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The Prophets and the Temple

Prophetic religion is commonly thought to oppose temple worship and to insist that proper ethical behavior alone is sufficient for God–but evidence suggests otherwise.

Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall

There is no single view among the prophets concerning the Jerusalem temple, its importance, and the rituals practiced there. Because the Hebrew Bible is a collection from many time periods and places, different prophets have different attitudes toward the temple and cultic rites.

Prophetic religion is commonly thought to oppose temple worship and to insist that proper ethical behavior alone is sufficient for God, who does not demand any sort of ritual behavior. Prophetic religion, in this view, assumes that “right” (ethical action) trumps “rite” (worship).

Isa 1:10-17 is often used as a prime example of prophetic religion. It reads in part:

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)
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (Isa 1:16-17)

Amos 5:21-25 is similar, as seen especially in verse 24, famously quoted in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

The conclusion of Mic 6:6-8 expresses the same idea:

what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8)

It is difficult to know exactly how exaggerated these speeches are—are they saying that sacrifice and prayer are useless, or are they saying that they are useless unless accompanied by proper ethical behavior?

Temples, sacrifice, public assemblies, and other ritual acts were a fundamental part of ancient Near Eastern worship, making it hard to imagine that any peoples at that time imagined religion that did not involve rituals. Indeed, in the oft-cited passage above from Isaiah, that prophet tells the people to “wash themselves”—a ritual activity. Thus, the message of such prophecies was likely that temple worship was not automatically effective and that ritual practice must be accompanied by ethical behavior. Prophecies such as these (see also Jer 7:1-15) should be viewed like headlines in tabloids—intended to shock—but should not be taken at face value.

Although such rhetorical, anti-temple, anti-cult prophecies are found in the Hebrew Bible, they are relatively few in number and are counterbalanced by many texts, including some in prophetic literature, that emphasize the importance of the temple and temple service. The clearest example of this pro-temple attitude in the prophets is found in Hag 1. Haggai prophesied soon after the Judeans began to return from exile in Babylonia, and a major aspect of his mission was convincing the leadership to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, to replace the one destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. He notes in verse 4: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house [that is, the temple] lies in ruins?” The final chapters of Ezekiel (see chapters 40-48) describe a new temple in Jerusalem. Clearly for these prophets, as for others, the temple stood at the center of ancient Israel, and proper ethical behavior was not sufficient for establishing the relationship between the Israelites and their god.

  • Marc Zvi Brettler

    Marc Zvi Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. He is the author of How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford, 2007) and coeditor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament.