- 49% of those voting choose “relay a message from God”
- 41% choose “social critic”
- 5% chose “interpret Scripture”
- 5% chose “have a special relationship with God”
Poll participation was pretty low. The total of votes was only 39. Perhaps I’m not patient enough, but I’m interpreting this as indicating lack of interest in the question. Time to move on.
As with the last poll, I suspect that the results of this one tell me more about my audience than about cultural views at large. Given the enormous success of The Left Behind Series, the strength of premillenialism, and the language I hear everyday, it’s hard for me to infer from my poll results that no one really believes that prophets predicted the future.
I do hope my blog will reach a diversity of folks with a diversity of views. Contrasting points of view (expressed in a civil way) make for interesting conversation. I’ll have to keep working on that. Suggestions welcome.
As to the role of a prophet, my own answer to the question would be “none of the above.” Influenced by numerous scholars and by my own reading, I understand prophets (at least the ones in ancient Israel) as characters in highly-crafted books. I don’t doubt that there really were people in Israel/Judah who claimed to speak for the divine and that others turned to them for guidance. Documents from other ancient cultures speak of diviners and others who mediated the word of the gods to humans; ancient Israel was likely no exception. But when it comes to the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the description of prophets has been so shaped by a literary tradition that the what the prophets “really” were like becomes harder and harder to discern. So, I tend to shift the question from “what was the role of the prophet?” to “how does this book lead me to envision a prophet?”
The prophetic books present the prophets as relaying messages from God to humans. This impression is created by the superscriptions, those introduction remarks that instruct readers to understand what’s to come as divine speech mediated through a human, as well as by the phrase which punctuates the books: “thus says the LORD.”
Prophets are also presented as challenging people’s behaviors, especially worship of gods other than the LORD (more on names of God later), as well as their attitudes. Prophets announce pending punishment and/or salvation. They insist that the LORD alone governs the world, implicitly and explicitly challenging current empires and rulers
Interestingly, most of the time they speak in poetry. Most folks ignore that the prophetic language is poetic and read it as if it is straight instruction, but the formatting of most English Bibles makes the point that prophetic speech is more like Psalms than Leviticus. It is full of imagery, metaphor, allusions. Like other poetry, its “point” is often made in exaggerated and sometimes indirect ways.
But some prophets get even more characterization: Hosea as a family man, Ezekiel as a priest, Jeremiah as a tender heart, Habakkuk as a debater.
What fascinates me most about the prophetic books is how they have used a wide range of authorial techniques to create impressions of ancient characters in order to influence readers living in later times. They aren’t simple transcripts made on the spot but rather carefully-crafted portraits of prophets for later purposes.
I would love to know how and why prophetic books were created, about their authors and their first audiences. I respect the scholars who try to reason out plausible historical reconstructions. I enjoy trying out the different scenarios such scholarship presents, to imagine how a prophetic book would have sounded in one situation or another. But I confess that I don’t have a lot of confidence in our ability to know for sure about that process. So, without ignoring the historical questions, I do tend to gravitate to the literary and ideological questions of how the language works, what kind of mental picture does it create, who in the past and in the present is hurt or helped by such characterizations, etc.
Prophetic books fascinate me, as well as frustrate and sometimes anger me. That’s what makes the process of reading them so engaging.