Amos, Micah, and Isaiah – A word much needed again today

My undergraduate degree is in both Bible and Theology, which suits me just fine as a Reformed theologian. Consequently, I like to dip my toes into biblical studies from time to time and—again, as a Reformed theologian—I find myself fascinated by the Tanakh / Hebrew Scriptures / Old(er) Testament. (Regular DET readers will recognize some of these impulses coming to expression in my work with Calvin’s commentary on Malachi.) Lately I’ve been reading about the history of Israelite religion, and I have been not only learning a lot but also finding a great deal of theological stimulation.

The passage that I want to share with you below, gentle reader, has to do with the criticisms leveled by the prophets Amos, Micah, and Isaiah against the cultic institutions of Yahweh worship. This passage jumped out at me because it resonates so clearly with the shape of “Christianity” in contemporary North American society. And it is a word that cuts through North American “Christianity” in all its facets: none of our churches—whether mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, or anything else in between—are wholly untouched. (I don’t consider myself competent to comment on the situation among North American Jews and Muslims, who also claim interpretive rights to these prophetic texts.) As usual, bold is mine and italics are original (I have dropped citations to biblical texts – if you want to see them, get your hands on the book).

Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, Volume 1, From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy (WJK, 1994), 171–72.

Amos, Micah and Isaiah fundamentally reject the cultic practice of their time because it covers up the social injustice and misery in society. Worship in which the upper class put their plundered riches on show and seek to gain religion security, worship which is no longer matched by justice and solidarity in everyday life, is for Amos sheer pesa, rebellion against God. Amos and Isaiah are not afraid to hurl these provocative accusations in the faces of those who take part in worship: they slip into the role of the priest who had to confirm that the performance of the sacrifice was well-pleasing to God, only to proclaim publically in worship that Yahweh refuses to accept this whole cultic practice. Instead of sacrifices and songs they call for justice and righteousness in the name of Yahweh and solidarity with the poor. . . .

Amos and Micah go so far in their criticism as to announce the destruction of the main centres of what for them is a godless cultIn particular the cult of Jerusalem gave the upper classes a certainty of salvation which made them totally insensitive to the injustice that was emanating from them. When Micah claimed, to the contrary, that the city of God would be devastated along with its temple…he was fundamentally putting in question the way in which the official temple theology had commandeered Yahweh for the cult. In the view of the prophets, Yahweh’s bond with justice, his partisan support for those without rights, went so far that he could dissociate himself from his own cult.

I hope the parallel that I’m getting at is clear, but I’ll elaborate a little. Too often, “Christianity” in North America—i.e., those who claim to worship this same God, Yahweh, as vectored by way of Jesus Christ—serves as just this sort of justification for those who have wealth, isolating them from God’s demand for solidarity with the poor. Solidarity, not charity. Solidarity is only possible through breaking down the social structures that get in the way of true mutuality, and it is just these structures that those with wealth are impervious to and that the religion criticized by these prophets supported. Notice how he speaks of “injustice emanating from them,” i.e., from the upper classes. You don’t get this kind of social stratification, where one class is struggling to eke out a living and another class wallows in luxury, from morally neutral social structures. If you have this sort of stratification, then you don’t have morally neutral social structures, much less morally good ones. Those on the receiving end of benefits accruing from unjust social structures are culpable for the injustice perpetuated by those structures. And peddling easy assurances of salvation that don’t question these fundamental social justice issues is not something that God will tolerate, according to Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. Instead, God will “dissociate himself from his own cult” and—unspoken in the paragraphs quoted above but nonetheless true—will become this cult’s enemy.

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