Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Bible prophecy: predicting the distant future?

In this essay the focus is on Biblical prophecy, even though I also discuss prophecy in the wider ancient Middle Eastern context. Three important characteristics of the prophet are discussed, namely that he/she was an oracle of God (the gods), a preacher of ethics and a preserver of tradition. A close connection, going back millennia, existed between prophets (or court diviners) and the written tradition. But what does “prophet” mean (or meant)? This calls for an hermeneutic (interpretative) approach. Scholars should not force their own paradigmatic perspectives onto the text, but listen to the voices in the text. Both the voices of the individual prophets as well as that of the age-old prophetic tradition are of importance. Certain prophetic themes, like that about the messiah, can only be appreciated once the ancient Israelite manner of understanding their own prophecies is considered. This also throws light on the possibility of future fulfillment of prophecy.

Prophecy constitutes about a third of the Bible. This shows how important prophecy was in the communal life of Israel and also later in the early church. But what is meant by "prophecy"? To what extent does it concern the future? Did the so-called "messianic" prophecies really foresaw the appearance of Jesus Christ? And is it correct to assume that some Biblical prophecies could even have a bearing on current world events? The answers to these questions would differ according to the theological background of the reader. Biblical scholars from different schools of thought would give widely different answers to these questions. But who is correct? In this essay I will discuss this matter, with special focus on this predictive aspect of prophecy. I do not try to prove that certain prophecies were fulfilled; I am concerned with a more basic question, namely the validity of the claim that Biblical prophecy have a predictive component.

In the study of Biblical prophecy, it is important to establish what was meant by the "prophet" in Israelite times. To explore this, we must study the role of the prophet in both the Israelite as well as the wider ancient Middle Eastern context. From this three important characteristics of the prophet are discernible, namely that they operated as oracles of God (or the gods), made ethical pronouncements and preserved the ancient traditions of their people. In current critical scholarship the ethical aspect is strongly accentuated – but is this justifiable? Is it not a reductionist approach which distorts the ancient context in which the prophecy was given? These and other related issues are discussed. I show that it is of utmost importance that we listen to the Israelites themselves (and not force our views on them) to gain some understanding as to how they understood prophecy, especially “messianic prophecies”. After a discussion of these I formulate some conclusions as to the Israelite view regarding the predictive aspect of prophecy.

The role of the Israelite prophet

Prophecy seems to have had a long tradition in Israel. Although scholars typically focus on the later prophets, the prophetic tradition is said to be much older than that. We, for example, find that some of the very early figures in the history of Israel were called "prophets" - Abraham (Gen. 20:7), Moses (Deut. 18:18; 34:10), Aaron (Ex. 7:1), Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Eldad, Medad and others (Nu. 11:26), Deborah (Jg. 4:4) and others (Jg. 6:8), Samuel (1 Sam. 3:20) and others (1 Sam. 10:5), Nathan (2 Sam. 7:2), Gad (1 Sam. 22:5) etc. When we study the Hebrew prophet, it is important that we do not automatically assume that the prophetic tradition was a late development in Israel, but that we consider the possibility that it was part of a continuous tradition going back to earliest times (although the later prophets are characterized by more extensive prophecies, typical of that period). This forces us to consider the wider ancient Middle Eastern context in which prophecy operated. Although the Israelite prophetic tradition had certain distinguished features, it was nevertheless part of a wider Middle Eastern phenomenon. So, what were the particular characteristics of the "prophet"?

1. An oracle of God (or the gods)

The Hebrew word "prophet" means "inspired man". It is derived from the word "prophecy" (nâbâ), which mean "to speak (or sing) by inspiration (in prediction or simple discourse)" [1]. What distinguishes the “prophet” from poets, singers and others of human inspiration, was the idea that these persons operated as spokesmen for the oracles of God, under divine inspiration. In Israel these were further distinguished from other diviners, the spokesmen of other gods (for ex. Baal) or spirits (for ex. “of the groves”), who were called “false prophets” (see I Ki. 18:19, Deut. 18:14). It was believed that the overshadowing power of the “Spirit of God” produced “true” prophecies (I Sam. 10:6). In all cases, the one important feature that characterized these oracles were its predictive nature.

Since early times – even before Israelite times – such prophets were mentioned in the western Semitic literature of the ancient Middle East. We, for example, find them operating in the eighteenth century BC in the city of Mari in Western Mesopotamia. Among them were both men and women, who went into a trance-like state and recounted their visions and the speech of the gods. Some used certain beverages to induce the prophetic state. Their utterances were in brief, poetic language, and made vague predictions regarding state-affairs and matters affecting the king [2]. (They operated very similar to the Delphian priestesses of Greek tradition).

Such trance-like states are also mentioned in the Hebrew prophetic tradition (1 Sam. 19:24 – Saul was laying naked for a whole day and night). The Hebrew prophets also used poetic language and made predictions (the old name for prophet was “seer” - 1 Sam. 9:9), some regarding state-affairs and matters affecting the king (1 Sam. 22:5, 1 Ki. 11:29-31 etc.). It was expected of the true prophet to give details concerning future events, which enabled others to discern if the predictions were right and whether or not that person was a true prophet (Deut. 18:22; Jer. 28:8,9). This predictive nature of Biblical prophecy is visible in many prophecies concerning future events (1 Sam. 10:7; 16:1; 1 Ki. 11:30-36; 1 Ki. 13:2; 1 Ki. 22:20 etc.). Of special importance in this regard is the “messianic” prophecies (to be discussed in more detail below).

2. A preacher of ethics

The Israelite prophets' role as pronouncers of oracles not only concerned future events. It was closely connected to their role as preachers of ethics, as the ones who gave the divine perspective on right and wrong. The prophets spoke for God in matters concerning moral and ethical matters. This is the one aspect in which the Hebrew prophets differed from the earlier prophets from Mari – those prophecies lack the ethical content associated with the Biblical prophets [2]. In Hebrew tradition this aspect of the prophetic ministry also goes back to early times (Jg. 6:8; 1 Sam. 12:14 etc.) and continues right through Israelite history until the time of Jesus Christ (it ends with John the Baptist's ministry).

An important aspect of this moral dimension of the Israelite prophetic tradition concerns the worship of God – what type of worship was acceptable to God. In this regard the prophets were the ones upholding the Yahweh-alone tradition. They warned the Israelites against the worship of other gods (Jg. 6:8; 1 Ki. 18:18 etc.), especially against the worship of Baal and Ashtoreth, which were part of Israel's popular religion until the Babylonian exile. In this regard the predictive aspect often included warnings about future punishment if the people do not come back to God (Jer. 35:15; Matt. 3:6-10), but it also (especially during and after the Babylonian exile) included a message of hope and future restoration. Some of these concerned the not-to-distant future (for example the prophecies of Jeremiah concerning the exile and restoration of Israel) and others the distant future (Daniel's prophecies make this claim – Dan. 8:26; 12:4).

3. A preserver of tradition

Another important aspect of the prophetic ministry concerns the preservation of tradition. The prophets were the persons who wrote down both the oracles (or made sure that it was written down) as well as the wider context in which these prophecies were pronounced. The reason for this was clearly connected to their view concerning the divine origin of these prophecies as God's revelation to His people.

This tradition of writing down the oracles goes back to the prophets of Mari, who's prophecies were preserved for us exactly because it were written down. In fact, the tradition of writing down the oracles of the gods goes back even further, to the Accadian period in Mesopotamia (~2450-2200 BC), when both the intestines of the sacrificial animals together with the pronouncements of the diviners who “read” them during the campaigns of these Semitic kings (who ruled over all of Mesopotamia) were written down (most copies of these date from Old-Babylonian times) [3,4]. It was not only these royal oracles that were written down. The great deeds of both the Accadian kings – which often mention the context in which the gods were consulted – as well as the deeds of the later rulers of Mari, were also orally transmitted by court poets (and later written down) [5]. Among the same poets who told the stories about these rulers, were those who pronounced the oracles (in the case of the Mari prophets). It is possible that those early poet-diviners were shamans, who all over the ancient world were the ones who preserved the traditions of their peoples.

These examples show that the Israelite prophets stood in a prophetic tradition going back millennia in the ancient Middle East [6]. According to Hebrew tradition they were the ones who preserved the oracles of the Hebrew God since the earliest of times. In this regard the oracles of God given to Abraham (which is the reason why he is called a "prophet") appear in a totally new light: the age-old western Semitic tradition of preserving the oracles in written form suggests that this was also the manner in which the Abrahamic oracles were transmitted. And the Accadian (and later Israelite prophetic) tradition of providing an historical context for these oracles, suggests that these were embedded in the wider context of the history of the patriarchs since the time when they were first given. The fact that Abraham is said to have received these oracles and is also called a prophet strongly suggests that he was in fact the one who wrote down these oracles and history in the first place. He is said to have come from Mesopotamia (the route westwards went through the area of Mari) and would have stood in the ancient Western Semitic tradition of writing down such oracles.  This also suggests that he could have been the one who preserved the older Sumerian traditions of his family (Gen. 4-11) [7].

According to the Hebrew Bible there was a close connection between the prophets and the written tradition (especially regarding the oracles) throughout Israelite tradition. Among the earliest prophets who are said to have written down these oracles were Moses (who is said to have written down the oracles (Ex. 17:14; 24:3, 4; 34:27, 28; 31:7-9; Nu. 11:26; Jos. 8:32), the history of the exodus (Nu. 33:1, 2) and a poem (Deut. 31:22) – his disciple Joshua also wrote down some of these oracles, Jos. 8:32; 24:26), Samuel (I Sam. 10:25), Nathan (1 Ch. 29:29; 2 Ch. 9:29); Gad (1 Ch. 29:29; 2 Ch. 29:25), Ahijah (2 Ch. 9:29), Shemaiah (2 Ch. 12:15), Iddo (2 Ch. 12:15; 13:22), Elijah (2 Ch. 21:12), Isaiah (2 Ch. 32:32) etc. The author of Chronicles mentions histories written by the prophets Samuel (who operated in the time of king Saul), Nathan, Gad (from the time of king David), Ahijah (from the time of king Solomon), Shemaiah, Iddo (from the time of king Rehoboam), and other writings by Elijah (from the time of king Ahab) and Isaiah (from the time of king Hezekiah). 

The impression that one gets from reading this is that great care was taken to correctly transmit the earlier oracles and accompanying history - all of which were carefully written down during the time when the oracles were first given. This is in accordance with the millennia-old western Semitic tradition of preserving oracles in written form - which gives further credibility (over and above the obvious care that was taken to correctly transmit those traditions) to the Biblical literary tradition. Clearly the Israelite prophets stood in the ancient western Semitic tradition of poets who not only pronounced (and made sure it was written down) the oracles of the gods (God) concerning the king, but also composed, sang and recorded the royal deeds of those kings [8].

Interpreting the prophetic tradition

With this short background on the role of the Israelite prophet, the next question to ask is: What exactly is “prophecy”? Although the answer to this question may seem simple, namely that it is an oracle, this does not do justice to the complexity of the issue. Why? Because there are various contexts from which this question could hypothetically be answered. The ancient prophets who were part of that centuries old tradition, or an Israelite who were part of that culture in which the prophets operated and who held a wide range op popular ideas about prophecy, would answer the question in a different way from any scholar who come from a particular scholarly tradition or person who participates in a traditional form of Christianity. The problem is that we do not have access to the ancient Israelite paradigm (this would only be possible if we were part of that community during that time). Our only access to them is through the Biblical texts.

Using the insights of the philosopher of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), we can view our interaction with these texts as a conversation. Readers and scholars from our generation are in conversation with the authors of those texts (and with many others who have already throughout the ages participated in this conversation). We, who are imbedded within particular traditions (paradigm's [9]) converse with those authors, who are imbedded in their own tradition. For an open conversation to take place, we must listen to those ancient Hebrew authors. We cannot force our views on them. If we force our views on the text, we show a total disregard for their views - we "destroys the true meaning of this tradition" [10]. Often we do this without knowing that we do – our particular paradigm (the tradition which formed us in the views that we hold) unconsciously provides us with glasses which direct our reading of the text. It is this complicated conversational process between ourselves and the voices from the text that result in interpretation.

1. The critical scholarly paradigm

When Biblical Criticism scholars first approached this problem, they did not have these insights available to them. They were primarily concerned with the “real” historical situation – and mistrusted much of the information in the texts (contra what I have shown above). They believed that all references to the supernatural – of which the divine origin of the oracles is an example – should be taken with a pinch of salt. They believed that it was possible to gain access to the “real” objective situation, going beyond the "primitive" ideas which those people held regarding their own situation. In the opinion of these scholars their own viewpoint was therefore much better than the primitive views of the ancient Israelites. Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), who greatly influenced this discipline in this regard, wrote in his book Genesis [11]: "Following our modern historical world-view, truly not an imaginary construct but based on the observation of facts, we consider the other view entirely impossible".

This approach postulated that the scholar must reconstruct the Sitz im Leben ("setting in life") in which the prophet operated – this is the historical context in which he presented his message within the social circumstances of the time. In this view the ethical dimension of the prophet's message are of special importance. The predictive aspect were considered as secondary – at most it could have included some vague predictions (these scholars accept that in reality nobody can correctly predict the future). Where bold statements about the fulfillment of prophecy is found in the text, this should be interpreted either as vaticinia ex eventu (foretelling after the event) or that the author created fictional events to give the impression that some prophecy was fulfilled (some mention, for example, events from the life of Jesus in this regard). In this way it was believed that the scholar could clear the text from all unhistorical data. It is in this tradition that critical scholars writing about prophecy operate [12].

The problem is, however, that the people of that time did believe that the oracles were God-given and this influenced their whole perspective on life. Once this aspect is removed, we do not arrive at some “objective” point of view – we arrive at a reductive view with no correspondence to the historical situation. The fact is that they held those beliefs. The prophet, as well as those who listened to him, believed that these oracles came from God. This was part of their worldview; it determined their whole concept of life and the place of major (especially catastrophic) events therein. This is the historical situation!

To reduce the prophetic message to a mere ethical message, and prophecy to mere poetry, is not only reductionist – it creates a new idea about that reality which is totally divorced from the true historical reality. It forces a certain rational view, typical of the modernist perspective, onto Biblical times without any concern for the views of the people who lived during that period. It gives the false impression that this is an “objective” view – the only one that is valid (so typical of the colonial spirit of modernism) – whereas it is in fact a total distortion of the real situation. Without doing so consciously, these scholars force their own paradigm onto the text which totally overshadow the voices therein. If we want to know something about the real situation, we have to listen to the voices present in the text and allow them to tell us something about their world.

2. The prophetic tradition

We should not only listen to the individual prophetic voices in the texts; we should also listen to the voice of the long-running prophetic tradition behind those voices. In the same way that scholarly tradition (paradigm) colors the view of individual scholars in their conversation with the voices of the past, the voices of the prophets were formed by the prophetic tradition to which they belonged.

The impact of tradition on people (especially those from past generations) have been demonstrated by philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Thomas Kuhn, who has demonstrated the impact of scholarly tradition (called “paradigm”) on individual scholars [9]. As I showed above, the prophets were the keepers of a centuries old prophetic tradition – which clearly had a profound effect on all the prophets who stood in that tradition. They preserved the older prophetic writings (which they studied), interacted with each other, operated in groups and attended prophetic schools since their youth (1 Sam. 10:5; 19:20; 1 Ki. 18:13; 20:35; 22:10; 2 Ki. 2:3-5; 4:38; 6:1-7 etc.). At times there were hundreds, even thousands of them, operating during the same period (1 Ki. 18:4; 19:18). All the true prophets upheld the Yahweh-alone tradition – and many of them mentions the millennia-old concept of the council of the gods (Micah (1 Ki. 22:19-22), Isaiah (Is. 14:13, 14), Jeremiah (Jer. 23:18), Ezekiel (28:16)). They all had very similar prophetic experiences (even though the details often differ) – all prophesied under the power of the Holy Spirit. They also prophesied about similar themes – the messianic theme is present since the earliest times.

The Biblical Criticism approach to a large extent overlooks the importance of this age-old prophetic tradition in ancient Israel. The focus on the Sitz im Leben ("setting in life") places the particular circumstances of the prophet at the center; it effectively isolates the individual prophet from the tradition in which he/she operated. This is very problematic – its overall effect is to minimize the role of those prophetic themes that is not directly applicable to the social situation of the individual prophet (the messianic theme, for example).

This negligence of the prophetic tradition could be ascribed to the general mistrust of tradition in modernist circles since the time of the Enlightenment. The modernist mind was in reaction against the one tradition that it knew all to well, namely the Christian tradition. And this rejection seems to have influenced the way in which these scholars [13] read the texts – it colored their own approach to the texts. The close association between the Christian tradition and the Biblical prophetic tradition seems to have influenced their approach to the latter – in a certain way it represented a tradition which most modernist scholars opposed. This implies that their approach to the text could not have been completely honest (even if they themselves did not recognized it); their own paradigm were in conflict with the paradigm presented in the text. This can be the reason why they so forcefully imposed their own paradigm on the text and ignored the historical paradigm within which the prophets operated - effectively "destroying" the meaning of that tradition (to quote Gadamer).

The messianic prophecies

The most important prophetic theme that transcends all the individual prophets was the messianic theme. If such a prophetic theme existed (which we know was the case) it was predictive in nature since the long awaited messiah was expected to come some time in the future. Most prophets said something that was taken as messianic in Israelite circles. The Israelites carefully studied the prophetic works to determine when the messiah would come and what he would be like. Various views regarding the messiah developed, based on the accentuation of different prophetic passages and different readings thereof. In this respect, the prophetic tradition had a great impact on the wider Israelite culture and paradigm – and the prophecies concerning the future messiah had a formative impact on the Israelite perspective, especially in the post-exile period.

There are basically two important groups of texts that provide us with insight into the ancient Hebrew thinking in this regard. The one is the Qumran texts, which date for the most part to the centuries directly before the time of Jesus Christ. It depicts a traditional Israelite (Jewish) community who regarded the messianic writings of the prophets with utmost respect – they could even be called a “messianic” community. They developed certain ideas as to what the messiah's ministry would be like – and expected a “priestly messiah” together with a political messiah. The other texts are those included in the New Testament. They reflect the thinking of a Jewish messianic community who stood in a very long tradition of Israelites who expected the messiah and who believed that Jesus was that messiah. They participated in the church which developed from those early beginnings. In this essay I focus mainly on their interpretation of the prophetic texts.

In Biblical Criticism there is a strong current of thinking that most (if not all) the messianic passages mentioned in the New Testament, actually refer to people and events in the time of the prophet and that the messianic allusions found there are in fact unfounded later interpretations that contemporary scholars should discard [14]. This approach to the messianic prophecies assumes that the scholarly view about the prophecies is more correct than the view held by the people of those times, i.e. in the early church (their modernist view is in effect the only correct view)! I have already commented on this arrogance which forces a modernist perspective onto the text. 

We should rather listen to those people themselves and try to understand what they said in this regard. How did they interpret those prophecies and why did they do so? Since they stood in the same Hebrew paradigm which was formed from the earliest times, of which the age-old prophetic tradition was a part, they would know much better than us how the prophecies were understood and how it should be interpreted. The early church, and all the Biblical authors, were Jewish and stood in continuation of the centuries old Israelite tradition in which a certain way of understanding and interpreting prophecies evolved. The New Testament texts clearly contain important material that could help us understand the ancient approach to those prophecies – even if one do not agree that Jesus was in fact the messiah.

The main problem that scholars have with the predictive aspect of prophecy, especially messianic prophecy which is said to have reference to events far beyond the horizon of the prophet, is that the prophet himself could not have viewed it in that way. The prophet was part of a particular community who had a certain set of circumstances which directly impacted on their lives, and the prophet's message was concerned with these circumstances. He did not have particular events in the distant future in mind. But this view totally negates the basic Hebrew understanding regarding prophecy, namely that it was oracles given by God. In the Hebrew perspective the divine inspiration was such that the prophet foretold things that was even beyond his own understanding. The apostle Paul wrote in this regard: “the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets” (this refers to the inclusion of converted heathen within the framework of God's people, but illustrates the point, Rom. 16:25, 26; see also 11 Pet. 1:19-21).

This idea that a prophecy could refer to distant events beyond the view of the prophet, and that this aspect of the prophecy could be hidden within some prophecy concerning events from the time of the prophet, could be amply illustrated. Take, for example, the prophecy of Isaiah about the virgin who shall conceive and bear a son, named Emmanuel (Is. 7:14). This had reference to the prophet's time (Isaiah 8:3), but had also been applied to the virgin birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:22, 23; Lu. 1:31-34 do not mention the prophecy, but mentions both the virgin birth and that Jesus was the son of the Highest, the “son of God”). The followers of Jesus clearly believed that the divine origin of the prophecy allowed for an application beyond the view of the prophet. It is easy to see why: in the Septuagint, (which they used and) which represents a very early understanding of the wording in the prophecy (going back to the second century BC), the Hebrew word “almâh” (veiled) have been translated as “virgin” - and Jesus is said to have been born to a virgin. Furthermore, Jesus was accepted to be Emmanuel, not only in the figurative sense as “God in our midst”, but as the embodiment of God among mankind (“the son of God”). For them the expression “Son of God” referred to one greater than the angels, but beneath the Father (Mark. 13:32).

This way of interpreting prophecy was not unique to the Hebrew tradition. We find the same among the ancient Greeks, where the interpretation of the prophecies of the priestess at Delphi also went far beyond her own understanding of the matter. Take, for example, the prophecy concerning the return of the sons of Heracles, whose wish would be granted after “the third harvest”. This was at first wrongly interpreted (the intention of the priestess was unclear) in a straightforward manner. Only later was it “correctly” understood as referring to the third generation. This clearly shows that such oracles were typically interpreted as being beyond human invention (it originated with the god Apollo) and could therefore be fulfilled long after the time of the prophetess herself.

When we study the way that the New Testament authors interpreted the messianic prophecies, it is clear that there is no exact rule – something that upsets the scientifically inclined mind. But prophecy is not scientific prediction – it is mostly given in poetic form and are typically understood as metaphors which allow for various levels of interpretation, both in the time of the prophet and in messianic times (prophecies regarding Israel or the king is taken to also refer to the messiah, for example Hos. 11:1 and Matt. 2:15; Ps. 2:9 and Rev. 2:27). Many messianic prophecies were beforehand (i.e. before Jesus' birth) recognized as messianic (this is clear from the Qumran texts as well as the way that they are used in the Biblical text, for example Matt. 2:4-6; 22:41-46 etc.) or assumed to be such (in Rabbinic literature 465 Old Testament passages are taken as referring to the messiah or messianic times [15]), although there was always the possibility the some would only become clear once the messiah appears.

In general, the interpretation of prophecy is not a singular affair. In the context of Israel in the time of Jesus, this surely involved spontaneous and popular interpretation from the midst of the people themselves. Such interpretation went far beyond any single prophecy; it involved the whole collection of prophetic material, which in total provided the people of Israel with images of what the messiah would be like (Hand. 3:21; 10:43; Rom. 1:1-3) and the time when he would come (Lu. 2:26; 3:15; Joh. 1:19, 20). And these images, for example those found in the Qumran texts, are quite consisted with those applied to Jesus (even those about the messiah as great conqueror were applied to Jesus' second coming). In fact, there can be no doubt that Jesus' followers believed that his life fitted the prophetic image of the messiah perfectly.

What is clear, is that the Israelites themselves believed that the prophets spoke about events far beyond their own time – in the distant future. The early church even believed that some messianic prophecies still await fulfillment (those regarding Jesus' second coming) – these would only be fulfilled in the end times. This implies that some prophecies even predict what will happen in the distant future (for the prophet) and would go into fulfillment as the end times draw near. Even if one thinks (as some critics do) that Jesus purposefully fulfilled the prophecies to the extent that he could, that some events in Jesus' life were later fictitiously created by later authors in accordance with prophecies in that regard, that there are conflicts in the various accounts of the life of Jesus which show that the “real” Jesus' life did not fulfill certain prophecies ascribed to him, all of this show that those people had a strong belief that the prophecies of the ancient Hebrew prophets would one day be fulfilled in a messianic figure – and that Jesus was that figure. Any traditional Christian would add that Jesus was in fact the only real Messianic figure (in fact the greatest of all time) that Jewish culture ever produced and that he appeared exactly at the time when the messiah was most anxiously expected (Lu. 2:26; 3:15; Joh. 1:19, 20 – probably due to their interpretation of the prophecy in Dan. 9:20-27).


From this discussion of Hebrew prophecy we can derive certain conclusions. We cannot study the Hebrew prophet, or even the Hebrew prophetic tradition, in isolation. The Hebrew prophet stood in an age-old tradition which developed within western Semitic culture. They viewed the oracles of God (or the gods) as so important that they made sure that it was written down. This implies a strong connection between the prophetic and the written traditions, which is in fact what is found in ancient Israel. We have access to that tradition through the texts of the Bible.

When we study those texts, we should not force our own views onto the texts. Scholars who force a modernist worldview onto the texts (or some traditional interpreters who force a certain theological or contemporary perspective) show a disregard for the views of those ancient people regarding their own worldview and culture. When we want to define prophecy we cannot divorce it from the ancient world in which it functioned. Prophecy is what they understood it to be – and not any meaning that we want to impose on the word. For them, prophecy is oracles of God (or the gods), which is divinely given, and as such, is greater than the prophet, and applies far beyond his/her point of view. For them, prophecy – especially messianic prophecy – is predictive (not in the human sense) and could find it's fulfillment many centuries or even millennia after the life of the individual prophet.

The one prophetic theme that transcends all generations of prophets, is that of the coming messiah. The interpretation of the prophecies that refer to the messiah, is not something that can be entirely objectively understood. There are not any particular scholarly method that was used in interpreting those prophecies in ancient times. Rather, it was a matter of spontaneous and popular interpretation. In this regard, it was not so much the single prophecy (even though some of these were extremely important) but the whole collection of prophetic material which provided the image of the coming messiah. And this image corresponds to a remarkable degree with the narrative told about Jesus of Nazareth. For those who believe that he will return, there are again many prophecies which together provide an image of the world situation in the end times. We will have to wait and see if (and when) they go into fulfillment.

[1] Strong, James. 1980. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon (Thirty-eighth printing)
[2] Foster, Benjamin R. 2007. “Mesopotamia”, John R. Hinnells (ed.). Penguin Handbook of Ancient Religions. London: Penguin Books.
[3] Edwards, I. E. S. 1971. "Early History of the Middle East", in The Cambridge History. Vol I Part 2. . Cambridge: Cambridge University.
[4] Horowitz, Wayne. 1998. Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
[5] Tinney, Steve. 1995. A New Look at Naram-Sin and the “Great Rebellion”. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 47:1-14.
[6] Any understanding of the prophetic tradition in Israel should give credible arguments as to how it arose in the first place. Trying to isolate this tradition from the age-old Western Semitic tradition (which clearly impacted on the writing of the Abrahamic oracles) is clearly wrong.
[7] There is remarkable archeological evidence which substantiate the Biblical account of events that took place during the time of Abraham, suggesting that he was in fact an historical person and that the traditions associated with him is trustworthy. See Mc Loud, Willie. 2012. Op soek na Abraham en sy God. Kaapstad: Griffel.
[8] This shows that the literary tradition is more secure than is often assumed. In fact, the scholarly tradition of requiring substantial archaeological “evidence” to confirm the information in the text before it is viewed as trustworthy, is quite problematic since such data is for the most part sparse and open to many possible interpretations. Instead of a qualified acceptance of the textual tradition, this approach resulted in the unsupported opinion that the textual tradition could not be trusted due to lack of “evidence”.
[9] Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago.
[10] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1994. Truth and Method (translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, second, revised ed.). New York: Crossroad.
[11] Gunkel, Hermann. 1901. Genesis. Gottingen: Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht.
[12] Hoffman, Yair. 2003. Review of Martin A. Sweeney and Ehud Ben Zvi (eds). The Changing Face of Form-Criticism for the Twentieth Century. RBL 07/2004.
[13] The modernist perspective is clearly visible in their writings – they were children of their time.
[14] Soggin, Alberto. 1989. Introduction to the Old Testament: From Its Origins to the Closing of the Alexandrian Canon (transl. John Bowden, 3rd ed.) Philadelphia: Westminster.
[15] Ebersheim, Alfred. Prophecy and History in Relation to the Messiah (Warburton Lectures for 1880-1884, 1885).

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)

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