I am wrapping up my course called “The Prophetic Literature” at Belmont. Along with my students I have been working through the draft of the book I wrote while on sabbatical last fall, A Chorus of Prophetic Voices: An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature (forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press). I am also about finished with the final revision process I have been doing as I taught my way through the book for the first time, so now is a good time for some reflection.
Books introducing the prophetic literature used to use a historical approach. They started with the earliest “writing prophets” in the eighth century, such as Hosea, Amos, Isaiah,, and Micah, and work their way down to those from the Persian/Second Temple period, like Haggai and Zechariah. Most work on the prophetic literature acknowledged that the large collections called Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve are composite literary documents developed over two or three centuries, and their primary goal was often to recover the authentic voice of the historical figures who began these traditions. Sometimes the recovery was part of a larger effort of fitting the historical prophets into the development of ancient Israelite religion. Working with the prophetic literature in this way was fraught with problems, but its great accomplishment was wresting the prophets away from a purely spiritualized way of reading that had dominated Christian interpretation. It presented the prophets as flesh and blood characters preaching justice in a material world, whose words could address our material world.
A shift beginning in the last quarter of the twentieth century led to a new practice of introducing the prophetic literature focused on the final forms of the four large scrolls as unified literary works. The two primary benefits of this approach were avoiding the tendencies toward fragmenting layer of smaller and smaller pieces and making the primary goal of interpretation the understanding of the literature itself. I liked this way of reading the prophetic literature, and used it in my course for about a decade, but the movement of trauma studies into the study of the prophetic literature over the last decade revealed its shortcomings. I became uneasy and began searching for a better way to introduce the prophets that gave full attention to the presence of the pre-trauma preaching of Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, and Micah in post-trauma books, whose writers spoke to a recovering community in the Persian period.
My new approach is unavoidable convoluted, because it requires combing the two ways I describe above, and asking some revised questions. From the first entry into each of the four scrolls the shape and texture of the final forms must be a central concern. At the same time the material that addresses each of the periods of crisis in Israel’s story (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian/Restoration) require reading in light of that particular era. In addition, I am convinced that proclamation of each scroll addressing each period heard along with the others addressing that period, hence the use of the word “chorus” in my title. Israelite prophecy in the Assyrian period is part duet, featuring the combined voices of Isaiah and the Book of the Twelve, but the latter consists of multiple voices from Amos, Hosea, and Micah. In the Babylonian period, the powerful voices of Jeremiah and Ezekiel join the chorus, and the sound becomes more complex. I started the project using the word “harmony,” but quickly realized the falsehood it implied. The voices are not always harmonious, because they are negotiating life-and-death issues that require and deserve intense debate.
The challenge of putting all of this together in a classroom experience and a textbook aimed at undergraduate students is to provide just enough coherence that they do not feel completely lost on a sea of strange texts without forcing a false coherence onto these ancient texts that betrays their vision of the world. I get to try again in two years.