Prophecy

The prophetic books, for all their complexity, are tied more overtly to a particular social setting than any other form of Hebrew literature. The historical books record how prophets lived and died, how they were consulted for guidance and how, sometimes, they gave warnings or reprimands or predictions even unasked. It is true that we have very few 'oracles' from the prophets whose lives are related in the histories, and equally few details of the lives of the prophets whose utterances appear in the books named after them. Consequently there is not much mutual illumination between narrative and prophetic books. Nevertheless even the oracles themselves, as we find them in Amos or Isaiah or Ezekiel, imply a social context—a gathering of Israelites for worship or business, into which the prophetic word erupted, contradicting people's expectations and confounding their assurance of enjoying divine favour.

It is clear that the oracles of the 'classical' (or 'writing') prophets were precisely designed with the known thoughts of their intended audience in mind. But it is also clear that the form of these utterances often cleverly exploited the audience's expectations. On the one hand, they used expected prophetic forms, but filled them with unexpected content: 'Thus says the LORD' was a perfectly standard opening which created an expectation of helpfulness or blessing, but more often than not was followed by denunciation and words of doom (see Westermann 1967). On the other hand, for much of the time the classical prophets did not use 'proper' prophetic forms at all, but adopted speech forms from other spheres, speaking as if they were (for example) a priest or a singer. Through that vehicle they were able to communicate a harsh message to people caught off their guard. (See Amos 5:2, where the prophet uses the form of a funeral lament; Amos 5:4-5, where he parodies a priestly call to worship; and Isaiah 5:1-7, where an oracle of judgement is cast in the form of a popular song.) Thus, paradoxically, these most 'theological' of books preserve some of our best evidence for the secular forms of everyday Israelite life. We should know hardly anything about popular songs in Israel without Isaiah! The process of canonization effectively smoothed out the prophetic books, made them timeless, and detached them from any real social anchorage. Source- and form-critical work has made it possible to reestablish the place of the prophets in the community, and in the process to follow up hints in the text that restore the environing culture within which alone they made sense.

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