David Arthur, A Smooth Stone: Biblical Prophecy in Historical Perspective.
(New York, NY: University Press of America, 2001). 426 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 0-7618-2074-4. $74.00
Reviewed by Reed Lessing
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO

A Smooth Stone is a survey of the Hebrew prophets that begins with the pre-classical seers, expands to the prophetic attacks on individual sin and ends with the prophetic assault against Israel’s religion. Arthur’s thesis is that in time, the chasm between the Yahweh of the dynastic cult and the Yahweh of clan religion became so wide that it could no longer be bridged. A reaction set in, eventually leading to the appearance of the classical prophets, whose messages culminated in the total rejection of the Yahweh of the dynastic cult. Into Israel’s stable, yet static scheme, these prophets inserted a radical disjunction. Israel was rejected, its covenant with God terminated. Formerly, Yahweh had led his people to freedom; now he would send them back into captivity. “To put the matter in theological terms, the biblical God is a God of dissent, a God inimical to pious verities and smug assertion. This is a God not of the status quo, but of protest and demolition” (p. 92).

The book “is intended not just for specialists, but for the general reader as well” (p. ix). Technical jargon is omitted, and where it is used the reader is referred to a glossary in the back of the book. Footnotes and scholarly debate are kept to a minimum.

One of the main strengths of A Smooth Stone is that the author deftly synthesizes large amounts of biblical material. For example, he states that classical (writing) prophets drew eclectically from their varied heritage. Like the tribal seers, they obtained secret knowledge through visions; unlike them, however, they regarded dreams and omens as inferior means of revelation (Jer. 23:25–28). Like the men of God, the classical prophets had no formal attachment to a cult site; unlike them they spurned magic and wonder working (Ezek. 13:17–20). Like the ecstatic prophet, Yahweh directly inspired their speech, but rather than jabber unintelligibly, these prophets uttered artistically composed sayings.

Arthur’s definitions of terms are simple and to the point. He defines nabi, neum Yahweh, sod, ish elohim, bene elohim, etc., in terns that are textual and insightful. For example he notes that all “men of God” are also identified as prophets. However, the reverse is not true. Most prophets are never called “men of God.” Though the two roles overlapped, they were by no means synonymous. A prophet was an official charged with a specific task, that of announcing the word of Yahweh. The “man of God,” on the other hand, was characterized by supernatural gifts.

Also in the first half of the book A Smooth Stone explains the conflicts between monarchy and prophet, king and clan, Yahweh and Baal, urban and rural, communal solidarity and individual conscience. Along these lines the discussion about true and false prophets is helpful. False prophets acted to uphold the existing social order, of which they were an integral part. It was their task to inspire worship of the national deity, to secure the prerogatives of the king, and to defend the realm against outside enemies. The true prophets, on the other hand, were typically allied with a secondary cultural nexus: a persecuted cult or disenfranchised class, or more broadly, with rural clan tradition. These prophets generally saw themselves as defenders of older social and religions values, which had been supplanted by the different value system of urban society. The true prophets were, as a result, adversaries of the existing regime: where the institutional prophets predicted glory and loot, they predicted defeat and disaster.

Additionally, A Smooth Stone discusses the Hebrew prophets in light with those at Mari in a helpful manner. For example, what made Israelite prophets unique is neither the form nor content of their speeches, but rather their recurrent refusal to follow the agreed script (e.g., Micaiah ben Imlah and Elijah). Up to, and including his analysis of Amos, Arthur remains very textually based.

In his discussion on Amos he notes that such an all-out negation of the status quo was atypical of ancient thought. Rigorous conformity to tradition was the predominant ideal. For Amos, however, reversal and negation were the incessant theme. In his time so massive a denial was unprecedented. The author’s thesis is that this pattern recurs again and again, with its momentum building and building. “Divine revelation, it seems, is simply conventional thinking turned upside down” (152).

The section on Ezekiel, almost a third of the book, is engaging, if not downright suspenseful. It is at this juncture, however, that Arthur inserts a new hermeneutic, not fully explained until the end of the book. With Ezekiel A Smooth Stone begins to interpret textual discontinuity as certain signs of redactional activity. This hermeneutic allows Arthur to understand the discontinuities in Ezekiel as the prophet’s additional later reworking of older prophecies in light of changed religious struggles in Jerusalem. Throughout the prophecy key oracles are transformed into apocalyptic allegory. The final form of texts takes on, at times, completely new meanings.

For example, the prophet’s extended allegory of Israel’s history in chapter 16 is actually a parody of the high priest. The Tyre Oracle of chapter 27 is not aimed at Tyre but rather is an indictment of Jerusalem, and the Tyranian ship in this chapter is a thinly disguised metaphor for the Jerusalem temple. But if Tyre is a cipher for Jerusalem, who is the “king of Tyre” in chapter 28? Arthur argues that the “king” is none other than the high priest. Again, in chapter 32 Judah is the real target rather than “Egypt.” The idea is that textual discontinuities are signs Ezekiel later revamped his messages in order to bring the final and fully edited book together under one motif—the total rejection of Israel’s religion. “As the book progresses, Ezekiel continually adds depth and variety to his scheme, thereby building an inexorable momentum that propels the sequence toward a final, shattering resolution” (p. 235).

Discussing chapters 40–48, Arthur asserts that in its basic iconography the new temple seems little different for the old, corrupted one. “That Jerusalem still persists in her idolatry is, in fact, precisely the point of Ezekiel’s vision” (p. 260). What the chapters disclose is not the promise of a glorious future, but the persistent reality of delusion. Arthur postulates that it was Ezekiel’s skirmish with the false prophets, depicted in chapter 13, that drove the exiled priest toward “a policy of deliberate deception” (p. 262). By tracking the use of “wall” in the book, it is concluded that the restored temple was destined for destruction—even before it was built. Hence, these chapters are “salvation oracles modified to function as oracles of doom” (p. 272).

With Ezekiel 38–39 the book “arrives at its ultimate destination” (p. 274). Arthur identifies Gog with Yahweh, himself. Indeed, through similar vocabulary in chapters 1 and 38 the “inexorable logic of the tradition pointed to a startling conclusion: Yahweh would destroy himself” (p. 277). The rejection of Israel’s religion is therefore complete.

Arthur begins his discussion on Isaiah by locating the book’s final redaction in the middle of the fifth century during strife between the Zadokite priests and minority residents of Jerusalem. The book of Isaiah takes up the cause for this persecuted minority who could not prevail in a power struggle with the priestly hierarchy. The interpretation of Isaiah 6 in light of 44:18ff follows the same hermeneutic used in Ezekiel; namely, locating similar vocabulary and then concluding that the same vocabulary means the same referent. This, then, results in the idea that, in the book’s final 5th century redaction, what Isaiah really saw in chapter 6 was Molech, a false god, who commands the destruction of Jerusalem. This idea then informs much of Arthur’s reading of melek in Isaiah. “Pronouncements originally directed against the melek of Assyria were therefore taken up and reapplied to the melek of Tophet [i.e., Molech]” (p. 377). Much like his interpretation of the Tyre oracle in Ezekiel, Arthur understands Isaiah’s Tyre oracle in chapter 23 also to be a cipher for Jerusalem. Again, two ideas drive these conclusions. First, he postulates an “Isaianic school” whose work is detected by textual discontinuities. Second, similar vocabulary means a similar referent. This hermeneutic climaxes in his discussion of Isaiah 14:3–20. By means of matching up vocabulary and noting discontinuity, Arthur concludes that the 5th century book of Isaiah laments the death of Yahweh, so complete is the final prophetic rejection of Israel’s religion.

Applying the prophetic destruction of Israel’s religion as depicted by the final form of Ezekiel and Isaiah, Arthur writes, “We have seen that several postclassical prophets attacked the traditional picture of God as King; taking their criticism a step farther, one could argue that the whole notion of a male-dominated cosmological hierarchy should be rejected” (p. 394). Arthur’s ultimate application his reading of the prophets is as follows: “What are all the catechisms and creeds and canons but a desperate attempt to wall off a small, safe circle from the crushing immensity of the universe? Unable to bear the dizzying heights of unlimited mystery, we have settled for a more attainable—if more complicated—half-truth. Better a known trifle than the terror of infinite possibility” (p. 395).

The questions I have for Arthur center upon his hermeneutic. First as important as intertextuality has been for helping sense the unity of biblical books, I wonder if it may not also become a distraction in his case? His fascination with the way a poetic theme or a rhetorical expression is repeated within Ezekiel and Isaiah tends to lead to an interpretation that has no external controls. Can verbal correspondence be the sole determinater of a text’s meaning? That is to say, just because Ezekiel 32 has similar vocabulary with Ezekiel 16 may only mean that Jerusalem is on the same level as Egypt. The message is that Israel has become like one of the nations. So likewise in other places. Similar vocabulary does not necessarily always indicate the same referent. Because x and y are alike in certain respects doesn’t mean they are alike in all respects.

Second, to be sure, the textual discontinuities in Ezekiel and especially Isaiah are incomparably greater than those found in western writings. But is Arthur’s exegesis of those discontinuities the only interpretation? Could one not rather turn the usual problem on its head and understand that we are faced with a text which had originally been a whole, and which has then been disjointed from the outside by redactional interpreters? Arthur could at least entertain the idea that the discontinuity is an original intentional act designed by the speaker/writer for the purpose of persuasion. That is to say, the stylistic elements perceived by redactional scholars as indicators of less-than-skilled editorial work might be devices widely accepted by ancient Israelites as part of the repertory of skilled writers and speakers.

Finally, A Smooth Stone only attributes several salvation oracles to Ezekiel (mostly in chapters 34–37). But this is another problem. In their final form both Ezekiel and Isaiah contain many more texts that can be understood as salvation oracles. Theologically this is because of Israel’s creed; namely, “Yahweh is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in loyal love” (Exod 34:6; passim). Yahweh’s “anger lasts for a moment, his favor a lifetime” (Ps 30:6 [MT]). Yahweh is not only, and even not primarily, a God of judgment, but a God of salvation. Arthur fails to bring this idea into the discussion due to the fact that he mistakenly brackets out Israel’s other writings in the Torah and the Ketabim. These would correct his bias toward Yahweh as being only a God of destruction. A more holistic reading of the prophetic literature, specifically in light of the Pentateuchal curses and blessings of Lev. 26 and Deut. 28, would better integrate Arthur’s presentation with normative Mosaic Yahwism.

To its credit, A Smooth Stone leaves the reader with the idea that biblical prophecy is unsurpassed in visionary scope, moral insight, and imaginative impact. Even now, more than two and a half millennia later, the words of the prophets retain an uncanny power to annoy, hearten, fascinate, and/or appall. The book is lucid, engaging and well written, but finally what would strengthen the argument is a more thoroughgoing discussion and defense of the hermeneutic employed and a more integrative approach that reads prophetic literature in light of the entire Hebrew canon.