea 12:6).  The Lord requires the people “to do justice and to love kindness” (Micah 6:8).  “I desire kindness and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).  “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast kindness” (Hosea 10:12).  The call to do kindness, like the call to do justice, directly alludes to Torah.  At their heart, the Law and the Prophets unite in calling the Hebrews to healthy and strong relationships in which all people (including, especially, vulnerable ones such as widows, orphans, and resident aliens)[26] receive care.

Salvation, then, in the context of the disharmony the prophets spoke so strongly against, led to the healing of relationships within the community.  Gift and obligation are inextricably united.  Because Yahweh liberated the Hebrews they have the obligation to share life together in ways that insure the wellbeing of all.

Salvation comes as a gift from God.  Salvation obligates its recipients to live together justly and kindly.  Salvation, in the context of disharmony, requires repentance, a turning from injustice and idolatry.  The prophets assumed this salvation could be present.  “God’s love and kindness indicate a road.  It is a road not limited to a particular area in space nor to exceptional miraculous happenings.  It is everywhere, at all times.”[27]

Trust. Because of Yahweh’s own love and justice that restores relationships, the prophets assure their hearers that they may (and must) trust in Yahweh.  The basic dynamic includes the interplay of these four elements.  Repent, turn from idolatry and toward God.  Let justice and mercy characterize your lives.  Trust in your loving and faithful God.  And that is it.  Sacrifice, at most, comes later.  Living in trusting reliance upon Yahweh leads to human fulfillment.  “To be fully human, so Israel testifies, is to have a profound, unshakeable trust in Yahweh as reliable, present, strong, concerned, engaged for; and to live and act on the basis of that confidence.”[28]

For all his confrontive language and extraordinarily strong warnings, Amos in the end portrays Yahweh as merciful.  Yahweh remains trustworthy, faithful to the promise to bless all the families of the earth.  “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.  I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God” (Amos 9:14-15).[29]

Hosea makes the trustworthiness of God’s love for the people even more central throughout his book.  The threats and warnings, the tragic consequences of the Hebrews’ injustice and idolatry do not overturn Yahweh’s continuing dependable love.  Hosea’s most fundamentally proclaims not Israel’s doom but God’s love that provides for a future.[30]

“In the place there it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’  The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head; and they shall take possession of the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel” (Hosea 1:10-11).

Jezreel was Naboth’s inheritance that was taken from him by Ahab (1 Kings 21).  Hosea’s vision of taking “possession of the land” might allude to reinstating the inheritance laws and restoration of land to the landless among the Hebrews.

The promise of Yahweh both points back to Yahweh’s work of liberation and provision of Torah and forward to a time of genuine peace.  “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.  From there I will give her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.  There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.  On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’  For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more.  I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.  I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:14-20).

Micah voices with similar sentiments, asking Yahweh for deliverance, evoking past memories.  “Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old.  As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvelous things” (Micah 7:14-15).

Then, Micah gives this promise.  “He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency.  He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot.  You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.  You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old” (Micah 7:18-20).

Because of Yahweh’s trustworthiness with the Hebrews, going back to the liberation from Egypt, the people have every reason to trust Yahweh in the present and for the future.  Such trust is central to their experience of salvation.  What does the Lord require?  Justice, mercy, “and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  That is, bow before your God in trust and humility.[31] God desires steadfast love, not sacrifice, “the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).  “Knowledge of God” here may be defined as living with dependence upon and trust in the steadfastness of God.  To “know” God is to trust in God above all else.

Salvation in the Prophets

These three eighth-century prophets often refer to God initiating salvation out of love for the Hebrew people.  The key work of salvation was the deliverance of the slaves from Egypt.  Everything follows from God’s initiative.  Because of God’s healing love, unearned by the people, God holds the people accountable to be loving and just themselves.

For these prophets, salvation comes straight from God, at God’s free initiative, and due to God’s transforming mercy.  God’s frustration with the people stems not because of their inherent impurity violating God’s holiness, but because of the people’s failure to remain true to God’s loving provision for holistic life.

These prophets portray that law as a gift, meant for sustenance of the covenant community.  Far from being legalistic and impersonal, they saw Torah as relational, stemming from God’s loving concern for the people.  The prophets understand themselves not as radical innovators but as “conservatives,” calling the people back to the covenant commitments their ancestors made.  Torah serves the relationship, providing guidance for just, whole, and peaceable communal life.  This community includes all, making special provision for those vulnerable ones often pushed to the margins (such as widows, orphans, and resident aliens).

These prophets express harsh criticism of sacrificial practices—though, not, it would appear, because of sacrifices being inherently wrong.  Rather, the prophets presuppose the original hope that sacrifices remind the people to be grateful to God, to share with others, and to be committed to Yahweh alone as God.  In the context of injustice and oppression (reflecting a lack of gratitude toward God) and worship of other gods, the purpose of sacrifices had been turned on its head when the Hebrews combine a self-satisfied attitude about worship with insensitivity toward social injustice.

The prophets, preoccupied with the covenant, portray the terrible disharmony they are exposing in terms of violated relationships.  The people violate their relationship with Yahweh with idolatry and by ignoring Torah’s call for justice among those in the community.  The sin is not about broken rules per se, but about breaking relationships and thereby causing harm.  The use of rituals came to be separated from the relationships.  Making sacrifice impersonal (and hence, empty) ritual became part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The prophets show us a God angry not because the legalistic scales of justice have been unbalanced.  Rather, God’s anger stems from violation of the interpersonal dynamics of just relationships through oppression and violence.  “God’s concern is the prerequisite and source of [God’s] anger.  It is because [God] cares for [humans] that [God’s] anger may be kindled against [humans].”  God’s anger and God’s mercy are not in conflict but are directly related, both stemming from God’s will to heal the world.[32]

Because the problem lies with violating relationships and harm doing, these prophets present the solution in terms of seeking to restore the relationships.  And this restoration is uncomplicated.  The God of the prophets remains the loving liberator of the Exodus.  The restoration of the Hebrews’ relationship with God essentially depends only upon their remembering who God is.  This remembrance entails a simple turn—from false trust and back to trust in God.  With renewed trust, justice and mercy in social relationships inevitably returns.

The key assumption lying behind the prophets understanding of the hope for restoration of harmony with God is that God does not require sacrifices to change God’s disposition toward God’s people.  God remains, as always, favorably disposed—so long as human beings simply recognize that and trust.  God remains, as always, ready and willing to heal the sin-caused brokenness.  “Sin is not a cul-de-sac, nor is guilt a final trap.  Sin may be washed away by repentance and return, and beyond guilt is the dawn of forgiveness.  The door is never locked, the threat of doom is not the last word.”[33]

The prophetic stance, then, as reflected in these three prophets, contrasts sharply with the logic of retribution.  As Abraham Heschel writes, “the ultimate power is not an inscrutable, blind, and hostile power, to which [humans] must submit in resignation, but a God of justice and mercy to whom [humans are] called upon to return.”[34]

For the prophets, salvation results from God’s loving initiative.  God delivers, forebears, restores.  This initiative is a constant.  Nothing is needed to change God.  The only needed changes are on the human side.  Return to Yahweh.  Trust in Yahweh, not in other gods, not the works of your hands.  Sacrifices are not needed to balance the scales of justice.  At most, they simply serve to remind the people of God’s generosity and to foster rededication to Yahweh.

The prophets see reality as personal and concrete.  They know nothing of a detached inner life of God, of a cosmic scale of justice, or of impersonal, abstract laws that transcend mundane life.  Yahweh feels, responds, love, and grieves.

The entire context for theological reflection concerning salvation must be seen in terms of the covenant relationships God has established with God’s people.  Justice is not about God’s internal processes and impersonal holiness.  Rather, justice fosters health in the community of people seeking to live together in a way that glorifies God.

All three books underscore God’s overarching healing love.  Each presents God seeking healing, but also—in its overall structure—makes clear that the portrayal of anger and wrath is serving a rhetorical strategy meant to foster a return to trust in the Hebrews’ loving, patient, and healing God.  The prophets do not portray an angry, wrathful God.  Rather, they show us a loving, healing God who out of committed love feels anger at the people’s self-destructive behavior.  God expresses this anger, but it ultimately serves the love by fostering a return.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 144.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Tradition for Crisis: A Study in Hosea (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1968), 21.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2000), 257-59.

[4] Choou-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” in Leander Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 156.

[5] Brueggemann, Theology, 697.

[6] Brueggemann, Tradition, 79.

[7] Shalom M. Paul, Amos: A Commentary on the Book of Amos (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 87.

[8] Brueggemann, Theology, 184.

[9] For a discussion of this fascinating case of a biblical prophet critiquing the Bible, see James E. Brenneman, “Prophets in Conflict: Negotiating Truth in Scripture,” in Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns, eds., Peace and Justice Shall Embrace: Power and Theopolitics in the Bible (Telford, PA: Pandora Press, 1999), 49-63.

[10] James Limburg, Hosea—Micah (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988), 16-17.

[11] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 1 (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 166.

[12] Brueggemann, Theology, 697.

[13] John Day, “Baal (Deity),” in D. N. Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 545.

[14] Day, “Baal,” 547.

[15] See G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

[16] James Luther Mays, “Hosea,” in Wayne A. Meeks, ed., The HarperCollins Study Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 1340.

[17] Brueggemann, Theology, 678.

[18] Paul, Amos, 139.

[19] Heschel, Prophets, vol. 1, 195.

[20] Paul, Amos, 139.

[21] Bernhard W. Anderson, The Eighth-Century Prophets: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978), 34.

[22] Limburg, Hosea, 51.

[23] Paul, Amos, 162.

[24] Paul, Amos, 162.

[25] Ted Grimsrud, “Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a ‘New’ Theology of Justice,” in Grimsrud and Johns, eds., Peace, 64-85.

[26] Heschel, Prophets, vol. 1, 167.

[27] Heschel, Prophets, vol. 1, 211.

[28] Brueggemann, Theology, 466.

[29] Scholarly consensus concludes that Amos 9:11-15 most likely was added to the book, perhaps sometime not too long before 515 BCE (Bruce E. Willoughby, “Amos,” in Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, 211).  However, as I use a reading strategy of that takes “the Bible whole,” that is, as it comes to us—focusing on it as story more than history—I choose to read Amos’ final vision as part of the book’s overall message.  Plus, most of the reasons given to bracket Amos 9:11-15 from the rest of the book are based on assumptions about internal consistency that are open to challenge.

[30] Heschel, Prophets, vol. 1, 43.

[31] Limburg, Hosea, 192.

[32] Heschel, Prophets, vol. 2, 66.  See also, Anderson, Eighth-Century Prophets, 82.

[33] Heshcel, Prophets, vol. 1, 174.

[34] Heschel, Prophets, vol. 2, 20-21.

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