Understanding Biblical Genres: Prophecy

The premise of this series is that by better understanding the literary genres in which the books of the Bible were written, the better we are able to understand the Bible itself. The next two posts provide the two biggest examples of this, for they are the two major genres where misunderstandings run rampant (especially among Christians): Prophecy and Apocalyptic. While I’ve talked about the genre of prophecy before, today I’m going to discuss it in a more formal way and try to answer the questions of: Who were the prophets? What did they do? And what does that mean about the oracles they left behind?

First, what is Prophecy as a literary genre? The different divisions of the Jewish and Christian canons are a helpful starting place for answering the question. Jewish tradition includes the books of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings) under the ‘the Prophets’, where they form a subcategory known as ‘the Former Prophets’. Then ‘the Latter Prophets’ is composed of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the Scroll of the Twelve, which includes the oracles of the ‘minor prophets’ (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). Missing from this grouping is the Book of Daniel, which most Christians include under ‘prophecy’, but which is included in the Jewish Bible under ‘the Writings,’ a category that includes a miscellaneous assortment of post-Exilic literature. Where the Former Prophets tell the stories of the relevant prophets (especially Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha) more than their words, this balance is flipped in the Latter Prophets, which mostly contain their words, written down as long poetic oracles. (See the post on Biblical Poetry for some things to look out for when reading the oracles.)

So who were the prophets? Prophecy in ancient Israel and Judah (and indeed the wider Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultural sphere) was a diverse phenomenon. It included schools or bands of itinerant prophets, such as the one Saul encountered in 1 Samuel 10.10. Other prophets seemed to be attached to the Temple or royal court, while others functioned more like prophetic mercenaries, offering messages for different kingdoms as the Spirit led (e.g., Elijah being sent with a message to Damascus and Jonah being called to go to Nineveh). Whether they worked alone or in roving bands, prophets were prone to wild public displays and ecstatic experiences. For example, Saul’s encounter is described as him “fall[ing] into a prophetic frenzy along with them.” Less ‘frenzied’ but equally odd displays include Jeremiah wearing a yoke and Hosea marrying a prostitute and giving his children symbolic names. The role of these prophets was to discern and anoint new leadership and to provide a religious framing for current events, customs, and policies. This often put them in a difficult position of speaking truth to power, of having to challenge leadership to change course. While the prophets treat their words as God’s own, this does not eradicate their individual personalities and agendas. Even in the same political crisis, prophets have differences of opinion about just what “the word of the LORD” is. And so, even the “Thus says the LORD” of the prophets is mediated through their own voices, experiences, beliefs, and stages of development. We saw this a couple of years ago, with the very different attitudes to Jehu’s rebellion demonstrated by the editors of 2 Kings and the prophet Hosea.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned telling the future here. While we tend to think of prophecy in terms of foretelling, this is not what prophecy in the Bible does. It is rather about forth-telling, about interpreting the present circumstances of the nation in light of their relationship with YHWH. In the Former Prophets, whose ministries are recorded as part of the Deuteronomistic History, the focus of this relationship tended to be about right worship, avoiding idolatry and the worship of other gods. In the Latter Prophets, for whom we don’t have the same kind of narrative editorializing, the focus shifts to a greater moral and ethical vision, with concern for the poor and marginalized rising to the fore.

So that is at a very basic level how prophecy worked in ancient Israel and Judah. The prophets were individuals called to remind the people of God of their covenant responsibilities. As such, they were never popular, often maligned, and appreciated mostly in hindsight. This function is the primary frame of reference through which we ought to read and understand the prophets. But is not the only one; nor is it the one most common for Christians over the centuries. To understand this, we need another quick history lesson.

While it must be generally assumed that every oracle made reference to the immediate circumstances in which the prophet was ministering, their words were often far more grandiose than the reality. As we saw in Advent, during the Israelite and Syrian invasion of Judah, Isaiah prophesied the coming of a king who would restore Jerusalem and reign justly within a generation. And, yes, the immediate threat did ease and Jerusalem rose to its greatest glory in the century following that war. But its leadership was far from the “Wonderful Counselor” and “Prince of Peace” of Isaiah’s prophecy. Likewise, Isaiah’s later prophecies about the people of Judah returning from Exile in a great, excited throng didn’t quite live up to expectations; it was a slow trickle of returnees and many were quite happy to stay in Babylon for the long haul. So, as much as the prophecies were correct interpretations of the people’s circumstances, there was often a gap between the expectation they created and the reality the community experienced. And this gap proved to be pregnant for later hope and expectation when times were hard. These gaps were the ‘hooks’ on which early messianic expectation hung. They provided the imagery and content of the people’s hope for a hero who would restore their nation.

For Christians, this figure was, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. As I’ve written previously about this:

As faithful Jews they naturally turned to their Scriptures and, with their new Christ-coloured glasses, came to see that those old prophetic loose threads — and indeed the whole story of their people — wove together to tell the story of Jesus, and that in Jesus those old prophetic cups were filled to overflowing. (Indeed, the word we translate as ‘fulfill’ simply means ‘fill’ — I think a helpful way of looking at it is to translate it as “fills up”: Jesus “fulfills” the old prophecies by filling them up.)

It wasn’t that Jesus replaced the immediate fulfillment of the prophecies, but that he embodied, repeated, and brought them to completion. The theological word for this is ‘recapitulation’. And it explains many of the complicated and curious ways the New Testament claims Jesus ‘fulfilled’ the Scriptures. For the early Christians, Jesus embodied the whole story of Israel; just as all Israel came from Abraham, so is it all brought together in Jesus.

While this interpretive move by the first Christians makes sense, it also created new interpretive problems. As we saw in last Spring’s series on the history of Bible interpretation, the relationship between the original meaning of the text and that revealed after the fact in Jesus remained a major sticking point and cause of division. But I don’t think we need to choose between the two. In my experience, the historical and christological fulfilments of prophetic oracles reinforce each other: better understanding the one leads to a greater appreciation for the other. And I think that’s the most helpful way to approach these texts as Christians.

To summarize, the biblical prophets spoke forcefully into the events of their times, calling the people and their leadership back to God, reminding them of the ethical commitments of their faith, and forging a bigger-and-better vision of what a godly kingdom — even the Kingdom of God — looks like. And, thousands of years later, they still call us back to God. They still remind us of what God expects from us. And their vision of the Kingdom of God remains as powerful, attractive, and elusive as ever. As such, their words remain among the most powerful in the Scriptures.

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