A Prophetic Perspective

For some time now, I’ve been approaching the Hebrew Bible in a particular way as a kind of experimental framework. I thought it might be interesting to share a short description of this framework, and elicit comments. This is by no means a complete description, but more of a series of notes.

Essentially, I see the entirety of the Old Testament as an expression and work of the ancient Israelite prophets and their supporters, a group that can reasonably be understood as the true Yahwists, in contrast to the more syncretistic wider population and official institutions, particularly the monarchies and priesthoods. Their evaluation of historical figures and events are presented in the texts of the Old Testament as we have them, not those of the priests or the monarchy. It is when those latter were in conflict with the prophets that the evaluations for these instutions are negative, particularly in the historical books.

In such a situation, I would prefer to speak of a Prophetic History, rather than what most describe as the Deuteronomistic History. In this is a return of the emphasis back to the wider, more general category of the prophets. After all, it is entirely and only their evaluations and their first-person voices that we are priveleged to read in the Old Testament, which I don’t think anyone disagrees with, except perhaps among the Psalms, and then Proverbs, which are a different kettle of fish altogether. What we have in the Hebrew Bible, then, is a group of writings of an ancient pre-exilic religious minority, which, in the post-exilic period, are at long last taken as foundational by the priestly and secular leadership of Yehud.

A few items of support: How is creation accomplished in Genesis 1? Through speech, the medium of the prophet, not through ritual, the medium of the priest. Of Aaron and Moses, who gets the better press? Moses the faithful prophet rather than Aaron the syncretistic priest. What institution is consistently exclusively Yahwistic throughout the periods for which there is reliable evidence? Only the prophets. What is the framework given for all the legal texts? Prophetic delivery to Moses, and Moses to the people. Who decided which kings were good and which bad, and according to what criteria? The criteria were those of the prophets moreso than those of the priests.

Keeping this prophetc perspective in mind while reading the Hebrew Bible texts is often more enlightening than various other approaches. Give it a try, O reader, and let me know what you think.

What Have They Done to the Bible?

John Sandys-Wunsch put thirty years of work into his What Have They Done to the Bible?—A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (Liturgical Press, 2005). Covering the development of modern Biblical studies from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, he’s provided overviews of the approaches to the Bible of various persons throughout those centuries, some longer, some shorter, but all very helpful. The book is not at all polemical, as might be read into the title question, but rather is a fine, succinct history of scholarship. One is able, with this book, to view the development of professional scholarship itself, and to be reminded of the once central role of Biblical studies in both the academy and society. Sandys-Wunsch also displays a fine sense of humor on occasion. His familiarity with the pre-nineteenth century scholarship is particularly valuable, as these formative ages are typically ignored in other survey coverage in favor of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries scholars whose works are considered more directly foundational. Indeed, Sandys-Wunsch states candidly, “To save reviewers trouble, let it be admitted outright that the author is not as familiar with the work of nineteenth-century scholars as with that of earlier authors. There are many more studies of biblical interpretation in this period than in the earlier ones” (p. 283, n. 3). This book should be required reading for every introductory course on Biblical scholarship. It’s thoroughly annotated, with a bibliography separated by chapter/period, and several useful indices (Subjects, Pre-1900 Names, Post-1900 Names, Scripture). The style is straightforward, eminently readable, and while avoiding technical jargon, still manages also to skillfully avoid misrepresentation or oversimplification of complex subjects. Consider it highly recommended.