J. Day (ed.), Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Day, John (ed.), Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel (LHBOTS, 531; New York: T & T Clark, 2010). Pp. xvii+462. Hardcover. US$180.00. ISBN 9780567473646.

Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel is an excellent volume which presents twenty-three essays offered to the Oxford Old Testament Seminar between January 2006 and October 2008. The essays are broken into four categories: (1) three essays on the ancient Near Eastern context of prophecy; (2) two on specific themes; (3) three on sociological, anthropological and psychological perspectives; and (4) fifteen on prophecy and prophets in specific biblical books. The majority of the contributors are European (mostly British), along with three Americans and one Israeli. Since it will not be possible in this review to examine each essay in detail, it should be said at the outset that overall these essays represent an excellent and diverse overview of current scholarship on several phenomenological, sociological, historical, and literary issues in the study of ancient Israelite prophecy.

In the opening essay by M. Nissinen, “Comparing Prophetic Sources: Principles and a Test Case,” (pp. 3–24) the author takes the view that comparisons between the biblical and ancient Near Eastern material are useful but warns that scholars must proceed with extreme caution. Because the biblical material is literary (not just written), recovering actual historical situations is fraught with difficulty (if not impossible). He concludes with a test case comparing Amos and Baya on divination.

S. Weeks' contribution, “Predictive and Prophetic Literature: Can Neferti Help Us Read the Bible?” (pp. 25–46) offers a wide-ranging essay on the nature of prophetic literature qua literature rather than a transcript of prophetic performances. He insists that if one fully appreciates the literary dimension of the biblical prophetic material, then one may look profitably to a wider range of comparative material for help in assessing and understanding the biblical prophetic books. To that end, he examines the Egyptian text of Neferti, which depicts an Egyptian priest offering a prediction about the Egyptian state. The value of identifying Neferti as a prophetic text is in allowing it to expand the notion of how ancient authors constructed prophetic texts.

The third essay, by J. Stökl, “Female Prophets in the Ancient Near East,” (pp. 47–61) is a first attempt at rectifying what the author sees as the lack of study of female prophets at Mari and in the Neo-Assyrian tradition. After surveying the literary evidence pertaining to each of the two corpora, he concludes that at Mari, the higher the status of the prophet, the fewer women one finds. In the Neo-Assyrian documents he notes there is roughly equal distribution with a slight preference for females.

The first of the two essays in the second section, H. G. M. Williamson's “Prophetesses in the Hebrew Bible,” (pp. 65–80) makes a nice counterpart to Stökl's piece. Williamson surveys the scant material about prophetesses in the Hebrew scriptures, concluding that though there is little direct information about them, what exists suggests that they were a more integral part of the religious world of ancient Israel than one might suspect.

D. Reimer's “Interpersonal Forgiveness and the Hebrew Prophets” (pp. 81–97) examines the relative lack of texts in the Hebrew prophets depicting people forgiving other people. He notes that the accent is on the divine-human element of the forgiveness, but surprisingly, this does not lead to a treatment of human interpersonal forgiveness in the prophets.

The third part of the collection opens with an essay from W. Houston, “Exit the Oppressed Peasant? Rethinking the Background of Social Criticism in the Prophets,” (pp. 101–116) in which he takes up his earlier contention that much of the prophetic social critique was directed against the wealthy landowners who exploited the peasantry. Here he largely abandons this view and adopts the position that the same material reflects urban settings (Jerusalem and Samaria). The prophetic criticism is now understood as more likely aimed at rectifying wrongs committed against the urban poor and disadvantaged.

L. Grabbe's “Shaman, Preacher, or Spirit Medium? The Israelite Prophet in the Light of Anthropological Models” (pp. 117–132) continues in the same vein as some of his earlier work in this area. He notes the possibilities of cross-cultural comparison for understanding prophecy while simultaneously noting the methodological dangers for the interpreter. His essay surveys anthropological literature on shamans and diviners before suggesting that these models may offer another way into the biblical material pertaining to prophets. He does not wish to impose models drawn from these areas, but suggests a heuristic goal: that these other examples may afford the interpreter new ways of posing questions and examining the biblical texts.

In “The Prophets and Psychological Interpretation,” (pp. 133–148) P. Joyce explores the possibility of various types of psychological interpretation. His essay observes Ricoeur's distinctions between the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world before the text. He is particularly interested in how psychological interpretation might illuminate certain aspects of Ezekiel in this essay. His essay concludes with a plea for biblical scholars to embrace interdisciplinary approaches despite the potential risks.

The final section of the volume begins with E. Nicholson's “Deuteronomy 18.9–22, the Prophets and Scripture” (pp. 151–171). He takes up the relationship between Deuteronomy's understanding of prophets and Jeremiah, noting that the usual way in which the relationship is portrayed—Deuteronomy's influence on Jeremiah—is incorrect. Rather, Nicholson argues that Jeremiah has influenced Deuteronomy's teaching about prophets. He goes on to argue that the author of Deuteronomy was familiar with an emerging corpus of scriptural prophetic books.

D. Lamb re-examines whether or not prophecy was a successive institution in ancient Israel in his contribution, “‘A prophet instead of you’ (1 Kings 19.16): Elijah, Elisha and Prophetic Succession” (pp. 172–187). He first briefly raises this question of prophetic succession in light of Mesopotamian prophetic sources, concluding that much ANE prophecy appears to have been both institutional and successive. He then turns to the Deuteronomistic History, focusing especially on the Elijah/Elisha narratives. He argues that Elijah does not choose Elisha as a successor willingly; rather, the latter is chosen by God to replace Elijah. This does not, therefore, constitute an example of institutional prophetic succession.

J. Barton's “The Theology of Amos” (pp. 188–201) unpacks Amos' theological vision in four layers: that of the audience assumed by the prophet; that of the 8th century prophet himself; that of the later additions to the book; and finally, that of the final form of the book. Barton argues that understanding each of these on their own terms has value and adds to our understanding of the book and its message(s), despite the necessity of reconstructing some of the literary and theological layers. He concludes with a plea not to allow final form or canonical readings to negate the importance of understanding his stage two: the reconstructed message of the prophet himself.

In “Hosea and the Baal Cult” (pp. 202–224), J. Day addresses several disputed interpretive issues. He pays particular attention to Baal language and imagery, arguing that it reflects an 8th century context in which Israel indeed worshiped Baal. The references to Baal/Baalim in Hosea are, he argues, not to other gods generally (as is sometimes argued), but specific references to the deity known principally from Ugaritic texts. As such, he demonstrates several parallels between Hosea's apparent understanding of Baal and the Ugaritic mythic material, including importantly, that Baal was indisputably depicted as a dying and rising god at Ugarit.

“The Sign of Immanuel” (pp. 225–244), J. Collins' contribution, takes up four critical issues that arise in the interpretation of Isa 7:14: first, the original historical and literary context of the passage; second, whether the sign is reassuring or threatening; third, the nature and identity of the child; and fourth, messianic interpretations of the text in traditional Christianity but absent in Jewish sources.

R. Kratz pursues the literary relationship between texts and, by extension, relative chronology of texts in Isaiah in “Rewriting Isaiah: The Case of Isaiah 28–31” (pp. 245–266). Specifically, he examines Isaiah 28–31 as a case of rewriting prophetic material from Isaiah 1–12, whether by the prophet himself or later editors. Whichever is the case, he asserts that we no longer have the original prophetic sayings but a subsequent literary shaping of previous material that has been made to fit the context of the prophetic book. In the examples from ch. 28 that he explores, he concludes that there are two different types of modifications to earlier material: intensification of the focus on Zion/Jerusalem and reformulation of theological motives for divine judgment.

In H. Clifford's “Deutero-Isaiah and Monotheism” (pp. 267–289), the author defends the traditional view that monotheism is an appropriate term to designate the theology of Isaiah 40–55. His argument responds to many objections and draws on early Greek philosophy for an analogy that highlights critical internationalism. He asserts that the primary portrait of YHWH as creator is the foundational claim of these chapters, a claim anchored in the polemic and satire against idols as well as the argument that YHWH is sovereign in history and the prophetic tradition. To the claim that the alleged monotheistic statements in Deutero-Isaiah are merely rhetoric, Clifford argues that this drives too strong a wedge between the poetic and doctrinal. He also examines surviving Greek fragments from Xenophanes of Colophon that are roughly contemporaneous with Deutero-Isaiah. These also speak of one God and offer a “cosmic theology” (p. 283), which renders them a useful analogy for understanding Deutero-Isaiah in Clifford's view.

P. Johnston's essay “‘Now you see me, not you don't’: Jeremiah and God” (pp. 290–308), explores Jeremiah's perception of YHWH, especially as expressed in the laments of Jeremiah 11–20. After surveying some perspectives on YHWH in the book's early chapters, Johnston spends the bulk of the essay critically examining the laments. He focuses especially on Jeremiah's experience of YHWH, an experience which leads the prophet to complain bitterly about YHWH's deception of him.

J. Middlemas examines aniconism and iconism in Ezekiel in her essay, “Exclusively Yahweh: Aniconism and Anthropomorphism in Ezekiel” (pp. 309–324). She begins by noting the presence of empty space aniconism, a type represented in the temple by the ark of the covenant and the cherubim throne. In Ezekiel, these YHWH-associated images are re-interpreted (cherubim) or ignored (ark). When she turns to the anthropomorphic language about YHWH in Ezekiel, she notes that it does occur, but is less pervasive than is sometimes thought. Additionally, it is both “capturing and distancing,” by which she means that it both clarifies and obscures the image of YHWH. Importantly, there is no image of YHWH in the last portion of the book.

In “Zephaniah and the ‘Book of the Twelve’ Hypothesis” (pp. 325–338), T. Hadjiev re-evaluates the increasingly common claim that the so-called “Book of the Twelve” was meant to be read as a whole, not as individual books. He notes that if the hypothesis is credible, one might reasonably expect to encounter a superscription that designates the book as an integrated whole; alas, this is missing. More importantly, however, he notes that one should expect to find redactional evidence that links the material together. He tests this with an examination of Zephaniah. He dismisses the argument in favor of Deuteronomistic redaction as unpersuasive. He turns his attention next to the hypothesis of a “book of the four,” with Zephaniah as a conclusion, a hypothesis which is equally difficult to accept in his view. Finally, he argues that 3:14–20 functions well as an ending to Zephaniah, but not as an ending to the book of the four.

K. Cathcart's essay, “‘Law is Paralysed’ (Habakkuk 1.4): Habakkuk's Dialogue with God and the Language of Legal Disputation” (pp. 339–353), examines the legal language in Habakkuk in order to understand more clearly the nature of the argument made by the book. He understands the book to be raising issues of theodicy, but in a manner that depends on specific forensic language from ancient Israel. The bulk of his article involves a close examination of Hab 1:2–4; 1:12–17; and 2:1–4. In the process, he notes interesting similarities with the use of legal language in Job and Jeremiah.

An article by E. Assis, “Structure and Meaning in the Book of Malachi” (pp. 354–369), argues that Malachi is vital to understanding early 2nd temple Yehud. He examines the structure of the book, arguing that there are two parallel sections with three oracles each. In each section the first and third oracles exhibit similarities, while the second or middle panel explicates in practical terms the abstract issues raised by the outer oracles. Assis concludes that recognizing this structure elucidates the meaning of the book. This, in turn, assists in identifying the major issues addressed by the book, namely, a concern to counter the notion that the law and election were no longer vital concepts to YHWHistic religion. Rather, these had been replaced by a nascent universalism. It is this view that the book counters.

In S. Gillingham's, “New Wine and Old Wineskins: Three Approaches to Prophecy and Psalmody” (pp. 370–390), the author reads the Psalms through three different approaches, which she calls cult-functional, literary-theological, and reception-historical. Based on the first approach she highlights first-person divine speech and identifies eleven prophetic psalms. She also concludes that cultic prophetic influence is not as prominent as previous scholars have assumed. Gillingham's exploration of the psalms from a literary-theological perspective located in the postexilic period leads her to conclude that the emerging shape of the Psalter exposes a different prophetic concern from the earlier psalmists. Finally, when viewing the reception of the psalms in the Qumran and New Testament literature, she notes a further change in emphasis. Some of the 11 psalms she identifies as prophetic are used (but not all), but other psalms not previously identified as having any prophetic elements in them are used in precisely that way, especially in the New Testament.

In a study moving outside the prophetic literature proper, G. Knoppers offers “Democratizing Revelation? Prophets, Seers and Visionaries in Chronicles” (pp. 391–409). He explores the nature of prophecy in Chronicles by examining prohibited forms of prophetic behavior in the book, surveying the specific prophetic figures in the book and examining how prophets function in the book. With respect to the first of these, Knoppers notes that Chronicles contains only three narratives depicting attempts by individuals to procure illicitly divine words, a fact he takes to indicate that the Chronicler's interests lie elsewhere. The second matter Knoppers discusses, specific prophetic figures, reveals that Chronicles includes material about prophetic figures identified as such in the Deuteronomistic History, but also makes room for temporary prophets (even laypersons and foreign monarchs).

The final essay, “Prophecy and the New Testament” (pp. 410–430), by C. Rowland, seems to have been included as way of thinking about the trajectory of prophecy in the early Christian literature. As such, Rowland traces prophecy through the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, Paul's correspondence, and the Johannine literature (including Revelation). He concludes by noting that “prophecy is one of the most important features in the New Testament, historically, theologically and hermeneutically, and a way of comprehending the diversity contained in them” (p. 428).

These essays are of consistently high quality, and for that the authors and the editor are to be commended. The book could serve quite well as a companion volume in courses on ancient Israelite prophecy, but its prohibitively high cost makes that unlikely. One can only hope that a more economical paperback edition might be in the offing.

J. Todd Hibbard, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga