Friday, December 11, 2015

The Bible Library: The Prophets

           Do you know people who have an uncanny ability to speak the truth? And even if you don't like what they say or the way they say it, you probably know deep down that they're right. Maybe a family member, friend, or co-worker fits this bill. As far as friars go, I have come to know some of these kinds folks within the Franciscan community. Most of the friars and I have a lot of respect and admiration for our brothers' voices, but they do have a propensity for saying things that are unsettling, and it's not because their words are untrue. Rather, just the opposite – it's because we know that the truth of which they speak has not always been lived up to. These kinds of people – friars or otherwise – challenge the status quo, and they can make others feel uncomfortable. This is what comes to mind when I think of a prophet both in our own day and in biblical times.

            I can think of a few prophets of recent history: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Malala Yousafzai, and many others. (Click their names to learn more about them on the all-knowing Wikipedia).* Prophets like these challenged the expectations and ambitions of the powerful in their times, and each of them suffered some kind of persecution – some of them paying with their lives. I'm sure you can think of a few others from history. Maybe you personally know some people that might be considered prophetic. Let's hope that they do not suffer any ill fate; I must admit, though, persecution in some form or other kind of comes with the territory.

            Not all of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures endured such trials, nor are properly considered social activists like some of the men and women I listed above. Prophets were a common phenomenon in the ancient Near East across cultures and religious traditions. Most of the prophets mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures were professionals. They earned their living by being prophets and were closely associated with either the king, the Temple or both. In the books of Samuel and Kings we even hear about prophets like Samuel, Nathan, and Elisha appointing a new king. Prophets were often called upon by kings for consultation. Some prophets even had something like a community of disciples gathered around them, and some, like Jeremiah or Ezekiel, also functioned as priests.[1] Of course, not every prophet was a professional. Amos, for example, was a herdsman and a "dresser of sycamores," yet he nevertheless received the call to prophesy in Israel.** The prophetic call is a common characteristic we find among the prophets mentioned in the Scriptures, and oftentimes they are resistant to it – most notably Jonah, who took to the high seas to try to dodge his prophetic vocation.

            When we think about the term "prophecy" today, we may think that it has something to do with seeing the distant future. But the prophets usually were not thinking that far ahead. Prophets, plain and simple, were spokespersons for God, and, for the most part (Joel and Zechariah are exceptions), they were concerned with the present and near future. According to Victor Matthews in his book, The Hebrew Prophets and their Social World, "their role was to challenge the establishment and the social order, to remind the leadership and the people of their obligation to the covenant with Yahweh, and to warn the people of the punishment that would surely ensue if they violated this covenantal agreement."[2] So it is not surprising that prophetic literature does not often give us the warm-and-fuzzies. Their messages typically called people out. This is why I relate today's prophetic voices which challenge the status quo to those prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.

            Let us now take a brief look at the prophetic books of the Bible. The Christian canon of scripture has 17 or 18 prophetic books listed from Isaiah to Malachi. However, three of these books are not considered part of the prophetic works (Nevi'im) in the Jewish canon of Scripture. The book of Lamentations, discussed in the post on wisdom and poetical books, was thought to be written by Jeremiah (though most scholars would agree that it was not), and so it follows his book in the Christian canon. However, Lamentations is included in the Writings (Kethuvim) in the Jewish Tanakh, which is a more fitting place for it. The book of Daniel is not actually prophetic literature; rather, it's an apocalyptic text. Therefore, it too is among the Writings in the Tanakh. And finally, Baruch is a deuterocanonical book and is not in either the Protestant or Jewish canons.

            This leaves us with 15 actual prophetic books: The major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – called major prophets because their books are much longer in comparison to the others – and the twelve minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some of these twelve books are extremely short. Obadiah, for example, is a only 21 verses.

            If you recall from a previous post about the historical series of events in the Old Testament, the kingdom of Israel was divided into the northern kingdom (Israel/Samaria) and the southern kingdom (Judah) throughout most of its history. Remember also that the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The Assyrians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah in 701 BCE, and decimated many of the cities within it. The capital city of Jerusalem, however, managed to survive (see Isaiah 1:6-9). It's survival was viewed as miraculous, but well over a century later the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Neo-Babylonians with the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. It's important to keep these events in mind, because they provide some historical context to the concerns of most of the prophets.

            There are two major questions to ask yourself when approaching the prophets: When were they writing (before, during, or after the Babylonian exile)? And to whom were they writing?

The Assyrian Period, roughly 810 BCE – 625 BCE (late 9th through late mid-7th century)
and Beginning of Neo-Babylonian Period, roughly 625 BCE  

Pre-exilic Prophet
Date (BCE)
mid-8th century
late mid-8th cent.
1st Isaiah (1-39)
latter 8th cent. - early 7th cent.
latter 8th cent.
latter 7th cent.
late 7th cent.
late 7th cent.?
late 7th  – early 6th cent. (witnessed fall of Jerusalem)

The Neo-Babylonian Period
and Beginning of Persian Period, (Persians capture Babylon in 539 BCE)

Exilic Prophet
Date (BCE)
Exiled Judahites
c. 597-571
6th cent. After fall of Jerusalem
2nd  Isaiah (40-55)
Exiled Judahites
late mid-6th cent. At the end of the Exile

The Persian Period

Post-exilic Prophets
Date (BCE)
Zechariah (1-8)
late 6th cent.
3rd Isaiah (56-66)
late 6th,  possible early 5th cent.
"Isaiah Apocalypse" (24-27)
5th cent.?
Zechariah (9-14)
5th cent.? (difficult to date)
5th or 4th cent. (difficult to date)
mid-5th cent.

            I hope these charts help. Just remember that when dealing with BCE (Before the Common Era) time is counted backwards. Something that happened in the 8th century BCE, therefore, took place in the 700s BCE. Also, you may have noticed that Jonah is not on this chart. I left him off the list because, although he is not among those books that I dismissed as not being part of prophetic literature, he probably wasn't a historical prophet.

            I highly recommend reading the book of Jonah though. Nay, I strongly urge you to. It is a short and, interestingly enough, rather humorous, book with layers of poignant messages. Jonah is asked by God to preach doom against the Assyrians in their capital city, Nineveh. After fleeing from the call and spending three days in the belly of a great fish, Jonah finally does. But the Ninevites repent and are spared, and this just pisses Jonah off so much that he sits and pouts about it. The book ends with God asking Jonah a thought-provoking question: "And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?" In this Year of Mercy, it may be worthwhile to read this book and reflect on God's mercy upon even those we dislike or consider our enemies. If God is merciful, shouldn't we strive to be as well?

            As with all of the previous posts about the different parts of the Old Testament, there is so much more that can be said about the Hebrew prophets. Each of the prophets is unique and has a character all his own. Jeremiah, for example, is a rather depressed figure – not surprising given the circumstances of Judah being under pressure by the Neo-Babylonians. Few people wanted to listen to his message that challenged the prevailing ideology of the day. They thought that Jerusalem would never fall, despite their infidelity to the covenant... well, it did, and Jeremiah called it.

            Among the others there is Ezekiel, who sounds like he's tripping on acid. Winged creatures with four faces each. A wheel within a wheel with eyes on the rim. And that's just chapter one! There's Hosea, who is charged by God to marry a promiscuous woman as a sign of Israel's infidelity to YHWH. Amos, who has strong words against those who are comfortable and oppress the poor. Or Haggai, who is concerned with the need to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem after the exile. And in 2nd Isaiah (ch. 40-55) we hear a hopeful message about God's preeminence of history and an interpretation of the return from the exile as a new exodus. 2nd  Isaiah is also punctuated by the beautiful and haunting "Servant Songs" that are hear in liturgy during Holy Week: "Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,/ But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity" (53:4-5a).

            These are just to name a few. It would be too arduous of a task to do justice to all the themes of the prophets or to describe all the characteristics of prophetic literature. I hope this gives you a taste, however, of what the prophets were about. As Matthews has said, their role was to challenge, to call their people back into right relationship with God and to loyalty to the covenant. And, as you can see from the tables, their messages often reflected the impending doom of destruction by either the Assyrians or Neo-Babylonians. Sometimes they grappled with and interpreted the experience of exile in light of their relationship with God. At times their messages were hopeful like parts of  Isaiah, but very often the prophets called people to task, as our prophetic voices in today's world do.

                Along with the book of Jonah I have a few other suggested readings this week. The first is actually two short readings from Amos (2:6-16 & 6:1-7). These are difficult passages to read in both senses of the word. In these texts Amos is calling Israel back to faithfulness to YHWH and to the covenant, of which care for the poor and needy was an essential part. He warns them of the impending attacks of the Assyrians if they don't change their ways. In these readings, listen to what God is saying to you. How is God's Word challenging you today, calling you beyond complacency, or to repentance? Remember, the prophets often disturbed the comfortable, and sometimes we need to be shaken up a bit too.

            My second suggestion is a description of Jeremiah's internal struggle (Jeremiah 20:7-18). He is compelled to prophesy Judah's defeat, and no one, or very few at least, want to hear his message, yet he cannot resist uttering the Word of God, despite the persecution he endures. Consider the prophets of today. What happens when they challenge preconceived notions and ideologies? Has there been a time in your life when you felt rejected by peers, friends, or family for speaking the truth? Has there been a time when you mocked someone else for speaking a truth you didn't like or didn't want to hear? Has God's word deep within you ever been difficult to bear, painful even? Notice, however, Jeremiah's trust in God: "But the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion." Remember, that we are not alone in our sufferings.

            In this season of Advent as we prepare for the joyous Christmas season, it may also be worthwhile to meditate on some of the readings from Isaiah who features prominently in liturgy at this time of year. Isaiah 11-12, I think, is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Sacred Scripture.**** Isaiah 40:1-11; 61:1-3; and 66:7-16 are also great for meditation. Don't worry if you don't understand the context. For these readings, simply savor the poetry, and let God's word touch your heart as you prepare for the Christmas season.

Peace and all good!

* For the record, I realize that Wikipedia is not the most reliable source of information, but I think it gives you a pretty good gist of what a person or event is about.

** I found this on a delightful blog called Bible Saints by a woman named Theresa Doyle-Nelson: "The job of the dresser was to puncture the fruit days before it was to be gathered to help with the ripening process." So there you go. That's what a sycamore dresser does. Thanks Theresa!

*** I didn't find any charts or tables on Google Images that reflected what I thought was a good representation of when the prophets were active. The tables I created aren't perfect, but I based the information in them on what I had read in Michael D. Coogan's book, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. In any case, there is always a lot of debate about when a prophet was active or how much editing was done on the work and when.

**** I just like to point out that in Isaiah 11 it is a wolf that is paired with the lamb, not the lion that is so often depicted in art.

[1] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 300-301.
[2] Victor H. Matthews, The Hebrew Prophets and their Social World, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 19.

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