Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Monday, 27 April 2015

Prophets & Their Oracles

Significant Dates (BC)

1000 - Rise of the Israelite State
940 - Separation of Kingdoms into Israel and Judah
721 - Northern Kingdom (Israel) destroyed by Assyrians
586 - Exile of the Southern Kingdom (Judah) into Babylon
539 - Beginning of Persian Period

Assyrian Period
We find announcements of judgement from these prophets, with their main themes being 'The Day of the Lord' (especially in Amos 5), as well as justice, knowledge of God, and cult.

Babylonian Period
In 586, the fall of Judah/Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple took place.  In 596, with the King (Zedekiah) taken into exile, Judah was reduced to a province and there were no more Davidic Kings. There is a transition which takes place, from judgement to hope (for example in Ezekiel 37). 

Persian Period
The fall of Babylon takes place in 539. There is a growing amount of extra-biblical evidence for events in this period - with a crisis of restoration rather than destruction, restored religious observance, a new community with a sense of internal friction, as well as the phenomenon of prophets citing other prophets becoming more common. Furthermore, the new significance of the Temple is created - with the construction of the Second Temple authorised by Cyrus the Great in 538, after the fall of the Babylonian Empire the year before.

There is a clear sense of God's intervention in human history throughout the texts. The ethical message would be that a holy and good life, is one lived rightly before God and neighbour.

The Assyrian Period - Amos
Amos is third in the book of the twelve ( collection of minor Prophets ). The collection appears to be arranged chronologically, with several thematic links  - such as 'the day of the Lord' appearing in both the books of Joel and Amos. The Prophet Amos was ' among the shepherds of Teko'a ' (Amos 1:1) a small town ten miles south of Jerusalem. He led a simple life, as a shepherd and grower of sycamore figs, showing compassion for the oppressed and voiceless of the world. Amos is the great proclaimer of the justice of God, against the injustices of His people. 

The book of Amos falls neatly into three parts 1) Superscription, and writing against the foreign nations 2) Sayings attributed to Amos 3) Vision Reports

Amos' book is probably the earliest prophetical writing, emphasising God's omnipotent nature, and holy will for all nations:

'Amos teaches a most pure monotheism..He often speaks of The Lord of Hosts, meaning thereby that God has untold forces and powers at His command; in other words, that He is omnipotent. His descriptions of the divine attributes show that God is the Creator and Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth; He governs the nations at large, as well as the heavenly bodies and the elements of nature; He is a personal and righteous God..' Catholic Encyclopedia: Amos

Some material within the book of Amos, such as the sayings against Tyre, Edom and Judah are dated later than Amos - with the first being Deuteronomistic in language, and the second two may have been updated during the exilic or early second Temple period. The doxologies in chapters four, five and nine, according to scholars, do not come from Amos. They do however underline the central theme - that Israel's God has now declared war against His own people. Amos clearly had a knowledge of international affairs, sacred tradition and poetic skill. He was less concerned with worship than he was with socio-political matters. This is a marked difference between Amos and Hosea.

The holy Prophet Hosea,  (Hebrew: הוֹשֵׁעַ, , Greek Ὠσηέ ) was one of the twelve minor prophets. He was a contemporary of the Prophets Isaiah, Micah and Amos - in the eighth century before the birth of Christ. 

It is generally accepted that his prophetic career spanned a period of more than thirty years, coming to an end before the fall of the northern kingdom, in 721-22. The early chapters presuppose a period of political stability, and frequent denunciations of the monarchy fit the last twenty-five years of the northern kingdom, during which four out of six kings were assassinated. He characterises prophets as 'instruments by which the divine decree of judgement is carried out.' Dominant themes of the book include 1) a concern for the cult and sacred tradition 2) his opposition to the state priesthood 3) his identification of Moses the Levite as a Prophet 4) linguistic and thematic links between his sayings and Deuteronomy. 

As with Amos, Hosea contains both biographical and autobiographical material - ending with a prospect of eventual well-being. There are few indications of editorial reworking. The dominant religion, in Hosea's context, was a blend of the Yahweh 'cult' along with other cults of the region. For Hosea, false worship is the root cause of moral failure and social disintegration. However this view is only valid when the community has abandoned its religious traditions. It is clear, by reading Amos alone, that immorality exists within the religious and faithful communities as well, so perhaps Hosea concentrates on false worship too much. He has very little to say on matters such as social justice, and civil rights of the disadvantaged. Many would question Hosea's account of marital affairs - asking whether or not they are simply fictional, and whether there were two women or one. Despite these critical points, the Prophet Hosea strove to bring the many Israelites who had forgotten the true God of their forefathers back to the fold. He denounced the iniquities of the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, proclaiming to them the misfortunes they would suffer at the hands of invading foreigners. He foretold the end of the sacrificial offerings and the the priesthood of Aaron, (Hosea 3:4-5). He prophesied about Christ, who would return from Egypt, (Hosea 11;1), would be resurrected on the third day, (Hosea 6:2), and would conquer death, (Hosea 13-14).

The Prophet Micah is the sixth of the twelve minor prophets, descending from the tribe of Judah. He was a contemporary of the Prophet Isaiah, and his denunciations and predictions were in regard to the separate kingdoms of Judah and Israel. He foresaw the misfortunes threatening Israel, before its destruction, and the sufferings of Judah during the incursions under the Assyrian emperor. His book of prophecy consists of seven chapters - with the significant prophecy of Christ's birth in Bethlehem found in 5:2.

Although the book of Micah is commonly known to have been written within the second half of the eighth century, the book itself does not give many clues as to its dating. Micah 4:1-4 appears in Isaiah 2:2-4, suggesting that they both passed through the same editors.

The Babylonian Period - Jeremiah
Jeremiah is the longest of the prophetic books. The Holy Prophet Jeremiah, one of the four great Old Testament prophets, was son of the priest Helkiah from the city of Anathoth near Jerusalem, and he lived 600 years before the Birth of Christ, under the Israelite king Josiah and four of his successors. He was called to prophetic service at the age of fifteen, when the Lord revealed to him that even before his birth the Lord had chosen him to be a prophet. Jeremiah refused, citing his youth and lack of skill at speaking, but the Lord promised to be always with him and to watch over him.

Textual Details:
Editorial history creates problems – the Septuagint version of the text is shorter than the Masoretic Text by about an eighth, and arranges the material differently. Chapters 1-25 consist of sayings directed against Judah and Jerusalem. Some of these have survived more or less in their original poetic form, others have been paraphrased by a Deuteronomistic editor.This first section of the book also contains several lamentations and complaints to God. Although they have come to be known as Jeremiah’s Confessions, they contain no autobiographical material.One of the most prominent features of the book when compared with others, is the more or less continuous account of Jeremiah’s activity and suffering (chapters 37-44). This occurs essentially in the period immediately preceding and following the Fall of Jerusalem. These are third person narratives, recording events with considerable attention to detail, some of which can be corroborated from non-biblical sources. The last section of Jeremiah consists of sayings against foreign nations, and a concluding chapter dealing with the reign of Zedekiah. 

For Jeremiah, false prophecy is rebellion, and punishable by death. The false prophet is one who speaks in the name of another deity, or those who speak in the name of Yahweh but have not been commissioned to do so. Prophets whose predictions do not come true are deemed to be false. In both Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, prophecy is linked to dreams and their interpretation.
The superscription to the book: This informs us that Jeremiah ben-Hilkiah belonged to, or was descended from a family of priests at Anathoth. It also tells us that his prophetic career began in the thirteenth year of Josiah (627 BCE). The death of Josiah was a decisive turning point for him – dating of his call to Josiah’s thirteenth year allowed the editor to represent him as a supporter of his reforms, and to credit Jeremiah with a ministry of forty years.
The early sayings give the impression that Jeremiah is in the process of assimilating the prophetic tradition and bringing it to bear on the contemporary situation, but has not yet found his own voice. In addition, in the early sayings he still holds out the possibility of repentance, although there is already a sense in which this will not happen. The first section of the book therefore ends with the acknowledgement that Jeremiah has thus far been unsuccessful in his prophetic task.

The Prophet Jeremiah's political role was to interpret the changing pattern of political events in the light of the tradition, and mediate, on behalf of God's people. Jeremiah did not seek popularity. He was opposed by the royal court (although he did have some influential friends), his hometown, and especially the Temple bureaucracy. His alienation was seen especially in his refusal to discharge the prophetic function of intercession.
The striking differences between Jeremiah and the earlier prophets are in the traditional forms of prophetic speech breaking up, where there is a greater emphasis on biographical narrations. Furthermore there is an Increased emphasis in Jeremiah on prayer, lamentation, and suffering.

Jeremiah & Moses:
There are several comparable similarities between the prophets Moses and Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s activity also spanned forty years, also proclaiming the Law, interceding with God for the people, accepted rejection, and facing the challenge of those who would not accept his authority. Jeremiah’s initial commissioning is similar to that of Moses (Jer. 1/Ex. 3-4):  with a divine address, confirmation and encouragement designed to overcome hesitation, an act of installation accompanied by words, the specifics of the mission spelled out, and a visionary experience. Both Moses and Jeremiah are reluctant to answer the call, and offer similar excuses (poor speakers). Both are sent on a mission, and for both the word of reassurance is the same: “I am [will be] with you” (Ex. 3.12; Jer. 1.8). The touching of Jeremiah’s mouth and the declaration in Jeremiah 1.9 echoes the assurance to Moses that Yahweh will be “with his mouth” (Exodus 4.12). From the beginning, then, Jeremiah is presented as a prophet ‘like Moses’. Jeremiah’s call also follows the Mosaic model.

The Holy Prophet Ezekiel lived in the sixth century, before the birth of Christ. He was born in the city of Sarir, and descended from the tribe of Levi ; he was a priest and the son of the priest Buzi. Ezekiel was led off to Babylon when he was twenty-five years old together with King Jechoniah II and many other Jews during the second invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnessar.

There are two significant elements in the vision of the prophet: the vision of the temple of the Lord, full of glory (Ez. 44:1-10); and the bones in the valley, to which the Spirit of God gave new life (Ez. 37:1-14). The vision of the temple was a mysterious prefiguring of the race of man freed from the working evil and of the enemy, and the building up of the Church of Christ through the redemptive act of the Son of God, incarnate of the Virgin Mary. Ezekiel’s description of the shut gate of the sanctuary, through which the Lord God would enter (Ez. 44: 2), is a prophecy of the Virgin giving birth to Christ, yet remaining a virgin. The vision of the dry bones prefigured the universal resurrection of the dead, and the new eternal life bestowed by the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Prophet Ezekiel announces to the people of Israel, held captive in Baylon, the tribulations it would face for not remaining faithful to God. The prophet also proclaimed a better time for his fellow-countrymen, and he predicted their return from Babylon, and the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple.

Like Jeremiah, the text of Ezekiel, as we now have it, has gone through several stages of development. The Greek version is more compact than the Masoretic Text, and perhaps represents an earlier stage of transmission. The superscription attributes the book to a certain Ezekiel ben-Buzi of a priestly family, who had an extraordinary vision in Babylon in 593. It is generally assumed that he arrived there with the first batch of deportees in 598, but we are not told this. He was probably active in Judah before going to Babylon, and remained prophetically active until at least 571. He was married. The book is essentially a product of a school or circle which owed allegiance to Ezekiel. There is a certain difficulty with distinguishing the contribution of Ezekiel from that of his school. Despite this, there is a striking unity to the structure of the book – judgement on Israel (chapters 1-24); judgement on hostile nations (25-32); and salvation for Israel (33-48). The first section of the book records the vision of the mobile throne followed by a prophetic commission (Ezekiel 1-7). Chapters 8-11 record another vision – with a guided tour of the Jerusalem Temple. Ezekiel’s prophetic words are preceded by: “The word of Yahweh came to me”

Jeremiah as an older contemporary of Ezekiel: 
Even more than Jeremiah, Ezekiel emphasises the grave responsibility he has towards the community he must serve. He is also more aware of the likelihood of collusion between prophet and public. For Ezekiel a person is free to turn from one way of life to another. This turning, meaning ‘a decisive redirection of one’s life’ is one of the most important aspects of Ezekiel’s teaching. There are areas of Ezekiel's book that are clearly linked to the book of Jeremiah - such as the vision of the Temple. 
Again as with Jeremiah, comparisons can be drawn with Moses – both had visions which led to a commissioning, both are reluctant to dwell on any physical representation of Yahweh – Moses sees only the back of Yahweh, the latter employs a very deliberate choice of language. The throne in Ezekiel is mobile, like the Ark in Exodus.

Ezekiel was a visionary priest and prophet, who was also a learned man. He exemplifies prophecy as a form of pastoral ministry and community leadership. 

St Demetrius of Rostov concludes that the main concepts in the book of Ezekiel are 1)  if a righteous man turns from righteousness to sin, he shall die for his sin, and his righteouness will not be remembered; 2) If a sinner repents, and keeps God’s commandments, he will not die. His former sins will not be held against him, because now he follows God's will, and the path of righteousness (Ez. 3:20; 18:21-24).

Isaiah 40-55:

* Note : The Book of Isaiah consists of Proto-Isaiah ( Chapters 1-39) certainly containing the words of Isaiah; Deutero-Isaiah (Chapters 40-55), probably being the work of an anonymous 6th century author writing during the exile; and Trito-Isaiah (Chapters 56-66), composed after the return from exile. The Holy Prophet Isaiah lived 700 years before the birth of Christ, and was of royal lineage. Isaiah’s father Amos raised his son in the fear of God and in the law of the Lord. Having attained the age of maturity, the Prophet Isaiah entered into marriage with a pious prophetess (Is 8:3) and had a son Jashub (Is 8:18) 

There have been challenges to the idea prevalent amongst scholars, that these chapters were composed in Babylon rather than Judah. Nonetheless, the polemic against Babylonian deities, cults and practices does suggest a Babylonian location.
Like much prophetic literature, Isaiah 40-55 does not provide substantial biographical information. A specific reason for anonymity could be the political situation. Predictions of the victory of Cyrus, and the fall of Babylon would have been rather risky topics for a writer and prophet. The opening verses of this section (40: 1-11) have been taken to reflect a prophetic commissioning from Yahweh after the manner of the earlier Isaiah. The commission to proclaim the end of the exile and a new era of wellbeing appears to have been addressed to an individual seer with his prophetic following. This seer, who speaks from time to time in his own name, can be considered the author of much of the material in Isaiah 40-55. The last part of the book may derive from this seer’s disciples.

There is a distinction of theme and content between chapters 40-48 and 49-55. The first section focuses on the expectation of a new era inaugurated by Cyrus, with a polemic against the Babylonian imperial cult. The following section, however, says nothing about Cyrus or Babylon, and is much less concerned with the political situation.
By 550 Cyrus had united the Persian tribes under him and occupied Ecbatana, capital city of the Medes. In the next three years Cyrus’ campaigns in Armenia and Asia Minor were crowned by the capture of Sardis, and the annexation of Greek cities. These events were the “new thing” proclaimed in chapter 43 and referred to throughout these chapters. Support for Cyrus was likely strong, and from this point of view Isaiah 40-48 could be read as propaganda for the pro-Cyrus party.
The above makes sense in that a long oracle about Cyrus forms the centrepiece of this section. In it, he is a designated shepherd and anointed (well-attested way of acknowledging kings), and Yahweh is responsible for his success. 

In Second Isaiah, the proof of divinity is to predict the future and then bring it about. Yahweh stood with His prophets – the disasters through which people had passed were turned to occasions for faith.  The second section opens with a speaker addressing the nations. He uses the language of prophetic commissioning, speaking of being called and given a name from the womb. Practically everything the speaker says of himself is applied later in Second Isaiah to the community: the sense of failure, being formed and called.

The Persian Period - Isaiah 56-66
Isaiah 55-66 is closely related to 40-55, with these chapters prophetic and eschatological faith being centred around the Temple and the altar. There is no opposition in principle between the bearers of this faith and the Temple authorities and supporters. The seer who speaks for them expounds a teaching not unlike the priesthood of all believers.The seer is speaking in the name of watchmen stationed on the walls whose task it is to remind Yahweh of His promise to restore the city. In this, the seer addresses Jerusalem. These watchmen are charged with the tasks of intercession and prayer on behalf of the community – long established prophetic functions. Commentators have noted the strong liturgical flavour to these chapters. 

In the last two chapters, we read the clearest indications of internal conflict. The first saying in the last chapter represents a rejection of the proposal to rebuild the Temple, and therefore represents a position directly opposed to Haggai and Zechariah. The second saying is a brutal condemnation of animal sacrifice.
Isaiah 66: 1-5 testifies to a rift within Palestinian Judaism of the early Persian period involving a prophetic-eschatological minority led by a seer who understood his mission, and that of his followers in terms of servanthood. The group appears to have been excluded from participation in the Temple cult, which would explain their socio-economic status.

In form and content Haggai is quite distinctive. Much of the material in the book belongs to the category of ‘disputation’. There are admonitions to pay attention, rhetorical questions, anticipated objections which are then answered. These rhetorical devices are more developed in Malachi.
In Haggai, there are frequent words of reassurance – “fear not” (2.5), “I am with you” (1.13; 2.4), “take courage” (2.4). These words suggest that Haggai may be characterised as an optimistic prophet.
The editorial framework to Haggai’s preaching turns the book into somewhat of a diary, marking several stages of the Temple building. The dates of this ‘diary’ cover the sixth to the ninth month of Darius’ second year. To each of these dated periods, there is a corresponding oracle. In the first, Haggai addressed a reproach to the governor, to the high priest, and to the community in general. The rebuilding of the Temple is the necessary precondition for the earth-shattering events that will usher in the new age proclaimed by the prophets. The second discourse has lost its date. The laying of the foundation stone is a turning-point. In the third discourse, it is made clear that the guarantee of political and social well-being is the presence of the divine Spirit through eschatological prophecy. The fourth discourse condemns cult practice that had been occurring since the destruction of the Temple. The fifth discourse predicts the overthrow of the Persian Empire, with the language of the third and fifth sayings making it especially clear that Haggai is part of a Messianic movement in Judah.

The Prophet Zechariah, also Zachary, was a prophet of the postexilic period. He was the writer of the Book of Zechariah. His book is the eleventh of the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament.

The book of Zechariah consists of eight vision reports, preceded by a sermonic introduction and a concluding section dealing with fasting and hopes for the future.
The vision reports in Zechariah demonstrate a clear structural unity - and within his visions, for the first time, he introduces a supernatural agent who explains what was going on. Also, the term for angel or messenger, malak, had become synonymous with prophet. In addition, the interpreter of the visions also assumes the prophetic role of intercessor, and of one who gives an oracle.
Since the principal function of this ‘person’ is to interpret, there is a clear shift in the nature of prophecy from direct inspiration to the interpretation of previous prophetic sayings. This is the most important aspect of these visions for the historical development of Israelite prophecy.
In chapters nine through fourteen, the book presents two "oracles" or "burdens", one in chapters nine through eleven that outline the course of God's providential dealings with his people down to the time of the coming of the Messiah, and the other oracle, chapters twelve through fourteen, point out the glories that await Israel in "the latter day", the final conflict and triumph of God's kingdom.

With guidance from:
Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (London: WJK, 1996)

Contribution from fellow Theology student, A.Morton (Church of Scotland) 

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