The Prophets, Gods, and Social Oppression

Some comments on semester readings coming up. In the introduction to An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books C. Hassell Bullock writes of gods and prophets:

The worship of idols violated another critical principle in OT religion [in addition to God’s sovereign rule over the world]. It disregarded the ethical undergirdings of Yahwism. Basic human relationships defined and guarded in the Pentateuch, were broken down in the Baal cult. The boundaries that secured family ties, especially sexual regulations, were erased by the fertility rites performed in the pagan sanctuaries. The ethical demands of justice and righteousness, with their implications for the court of law and the marketplace, lost their tenacity within Baalism. Its fundamental moral assumptions were in contradiction to those of prophetic persuasion. Idolatry summed up all that was wrong with Israel. Somewhere in its mystic anatomy was a cavity where every sin had its fullest expression and found its perfect lair. (23)

God’s laws define and guard us; his desire is to preserve our identities and His image in us. When we break His boundaries down we are subject to grave loss. For example, this passage reminds me of the discussion in Marriage and Family Counseling about sexual intimacy among teens, and their inability to understand what they are giving up by sexual activity until it’s already gone. When we exchange God’s glory for our glory, we hold with less “tenacity” even the things we know are good, true, and right. Justice is less just, righteousness less right, and compassion less compassionate. This creates cavities for sin to propagate.

Later he writes of social oppression and prophets:

The Israelite settlement in Canaan and the gradual assimilation of Canaanite civilization created a social problem for the fledgling nation, that of a new class. As the tribal organization and the collective solidarity that went with it began to dissolve, the individual and his interests became more evident. The right to hold private property and the practice of amassing wealth were both recognized and practiced by the Hebrews in Canaan. Thus we have the basis for class distinction between the rich and poor. * * * The monarchy played no small part in deepening class distinctions. * * * Cities became more important as business and cultural centers of exchange. A definite class interest began to assert itself. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer. . . And, as is generally the case, the economic differences gave rise to social distinctions that bred corruption, oppression, and injustice. Samuel warned Israel that the monarchy would introduce alarming social change (1 Sam. 8:11-18). * * * The prophets were not social reformers. They were theological reformers, for their basic motivation was generated within their commitment to the fundamental laws of God. Their reaction against the developing social order can be seen as early as Elijah and his defense of Naboth against Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 21). The king as chief guarantor of justice to his people was a common understanding in the ancient Near East. Yet he had taken on the reverse role. Having no channel of authority except Yahweh’s word, the prophets stepped forth to defend the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the resident alien. Assuming a role that otherwise belonged to the king, they provided a third-party defense. Their concern emanated from Yahweh’s own compassionate nature (Deut. 15:11; 24:14-15; Ex. 22:21-27) and the responsibility of each citizen to dispense justice (Mic. 6:8). Abraham Heschel has stated that justice was important to the prophets because it was God’s stake in human life. It is in man-to-man relations that the life of God is expressed, and it is between man and man that the reputation of God is at its greatest risk.

The parallels to modern American experience should be pretty clear.  Thus, the prophets ought to provide little struggle for an American pastor in the pulpit (and on the streets) against anachronistic obtuseness. Justice as “God’s stake in human life” is a pretty profound thought and also ought to get us thinking about the importance (not exclusivity — don’t hear what I’m not saying) of substitutionary atonement in preserving, transmitting, and securing God’s image and His very character in the lives of His children through His Son and the Holy Spirit.

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