Walter Brueggemann writes in his book THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION, “Israel can only be understood in terms of the new call of God and his assertion of an alternative social reality.” The key word in that sentence is alternative. In Biblical terms we are talking about being holy, set apart, or different. The whole story revolves around that idea. If we forget that Israel was meant to be an alternative social reality we are also in danger of forgetting that God is alternative divine reality. It goes, almost without saying, that the way the people viewed their God affected they way they lived with one another. Another way to say this is that idolatry often led to injustice. The prophets were sent by God to address both. Their common theme placed worship and sacrifice as a secondary notion to justice.
Has the Lord as great delight in brunt 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 the rams. – I Samuel 15:22
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?...I have had enough of burnt offerings or rams and the fat of fed beasts…even though you make many prayers I will not listen for your hands are full of blood…learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. – Isaiah 1:10-17
Why do we fast, but you do not see?...Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? – Isaiah 58
Add you burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. – Jeremiah 7:21-22
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. – Amos 5:21-24
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? He has told you, O mortal, what is good: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:6-8
These are not all the verses in which you will find the prophets reminding Israel of their alternative-ness, but they are enough to make the point. That is, when the prophets looked at the surrounding cultures and countries, they saw a worship that led to society that was oppressive and exploitative. The king prospered while the rest of the citizens slaved away. Because the view of the gods rooted this social reality in created order there was little recourse to rebel or critique. Worship was only a means of appeasing the gods and maintaining the established order. Chaos, even a revolt by the overworked masses, would have been seen as punishment by the gods. Israel’s prophets would not tolerate such an order.
When Israel laid out many sacrifices or weighed themselves down in fasting or ashes, but did not maintain justice they imagine their God to be like the others. It is a seductive notion, after all. Why should God be concerned with my social dealings as long as I continue to offer what is due him; the fat of the calf, the blood offering, a chorus of music, or fervent prayer? Shouldn’t God be happy to look the other way as long as I flood his nose with the sweet fragrance of sacrifice? “No!” say the prophets, “You have turned the Lord into an idol.” The Israelites may not have been bowing down before the other gods (though often they were), but they had been assuming their God offered no alternative to the other gods. Their idolatry led to injustice.
The prophets make clear that God set Israel apart not so that there would be a people to call his own, but so that there would be a people who could show the world an alternative social reality, a holy way of life. Central to that way of life is not pious worship, but justice. In contrast to exploitation and oppression, Israel would be a land off order and beauty as all people, male and female, joined with God in creating. The prophets did not tolerate idolatry because they knew all too well that false worship led to injustice. They knew that their God was the God of justice and worshipping that God in heaven led to an alternative, social reality on earth. While the prophets articulated this message, it was the law that made it plain.