Prophetic Literature

Prophetic Literature

The largest genre within prophetic literature, the Prophetic Book, begins with a superscription that may identify the prophet, his ancestry, his place of origin, the kings during whose reigns he prophesied, and a general indication of the content of the prophecy, e.g., the introductory lines of the book of Amos: “The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—what he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jerobam son of Jehoash was king of Israel” (Amos 1:1). But the body of a prophetic book follows no normal pattern, sometimes appearing as a collection of diverse (though thematically related) materials.Ronald M. Hals, Ezekiel, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature XIX (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 352-53.

Among the more prominent genres of prophetic literature is the Announcement of Disaster,Our discussion of prophetic genres is largely dependent upon W. Eugene March, “Prophecy,” in Old Testament Form Criticism, ed. John Hayes (San Antonio, Tex.: Trinity University Press, 1974), 141-78. See also Claus Westermann, Basic Form of Prophetic Speech, trans. Hugh Clayton White (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), 90-204. in which the prophet speaks as God's messenger of forthcoming judgment. Typically presented are: a) the commissioning of the prophet for announcing the disaster; b) an accusation, including the reasons for judgment; c) a prediction of the judgment; and d) a concluding generalization. We see this in Jeremiah 29:30-32.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Send this message to all the exiles: ‘This is what the Lord says about Shemaiah the Nehelamite: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, even though I did not send him, and has led you to believe a lie, this is what the Lord says: I will surely punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his descendants. He will have no one left among this people, nor will he see the good things I will do for my people, declares the Lord, because he has preached rebellion against me.’”

See also Ezr 17:11-21. Announcements made to nations are less rigid in form and more expansive in their accusation than announcements of disaster made to individuals.

Though the Announcement of Salvation, which foretells God's beneficial intervention, may follow the same general format as the announcement of disaster, reasons for God's action are frequently omitted.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord's house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and all the other exiles for Judah who went to Babylon,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon’” (Jer 28:2-4).

By the Oracle of Salvation the prophet speaks God's word of encouragement. In it, a) God's gracious dealings from the past are recounted; b) the prophet exhorts, “Fear not!”; c) the results of God's actions are depicted; and d) God's motivation for saving is explored. “But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you....’” (Isa 43:1-2; see 41:8-13).

Another format in which the prophet declares God's anger is the Woe. After the interjection “Woe!” comes the identification of those subject to punishment, a description of their offensive behavior, and an announcement of the punishment due them. “Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!” (Am 6:1; see also 2-7).

Disputes between God and Israel may take the form of a Rîḇ, or a complaint lodged against the violator of a treaty. Accordingly, a) an introduction provides background, b) witnesses are questioned and accusations made, c) the prosecutor extols the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of Israel, d) appeasement by cultic means is deemed useless, and e) guilt and destruction are announced. “Stand up, plead your case before the mountains. . . . Hear, O mountains, the Lord's accusation. . . . I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. . . . Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams. . . ? Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of nations” (from Mic 6; see also Isa 1 and Jer 2).

Or the prophet may issue a Summons to Repentance. After the messenger formula (“Thus says the Lord”), the wayward are directly admonished to repent. Motivation for repentance is then supplied by promise and/or threat. “This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: ‘Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing’” (Am 5:4-5; see also 5:6-7, and 5:14-15).

In the Vision Report, a prophet recounts viewing such things as forthcoming events or symbolic objects (e.g., the basket of fruit, Am 8:1-3). After declaring that a vision had occurred and describing what had been seen, the prophet concludes with its explanation. “This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. ‘What do you see, Amos?’ he asked. ‘A basket of ripe fruit,’ I answered. Then the Lord said to me, ‘The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer’” (Am 8:1-2). As one variety of vision report, the Call Narrative describes one's entry into prophetic service. Its components may include the initial encounter between God and a man, his divine commission to be a prophet, his objections (real or implied) to the commission, divine reassurance, and a confirming sign (Isa 6; Jer 1:4-19; Ezr 1-3).

The caveats set forth in the introduction above should be borne in mind especially with prophetic literature. Each of these genres rarely occurs in the pattern described, with variation outscoring regularity. The original social settings of these genres is impossible to fix with certainty, though the Rîḇ would seem at home in the (international) law court and the Oracle of Salvation may well have originated as the priestly response to an individual lament. Furthermore, the identification of genres within the prophetic books does not, in our view, immediately settle questions regarding the literary unity and authorship of prophetic books.

The language of the prophets is, on the whole, best characterized as poetic. While our treatment of larger poetic structures will be delayed until the following section, some accounting of the intricacies of poetic technique is appropriate here. Alliteration, the recurrence of similar sounds at the beginnings of successive words or syllables, may be detected in Isa 1:18-20, where a recurring “k” sound attracts the reader's attention. Assonance, the recurrence of similar sounds in accented vowels, appears in Isa 53:4-7, where fifteen occurrences of the “u” sound intensify the atmosphere of grief and sorrow. Paronomasia, the play between similarly sounding words, is employed in Isa 5:7 where “justice” and “bloodshed” appear in adjacent lines, as do “righteousness” and “cry.” With onomatopoeia, the sounds of words approximate the realities they describe. In Isa 42:14 the recurring “p” and guttural sounds bring to mind the distressed breathing of a woman in labor.Norman K. Gottwatt, “Hebrew Poetry,” in Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962) 3:829-38. All of these techniques, which are of course nearly impossible to reproduce in English translation, invigorate the linguistic medium, excite the imagination, and thereby increase the impact of the prophetic message.