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.


  1. Being a rather uneducated Bible reader I don’t care too much for Deuteronomistic readings ;-). But something I thought as I read your post, please feel free to laugh at my lack of erudition.

    Even in the creation account in Gen 1, the inspired author lays out the account of the 6+1 days in a pattern of separation and infilling (which reminds me of the Holiness Code of Leviticus…or how being holy is being separated from the world unto God…and being filled with the Spirit and in Christ…Holy God creating, God’s holiness permeates Creation???) And God the King setting out lights to govern. God the Judge pronouncing what is good.

    And even as the creation account unfolds, we see God speaking and then creation responding…God said let the land produce…and the land produced…which always reminds me of God descending…being always active in His creation…perhaps little nascent seeds of the Incarnation.

    OK I may be reading in too much here but Gen 1 never ceases to astound me.

  2. But is Gen 1 so devoid of liturgy? I don’t know a word of Hebrew, so I’m dependent on the commentaries. But Westermann and Maly went so far as to characterize the creation story as liturgical. And they confirm what I see (so they must be right). God’s decrees are not mere speech, but speech-acts, ritual actions, repetitive and poetic, that really effect what they signify. And the story follows the basic liturgical rhythm, which is sabbatical. The ritual material only increases in the next three chapters.

  3. Nony, I wouldn’t laugh at you, or at any other person sharing such observations. I’m glad to read them!

    What better example of the perfect response to words of prophecy is there than instant and unstinting, even eager, compliance? In contrast to later Israelites, who quite consistently ignored the prophectic word, we read in Genesis 1 of even the mindless elements obeying the prophetic word of God. Looked at in this perspective, Genesis 1 can be seen as a rather condemnatory commentary on the actions of such folks. That theme of disobedience, rather than of obedience and holiness, continues throughout the Pentateuch and historical books, with obedience and holiness being the much rarer exception rather than the rule.

  4. Mike, I think a distinction is necessary between repetitive semi-poetic prose and liturgy, which may employ such, but such writing is also simply a characteristic af ancient prose in general. It may be similar to what we find in liturgies as we’re both familiar with them, but is this chapter and the first few verses of the next something that must be categorized as liturgical in an ancient context of a ritual-sacrificial system? I think not. There’s nothing in there about sacrifice/slaughter or other ritualistic matters, except by stretching the account to make the creation offering itself to God, but that isn’t explicit. After all, it’s a creation account. In fact, nowhere in the Old Testament is there an explicit description and record of what such a liturgy was comprised of, including the prayers, hymns, and detailed ritual instructions included in such. Yes, there are some very general outlines of such, and a few partially detailed accounts, but nothing is of the kind of completely laid-out, “rubricated” liturgical instructions that one finds in, say, certain examples from ancient Mesopotamia, Hatti, and Egypt, the much later Rabbinic Mishnah and Talmuds and the even later Christian priestly manuals, like the Liturgikon among the Eastern Orthodox, or its complement in Roman Catholicism (the name of which escapes me at the moment). One of my teachers (I don’t recall which) said it well, that anyone suggesting that there is liturgical material in the OT isn’t sufficiently familiar with a truly liturgical tradition. Even details of the sacrifices in Leviticus omit various important details required for the preparation of the animals, particularly skinning them (while the skins are described, the actual skinning is not described in the instructions). Regarding this, I would thus rather describe such material as belonging, as explicitly related by the accounts themselves, to prophetic general instruction on categories of sacrifices rather than an intrusive, hypothetical “Priestly” source that isn’t particularly priestly. This treatment respects the contexts of the materials themselves, and explains a number of their shortcomings which would otherwise need to be explained for their focus only on the “what” rather than also including the “how,” which is the primary characteristic of truly ritual documents.

    Admittedly, this is a new and different perspective, and faces an entrenched position (the hypothetical “P[riestly] source”) which is considerably widespread, relatively longstanding, and of almost unquestioned acceptance. However, I, for one, don’t find it to be sufficiently explanatory of the various materials typically included in its purview. Thanks for writing!

  5. “anyone suggesting that there is liturgical material in the OT isn’t sufficiently familiar with a truly liturgical tradition”

    Let me back up. I didn’t mean that Gen 1 included actual liturgical texts — God has no need to offer sacrifice — but that it showed a liturgical understanding of creation. I’m with Nony on this. I think that God hardwired the world (so to speak) for liturgy. Thus the 6+1 rhythm. If your teacher meant that the OT was devoid of liturgical texts (like the Liturgikon or Sacramentary), then I agree with him. But the OT everywhere assumes a pervasive liturgical culture, reflects a pervasive liturgical culture, and shows us what one might look like. It’s arguable at least that the law of Deuteronomy extends the liturgy to the most ordinary actions of everyday life.

    It’s arguable also that the NT assumes, reflects, and serves as an icon of the renewed liturgical culture of God’s people.

    None of this contradicts your prophetic approach to the Scripture. Indeed, the prophets themselves cried out against liturgical abuses ? and they treated moral failings, too, as liturgical abuses. They decried the priests who dared to approach the altar with blemished and lame offerings, and sinful hearts. You brought this out vividly in your translation of Malachi.

    I think your friend Cyril would say that the OT is charged with the grandeur of the liturgy.

  6. I thought that’s what you meant, and I don’t entirely disagree, but I see the emphasis as primarily elsewhere in this instance, in a more basic prophetic/revelatory stance, and not as clearly ritualistic. I certainly use (and hear) “liturgical” in a more specific (and perhaps too overly technical) way to describe something directly related to a particular specific ritual series or liturgy. I don’t think getting too loose with the language is helpful, and indeed, it’s part of what I’m in reaction against, that claim for ritual/liturgical language where it’s actually somewhat forced.

    St Cyril would no doubt give me a well-deserved tongue-lashing for any number of things, and this too, no doubt.

  7. No Ben, I certainly don’t think God is disapproving of liturgy! Certainly there was liturgy (which, inter alia, the OED efficiently defines as “public worship conducted in accordance with a prescribed form”) which occurred in Old Testament times, but the precise form(s) of it isn’t preserved, only lists of sacrfices and some more general instructions which can’t be said to be sufficient to reconstruct the details. I would say that these general descriptions aren’t to be taken as representative of a “priestly” source (particularly the classically defined “P” source in nineteenth century “higher criticism” circles) because they’re insufficiently representative of the kinds of detailed liturgical, truly and certainly and objectively priestly instructions found in other contemporary and later related cultures.

  8. “That theme of disobedience, rather than of obedience and holiness…”

    There now, Kevin, you have made me think of how a prophet’s primary calling is to call people back to faithfulness (holiness, obedience) to God. A calling which involved both word and (often strange) actions.

    And in this, the creation account, with God’s speaking and creation responding…God’s speech-act as revelation which draws a response is prophecy par excellence…as …as is God’s Word Incarnate, the perfect final Word of revelation and and the perfect human response…the Prophet who is King of Kings and the perfect High Priest. That John the evangelist wasn’t just a simple fisherman.

    Now you’ve blown my mind.

  9. I think my problem, Kevin, is that I’ve spent so little time in the JEDP forest that I’m not accustomed even to consider the categories you’re dismissing! Thus I’m not looking for the OT to include a sacramentary—as the P-pods might—but I do expect it to presume a rich and pervasive liturgical life, as the early Fathers do.

  10. Nony, now you’re catching on! The further import is that of a personal relationship of sanctity with God being part and parcel of both the prophetic role by its very nature, and reflected similarly in the legislation included in the Pentateuch. To maintain that relationship, one needs to do some things, and not do others. It’s when the people (including the priests and rulers as well as the majority) turn their backs on this covenantal requirement, which is addressed not just to the people as a whole, but rather explicitly to individuals in the language of the laws themselves (which modern translations obscure in many ways), that the prophets remind them of the way that they’ve been preserving, along with their sometimes large and influential number, sometimes small and not as influential number of supporters. This personal call to sanctity is further extended in the New Testament, which follows the prophetic path in an even more stringent way (no longer just not avoiding adulterous acts, but even lust itself, for example). This is why the Church Fathers could describe the Old Testament Prophets as Saints and also as members of the Church. Though not Christian per se, they were preserving the right path throughout various ages. Anyhow, I’m glad you’re enjoying this.

  11. Mike, right. I think that’s probably the issue. Certainly there are materials that indicate a very elaborate “ritual” mentality that would have expressed itself in liturgy. After all, they had a Tabernacle and Temple, and it’s unlikely that things that went on there, even in the very few good times without syncretism, were very different at all from the kinds of liturgies we have preserved from other cultures. Even though those are fragmentary, they’re detailed. I’ll post some excerpts later. But, as in the comment in response to Nony, above, I’m seeing the “priestly” materials more in their aspect of what would have been of intimate concern to the prophets upholding the purer tradition of maintaining a relationship with God, irrespective of whether the priests would have required such things at the altar itself. As we saw in Malachi, the priests even then were quite lax in their requirements. Interesting stuff!

  12. I’ll look forward to the future postings on this, Kevin. In Malachi (as in Ignatius of Antioch, whom I’m reading now), the relationship is consummated in the liturgy. That’s the objective fact. As prophets, both Malachi and Ignatius concern themselves with our subjective fidelity to the sacrifice, the purity of what we’re bringing to the altar.

  13. I look forward to them too. It helps me to put everything into actual words, of course, and if others find it useful, then so much the better.

    One set of the things about the “P(riestly)” source that I’m in objection to is something that you might not be familiar with. Because the whole of source criticism is based on separation of the texts into earlier documentary strata, etc, some certain things have been associated in that hypothesis with the P tradition: essentially everything ritual (sacrifices, temple stuff, etc), of a particular theology (sanctity), and even some outlying stuff (genealogies and a focus on order/numbers) are accounted P. Now alot of this is based on a bunch of nineteenth and early twentieth century German guys perceptions of what is related to priests (like those Catholic priests down the road from the good Lutheran church) with a subtle dose of antisemitism (they were German in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, OF COURSE they were antisemitic). Against that, there are other examples of narratives from the ancient world where such kinds of materials are used and which weren’t from a ritual context. And the materials that are from the ancient world which actually represent what these (mostly) German guys saw as ritual materials in the Bible are quite different. This is excusable because these materials were only being discovered and translated just when they were working. What is inexcusable is that the whole hypothesis hasn’t been revisited to take these contrasts (as well as other comparative material) into account. That’s part of what I want to do here.

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