Reading the Prophetic Books

I think people have a tendency to be mislead by the application of the word “prophetic” to certain books of the Old Testament. The problem is not with the word itself, but with our understanding of prophecy. Prophecy in modern use almost always means prediction or foretelling of future events. Thus a reader of the prophetic books comes to Scripture expecting to be told about things that will happen in the future, whether future to the original audience or for themselves. The prediction of events after our own time is a further narrowing of the meaning of prophecy. This is prophecy in the sense of apocalypse, or the discussion of “last things.” There is certainly prediction and apocalypse in the “prophetic” books of the Old Testament. These books foretell the coming of Christ and describe the eventual destruction of nations. Yet these are not their only subjects. When approach a text, whether Scripture or other, there is always a danger that our expectations will divert our attention from things that we should notice. Coming to the prophetic books with the goal of discovering predictions and identifying their historical fulfillment can distract us from other things that lie in the text.

Before approaching the prophetic books, one must be aware of the historical context in which they were written. The books of 1st and 2nd Kings and 1st and 2nd Chronicles provide this context. Most prophetic books were written before Israel and Judah were conquered by foreign nations. Whenever a prophet named a specific nation as the one to bring God’s punishment to Israel or Judah, he was foretelling. Yet the prediction of destruction of Israel and Judah by a foreign invader hardly needed divine “insider information” Reading the prophetic books in the context of the first five books of the Bible makes this outcome entirely predictable.

Looking back at the law books of the Old Testament (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) we can see that the its rules are presented to the Israelites in the form of a contract. Deuteronomy, especially, take the form of a legal document. It presents Yahweh as the God who rescued the Israelites from Egypt. This God promises to continue to protect and take care of the Israelites. They in turn must agree to obey a certain set of rules for their community, personal behavior, and worship. Should the Israelites obey these rules, God promises to blessed them as no group of people has every been blessed before. Their land will be extremely fruitful, their families large, and their enemies will fear them. Should the Israelites break this agreement, the reverse will happen. God will cause their crops to fail and their enemies will fall upon them and the take them into captivity. Joshua 8 shows the Israelites completing the ratification ceremony that Moses lays out in Deuteronomy 27. In the ceremony they agree to abide by the requirements of the contract, binding both themselves and their descendants to the law.

For this reason, whenever a prophet proclaims destruction and captivity for Israel and Judah because of their sin, they are in effect reminding the Israelites of the stipulations of the contract. “If you continue to disobey Yahweh, he will do exactly what he promised to do.” The call of the prophets is for the Israelites to return to the rules and regulations that their ancestors promised to follow, which is also a call to return to the promised blessings. Prophecy, in this sense, is focused on the past and the present rather than the future.

You might think of the prophets as signposts telling you that the bridge is out. “Keep driving down this road and you will end up in the river.” An even better analogy is that of a parent warning his or her child, “Keep hitting your brother and you will get a time out.” When the punishment comes after many warnings, there is nothing unexpected about it.

This understanding should help us re-orient the picture of God that arises from the prophetic books. Some people see all the warnings of divine wrath in the prophetic books as proof of an angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament. A picture that stands in stark contrast to the loving God of the New Testament. Instead, these warnings demonstrate the incredible patience and mercy of God. God does not desire to punish people. If he did he would send them warning after warning in the form of the prophets. Generally parents don’t enjoy meting out punishment. They can warn and threaten, but at a certain time they must follow through with the promised threat. To hold back is to allow a child to go on hitting his brother. In the prophetic books, God shows himself to be far more patient than any human parent is capable of being and also more faithful to what he has promised.

There are two major themes which occur repeatedly in the words of the prophets. One is Israel’s rejection of God. Time and time again, the prophets call the Israelites back to the exclusive worship of their God Yahweh. Such a call parallels the theme of the first four commandments of the Decalogue. More often than not, the Israelites did not reject God outright. Rather, they supplemented their worship of him with other gods. A farmer who sacrificed to Yahweh would hedge his bets for a good harvest by making offerings to a local fertility deity. Kings would sacrifice to Yahweh and the gods of their enemies before a battle to increase their chances of victory. If having one god on your side was good then having two was better. Thus the prophet Zephaniah writes about “those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom.” Yahweh, as is clear in the law, demands exclusivity. Furthermore, ritual prostitution and child sacrifice were often an integral part of the ways that Israel’s neighbors worshiped their gods. Both were strictly prohibited by Yahweh in his law.

The other theme that runs throughout the prophets is the concern for God’s justice. If the previous theme focuses on the vertical relationship between God and the people, this one focuses on the horizontal relationship between people. This is a theme found in the last six commandments. The prophets are particularly concerned with those who tend to lose out most when injustice flourishes, the poor and marginalized. Indeed the poor and those on the fringes of society are a sort of canary in the coal mine in regards to justice in a culture. Towards the beginning of his book Isaiah proclaims, “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

The law contains instruction for taking care of the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners. Loans were expected to be given without interest to fellow Israelites and all debts were to be release every seven years. For most of Christian history usury has been regarded as a sin by the church. There were always ways around this prohibition, but it was only with the rise of Protestantism that the charging of interest became a non-issue.

Another aspect of the law which was concerned with the needs of the poor was that any Israelite could sell him or herself into slavery. However, the law required that all Israelite slaves must be released after seven years. They weren’t supposed to be let go empty-handed. Their former master was supposed give them an abundance of provisions, presumably so they would not fall back into poverty Foreigners were expected to be treated well, though they did not received the full rights of a native Israelite. However, if they chose to follow Yahweh and, in the case of men, be circumcised, they could receive the full rights of an ethnic Israelite. These and other laws provided layers of safety nets for the poor and marginalized in Israelite society. Whether these were actually followed was, of course, another matter.

The prophets’ warnings about issues of justice reflected the fact that these things were not being practiced. In this way, God’s warnings through the prophets were not just about his own glory, but concern for the well-being of the Israelites themselves. This is ultimately what drives any good parent to punish their children. They want a child who will grow up without feeling that it is okay to hit anyone when they feel like it. On a higher level, parents hope that their children will be driven not simply by the fear of punishment, but by a genuine love for others. Often this full lesson can only be taught by example, not a series of rules. But until a child reaches the maturity needed to love others intrinsically, a system of punishments and rewards is often necessary.

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