Abstract of Barton, John. “The Prophets and the Cult.”

Barton, John. “The Prophets and the Cult.” In Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel. Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, edited by John Day, 111-22. London: T&T Clark, 2007. [Israel/Ritual/Liturgy/Worship]

This paper seeks to answer two important questions.  First, what did the classical prophets think about Temple practice in pre- and post-exilic Israel? Second, how far were people who can be identified as prophets actually involved in the Israelite Temple?  Over the years, largely Protestant students have argued that the prophets were against ritual, sacrifice, the law, and the Temple. This is an issue because there appear to be many anti-cult statements from many pre-exilic prophets in the Bible.  Those of the post-exilic prophets are more positive. There are various methods and theories of dealing with this issue. One main line of argument is that “it is simply not conceivable that anyone in ancient Israel would have been so radically-ritualistic as the texts seem to imply.” (p. 113) Sometimes this point is linked with the “speculation” that finding anti-ritualistic attitudes in the prophets reflects a characteristic Protestant agenda. Jewish scholars likewise say this is a Christian attitude in general. The easiest way to reconcile these differences “is to argue that they were to speaking against cultic ritual in principle, but rather wanted to introduce an order of priorities. Sacrifice is not unacceptable in itself, but is simply of a lower order of importance than social justice or heartfelt repentance.” This is the idea conveyed by Jesus in Mt. 23:23.   Another argument “is that the prophets were opposed to ritual when offered by those with hands polluted by crime, rather than in itself. This can claim some support from Isa. 1.15…”  “This does not imply a root–and–branch opposition to the cult, but only the (surely widely shared) belief that those who offer sacrifice must be in a state of purity, and moral transgression–especially such sins as murder or theft–pollute the would-be worshipper just as much as offenses against purity regulations do, and make the sacrifices unacceptable. So in Mal. 3.3-4 the offerings need purification; tut there is no question of an opposition to religious ritual as such.”  (p. 114) Some argue the prophets themselves were cultic officials, so it is inconceivable they would oppose the sacrificial cult as such, so some other explanation must be found.  This is a characteristic argument in Scandinavian scholarship where the cult is more popular than in Germany or England. (p. 114) Efforts to show what appear to be pro-cultic prophets, are really not.

The author shows some strengths and weaknesses of all of these arguments. In the process he collectively concedes that most of the seeming anti-cultic statements have some reasonable and rational explanations.  However, he is particularly sensitive to three issues: 1) The idea that nobody in Israelite society could have resisted and criticized the Temple cult; 2) that the anti-cultic view is Protestant driven, and 3) that many want the prophets on both sides of the exile to speak with one voice on the issue of the temple.  His most lengthy rebuttal is against the notion that Israelites could not oppose the cult. He draws upon empirical evidence in Psalm 50 (pp. 116-117), and more especially on the theoretical analysis of ritual by Mary Douglas who deals with this phenomenon in religion generally, and provides several important examples to the contrary. (pp. 117-118.) He goes to some length to argue that the “classical” prophets were not a homogeneous group.  Finally, he argues that scholars have not been precise enough in defining clearly what the temple cult is when assuming the view of the prophets toward it.  (p. 119) For example, the pre-exilic injunctions against sacrifice are largely aimed at sacrifices associated with festivals, celebrations, and fasting but not for sin. Only Micah does so in Mic. 6:6.  Therefore their disapproval may be aimed at those things rather than questions of religious ritual observance. He concedes “The majority of prophetic condemnation does seem to concern the offering of sacrifice or (in the case of Isa. 58), the practice of fasting by those who are morally compromised. The way to please Yahweh, the prophets argue, or the way to be forgive of one’s sins, is to engage in moral reform.  Until that is done, practicing cultic observances compounds the insult being offered to God.” (p. 120.) Nevertheless, there remain half a dozen passages (Mic. 6:6; Amos 5:25; Jer. 2:1-3; Jer. 7:22; and Ps 50) that “seem hostile to sacrificial activity in itself” (p. 120). Our author concludes that these vindicate the Protestant view and prove one could oppose the sacrificial cult in Israel.

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