Thursday, July 30, 2009

11 Critical Issues in the Other Prophets 2

And now the second installment to finish out critical issues in the other prophets. Previous posts in this series include:

1. Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship
2. The Old Testament Canon
3. Genres in the Pentateuch
4. Critical Issues in the Pentateuch
5. Critical Issues in the Historical Books
6. The Poetic Sub-Genre
7. Critical Issues in the Psalms
8. Critical Issues in Wisdom Literature
9. Critical Issues in Isaiah
10. Critical Issues in the Other Prophets 1

And now, the other prophets, again...
Christian Interpretation
From the time of the exile on, we are not surprised to find an increasing expectation that, one day, God would restore the fortunes of Israel. One day, a king from the line of David would rise again. Not all Jewish literature in the centuries after exile necessarily had such an expectation, but some of the post-exilic material in the prophets understandably does.

One critical issue in the prophets is material about such a coming king that appears in the writings of prophets who lived prior to the exile (e.g., Micah 5:2; Isa. 23:5-6). Some scholars see this material as part of the post-exilic editing of the prophet, since such predictions would have made little sense when there was actually a king ruling on the throne. Traditionally, of course, such statements have been read as centuries long anticipations of Jesus. Certainly one's presuppositions about the supernatural can come into play in one's conclusions--is it possible for a person to see the future so far in advance? At the same time, one might believe in prophecy and yet still conclude that it is more likely this material comes from after the exile.

The Christian belief that Jesus is enthroned as cosmic Lord at God's right hand in heaven is a significant upgrade from the prophetic sense that a great human king would once more assume Israel's throne. For example, Micah 5:2-4 predicts the return of a presumably human descendant of David who will restore the boundaries of Israel. It does not seem likely that anyone prior to the first century AD would have understood this verse in relation to a Messiah who had come to Bethlehem from heaven.

Indeed, the imagery in Micah of a ruler arising from Bethlehem need not even be taken originally in reference to the location of the king's birthplace. One might easily read it as a statement of the lineage of the king. In that case we find at least two possible shifts in the Christian reading of this passage in Matthew 2:6 from its original meaning. The one is its application to Jesus, who at least initially is a far different kind of king that Micah had in mind (suffering, cosmic). The second is taking the verse as an indication of birth location rather than general lineage.

Those New Testament authors who quote from the prophetic writings thus continue to read verses at varying removes from their original contexts. One of the easiest examples of this dynamic is Matthew 2:15's use of Hosea 11:1. Hosea 11:1 in its original context talks about how God brought Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus but that Israel then turned to other gods and did not serve Yahweh. Matthew strikingly lifts the words "out of Egypt I called my son" out of the verse and reads it in relation to Jesus returning from Egypt as a child after those seeking to kill him had died.

A reading of prophetic texts in greater continuity with the original meaning is Hebrews' and Paul's use of the new covenant concept in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (38:31-34 in the Greek Old Testament). The passage originally is a somewhat poetic prediction of the eventual restoration of Israel after its captivity in Babylon. Hebrews and Paul's understanding is in continuity with this anticipation but it is also "fuller" and richer. For Hebrews, the law written on our hearts is mediated by the Holy Spirit dwelling inside us, and in Paul and Luke the new covenant is inaugurated by Jesus' blood. Jeremiah knows none of these specifics, but provides a general framework into which the "fuller sense" of these early Christians fit easily.

We encounter the same sorts of issues with sources and editing in the other prophets as we do in Isaiah and other books. Did, for example, Jeremiah undergo some editing by "Deuteronomists," similar hands that supposedly edited Deuteronomy and the historical books? Did Amos and Hosea get edited in the southern kingdom after being directed toward the northern kingom? The reasoning behind such suggestions, whether they be true or not, are tensions between material that obviously fits the situation of the prophet and then other material that seems anachronistic or in tension with other things the prophet says.

For example, some scholars suggest that Micah 4-5 date to the period after the exile and 6-7 even later. Micah himself lived in the 700s BC. Zechariah 1-8 are sometimes called "First Zechariah," since it seems to go together as a coherent book. Then the tone and subject matter changes significantly in chapters 7-8, again leading some scholars to consider it from a different setting. Each individual will have to decide what they think of such suggestions.

Zechariah 9-14 and Malachi seem to be in a slightly different situation from other suggestions about sources and such. This material appeared at the end of scrolls of "The Twelve," which we think of as the Minor Prophets. But it is debated whether the name of a prophet actually appears in any of these chapters. Malachi in Hebrew simply means "my messenger," and Zechariah is not mentioned anywhere in what now appears as Zechariah 9-14.

Some scholars thus suggest that the prophecies from Zechariah 9 to Malachi 4 were originally a somewhat miscellaneous collection of prophecies at the end of scrolls containing the so called minor prophets. At the same time, the material of Malachi does hang together under the heading "oracle of the Lord to Israel through my messenger" (or through Malachi). Since the New Testament never references any of this material by the names Zechariah or Malachi, it would seem as if nothing would keep a person from any of these options if one so concluded, except for tradition.

Historical Issues
One of the big issues in the prophets is whether one believes that God exists and tells people the distant future. One of the criticisms that has often been made of scholarship on the Old Testament is that some scholars do not even believe prophecy is possible. In such cases, it is little surprise they think material is late, since they do not believe someone can predict the future in the first place. Undoubtedly there is truth to this criticism. At the same time, a person might believe in the possibility of true prophecy and yet still conclude it most likely that certain material was written much later.

Another historical issue in prophecy has to do with predictions that, at least on the surface, do not seem to have come true. On the one hand, the Jews would scarcely have preserved the prophetic writings if they did not believe they had largely turned out to come to pass. Most prophetic material had to do with the immediate situation of the prophet. So in those instances when predictions were made, they were soon either verified or discounted, and Jeremiah indicates that this is the way one distinguishes a true prophet from a false one (cf. Jer. 28:8-9; Deut. 18:22). Of course, not all prophecy was predictive--much of it indicted current practices like idolatry and mistreatment of the poor, orphans, widows, and so forth.

At the same time, we do encounter instances that seem hard to reconcile with other historical material from the ancient world. Such circumstances sometimes led later interpreters to take predictions allegorically or figuratively. Another possibility is to take such predictions in relation to an age yet to come, the "end times." For example, it is difficult to reconcile Ezekiel's prediction of the fall of Tyre or that Nebuchadnezzar would conquer Egypt (Ezek. 29:8-12) with the evidence from elsewhere. Haggai 2 seems to adjust the prophecy about the splendor of the rebuilt temple in light of the fact that the temple did not turn out to be as grand as pictured in Haggai 1.

Ezekiel 40 and following similarly looks to a wondrously rebuilt temple, a prediction that we presumably need to take symbolically if we consider it still in force. The temple rebuilt in 516BC was nothing of this caliber, nor was Herod's refurbishment that began in 20BC. Given Hebrews' sense that no more animal sacrifice should take place and that the true tabernacle is in heaven, it is difficult for us as Christians now to believe that God's glory could again return to an earthly temple (cf. Ezek. 43:1-5) and thus that this prophecy could come to pass in a literal sense. Daniel 11 reads like a history of the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV until verse 40, where his downfall and death in the land of Israel is seemingly predicted. Again, all the indications from elsewhere are that he died elsewhere under different circumstances. Some interpreters thus relate that part of the chapter to the end times and an "antichrist" of a different age.

These are difficult issues and no doubt ingenious solutions have been offered to explain them. They raise the possibility not least that God might change His mind in response to human action, such as we see in Jonah 3-4 when Nineveh repents. However, many of these instances seem much less profound. One must either simply take by faith that there are explanations for the seeming anomalies or adjust one's sense of what inspiration entails or what the inspired meaning of Scripture is.

Jonah presents its own issues. Many interpreters suggest the story of Jonah itself was a parable or novella that was never meant to be taken as a depiction of history. At first glance it is hard to object to this suggestion, since no one would then be accusing Jonah of lying or being wrong. Jesus never suggests that the prodigal of his parable was ever a real person or that he really knew of an incident with a Samaritan near Jericho. This approach to Jonah would put it in a similar category, true but not historical

There are features of Jonah's story that are difficult from a historical standpoint. We have no record of a mass repentance and turn to Yahweh in the extensive annals and records of Nineveh from this period, capital of the Assyrian empire at the time (the same kingdom that destroyed the northern kingdom in 722BC). The idea that it would take three days to cross Nineveh also seems quite a shocking claim from an archaeological perspective (Jonah 3:3). Again, if we believe we must take Jonah historically, we are justified in believing by faith that there are explanations for such things, even if we do not know them at this point. No doubt many ingenious explanations have already been offered.

On the other hand, if a person is inclined to take the story as a parable of sorts, we have once again to deal with the fact that Jesus seems to refer to the story as historical event. Jesus in Matthew and Luke offers the sign of Jonah as the principal sign he had to offer to his detractors. Matthew 12:38-41 and Luke 11:29-32 both seem to take the Jonah story literally and historically. We thus face the same issue with Jonah that we face with the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the Davidic authorship of the Psalms, and the Isaianic authorship of chapters 40-66. Of course even if Jonah were novelistic in nature, it is possible that the historical Jonah did have a tussle with a fish and preached with success in Nineveh.

Although Lamentations appears in the Writings of the Hebrew Bible (among the "five scrolls" or Tefillim), it is couched between Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the Christian Bible. It is traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, although technically it is anonymous. Lamentations never mentions its author, although it is clearly a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. Confer with 2 Chronicles 35:25 for the possible connection between Lamentations and the prophet Jeremiah.

Lamentations is a lovely example of artfulness in the Bible. It consists of five poems, each of which is shaped by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The first, second, and fourth poems are acrostics with twenty-two stanzas, each of which begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet (which has 22 letters). The third has three stanzas per letter. The fifth has twenty-two stanzas, but they are not alphabetical. Psalm 119 is also an acrostic psalm.

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