Orthodox Social Thought and the Prophets

[T]he law and the prophets were until John: the law, that its transgressors might desire salvation; the prophets, that they might foretell the Saviour. –  St. Augustine of Hippo

Life of Elijah

One might think that after the Lord himself freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and gave them the Law, conquering Canaan would be a cakewalk. Despite some clear warning signs in Numbers, by the end of Deuteronomy things feel a bit like that song from the Lego Movie: “Everything is Awesome.” What could go wrong? Well … everything.

Sure, the story of Israel from Joshua to the Maccabees isn’t entirely awful. But anyone who reads through that narrative feels the weight of disappointment by the end. The reality is more like that song from the Lego Movie 2: “Everything’s not Awesome.” It’s a little silly, but a few choice lyrics will illustrate what I mean:

Everything’s not awesome
Everything’s not cool
I am so depressed

Everything’s not awesome
But that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless and bleak

Everything’s not awesome
Things can’t be awesome all of the time
It’s an unrealistic expectation
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try

Under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’s successor, Israel makes great strides in conquering the Promised Land. But they soon face oppression from without and turmoil from within. In our Orthodox Bibles, we can find a short summary in Judith:

God dried up the Red Sea before [Israel]…. They drove out all the people of the desert … and crossing over the Jordan they took possession of all the hill country. They drove out before them the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Shechemites, and all the Gergesites, and lived there a long time.

As long as they did not sin against their God they prospered, for the God who hates iniquity is with them. But when they departed from the way he had prescribed for them, they were utterly defeated … led away captive to a foreign land. The temple of their God was razed to the ground, and their towns were occupied by their enemies. [But they] returned to their God, and [came] back from the places where they were scattered, and have occupied Jerusalem, where their sanctuary is…. (Judith 5:14-18)

The details of Judith itself seem to be deliberately anachronistic, a literary technique sometimes used by oppressed peoples to write about those oppressing them without risking the consequences of direct criticism. In any case, despite claiming to be about Nebuchadnezzar and/or the Assyrians, most scholars agree it was written at a later time, perhaps drawing upon a real-life story of a Jewish victory over the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire during the third century BC. The Seleucids fought with Ptolemaic Egypt over Palestine for a century, finally obtaining control of it around 200, only to be defeated by the Jews in the Maccabean Revolt, starting in 166. The Maccabees, a century later, would be conquered by the Roman Republic, which soon after became the Roman Empire, setting the stage for the time of Christ.

How did it come to this? Judith tells us: “As long as they did not sin against their God they prospered…. But when they departed from the way he had prescribed for them, they were utterly defeated….” The death of Joshua left a leadership vacuum. “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:5). The people fell into the following cycle: They would forsake the Lord and his Law, fall victim to foreign oppressors, then cry out for redemption. God would then raise up a “judge” to save them. Despite being chosen by God, we again see that everything’s not awesome: Most of the judges violated Law themselves. Samson, the Hebrew Hercules, may be the most famous in this regard, but he wasn’t alone. Gideon, for example, immediately led the people back into idolatry after freeing them.

The implied solution to this turmoil is that if “in those days Israel had no king,” then having a king would make everything awesome again. The story even culminates in Ruth, king David’s great, great grandmother, indicating that the author of both books was likely an apologist for the Davidic dynasty. But when we examine how Israel became a kingdom, the contrast between this ideal and the reality couldn’t be sharper.

In the books of Kingdoms (1-2 Samuel; 1-2 Kings), we see another figure like Moses or Joshua, a mighty leader who serves as prophet, priest, and ruler: Samuel. Though faithful to the Lord all his life, his sons ruled Israel in corruption and evil. So the people cried out, “make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Kingdoms/1 Samuel 8:5). Despite providing guidelines for a king in Deuteronomy, the Lord consoles Samuel in his grief, saying, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (8:8). Why? They didn’t just request a king but one “like all the nations.” God made them holy, his peculiar people, and Israel asked to be like everyone else. Thus, while granting their request, the Lord instructs Samuel to warn them that their king would conscript their sons and take their daughters into his household service; he would take the best of their produce and livestock in taxes; and “you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day” (8:18).

Nevertheless, like the story of Joseph in Genesis, what the people intended for evil, God used for good. The role of the Lord’s anointed one (Messiah, Christ) becomes divided between several persons, offices, and social spheres: the king and the state, the priests and the Temple, and the prophets among the people. As head of the state, the king should rule in justice and not lead the people into idolatry. The priests must faithfully administer the rites, sacrifices, and ceremonies commanded by the Law. And the prophets … well, their job came about when everything wasn’t awesome with the other two (basically all the time).

God made a promise to David, that a descendant of his would someday rule Israel forever. But in the meantime, David’s grandson laid so heavy an economic burden upon the people that the kingdom split in two: The northern ten tribes formed the kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria. The remaining tribes in the south continued the line of David in Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem.

An Old Testament prophet preached the Word of the Lord, calling God’s people to repent and return to the Law, warning them of the consequences of disobedience, and comforting the faithful with the promise of salvation. The biblical books named for prophets all find their historical setting during the time when God divided Israel into two kingdoms, during the people’s exile after being conquered—the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 BC, the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 586—and lastly after the return of the Jews to Judea (Judah) in 516 under Persian rule, when Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord were rebuilt under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. The northern Tribes never enjoyed such a return from exile and instead intermarried with the surrounding peoples. After the Jews returned to Judea—bringing with them a new institution of religious education, the synagogue—these ethnically mixed descendants of the northern kingdom became known as the Samaritans.

“Elijah Slays the Prophets of Baal” – Illustration from Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bibel

We shouldn’t limit the role of prophet to those books that bear prophets’ names, however. Perhaps the most famous prophet, Elias (Elijah), has no book named for him. Rather, we find the works of Elias in 3 Kingdoms (1 Kings), in particular how he preached against king Ahab and queen Jezebel of Israel, who turned the people to worship Baal (among others), and who notoriously slaughtered Naboth, a poor man, to acquire his property. Despite all the evil they committed, this act of murder to violate the property rights of the poor became emblematic of their wickedness. The prophets preached against impiety, to be sure, but they never separated that mission from the plight of the impoverished.

Through Isaiah, for example, the Lord reprimanded his people in the times of Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah (or perhaps later). “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen?
Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’” The Lord responds,

In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure,
And exploit all your laborers.

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:

To loose the bonds of wickedness,

To undo the heavy burdens,

To let the oppressed go free,

And that you break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;

When you see the naked, that you cover him,

And not hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:3, 6-7)

This passage in particular rebukes those who fasted but neglected almsgiving. Asceticism is social as well as personal. The Lord reminds them that fasting shouldn’t just benefit ourselves but free up resources to help the needy. He expects them to give their workers time off, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free prisoners, welcome the homeless, and care for their kindred. Despite their seeming piety, the Lord “desire[s] mercy not sacrifice,” as the prophet Hosea put it (6:6). And so even at their best, even when knowledge of the Lord spread so far that Elisaie (Elisha), Elias’s successor, anointed the king of Syria, and Jonah preached to Nineveh, Israel and Judah fell gravely short of their calling.

By the end of the Prophets, the Hasmonean dynasty rules a Hellenized Judea, complete with gymnasiums as centers of Greek culture and education. While the Maccabees fought for the people’s right to follow the Law, their descendants declared themselves kings without Davidic lineage, and some also acted as priests. Thus, the anointed offices of prophet, priest, and king came together again, but their dynasty lacked legitimacy, and despite fighting for and adhering to Jewish religion, they came to be culturally Hellenized themselves. Their downfall to the Romans, though considered tragic, also fit with the pattern of God using foreign powers to judge his people. Yet the people by this time held on to the hope, delivered to them through countless prophets scorned and martyred in their day, of a true Messiah or Christ, from the line of David, who would usher in that day when


Many nations shall come and say,
“Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
He will teach us His ways,
And we shall walk in His paths.”
For out of Zion the law shall go forth,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Micah 4:2)

And what would happen in that day? The meek would inherit the land:

I will make the lame a remnant,
And the outcast a strong nation;
So the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
From now on, even forever. (4:7)


The Lord asks, “Is there no king in your midst?” (4:9) and consoles them with the assurance that their suffering is not in vain but rather the birth-pangs of their redemption.

Before we get to the surprising manifestation of that promise in our Lord Jesus Christ, when as St. Ephraim the Syrian put it, “The prophets’ sweet salt is to-day sprinkled among the Gentiles,” we will continue this series by first examining the social thought of what St. Jerome noted the Jews in his day called Hagiographa, holy “Writings”—those more poetic and philosophical books that echo themes of the Law and the Prophets while developing a distinct tradition of wisdom and prayer for everyday life.

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