Introduction to the Prophets: Part One
Many of us probably grew up learning that the Old Testament prophets pointed to the coming of Christ. This is a Christian perspective—a “looking back” at the Old Testament and applying it to Christ. For example we say that the Immanuel of Isaiah referred to Jesus Christ.
In our class we will suspend this way of thinking, even for a while. The prophets were responding to their different social, cultural and historical contexts. They did not have in mind Jesus Christ who was to come many centuries after them. So when we look at the mention of Immanuel in Isaiah we can ask who exactly was this Immanuel for the prophet himself and not for us Christians doing a “looking back”. We may say that we think and believe that Isaiah was referring to Christ. We say that. But what does Isaiah say? Of course we can still do a “Christian interpretation” of Isaiah’s Immanuel, but let us put that between brackets for the moment.
The Jewish tradition distinguishes two subsections in the Prophets. There is the subsection on the “first prophets” and the subsection on the “last prophets”. The “first prophets” is what we now call as the “historical books” (from Joshua to 2Kings). The “last prophets” comprise what we now call as the books of the prophets. These books “authored” by the prophets are even classified as “major” and “minor” prophets. Put simply, “major” means “plenty of pages” and “minor means “few pages”.
The “sentinel on the lookout”
Prophets said that they had a vocation, a “calling”. They were to relay to the people the word of God; they were “spokespersons” of God. Let us be more precise.
First of all we need to realize that prophetism was existing in the Near-East region. It was a practice among the different nations there. The neighboring nations also had their own individuals who were considered “prophets”. It was common in the Near-East region to have individuals and groups speaking on behalf of the divinities. There are records of prophetic functions in Egypt and in the area of Mesopotamia. Persons were asked, mostly by kings, to interpret the mind of a god and see what that god can say about the protection and security of nations.
The people of Israel were very much part of the region so they too had prophets. We see this in David who was accompanied by a prophet named Gad (see 1Sam22/5 and 23/2 and 23/6-12).
Early evidences show that prophets were usually found in groups. There were assemblies of men. (See Nm11/24-30; see Am2/11. See 1Sam10/6-13). They were at times given names, like “sons of prophets” (see 1Kg20/35; 2Kg2/3ff etc.) Samuel himself was associated with a group (see 1Sam19/20ff.) Elijah and Elisha were associated with groups (see 2Kg3/15).
Prophets were attached to sanctuaries and courts of kings (see 2Sam7/1 12/1 24/11; 1Kg1/8 22/6ff. 2Kg3/11 Neh6/7 etc. See also Am.7/10). They would fall into ecstasy and trances, at times even appearing like mad men (see 1Sam10/6; 2Kg9/11, etc). We, as modern people, might be uneasy with this but ecstasy was not unusual in the ancient times of the Near-East and the nation of the Hebrews.
Scholars will note that although the society and culture of the people of Israel shared common features with other Near East nations there was something unique and original that emerged in the prophetic function within Israel.
What was new? Well, prophets of Israel spoke “for” God within the framework of the Covenant. Recall your semester on the Introduction to the Old Testament where this topic of Covenant was covered.
What exactly was this “job description” of prophecy in the Hebrew nation?
Prophets were called (by God) to be on the “lookiout” (Asurmendi). Prophets were fully inserted in their social contexts. They were on the “lookout” for what was happening both within and outside the nation. They were “sentinels”.
Take the example of Ezekiel. He considered himself a sentinel looking out (see Ez.33/7). Prophets had their eyes on the other nations. Prophets had to be vigilant about what the other nations can and will do to the people of Israel. As we will later see, there were the big empires constantly threatening the nation—Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Egypt. Prophets were vigilant about the relationships the nation had to do with these big empires. Again Ezekiel himself said that the Lord God gave him the task to be on the lookout for what happens if a foreign sword came against the people. The sentinel—or prophet— “should blow the trumpet to warn the people” (Ez.33/3). Jeremiah himself was told to be on the lookout for the moves of the Babylonians. Jeremiah was then told, “But you, prepare yourself; stand up and tell them all that I command you” (Jer1/17). of Israel were critical of the people even to the point of judging them. Prophets became something like the “social conscience” of the people. They sensed the consequences of people’s behavior.
Now, prophets were sentinels with their eyes on external nations. But they were also on the lookout for what was happening within their societies. Prophets questioned many of the social practices that were unjust. They tried to deepen people’s faith in God even if it meant speaking in harsh terms. Prophets reacted to specific moments of their societies. They were persons of their social times. Again, Ezekiel said that he was made “sentinel” on the lookout. The Lord God told him, “I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me…. you warn the wicked to turn from their ways” (Ez.33/7 and 9).
There is one curious element in the “job description” of prophets. If they were to be sentinels and lookouts for foreign nations and interior social injustices, they were also on the lookout for what God will do. It was never easy for prophets to speak for God and relay God’s word to the people. Jeremiah was not so thrilled about his calling. The Lord God was too strong for him; the Lord God prevailed over him. Consequently, however, Jeremiah became an object of laughter because people started to mock him. The task of prophecy brought him “reproach and derision all day long”. Jeremiah was terrorized on every side. (See Jer. 20/7-18).
Prophets were to relay the word of God to people. But at times they could not fully understand what God was really saying. So they had to be on the lookout for God’s own message. A good example here is Habakkuk.
Habakkuk felt sick because he did not comprehend God. He was told that the injustices in his own society will be corrected and the unjust will be punished. The Lord God promised that the wicked and unjust will be punished. How? The Chaldeans, (i.e., Babylonians) will come to crush the nation. Habakkuk was ready to accept this. But he was so sickly worried because he could not understand why the Lord God would employ very wicked Babylonians to do the punishment. If many people of Judah were “bad guys”, how much more were the Babylonians? Habakkuk literally complained to the Lord God.
So what did Habakkuk do? He stood as a sentinel, looking out and waiting for God to reply. “I will stand at my guard post, and station myself upon the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what answer he will give to my complaint” (Hab.2/1).
Let us summarize all that. Prophets were sentinels on the lookout for what foreign nations will do, for what their own societies do and for what the Lod himself will say and do. As we read some of the prophets the details will be more clear.
Denounce and Announce
Prophets were on the lookout; they were sentinels. But they did not just sit down waiting for something to happen. As sentinels they denounced and announced. They were also very passionate about their vocation up to the point that they were willing to be unpopular even in front of social authorities. This is one feature of “true prophets” as opposed to “false prophets”. False prophets were speaking to please others, especially kings. True prophets were centered on the word of God and not on how people will “like” or “unlike” the message. We will say more about the distinctions between “true” and “false” prophets later.
So prophets did not have to be cordial. They were courageous enough to denounce. They were so critical “to the max”, so to speak. Maybe for people a little bit of cheating and small injustices were tolerated. The prophets could never stomach a single injustice. They were so radically critical. They were rough and adamant. They were direct and not beating around the bush.
Hence they disturbed people. They were not exactly very pleasant personalities. They disturbed especially the unjust and wicked. We will see, for example, how Amos denounced the injustices of the people of Israel to the point that he was told to go away. A priest close to the King, sent Amos away. “Off with you…flee” said the priest. “Never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple” (Am.7/13). Jeremiah was kidnapped and thrown into a muddy pit.
As prophets denounced, they also announced. Their announcements were so unthinkable and unexpected. The example of Nahum is interesting. He announced something that people never quite thought of happening. At that time Assyria was the powerful empire and the people of Judah were eventually linked with the Assyrians. (Imagine that today “the big empire” is the USA and so many people are linked to the Americans—commercially and culturally.) Nahum announced the collapse of Assyria. The Lord God will come against Assyria, the Lord God will consume the Assyrian chariots, the threats of the empire will come to an end. “Your preying on the land I will bring to an end, the cry of your lionesses will be heard no more” (Na2/14). Imagine then how the people of Judah, especially those who were already dependent on links with Assyria, will resist the prophet Nahum.
Introduction to the Prophets: Part Two
But we might ask why call the prophets to be sentinels, why denounce and announce? What exactly were they struggling against? If prophets saw themselves as called by God it was because there was a big gap between God and people. The Covenant was not longer really respected. Something intervened between the heart of God and the heart of the people. Thus we see the problem of idolatry.
We are used to think of idolatry as adoring other gods, following other gods and making statues about them. This can be correct but it needs more precision. Idolatry is a complex phenomenon that requires us to give more space for discussion. Just to introduce us to the topic we can say that idolatry is what blocks the communion of our hearts with the heart of God. For the prophets it meant the “sacralisation” of social realities (Asurmendi). Power, money, unjust practices and other divinities become “absolute” for society. God sealed a covenant of liberation and authentic living with the nation but people would rather turn to something else and make that their god. So idolatry is a turning away from God and his Covenant and becoming an unjust nation.
Usually when we read the prophets we might separate injustice from cultic adoration of others gods as if they were two distinct issues that prophets dealt with. But as we will see in a moment, even injustice is a form of idolatry. So for the purpose of organizing our future discussions, we can lump together cult and injustice by stating that they are both forms of idolatry. (See Wenin).
If we want to study idolatry in the struggles of the prophets we can look into the other books of the Old Testament first. Let us review our memories about the book of Genesis. In Gen.2/16-17 we read that God had given an order, a command. “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Gen.2/16-17).
This order is found in the Adam and Eve story. The story says that human is given a responsibility: to work and to keep the garden. The human is in relationship with God, with nature and with oneself. Part one of the order tells the human to enjoy the garden. Have fun with the creation of the Lord God. Go ahead “eat from any of the trees of the garden”. Feel free to eat any.
This first part of the command awakens desire to eat from any tree. Yet, God puts a limit. Go ahead and eat from any tree but not from a specific tree which is “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”. The human can eat all, but not from that tree. So yes, the human can eat so much…but not all. What does this imply? It implies a “lack”; accept that there is a lack. It implies a limit; accept that there is a limit. Say no to the unlimited quality of desire! If the human does not do this, if the human cannot say no to the unlimited tendency of desire, the human will die!
God’s order, Gen.2/16-17, teaches the human to have in confidence in the presence of the other. Confidence presupposes putting oneself in the hands of the other. You and I, we both discover—we “adventure” with one another as we move on in life. Life, in relationship, becomes a life of “adventure”. It is a matter of “blooming”.
Just imagine if we do not feel the need to grow and explore life. Imagine if we think we are so completed. How can we say that we “bloom”? We do not bloom, we get stuck. To bloom we need to accept a “lack”, a “limitation”. We do not know all, we do not control all. We need to accept an “unknown”. We need to trust each other in confidence. We adventure together. We need each other and we need to listen to God’s order, “we may but…”
For the culture of the Hebrews death would mean more than just physical death. For us we might think of physical death. The heart stops beating. Lungs stop inhaling and exhaling. Our ecg goes flat. Dead! Dead! Dead! It is quite biological. But for the region—semitic region—death signifies the relational aspect of the human person.
The human being is woven for relationship. From birth to death the human is filled with relationships. Even before one is born, relationships were already taking place. (Well, what did mama and papa do?) Death is really more of the end of relationships. We are finished, you and I. We are separate; we are individuals (or groups) “alone”. There are no more other people in life. Other people may be present but who they are, what they are, how they really live does not matter. Starting with this, anything that threatens relationships is “murderous”. The threat does not allow the human to live! So let us look at the command of God. The human may eat of all…but there is a limit. Just think: not limits to my desire. This spells death! We can say that the Genesis account is a description of the human condition. The human is a creature of desires but to be happy the desires must be regulated.
Now we can appreciate why God has given the command a limitation. The first part of the command is “you may” and the second part of the command, “but…”. Do what you want, whatever it is that you want. Go ahead, “you may”. But do not take the road of death. A Biblical way of identifying unbridled desire is “coveting”. You may desire but do not covet. To covet is to pervert desire. A perverted desire is a desire that refuses to be educated—to have a sense of limits, knowing the good from the bad. To covet is to make an absolute of one’s desire. From start to end it is my desire and I will say how it will go. There are no respected limits.
Well, we cannot go into a more detailed discussion of this part of Genesis precisely because our class is on the prophets. The notion of the tree of “good and evil” itself requires a long discussion which we cannot do here. We take this detour to help us understand the notion of idolatry. So let us take some elements of the Adam and Eve story to help us in what we are seeking.
God gives that prohibition of coveting in view of relationships. The human is a creature of desires and desires must be regulated, piloted, properly expressed with a lot of responsibility. Why? The reason is because the human is not a solitary creature. The human is a relational creature—with nature, with fellow humans, with oneself and with God. This explains why the next verse (after 16 and 17) is a verse that says that it is not good for the human to be alone. Desires are alright but once the human covets, relationships fall apart. The human behaves as if he or she is “all alone”; that others do not matter.
There is one character in the story that has a crucial role. This is the serpent. Again we have no occasion now to make a detailed discussion on this figure in the story. It is sufficient for us to note that this serpent introduces coveting in the story. The description made about the serpent tells us that the serpent makes a claim to know everything about God including God’s secret. There is no more “lack” in the serpent; the serpent behaves like a “complete” creature. This already is a feature of coveting where there is nothing else to know and nothing else to understand. There is no need to grow and explore further. This is a complete self-contained creature. This serpent will then transmit to the human the same characteristic. How?
For one thing, the serpent gives them an image of God who is coveting too. It is a God with a secret and does not want to share. It is a competitive God in competition with the human. This is a powerful God who does not want to limit his own power. This God wants to have an exclusive possession of his own power. He is the "boss".
Now the human must equal this God in the process of competition. The human, says the serpent, has the right to access full knowledge too and be equal to God. It is really a competition between the human and God. Therefore it is best that this God be out of the picture of human desires. If it is to be a matter of competition then the exclusion of the other is part of the strategy. One cannot rely on the word of God but one can rely on the word of the serpent. The human cannot trust God but can trust the serpent.
How does idolatry come in? Now we can add to say that relying on the word of the serpent is idolatry. The serpent says that God is a secretive and competitive God and the human can be equal by winning in the competition against God. How then can the human compete? Eat the prohibited fruit. What does eating this fruit do?
We know the story. After eating the fruit the human has started to be “alone”. The human lets desires go unbridled. Adam is “alone”, Eve is “alone”, Cain is “alone”, the people in the Noah’s story are “alone”, the builders of the Babel tower are “alone”. Each one is enclosed in desires that refuse to be educated, desires that refuse to grow from ignorance, desires that are pictured as absolute, complete and with nothing lacking. This is coveting. It is a desiring that is so totalizing and absolute it recognizes no limit. Cain, for example, can now kill his brother. This is what the serpent’s word has offered.
Now, let us move to the Exodus story. There we see Moses who led the people out of Egypt—out of slavery. The Hebrews had to “live again”, so to speak. It meant, for example, crossing the Red Sea and spending so much difficult times in the desert. To be a new people and a new nation the Hebrews had to be born into a new life of freedom and responsibility. It was not easy. The temptation was to return to slavery. It was quite difficult for the Hebrews to place God in the heart of freedom and responsibility. The Lord God was a liberating God who brought the people out of slavery. God established a Covenant with the people and in that Covenant were stipulations that guided the people to live together authentically and to avoid falling back into slavery.
In the Covenant was the presentation of the Decalogue, or the Ten commandments. (There are two version, the Exodus version and the Deuteronomy version. We cannot discuss the reason for this but if we read them closely we see them to be very similar.) Structurally the Decalogue starts with the notion of liberation and ends with the prohibition to covet. God has set the people free from slavery—this is liberation. Do not repeat slavery and do not let it happen in society. Avoid coveting. Now that the Hebrews are to enter the land, they should have the proper norms that will allow them to stay liberated and not enslaving. Regulate desires as the people will live in the land and there are Ten Commandments to guide them.
The Decalogue tells the people to “look out” for two tendencies: the disfiguration of God and the dehumanization of social relationships. This is a re-echo of the Genesis story. The serpent represents the disfiguration of God and the refusal to accept the validity of God’s order. This is an idolatry: trust the serpent and not God. As a consequence to disfiguring God and refusing God’s command the people may then start dehumanizing their relationships. Note then the two elements: God is disfigured, society becomes a mess. These two are constant in the denunciation of the prophets. If God is set aside, injustice starts to reign. If society wants justice, it must rely on God and the word of God. To rely on the serpent’s word is to pervert God’s word and this is, precisely, idolatry.
Now, the middle portion of the Decalogue is about the Sabbath. The Sabbath is so important for exercising properly all the other commandments. Now, in the Sabbath we know that on the seventh day (of creation) God rested. This is a picture of a gentle God—contrary to the powerful and secretive God. The powerful and secretive God, as told by the serpent, has no room for others. This God is “alone”. Now the God who rests on the seventh day is a God who gives room for others. He is a God who puts a brake on his power and mastery, takes a rest so that the whole created world may “be what it is”. The Sabbath is God’s respect and reverence for the created world. God takes a rest and ceases to be always the boss. God has desires and he shows mastery over his desires. He regulates his power by his Sabbath distance from the created world.
This may sound abstract, so here is an aid. Imagine if your formator is always beside you, day in and day out. Your formator always checks on you and tells you what to do all the time…even how to think. A more effective formator is someone who can give room and space—a “Sabbath distance” to help you adventure and bloom.
If the Decalogue places theSabbath in the center, it is also a way of saying that the Hebrew people should be “in the likeness of God” by taking “Sabbath distances”, respecting the alterity of each one. Without this Sabbath distance, injustice will emerge. How does idolatry come in? Idolatry is making an absolute of being “alone” and making an absolute of our own powers. It is a “sacralisation” of social realities (Asurmendi). If a society has no space for Sabbath, then what is that society making an absolute of? Money? Power? Politics? Are these not so “sacred” for many people? They are “idols”.
A very rapid survey of the narratives in the Pentateuch will show how crucial this Sabbath distance is. Look at the stories, Abraham-Isaac, Isaac-Rebecca, Jacob-Rachel. A typical template is in each story. There is always a “lack” thrown in. Abraham, for example, was beginning to be master over Isaac. The sacrifice up the mountain is depicting that Abraham must accept a lack; he must learn to renounce his full ownership of his son. Abraham must accept a “lack”, a “distance” to allow Isaac to be truly in the flow of God’s plan. If Abraham continued to hold Isaac and if he continued to think that Isaac was completely and absolutely his, Abraham falls into idolatry.
So let go of Isaac. Accept Isaac as a gift and not as a property. You may have him as son, but he is not your ownership. If the Abraham-Isaac story did not have the sacrifice put in, then that same form of ownership, the absence of distance and lack. This theme of “you may…but” is a thread in all the Bible.
So in the Exodus story the people are given the law to refuse slavery and live in justice. God even helps the people to hold on this this attitude of the Sabbath distance. “They shall make a sanctuary for me so I may dwell in their midst” (Ex25/8). The sanctuary is for the people to constantly see that they cannot make an absolute of their desires. There must be space for “lack”. Not everything can be clogged by social realities. Let God be that empty space whose presence will educate the people—guide the desires of people. Let God be in the midst—the God who took a Sabbath distance, the gentle God who respected the alterity of the created world. Be in the likeness of this God who is present in your midst. Oppose whatever may come between the people’s hearts and the heart of God. Oppose idolatry.
The story of the molten golden calf is a clear example of idolatry. Moses was up the mountain. The people were so afraid of their fate, their leader was up there and they did not know what was happening to him. Neither had they a sense of God who, previously was present. So what did the people do? They told Aaron to “make a god who will be our leader” (Ex32/1). Even before Aaron could name this calf, the people declared that it was the Lord God liberator from Egypt. People wanted a divinity and they themselves gave it an identity. It was a human product, the work of human hands. This is a disfiguration of God. The people can then cling on to this representation—a golden calf—to assure themselves that all will be ok.
So through the golden calf what happens is that the people self-adores. This is no longer the Lord God but the god that the people want. This is a first step to creating a social world based on the norms—orders and commands—of a divinity created and fashioned by human hands. It is now a slippery slope. This new divinity can thus allow people to make an absolute of themselves, their desires and their injustices. See how it is idolatry!
Again to the prophets
When we read and study some prophets we can be guided by this notion of idolatry. We should remember that it is not just about adoring other gods and statues of other religions. On the deeper level idolatry is about how society ceases to respect the word of God, ceases to be in the likeness of God and makes an absolute of their social realities. Money. Power. Prestige. It is not simply a disfiguration of God but a dehumanization of society. Prophets will denounce this!