Marvin A. Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature
(Interpreting Biblical Texts; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005). Pp. 240. Paper, US $19.00, UK₤13.99, CAN $25.99. ISBN: 0-687-00844-1.
Reviewed by Joyce Rilett Wood
Toronto, ON

This superb introductory volume takes readers through whole prophetic texts, demonstrating each book’s unique organization, rhetorical character and theological stance.

Chapter one, ‘Prophets in Jewish and Christian Scripture’ (pp. 16–19), provides a succinct overview of the differences the prophetic books play in the Jewish Tanak and Christian Old Testament. A century of critical work, focusing on historical, diachronic reconstruction, has fragmented prophetic texts into many editorial additions. For this reason the primary concern of the volume is synchronic analysis, the reading of prophetic books in their received forms. The admission, however, that ‘the prophetic books are the products of later editors or redactors’ (p. 16) does imply that a synchronic reading can lead as well to a one-sided focus, if we set aside questions about different levels of meaning.

Chapter two, ‘Reading Prophetic Books’ (pp. 23–44), situates Hebrew prophecy in the context of ancient Near Eastern prophecy, with attention to Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Syrian antecedents (pp. 23–32). The different literary genres in prophetic books are then discussed (pp. 33–42). When less was known about the structure of prophetic books, it was easy to envisage them as haphazard collections of oracles. Sweeney lets us see how ingeniously the prophetic books were constructed. He presents them as ‘well-planned compositions with specific aims’ (p. 34). He insists that readers must ‘grasp the literary character of the prophetic books’ (p. 16), but he compromises his literary theory by characterizing the books as collections or blocks of oracles (pp. 33–34, 57–58, 95–96). If prophetic books are ‘collections,’ indeed Sweeney is correct that we have no criteria by which to determine if something is missing (p. 33). However, if prophecy is literature, we can ask about the unity and coherence of a completed whole, the connection between the parts of the whole, and even raise questions about composite literary unity.

Chapter three, ‘The Book of Isaiah’ (pp. 45–84), proposes a two-part synchronic structure (1–33; 34–66) that contrasts with its three-part diachronic structure (1–39, 40–55; 56–66; pp. 48–49). Synchronic literary analysis focuses on the book’s recurring ideas notably, reunification of Israel and Judah under a righteous Davidic monarch, yhwh’s worldwide sovereignty, the roles of Zion and the nations. The book’s diachronic dimensions are not established on literary grounds but are simply presupposed by the book’s references to different historical periods: the Assyrian invasions, the Babylonian exile, the rise of Cyrus of Persia. Nevertheless, Sweeney convincingly argues that many themes in Isaiah 1–39 do not belong to First Isaiah but represent the thought of later parts of the book, particularly, the restoration of Jerusalem, judgment of Babylon, the nations’ recognition of yhwh, the rise of a righteous king (2–4, 13, 24–27, 32–33). Disturbing is the book’s idea that Israel suffers as part of a divine plan. Sweeney alerts readers to the dangers of such a theology and its use historically to justify anti-Semitism (pp. 59–60, 78). What would strengthen his commentary is greater discussion of the differences between Jewish and Christian interpretation of Isaiah (pp. 45–46).

Chapter four sets ‘The Book of Jeremiah’ (pp. 85–125) in its historical context, the prose sections having the same literary style and theology of the Deuteronomistic history (pp. 85–88). A clear structural outline of LXX and MT versions of Jeremiah is provided, contrasting LXX’s retrospective on the judgment of Jerusalem and the nations with MT’s anticipated restoration of Jerusalem (pp. 88–95, 107). Superscriptions appear throughout the book (e.g. 7:1; 11:1; 14:1; 18:1) and are treated as ‘the most fundamental marker of literary structure’ (pp. 90–91). According to Sweeney, the superscription (1:1–3) ‘idealizes the span of Jeremiah’s career’ to forty years in order to make a theological comparison between the prophet and Moses (p. 88). The implication of this insight is that the superscription is not literal biography. Given that later writers added the superscription and the narratives about the prophet (p. 86), did they interpret ‘the words of Jeremiah’ (1:1a; 51:64b) to fit specific events in the history? Without employing diachronic criteria, such questions cannot be answered. Apart from saying that the prophecy of Jeremiah has been ‘updated and expanded’ (p. 98), there is no attempt to distinguish Jeremiah’s words from those of his successors. Most of Sweeney’s discussion is a synchronic overview of the basic themes in the book of Jeremiah, many echoing those in the book of Isaiah (pp. 108–109, 122). His methodology lets him identify the commonalities between the two prophetic books but not the differences between the two prophets.

Chapter five claims that ‘The Book of Ezekiel’ (pp. 127–64) has been ‘lightly edited,’ and represents mainly ‘the work of the prophet himself’ (p. 135). The three-part division (1–24 punishment against Jerusalem; 25–32 punishment against the nations; 33–48 restoration for Israel and the nations) is replaced by chronological formulas, starting in 1:1–3 and continuing down to 40:1, as the organizing structure of the book (pp. 129–32). Sweeney argues that the identification of Ezekiel as a priest is not the work of later redactors. As supporting evidence, he cites Near Eastern prophets and key biblical figures as combining prophetic and priestly roles (pp. 132–36). Joshua and Samuel are portrayed as prophet and priest, but this is an exilic Deuteronomistic idea (Josh. 1:7–9; 8:30–35; 1 Sam. 2–7) that later editors might have applied to Ezekiel (1:1–3) and Jeremiah (1:1–3).

Chapter six, ‘The Book of the Twelve Prophets’ (pp. 165–214), gives a comprehensive discussion of the LXX and MT versions, each beginning with Hosea’s portrayal of yhwh as a husband who divorces his wife Israel, and ending with Malachi who states that yhwh hates divorce (pp. 166–73). Sweeney discusses the synchronic structure of the twelve, with attention to its debate with the book of Isaiah. He rightly concludes that prophecy is dialogue, although he points to differing positions among books, not to actual disagreements between individual prophets (pp. 208–209).

As the Foreword indicates, the purpose of the Interpreting Biblical Texts series is to guide the reader through biblical texts, not to engage in debates with other scholars (pp. 11–13). Therefore, Sweeney’s book is more descriptive than it is argumentative. In spite of this drawback, the volume includes much informative detail, not only for the beginner, but also for any serious student of biblical prophecy.