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Defining Prophetic Literature
Introducing the prophetic literature of the Old Testament should be a daunting task because it is a daunting collection. Its size, variety, and complexity have challenged every interpreter who has sought to make a coherent statement about this set of ancient scrolls that includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve. The century of the historical-critical method’s dominance provided a fertile environment for introductions to the prophetic literature that attached the prophetic characters and various portions of their books to specific periods in Israel’s history. The great accomplishment of these efforts was the grounding of the Israelite prophets in the earthly world of politics, economics, war, and suffering. Materializing the prophets was an effective antidote to the church’s long-held tendency to spiritualize the words of the prophets and read them as a disparate collection of esoteric predictions of the distant future. To understand how this introduction operates and why it is organized in a particular way, it is necessary to review the story of the writing of introductions to the prophetic literature at the time of this focus on history, and follow the story to the present moment in the context of biblical studies.
APPROACHES TO INTRODUCING THE PROPHETIC LITERATURE
Two classic formulations of the historical approach serve to illustrate both its strengths and limitations. In 1967 the portions of Gerhard von Rad’s Old Testament Theology that addressed the Israelite prophets, primarily those in part 2 of volume 2, were excerpted and developed into an introduction to the prophetic literature.1 The English translation of this work was published under the title The Message of the Prophets and became a standard textbook on the subject for about a quarter century. After treating some introductory issues, the first prophet that von Rad’s work directly discussed was Amos, because he seems to have been the earliest, chronologically. The power of von Rad’s method is still evident in this discussion as it places this ambiguous prophetic figure within a moment of the development of Israel’s traditions when they needed radical critique, and the voice of Amos explodes in this context.2 Von Rad moved on to treat the other prophets that he placed in the same historical periodHosea, Isaiah, and Micah. Another example of the historical/chronological approach is the first volume of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work The Prophets: An Introduction, which begins with an introductory discussion of the nature of prophets and follows with individual chapters on Amos, Hosea, Isaiah 1–39, and Micah, before moving on to Jeremiah. Heschel did not treat all of the prophetic literature in this volume, but the parts he did examine are organized according to a historical scheme similar to the one used by von Rad.
Both of the major limitations of this approach to the prophetic literature arise from a division of the texts that departs from the form in which they are currently found in the canons of Judaism and Christianity. First, von Rad and Heschel separated a “book” like Amos from its place within the Book of the Twelve, between Joel and Obadiah, and they divided Isaiah into the three portions that had become standard by that time, stemming from the classic work of scholars like Bernhard Duhm and Karl Elliger.4 Hence the literary character of the final forms of the scrolls, and the relationship between the final forms and the individual texts of which they are composed, received little attention, if any. Both introductions had great difficulty in formulating any response to a question like “What is the book of Isaiah about?” The second limitation of a historical/chronological approach is the elevation of the prophetic figures themselves as the originators of the traditions, at the expense of those who composed the final forms, which were often works of artistic genius. Studies like von Rad’s followed the efforts of form criticism to get back to the original settings of the small units of prophetic speech, which were always understood to be the oral utterances of the named prophets. The placing of the prophets along a strict historical trajectory that ended in their supposed disappearance inevitably created a sense of decline in the quality of their collective work. In the historical-critical era the idea of decline was part of the scheme of Julius Wellhausen and other prominent scholars who saw a general decline in ancient Israelite religion, from the pristine morality of the eighth-century prophets to the stunted legalism of Second Temple Juda- ism. When they ignored the nature of the great prophetic scrolls as finished literary works, they missed the process of development of a great literary- theological tradition and saw only decline.
At times von Rad tried to push back against the portrait of decline in his discussion of the prophets of the Persian period, but seemed to give up the point even as he started: There can, of course, be no question of comparing messages of such matchless depth and range as those of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deutero-Isaiah, each of whom represents a whole world of prophecy and theology, with those of Trito-Isaiah, Joel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. None the less we ought to be more chary of such summary judgments as “men of the Silver Age.”
By contrast, an approach that begins with the final forms of the scrolls as literary works, recognizing that the last stage of their production is the one most responsible for how we view the whole, is more likely to see the prophetic tradition moving on an upward trajectory throughout these centuries, reaching the pinnacle of its power and creativity in the Persian period. Those whom the form critics judged to be of lesser ability were actually the ones who provided the view of their predecessors that makes them appear to be so powerful and profound. What von Rad identified so well as a “world of prophecy and theology” was the literary accomplishment of the end of the process.
A crucial shift in the reading of the prophetic literature took place in 1978, when Walter Brueggemann published The Prophetic Imagination. This groundbreaking book did not fit the format of an introduction to the prophetic literature, but it provided a new hermeneutical lens through which to read this literature. Brueggemann only began to apply this lens to a few prophetic texts in the book, but he and others have continued to use the approach much more broadly since then. In Brueggemann’s words, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”7 His understanding contends that the prophets were not just part of their own historical worlds, but also participated in an imaginative world that their own work helped to construct within the literature that presented them as characters.
Nevertheless, Brueggemann’s work should not be mistaken for an older view that the prophets were lone, detached, religious geniuses. Such an assumption had been present in the work of Walter Eichrodt, who under- stood the prophets as persons who were “freed from all ties of class or professional self-consciousness” and “capable of moving through life in majestic solitude.”8 The imaginative work of the prophets in Brueggemann’s under- standing was deeply communal. This is why his continuing work throughout the remainder of the twentieth century could exist alongside and in important communication with the burgeoning sociological approaches championed by Norman Gottwald and Robert Wilson, which looked more broadly at human cultures and asked questions about the roles that prophets play within communities.
Edgar Conrad’s Reading Isaiah, published in 1991, provides a superb example of how the ground was shifting beneath the study of the prophetic literature at the end of the twentieth century. Conrad’s work was a bold attempt to read the final form of the massive collection called Isaiah as a coherent literary work. He identified and called into question the assumptions behind historical-critical interpretive strategies, most significantly their tendency to place greater importance on materials that could be connected more directly to the great figures for whom the books were named, who had often been viewed through a “Romantic” lens.10 Instead, Conrad’s approach focused on the effects of reading Isaiah in finished form,11 but this is by no means an ahistorical reading of the text. Reading Isaiah very much depends on under- standing the interactions between Israel and the other nations of that time, particularly Assyria and Babylon. The primary limitation of this work, how- ever, is its examination of the book of Isaiah in relative isolation from the other components of the prophetic literature, particularly the Book of the Twelve, which address the same span of Israel’s story.
Another important step in this direction took place in 2002, when David L. Petersen published The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction. To my knowledge, this was the first full, book-length introduction to the prophets that devoted a separate chapter to each scroll. Petersen’s introductory chapter gives some attention to common features of the prophetic scrolls, and there are occasional references to how they might speak together, but for the most part the proclamation of each book is treated independently.12 In Petersen’s presentation the prophetic literature consists of four highly developed scrolls, each with its own powerful, literary voice, but they rarely get the opportunity to interact. Nevertheless, for an introductory textbook, this work brought the results of two decades of scholarship that had been shifting the emphasis away from a primarily historical approach that tended to fragment the prophetic scrolls, and toward one that could engage large, finished literary complexes.
Christopher Seitz’s 2007 work Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets seems to have been, in part, an attempt to address this transition. But the book’s preoccupation with defining a type of interpre- tation it calls “figural,” and with connecting the prophetic literature in a very specific and immediate way to the New Testament, often gets in the way of understanding this literature on its own terms.13 Nevertheless, Seitz identi- fied the most significant problem for the production of new introductions to the prophetic literature. The field was moving beyond the dichotomous choices of either a synchronic or diachronic presentation.14 These two words are often used to describe two broad categories of approaches to biblical texts, depending on whether they examine how the biblical text developed through time (diachronic) or what they looked like at one particular time, the end of their development (synchronic). Future work would demand attention to both the complex compositional process of the prophetic scrolls that was taking place as the events they addressed were happening, and the overtly literary nature of the final forms as we now find them. My response to this problem has given rise to the unusual organization of this book, as explained in the preface (above) and the section “The Plan of the Book,” at the end of this chapter.
Another important innovation in introducing the prophetic literature appeared in 2010 with You Are My People: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature, by Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim. Along with a treatment focused on the final forms of the prophetic scrolls, Stulman and Kim chose a specific hermeneutical lens through which to look at all of the prophetic literature, calling the entire corpus “meaning-making literature for communities under siege.” This particular reading focus depends on an understanding of the final forms as works of literature because, as written artifacts, their meanings had changed drastically from the meaning of the oral presentations by the prophetic figures of the past, speeches still embedded within them:
Prophecy as oral communication is raw, iconoclastic, immediate, and exacting. It seeks to bring about fundamental changes in social arrangements, often before the collapse of long-standing and cherished structurespolitical, religious, economic, and symbolic. Prophecy as written communication attends to survivors. It takes shape during and after the frightful events; all the while it engages in artful reinterpretation and reenactment.
A hermeneutical shift like this one allowed Stulman and Kim to hear and present the voices of the prophetic books, rather than trying to use the prophetic books to travel back and hear the voice of the “authentic” prophets. The scrolls contain oracles that predict future disaster, but the final forms are not predictions of disaster. Rather, they are responses to the disasters after they have happened, as the survivors struggled to find ways to reassemble and continue their lives as individuals and communities.
Reading in this way also began to lead Stulman and Kim away from the emphasis on the prophetic characters as unique and startling figures (without denying that these qualities did indeed define them). Instead, their focus on literary works drew attention to common patterns in the prophetic scrolls and how they might be speaking together, an idea that appears most clearly in their discussion of “Ezekiel within the prophetic corpus.” While much of the discussion in this section of their book focuses on the strangeness of the Ezekiel character and his differences from prophetic characters like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the examination of the macrostructure of the book of Ezekiel led Stulman and Kim back to the conclusion that Ezekiel “follow[s] the prophetic proclivity to punctuate disaster with salvation and judgment with hope. This structure supports the contention that the prophetic corpus in its present form is far from a montage of discrete voices.” The common shape of the prophetic scrolls will be illustrated in more detail below, but at this stage it is important to emphasize, with Stulman and Kim, that while these traditions have very different starting points, and earlier approaches to the rophetic literature did excellent work in demonstrating those, they had a common end point and participated in a common task. “Akin to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Twelve, Ezekiel is beset by an empire’s designs toward world domination. It deals with the harsh realities of hegemony and the resulting collapse of long-standing national arrangements. . . . In this manner Ezekiel joins the prophetic chorus as disaster literature and survival literature.”
Conrad has recently developed a rationale and methodological approach for specific “intertextual” readings of some pairs or small groups of prophetic books. For example, only Amos and Jeremiah begin with superscriptions using the phrase “The words of Jeremiah/Amos,” and are the two prophetic books that most clearly “announce the end of a nation.” Conrad argues that the superscriptions are compositional cues to a “model reader,” directing linked readings of the prophetic books in their canonical form. Isaiah, Obadiah, and Nahum are the three books described as “a vision” in their opening superscription, which directs readers to consider these books in light of each other. While Conrad’s sense of intertextual readings based on cues in the superscriptions that open the books is very specific, such an approach can easily participate in a larger sense of reading the prophetic scrolls together.
The trajectory above traces significant shifts in the study of the prophetic literature over the past century. It began with a focus on the prophets as historical figures proclaiming a moral decline in ancient Israelite society. The rending of the prophetic literature to produce historical data for a reconstruction of ancient Israelite religion gave way to an emphasis on the scrolls as unified works of literature that constructed imaginative worlds of their own, in which readers could explore their experience. The recent advent of trauma studies has reemphasized the historical events to which the prophetic literature responds, yet it has raised new questions about the effects of those events on the audiences of the texts. Because these posttrauma audiences could have been listening to some combination of the four prophetic scrolls, it has become necessary to learn to listen to them together, even as we distinguish their individual voices.
This introduction to the prophetic literature will explore the idea of the prophetic scrolls within the canon functioning together as a chorus more thoroughly than other introductory textbooks have.22 While the scrolls begin at different times and in different places, they all end in a similar placetrying to make sense of life in the aftermath of national defeat and disaster and at the beginning of a difficult recovery. In order to listen to the prophetic literature in this way, it is necessary to develop some background for reading these scrolls. While this is primarily a literary enterprise, it cannot ignore Israel’s history. The prophetic literature, taken together in its finished form, becomes a way of looking at the story of Israel’s past in order to provide the resources to live in its own present, so the historical framework in which the words and voices of these scrolls operate must be sketched as clearly as possible. The prophetic figures whose names are on the book are far removed from the production of the scrolls historically, but they still play a vital role as characters within the scrolls, so the way that prophetic characters are developed in biblical literature needs significant attention. Finally, this introductory chapter will present a more complete understanding of the way prophetic scrolls are shaped and placed within the various canonical traditions that now hold them. Attention to the Bible as a collection of literature makes phenomena like the precise order of the books within the canonical collection a more significant issue, so we will proceed there next.
THE LITERARY AND CANONICAL SHAPE OF THE ISRAELITE PROPHETIC LITERATURE
The prophetic literature comes to us in four large collections. In the Jewish canonical tradition the scrolls appear in the order Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve and are known as the Latter Prophets, which balance the four scrolls of the Former Prophets known as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Almost all English versions of the Old Testament follow this same order. The scrolls of Isaiah and the Twelve may have the greatest affinity. Each covers approximately the same three-century period of Israel’s story, and the prophetic figures themselves are elusive and often absent from the text. Isaiah 1:1 and Hosea 1:1, the first verses in each of these scrolls, both contain a list of Judean kings from the mid to late eighth century BCE, and both end in the era of the rebuilt temple and ongoing restoration of Judah. The Greek Old Testament (as seen in the earliest complete Christian Bible, dated from the fourth and fifth centuries CE), places the Book of the Twelve first, so that it sits side by side with Isaiah. The two middle scrolls in the Jewish canon, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, focus on the last years of the Judean monarchy and the destruction of Jerusalem in the early sixth century BCE. Each of these four scrolls is a distinctive literary work in and of itself, different from the others. Each speaks with its own voice, but in the canon they are often speaking togetherin groups of two, three, or fourabout the same set of events in Israel’s story. This situation presents the great challenge of listening to each of those voices separately, taking account of the full continuity of their message, and listening to them together as they speak together, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in conflict with each other, a challenge which this book attempts to engage.
An important feature that all four of the prophetic scrolls share is a general sense of movement from negative to positive. This can be demonstrated by observing the kinds of literature found within them. The bulk of the prophetic literature consists of literary units called oracles. As the basic units of prophetic speech, they can be poetry or prose and vary significantly in length. Oracles are usually classified into two basic groups: oracles of judgment and oracles of salvation. As a general rule, judgment oracles are more common in the first half of each of the scrolls, while salvation oracles are more numerous in the second half. The scrolls of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all exhibit a fairly dramatic turning point, where this change in tone is quite noticeable. In Isaiah, this shift begins in chapter 40 and coincides with the move from addressing the Assyrian era to addressing the Babylonian era. In Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the turning point is different because both books are speaking primarily to the Babylonian crisis on both sides of the pivot. The full force of divine punishment still lies ahead when the book of Jeremiah reaches the section in chapters 30–33, often called the Book of Consolation. At this point the judgment of God is inevitable, and looking beyond it to restoration is the only point of hope. The book of Ezekiel makes a dramatic turn at the beginning of chapter 36. Ezekiel is a book shaped by four stunning visions. The two that lie before this turning point involve God’s departure from the temple in Jerusalem as its destruction looms, and the two that come after the catastrophe point toward the revival of the people of Israel and the rebuilding of the temple.
There are multiple shifts in the book of Ezekiel, but it still presents a single, grand sense of movement from punishment to redemption. The turning point in the Book of the Twelve looks different because it involves some of the smaller books in their entirety. The little books called Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai move through declarations of protest about the extent of divine punishment in the Babylonian period to the beginnings of new life embodied in the rebuilding of the temple. This turning point for the whole of the Book of the Twelve is accompanied by a similar sense of movement within some of its larger components, like Amos and Micah. All four prophetic scrolls are obviously composite documents, developed over long periods of time by multiple hands. Each has its own tradition, generated by the experience of the prophets, and carried on and developed long after their deaths; yet when they reached their final written stages, they possessed many common features. Ways of thinking about the literature of the Old Testament have always changed with the shifts in technology that determine the means of their physical production, and this would have included the change from the scroll to the codex. This physical way of storing written information in stacked, bound pages, rather than pages sewed together end to end and rolled, developed during the first and second centuries CE. Israel obviously thought about these four scrolls together as the Latter Prophets at an earlier stage, but until the second century of the Common Era, they were separate physical objects that did not need to be put in a specific order. The advent of the codex and stacked pages, which allowed the entire Jewish canon or Christian Bible to be put into one physical manuscript, required a fixed order. Jewish tradition places these four scrolls in the second section of the canon known as the Nebiʾim, composing its second half and balancing the four scrolls of the Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The earliest physical demonstration of the internal order of these prophetic books is in the Ben Asher Codices of the tenth and eleventh centuries (commonly designated as Aleppo and Leningrad), which follows the standard order of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. Two of these four scrolls, Jeremiah and the Twelve, show some variation in their own internal ordering of material when compared to the Greek manuscript tradition.
The Greek canonical tradition is best represented physically by fourth- and fifth-century codices like Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus. All of these manuscripts of the prophetic literature are in Christian Bibles, writ- ten in Greek. Their placement of the Book of the Twelve first may best be explained by an increased concern for chronology. These manuscripts also place Amos immediately after Hosea, so that the earliest two prophets come first, but other factors such as the geographic identity of these prophets may also have been at work in these decisions. The subject of order within the Book of the Twelve will be addressed in more detail in chapter 3 of this book. The canonical order of the books in the Jewish tradition, and subsequently in almost all English versions of the Old Testament, will have the most influence on how this book proceeds, but an awareness of historical and chronological issues is important at all times while reading this literature.