By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Proper 14 (9) C
Solomon offered as sacrifices of well-being to the LORD twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the LORD.
—1 Kings 8.63
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. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?”
This week’s lections from Isaiah and Psalm 50 offer a classic “religion of empire” vs. “religion of creation” contrast with the passage from First Kings. While Solomon and his imperial priests celebrate the consecration of the Jerusalem temple with a massive slaughter of oxen and sheep, the prophet and the psalmist powerfully proclaim YHWH’s abhorrence of this holocaust. And when we take a closer look at both passages, we can hear clearly what kind of “sacrifices” God truly wants humanity to offer and what that suggests for our own lives of radical discipleship.
Let’s start with Isaiah. Our lection is from the first chapter of Isaiah, right after a vision reveals to Isaiah the sorry state of Judah and Jerusalem in the eighth century BCE. Our passage immediately surprises readers by being directed not to the people of Jerusalem or Judah (1.1), but to the “rulers” (Heb, qetsiney, with possible military connotations; cf. Josh 10.24) of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah. The rare word for “rulers” and its plural form suggest the leaders of the security forces that protect the city from outsiders. Further, Sodom is presented as coming to YHWH (as opposed to other, local gods) at the Jerusalem temple (1.12), in c”ontrast with common prophetic oracles in the name of YHWH addressed to “foreign” cities and peoples not understood as in relationship with YHWH (e.g. Isa 23). But later in Isaiah, Sodom and Gomorrah are described as already “overthrown” (13.19; Heb., mahpachah), using a verb almost exclusively associated with this proverbial event (Deut 29.22; Jer 49.18; 50.40; cf. Isa 1.7). Perhaps Isaiah’s address to Sodom and Gomorrah in the name of YHWH has in mind the later prophet Ezekiel’s condemnation of the cities for failure of hospitality to the poor (Ezek 16.49). Apparently, the prophet speaks to the already overthrown city rulers and people to express YHWH’s ongoing power both to destroy and to save. (Isa 2.1ff).
The social context is a desolate land, burned by fire and estranged from “the Holy One of Israel” (1.4-7). As is so often the case, after the disaster has struck, people are searching desperately for what to do to undo the damage and restore the community to health. But in no uncertain terms, YHWH rejects both animal sacrifice and religious rituals done “with iniquity” (1.13). It is a common theme among the prophets (e.g., Micah 6; Amos 5). The structure of our passage in Isaiah 1 reveals the reason:
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats….
rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
The three proffered animal types parallel three suffering groups of humans. In other words, instead of killing animals to placate God’s wrath, the prophet speaks YHWH’s call to care for the vulnerable (cf. Isa 58).
We might expect this from a prophet, but it comes as perhaps more of a surprise when similar sentiments are expressed in our second lection by a psalmist. In Psalm 50, though, we hear named an additional aspect of YHWH’s character. God rejects animal sacrifice by God’s people because
…every wild animal of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know (Heb, yada’) all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine. (Psalm 50. 10-11).
The Hebrew yada’ for “know” implies intimate knowledge, akin to sexuality (e.g., Gen 4.1). To YHWH, the animals and birds aren’t simply “there,” they are known by God as a person knows their lover. No wonder YHWH doesn’t want them killed!
The Psalmist goes on to offer a bit of holy sarcasm from YHWH: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you…Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (50.12-13). The psalm does not directly juxtapose the victims with the sacrifices as in Isaiah. Rather, the psalmist names the sins of those who would propitiate God with sacrifices:
“You hate discipline…You cast my words behind you…you make friends with a thief…you keep company with adulterers…you give your moth free rein for evil…your tongue frames deceit…you sit and speak against your kin…you slander your own mother’s child…you thought that I was one just like yourself.” (1.17-21).
In other words, they act like religious hypocrites throughout the ages, seeking to be seen as holy and devout while, in practice, destroying their community with lies and violence.
Both the prophet and the psalmist name the real sacrifices that would please YHWH. We already heard Isaiah call the people to “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Similarly, the psalm invites the people to “offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving…call on me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (1.14-15; also, 1.23).
In our world, of course, we no longer offer animal sacrifices as part of our worship. But there is no doubt that we continue to manifest the same religious hypocrisy in high places, claiming to serve God while actively destroying the lives of our oppressed and impoverished human siblings, along with our callous containment of cows, pigs and chickens in “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). Daily, we read and see stories of children at the border treated worse than cattle, immigrants targeted as rapists and criminals, the poor cut off from even minimal provisions for obtaining basic human needs. How does God call us to respond?
Our passages this week call us to be prophets, poets and song-writers for justice. It is we who must, like Isaiah, call out the “rulers” for their oppression of the poor. It is we who must, like the psalmist, proclaim poetry that names both the sin and the solution, in images that “stick.” And, although we don’t have the “music,” we know that the psalms were often sung and accompanied by musicians. We, too, must write and sing songs of protest and thanksgiving that challenge and inspire us to “keep on keeping on” the fight for God’s justice and shalom. It is we who must announce the truth of our God who “knows” every living creature, which, biblically speaking, includes mountains, hills and rivers. It is we who must work together to keep the vision of God’s compassionate reign before us always.
To whom are you called to speak God’s truth this day? To whom are you led to sing a song of God’s justice? To whom are you invited to be a poet of praise to the God who knows us all better than we know ourselves? May our prophetic witness, poetry and music reveal where, as Luke’s Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12.34). May our true treasure lie in our energetic membership in God’s Beloved Community of all creation.
 For more on how this contrast between the religion of empire and the religion of creation plays out throughout the Bible, see Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!:” God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond (Orbis 2010).
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.