Improving Our Reading of the Prophetic Literature

I have been working on the syllabus for my course, “The Prophetic Literature,” which I begin teaching in one week.  I have written a new textbook called A Chorus of Prophetic Voices, which I will use in draft form with my students this semester before sending it off to the publisher next summer.  So, I will likely be posting on convergences I see in the study of the Prophetic Literature from time to time over the next few months.

The Prophetic Literature is one more element of the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that has witnessed significance divergence over the last few decades.  The common, older approach was to read the material historically, dividing the books and placing the pieces in chronological order.  So, the beginning point was the mid to late eighth century and texts like Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Isaiah 1-39.  These efforts then moved on to the Babylonian period a century or so later, examining Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and Isaiah 40-55.  The final stop would be the Persian/Restoration period, reading Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  This kind of scheme generally assumed that prophecy in ancient Israel was at its peak in its earliest stages and declined into obscurity.  The great advantage of this approach was its ability to push back against a purely spiritual reading of the prophets.  Instead, they became real people in material contexts preaching against injustice.

The 1990’s brought a shift in approach.  The focus on the final form of the biblical books that began with books like Genesis and I and II Samuel moved into the study of the prophetic literature.  Some attempts to introduce the prophetic literature did so by examining the complete books of Isaiah or the Book of the Twelve as cohesive works of literature.  This effort was bolstered by Walter Brueggemann’s understanding of how the prophetic literature develops alternative worlds of the imagination that challenge structures of power and domination.  This kind of approach yielded two helpful results.  First, it put the literature that had been fragmented by historical methods back together and asked important questions about how it functioned for its readers, ancient and modern.  Second, it gave much more attention to the end of the process of production of the prophetic scrolls.  Prophecy was no longer moving away from something, the lives of the great prophets in the eighth century, but towards something, the literary production of the fifth and fourth centuries.

Over the last decade, these two approaches have often been viewed as opponents of one another.  Interpreters have had to choose either a literary or a historical approach.  What may be emerging is a way of putting the two together, benefiting from the strengths of both.  The two perspectives are connected by settings, characters, and events that existed and took place at the points of origin of the prophetic traditions and became the elements of a narrative that scrolls in their final form present.  The prophets were persons living in particular historical settings in the past and they are literary characters textualized for the present.  In subsequent posts I will be exploring what happens when we look at the prophets from this combined perspective.

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