Must We Choose the Prophets Over the Priests?

‘‘has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams’’ (1 Sam. 15:22–23).

‘‘what to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats’’ (Isa. 1:11).

‘‘the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord’’ (Prov. 15:8; 21:27).

“For I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6).

For more than a century it has been common in OT scholarship to pit the prophets against the priests. Drawing on texts such as these, scholars would draw a stark contrast between two sorts of religious streams of consciousness within Israel, and the practice associated with them. Originally proposed by German scholars like Julius Wellhausen, an evolutionist paradigm of the growth of Hebrew religion (which typically went hand in hand with a sort of European, liberal Protestant, anti-Semitism) liked to see a line of development from older, retrograde forms of religion caught up with ritual, blood, and sacrifice, towards later, moral, spiritual, anti-sacrificial religion in the Prophets. Max Weber also worked a prophet v. priest paradigm into his classic Economy and Society, and let’s just say the priests don’t come out looking too good, either.

While this line of thought waned a bit, or transformed, in his work challenging the anti-sacrificial bias in 20th Century scholarship, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple, Jonathan Klawans notes that forms of this paradigm still have some vigorous advocates in the academy (75-77). (Though, it should be noted that later iterations have consciously and rightly tried to purge the anti-Semitic sentiments.)

At a popular level, though, recent advocates of non-violent, “Christocentric”, or Girardian re-readings of the Old Testament will often point to these sorts of texts to show that the Bible itself contains dialogue and disagreements that present ideological disjuncts, which force readers to choose between them. When we encounter these passages, we may begin to re-evaluate our entire notion of God’s gift/revelation of the Law, its sacrificial prescriptions, and its place in understanding Christ’s work on the cross in the New Testament. In which case, when we see that Christ himself “takes sides” in his own non-violent, anti-sacrificial ministry (Matt. 9:13), the choice becomes clear.

But is this dichotomy between a priestly and an anti-sacrificial, prophetic ideology really at work in Israel’s Scriptures? Or if there is one, is it a hard one? Are we dealing with an absolute, theological disagreement in these critiques, or something more mitigated, more specific, more contextually-focused?

purity and klawansKlawans argues vigorously and decisively for the latter in chapter 3 of his aforementioned work. What I want to do in this post is simply summarize a bit of his case, since it’s very helpful in clearing up recent muddled discussions, and drawing our attention to pertinent facts which are frequently glossed over in these discussions.

Challenging the Dichotomy

First, after summarizing the paradigm, Klawans makes the important point that Weber’s influential dichotomy doesn’t really hold up cleanly on close inspection:

Jeremiah was descended from priests (Jer. 1:1), as was Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:1–3). Prophetic heroes like Moses, Samuel, and Elijah are remembered as actively performing sacrificial offerings (e.g., Exod. 24:4–8; 1 Sam. 3:1, 7:10, 9:14; 1 Kgs. 18:30–39)… It is sometimes surmised that Isaiah—whose call vision is situated in God’s sanctuary (Isa. 6:1)—may have been of priestly descent himself, though the evidence in this regard is certainly inconclusive. Without any doubt later prophets such as Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were actively involved in the restoration of sacrificial worship in the early Second Temple period. Under the influence of Sigmund Mowinckel (1884–1966), the designation ‘‘cultic prophet’’ has also been applied to additional biblical figures, including Nahum, Habbakuk, and Joel, among others If prophetic activity could be cultic, and prophets themselves priestly, could their rejection of sacrifice really have been complete? (79-80)

Tracing this out at length does much to dissipate the appearance of an absolute disagreement about sacrifice and cult.

Second, the ideal types don’t match up when you consider the fact that some priestly material evinces some of the allegedly prophetic, moral edge. Leviticus 19 blends the two without any sense that cultic piety concerned with proper sacrifice and moral piety concerned with social justice and love of neighbor are at odds.

Third, we must consider the fact that prophets criticize more than sacrifice:

Amos objects to the Israelites’ festivals (Amos 5:21), and Isaiah objects to their prayers (Isa. 1:14–15). Is it conceivable that the prophets have categorically opposed all forms of worship? If they didn’t oppose all prayer, could they really have opposed all sacrifice? (80)

We rightly don’t have significant theses about the anti-supplicatory bent in prophetic theology, so why sacrifice?

Fourth, relatedly, some prophets include the Temple and the restoration of sacrificial worship in their visions of the restoration of Israel. Isaiah and Micah see visions of worshippers streaming to the Temple (Isa. 2:1-4; Mic. 4:1-5). Jeremiah mentions sacrifices specifically (Jer. 17:26; 33:17-18). And obviously Ezekiel, with his vision of the restoration of the Temple and its worship spanning 7-8 chapters certainly didn’t have an anti-sacrificial bias.

Fifth, the Prophets were a feisty bunch. They were prone to dramatic provocation in order to make a point. Isaiah walked around naked. Ezekiel cooked his food over feces. Hosea likely married a prostitute. It helps to remember, then, that violent, poetic, hyperbole was one of the least controversial means at their disposal to render a critique.

This really can’t be stressed enough. Work through the prophets at length, consult good guides to genre, style, the nature of Hebrew poetry, etc. and you realize just how unnecessary some of these dichotomous readings really are. Klawans argues that, “What seems like a categorical rejection can probably be better be understood as a prioritization” (81). Formulations of advice with the “not…but…” structure appear elsewhere (Prov. 8:10), and in these cases, it seems clear the advice is not absolute.

Taken together, these various considerations ought to make us slow to accept the absolute dichotomy between “sacrificial” ideologies and “prophetic” religion proposed by both scholars and popular thinkers. (I don’t have space to fill this out, but here I’d simply add that when we turn to the New Testament and consider Christ’s ministry and work, we should similarly avoid such dichotomies. Christ ministers as King, Priest, and Prophet, fulfilling the divine directives of all three.)

Explaining the Challenge: Sacrifice without Cost

But how can we explain these texts? Because there really is a critique. And it’s very likely that the prophets were denouncing actual priestly practice they were observing. We cannot and should not try to muzzle, or dismiss these texts.

I cannot adequately summarize Klawan’s full proposal or analysis here, but I’ll try to note a few key points.

First, he suggests that the most common approach, which suggests the problem is not sacrifice per se but the abuse of the practice, has merit: “Proper worship presupposes moral righteousness” (82). In the absence of righteousness, then, the worship itself becomes detestable, as Abraham Heschel argued. Klawans cautions, though, that many iterations of this response often assume modern, theological sensibilities foreign to the text, such as the “ritual-versus-ethics distinction”, or merely external versus internal obedience, or letter versus spirit.

Second, Klawans argues that light is shed on the situation when you consider that sacrifice as ritual should be understood as a form of repeated, symbolic action (yet another way of breaking down the world of the prophetic and the priestly).

Materially, Klawans notes that however you come to think of the function of sacrifice (communion, expiation, gift, etc.), every notion involves “at least in part the transfer of property from the layperson to the priest, and from the priest to God” (84). Your sacrifice is to be something you own, or else it is not sacrifice on any reading. Klawans supports this analysis in a variety of ways from Levitical literature involving ownership, the laying on of hands, laws of restitution, etc. (85-86). He takes this as a key hook into part of the prophetic critique of sacrifice.

Exemplary here is David’s protest in 1 Chron. 21, when Araunah offers to give him the threshing floor and the sacrifice to avert the destruction of the plague: “no, I will by them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24; 1 Chron. 21:24). Klawans comments, “If what’s given to you constitutes an inappropriate offering to God, how much more what is stolen!” (86)

Klawans goes on to point out that much of the prophetic critique concerns the immoral means by which sacrificial material has been acquired. Amos’s condemnation connects transgressions cult with violations of the rights of the poor (2:6-8). Isaiah 61:8 explicitly pictures the Lord declaring, “for I the Lord love justice: I hate robbery with a burnt offering.” Malachi is also concerned with right offerings before Lord and sees them tainted through their being lame, blind, sickly, and stolen (1:6-13). They are detestable to the Lord because they are “brought without due cost” (87).

Passage after passage could be adduced connecting the concern for economic exploitation with the critique of sacrifice (Amos 5; Isa. 1; Jer. 6), suggesting “the prophets ‘rejection’ of sacrifice was deeply connected to their belief that Israel was economically rotten to the core” (87). This renders their sacrifices both ritually and morally grotesque. There is a gap between the meaning of sacrifice and the moral and economic culture surrounding its current practice that nullified it. On this understanding, if you take the prophets tendency towards exaggeration, hyperbole, and provocation, “who wasn’t a thief in Amos’s conception of things?” (88). For Amos, there is a fundamental problem with the practice of sacrifice in his time.

We can even say there may be a split between the prophets and the priests at the time when the critiques were leveled. They may have differed in their evaluation of Israel’s spiritual state, or how bad the corruption had gotten—was it the kind of thing the cult could deal with or not? But this is far from a matter of rejecting the cult in toto, or seeing it as not truly given by God, or replacing it with a completely different form of religion because Israel has evolved in its relationship beyond such messy, violent, sacrificial forms.

I don’t have time to follow out the rest of his analysis, but even glancing over at Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (Jer. 7:9-14), you see many of the same concerns at work. The whole text gives you a sense that the economic dimension is connected to that broader concern that Israelite practice of the cult is corrupt, rather than the cultic system as given in the Law itself.

While we may not be convinced that this economic dimension is the heart of the critique, or its only facet, nor that this solves all of our problems with these texts, Klawan has shown that those who refuse see the prophetic critique as fundamentally opposed to priestly practice and the cult are on to something. Instead of an irreconcilable, ideological division, we have historically-situated criticisms of practices and institutions surrounding the Temple, sacrifice, and so forth. We therefore “must avoid simple categorizations, be they religious or scholarly”, and we “cannot selectively take certain prophetic texts at face value” (99).

Slowing Down

As a final point, I’d simply add I believe the same sort of case can be made with a number of the apparent, ideological splits, or theological “contradictions” in Scripture currently being proposed as wedges, asking us to listen to these verses, not those, or these voices, not those. Yes, there are many apparent difficulties. There are tensions which are difficult to resolve—especially when we pit hasty readings against each other. And, at times, it is simply easier to throw our hands up and “admit”, or “be honest”, that we just can’t make the parts fit together.

But this is an impatience that, if given into, stunts our ability to sit humbly with the texts and hear from the Lord. We will become readers who need our Scriptures simple, immediately transparent, and able to be summarized in a soundbite. We more and more become a people uncomfortable with nuance and tension in our theology, our preaching, and ultimately our practice of faith.

Indeed, it’s instructive that Jesus invites his hearers to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’,” (Matt. 9:13). He does not presume the answer will be immediately apparent. He invites them to go learn, consider, meditate slowly on the text, and then come back and evaluate his work. I suggest his invitation remains the same today.

Soli Deo Gloria