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The Genre and Intent of Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible

The Role of Prophets

The assumption that Hebrew prophecy was intended to predict the future is natural. The main dictionary definition of the English verb “prophesy” is “to foretell or predict.”1 Despite its proliferation in student papers and the popular press the verb “to prophesize” does not exist. Similarly, the primary definition of the noun “prophecy” is “the foretelling or prediction of what is to come.” However, the dictionary also defines “prophet” not as someone who foretells the future but as “a person who speaks for God.” Indeed, the Greek root of the word “prophet,” prophētēs comes from two words, pro, meaning “before” and phētēs, meaning “speaker.” In ancient Greece a prophet was a person who spoke for another, usually a god, and interpreted the god's will.

The Hebrew word translated “prophet,” nāvi', refers to one who is called to be a spokesperson for Yahweh. Israelite prophets typically began their oracles with “Thus says Yahweh,” which was a messenger formula in the ancient Near East. Before postal systems, kings sent messengers, who prefaced their messages with, “Thus says X,” giving the name of the king who had sent them. In the same way, Israelite prophets typically delivered their oracles in the first person, speaking on Yahweh's behalf. Prophets in the Bible, in short, were primarily forthtellers rather than foretellers, proclaimers, messengers, or “preachers” rather than predictors.

Prophets in the Bible do talk about the future. One of the sources of the institution of prophecy was seers like the one whom Saul consulted about the location of his lost donkeys. Similarly, King Jeroboam sent his wife to inquire of the prophet Ahijah whether his son would recover from disease. Kings also consulted prophets before going to war in hopes of knowing the outcome beforehand (see 1 Kings 22). We also saw how the Deuteronomistic historian (Dtr) used prophecies about the future of the royal houses in Israel to structure the account in the book of Kings. In all of these instances the prophet was still a spokesperson for God.

The prophets who lent their names and oracles to the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible also dealt with the future. But it was always the immediate future that was their primary concern rather than the future hundreds of years down the road. Their pronouncements about the future were not so much predictions as threats. Theirs was a “turn or burn” message: “This is what will happen to you if you do not change your ways.” They were often very creative in the language and images they used to describe the disaster they envisioned in the future. The prophets were critics of their societies, condemning religious and social practices and institutions of their times. They cannot, therefore, be understood apart from their individual historical and cultural settings.

A good example of a kind of modern-day prophet is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like the prophets in the Bible, he critiqued the society in which he lived. Like them, he issued these critiques on the grounds of religious principles. He was first and foremost a preacher, not a foreteller of the future. He spoke of the distant future only in vague, idealistic terms (“I have a dream”). But he also threatened disaster in the immediate future if America did not alter its course. In addition, like certain biblical prophets, his message was not popular in government circles. And, like those particular prophets, he was arrested and eventually killed.

Prime Example: Jeremiah's “Temple Sermon” (Jer 7:1–15; 26:1–19)

The basic essence of biblical prophecy is critique. This is well illustrated by Jeremiah's Temple Sermon, so named because it recounts an oracle that Jeremiah directed against the temple in Jerusalem and delivered within its precincts. The account in chapter 7 details the content of the oracle; chapter 26 describes the fallout from it.

The Temple Sermon makes two basic points. The first is that the people of Judah are guilty of social and religious offenses. Jeremiah lists injustice, oppression of the disadvantaged (resident aliens, widows, and orphans), murder of innocent people, and the worship of other gods as examples of their “ways and deeds” that they need to improve. He accuses them of stealing, murder, adultery, swearing falsely, burning incense to Baal, and worshipping other gods—all violations of the Ten Commandments.

Jeremiah's second point is that the people of Judah and Jerusalem have misplaced their faith. They have come to trust, he says, in “deceptive words,” identified as “this is the temple of Yahweh.” The phrase is repeated three times as though it were a kind of mindless, rote recitation: “This is the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh,” indicating that the people trusted in the temple itself rather than in God. They believed, at least in Jeremiah's caricature of them, that inside of the temple precincts they were immune from prosecution for their deeds no matter how they behaved outside of it. Jeremiah characterizes their attitude toward the temple as that of a band of robbers or “den of thieves” toward their hideout. They commit all manner of crimes and then flee to the temple for refuge.

The intent of the Temple Sermon was to counter this attitude toward the temple. He called upon the people of Judah to improve their behavior, and only then would Yahweh stay with them in his “house.”2 The Hebrew text in 7:4, 7 actually says “I will let you stay.” However, a better reading, attested in the Latin Vulgate, is “I will stay with you.” In the ideology of the ancient Near East, a temple is typically spoken of as the house of the deity to whom it is devoted. The word “place” in 7:3 is a common idiom in the ancient Near East and in the Bible for a shrine. Otherwise, Yahweh would abandon the temple to destruction. As proof that Yahweh would allow Jerusalem to fall and the temple be destroyed, Jeremiah pointed to the site of Shiloh. Shiloh had once been the principal shrine in Israel, the place where Samuel trained, but it had been destroyed by the Philistines.3 See 1 Samuel 1–4. Jeremiah was especially familiar with Shiloh because he belonged to the line of priests that had served in Shiloh and had trained Samuel. He was from Anathoth (Jer 1:1), where Abiathar of the priestly line of Eli had been banished by Solomon (1 Kings 2:26–27).

The account in chapter 26 shows just how radical Jeremiah's declaration of the temple's destruction was for his time. “You must die,” the priests, prophets, and people who heard him told him. They took him to the leaders (“princes”) of Judah and told them that Jeremiah deserved to be sentenced to death for prophesying against the city of Jerusalem, which housed the temple. They obviously considered his words blasphemy.

What is fascinating about this episode is how Jeremiah's life was spared. Some of the elders of Judah recalled a prophecy very similar to Jeremiah's from the prophet Micah, who lived a little more than one hundred years earlier. (Micah's work is also preserved in the Bible, in the book that bears his name.)4 The books in the Hebrew Bible are not arranged in chronological order, so the book of Micah follows Jeremiah, even though the prophet Micah lived before Jeremiah. The elders quoted Micah 3:12, which prophesied that Jerusalem would become a pile of ruins and be plowed like an empty field. “Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all of Judah have [Micah] executed?” they asked. “Did he not fear Yahweh and ask for Yahweh's mercy so that Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster he had intended for them? We are about to do great harm to ourselves!” (Jer 26:19, AT).

The elders' interpretation of Micah's words reveals two crucial points about prophetic literature. First, they understood Micah's prophecy as relating to Judah of his day and not as a prediction of the distant future. That is how King Hezekiah understood it as well. He and his servants took immediate steps to repent and change their ways in order to avoid the destruction that Micah threatened. Second, both Hezekiah and the elders of Jeremiah's day also understood Micah's prophecy to be conditional. Jerusalem's fate was not sealed but depended on the response of Hezekiah and the city's inhabitants to the prophetic threats. Jerusalem was not destroyed during the two centuries between Micah and Jeremiah. The elders of Judah in Jeremiah's day saw this not as a failed or false prophecy but as the result of Hezekiah's repentance and religious reforms.

The Temple Sermon episode demonstrates that the people of ancient Israel and Judah understood prophecy as we have characterized it—as social and religious critique of the prophet's own society—and not concerned with the future hundreds of years in advance. This characterization of prophecy is not a modern invention of scholars; it was, however, the understanding of the prophets' ancient audiences, such as the elders of Judah in Jeremiah's day.

Other Examples: The Book of Amos

The book of Amos furnishes a number of excellent illustrations of the intent of Hebrew prophecy as social and religious critique. Amos lived and worked in the middle of the eighth century CE, a very prosperous period for the nation of Israel. He was from the village of Tekoa, but he prophesied in Israel. Amos himself was likely a well-to-do herdsman, but he criticized the upper class of Israel for their unjust and oppressive treatment of the poor. The following texts from Amos illustrate his social and religious critiques and the way in which a prophet's threats of future destruction are intimately tied with their present.

“For three transgressions and for four” (Amos 1–2)

The book of Amos begins with a set of oracles against other nations. It is not unusual to find a section of oracles against foreign nations, since other prophetic books also contain such a section (Isa 13–23; Jer. 46–51; Ezek 25–32; see also Obad and Nah). Some prophetic books (Obadiah, Nahum) even consist essentially of one or more oracles against a foreign nation.

The oracles against other nations represent a literary strategy. They open the book of Amos and lure the reader's attention to the prophet's message—all the more so since these oracles condemn hated enemies—but then focus Amos's message on the real target of his prophecy, that of Israel. They do this by including an oracle against Israel itself as the last of the condemned nations—the climax of the series of oracles.

The nations mentioned in Amos's oracles are all neighbors of Israel: Syria, the Philistines, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Tyre, and Judah.5 There is debate among scholars about the originality of some of these oracles, that is, whether they come from Amos himself or from a later setting. Those against Tyre (1:9–10), Edom (1:11–12), and Judah (2:4–5) are often considered later additions. If they are later, they reflect the reinterpretation of Amos's words about Israel as applying to Judah. This kind of reinterpretation within the prophetic books themselves will be discussed later in this chapter. Each of these nations is condemned in turn for such matters as war crimes and treaty violations. The Israelite readers or hearers would be pleased by the condemnations of these other nations, who were Israel's rivals and enemies. But those same readers/hearers would then be caught off guard and dismayed to find that the last and longest of the oracles was reserved for themselves.

The oracles against the nations illustrate the motif of the “day of Yahweh” that comes later in Amos. The Israelites look forward to the “day of Yahweh” as a time when God will take vengeance for them against their enemies, as promised in the oracles against the nations. But then Israel turns out to be Yahweh's prime target. The oracles against the other nations thus serve as a prelude to the real focus of Amos's condemnations—Israel. Amos alters the motif of the “day of Yahweh” from hope to threat. He says that the time is coming when Yahweh will indeed act, not only against Israel's enemies but also against Israel itself. The Israelites, says Amos, should not be looking forward to the coming of the “day of Yahweh” but should be dreading it.

Amos criticizes the Israelites not for treaty violations but for social offenses against their own people. Specifically, the upper class is accused of selling the righteous and the needy, and trampling on the poor and oppressed. There is sexual immorality (“a man and his father go into the same young woman,” 2:7, AT) and exploitation of the poor, since they lie down upon “pledged garments” (2:8). A pledged garment was one that had been taken from a poor person as collateral for a loan. Poor people had nothing but their clothing to offer as collateral. The law forbade taking a garment in pledge from a widow (Deut 24:17) or keeping such a garment overnight, since the poor person would have no other cover for sleeping (Exod 22:26–27 [Heb 22:25–26]). Hence, lying down on pledged garments is a social injustice, taking advantage of the poor.

“Wine extorted by fines” (2:8) also alludes to an oppressive and socially unjust activity. It was, in effect, wine stolen from the peasants. The altars and temple mentioned in this verse may refer to religious apostasy (“God” could be translated “gods”). But it is more likely that they are intended to show the hypocrisy of the Israelite wealthy whom Amos condemns. These people pretend to be religious by keeping all the rituals. But their treatment of others shows that their religion is a sham.

“The cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1–3)

The beginning of chapter 4 is addressed to the upper-class women of Samaria, the capital of Israel, and “cows of Bashan” is a reference to their prosperity. Bashan was a region east of the Jordan known for its choice grazing land. The noble women of Samaria led the most luxurious lifestyle in the country, but it came at the expense of the poor and was, therefore, oppressive. The Samarian women were concerned only with their own comfort, callously ignoring the repercussions of their lifestyle for the poor, as their words to their husbands suggest: “Bring us something to drink.”

Amos graphically describes the punishment awaiting these women: They will be taken away into captivity. Amos does not say when this will happen or who the captors will be. In fact, it is not a prediction at all but a threat. Captivity was a common fate in the ancient Near East, particularly for women; it accompanied defeat at the hands of an invading army. Amos sketches these experiences in broad terms. The city of Samaria will be conquered by an army that breaches its walls and leads its inhabitants away. No specifics are forthcoming. Near the end of the chapter Amos summons Israel to prepare to meet its God, who is coming in judgment. Again, though, he does not predict the exact form that this judgment will take or when it will happen. His oracle is a threat intended to move Israel to repentance, which would, in turn, avert the threatened disaster.

“Set justice in the gate” (Amos 5:10–17)

In ancient Israel the city gateway was, in effect, the courthouse, the place where legal proceedings occurred. Thus, the references to “the gate” in this passage are references to Israel's legal system.6 For more on city gates see Philip J. King and Lawrence Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2001), 234–36. In Amos's view, that system had become corrupt. He says that the upper-class Israelites had come to hate righteous judges who reproved and spoke truth. Instead, the Israelites used the legal system to oppress the poor; bribery was rampant.

Ironically, Amos used literary genres that originated in legal settings to condemn this behavior. He follows the preceding indictment with a pronouncement of sentence: “You have built houses of dressed stone, but you will not live in them. You have planted desirable vineyards, but you will not drink their wine” (5:11, AT). Again, these are threats rather than predictions. They are actually known as “futility curses” and were common in ancient treaties. They cursed treaty violators with doing all the work for a particular project, like building a house or planting a vineyard, but being killed or captured before getting to reap the benefits.7 The classic work on treaty curses in the Hebrew prophets is Delbert R. Hillers, Treaty Curses and the Old Testament Prophets, Biblica et Orientalia 16 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1964). Amos's use of futility curses may indicate that he envisioned the relationship between Yahweh and Israel in terms of a covenant. However, covenant ideology does not play much of a role elsewhere in Amos and seems to be a later development under the influence of Deuteronomy. Amos was probably simply familiar with the language of curses, which were not limited to treaties. See Steven L. McKenzie, Covenant (St. Louis: Chalice, 2000). Amos provides no details about when and how these things will happen because his words are not a prediction. He simply borrows curses from treaties or elsewhere as a means to threaten Israel.

Amos's purpose in articulating such threats is to move the Israelites to repentance. He admonishes his audience to “set justice in the gate,” to seek good rather than evil, indeed to love good and hate evil. Integrated with these admonitions are the expressions of hope for change and a positive outcome: “that you may live,” “that Yahweh may be with you,” and “perhaps Yahweh will show mercy to the remnant of Joseph.” These possibilities indicate that the disaster Amos threatens is not a forgone conclusion. They exhibit the conditionality that is characteristic of prophecy. Amos's threats are not predictions because they are not determined to take place. Whether the threats will be realized depends on the people's response to the prophetic warnings.

“Beds of ivory” (Amos 6:4–7)

In a passage very similar to the “cows of Bashan” oracle, Amos here again condemns the wealthy of Samaria. They live in luxury, sleeping on beds inlaid with ivory and eating the choicest meats. Amos seems to wax sarcastic as he caricatures their idleness. They imagine themselves to be great musicians of David's legendary caliber. They drink wine in bowls. The Hebrew word used here might better be translated “basins,” referring to large vessels used in worship settings. Those who use these basins for drinking wine not only overindulge but also profane the sacred. They also use the finest oils to anoint themselves. The anointing again calls up the image of David. It indicates the selfishness of the wealthy of Samaria and their overestimation of their self-worth.

The problem with the Samarian nobility is not their luxurious lifestyle per se, but their misplaced priorities. They live like kings but are not troubled (lit. “sickened”) by the “ruin of Joseph.” The nation is deteriorating all around them and yet they remain apathetic. Therefore, Amos says that they will be the first to go into exile. Again, there is no prediction here, no detailing of time or circumstances, since it was common practice to take the nobility captive and to leave the poor of the land behind. Amos merely refers to a common cultural practice in voicing God's threat against the Samarian upper class.

“Neither a prophet nor a prophet's son” (Amos 7:10–17)

A priest named Amaziah at the royal shrine of Bethel accused Amos of treason, citing his threats that Israel would be taken into exile.8 Amaziah quoted Amos as saying that King Jeroboam would die by the sword (7:11). There is no such statement elsewhere in the book, though the threat in 7:9 that Yahweh would arise against the house of Jeroboam with a sword is close. Was Amaziah twisting Amos's words in order to sharpen his accusation? Was he paraphrasing? Or did Amos make such a pronouncement without its having been recorded in the book? Amos does not deny having threatened Jeroboam. According to 2 Kings 14:23–29; 15:8–12 the royal house of Jehu, to which Jeroboam belonged, fell during the reign of his son, Zechariah; Jeroboam himself apparently died peacefully. Amaziah told Amos to return to Judah and to ply his prophetic trade there, away from Israel's royal sanctuary. Amos replied, “I am neither a prophet nor a prophet's son” (7:14), meaning that he was not a prophet by profession or training; he had not learned the trade of prophecy as the disciple or “son” of a prophet. Rather, he had been called by Yahweh to prophesy. Amos quoted Amaziah as forbidding him to prophesy against Israel: “You must not prophesy against Israel. You must not preach against the house of Isaac” (7:16). The quotation, and indeed the entire scene, illustrates the understanding of prophecy shared by Amos and Amaziah; it is preaching, usually preaching against or threatening. Amaziah found Amos's threats against Israel to be dangerous and seditious.

Nevertheless, Amos goes on to prophesy against Amaziah. His wife will become a prostitute; his children will die by the sword; his land will be divided; and he will die outside of Israel. Once more, these are threats based on the period and culture rather than predictions. They all derive from the premise that Amaziah would be taken captive by an invading army. His children would be killed in the war. His land would be seized and parceled out to others. With no other means of support, his wife would be forced to turn to prostitution. Amaziah would die in the country to which he had been taken captive. All of these disasters are the natural results of the military defeat that Amos threatens for Israel.

“Making the ephah small and the shekel great” (Amos 8:4–10)

In this text, Amos assails the oppressive business practices of those in Samaria who take advantage of the poor. The ephah was a measure of capacity, so Amos complains that the prosperous merchants of Samaria cheat buyers by selling less for more, even vending the refuse, for their only concern is for profit. They keep the religious holidays without genuine piety, for they only want to return to the business of making profit. They even traffic in human life. The disaster Amos threatens in this instance differs from that of previous oracles. It is not military defeat but earthquake, eclipse, and mourning. Again, these are not specifics. The precise cause of the mourning is not even explained; it is simply a vision of doom and gloom.

The foregoing texts from Amos well illustrate the nature of Hebrew prophecy as characterized previously. Hebrew prophecy was always intimately tied to the prophet's own time and place. It referred to the future only in very general terms that were usually negative and hence better characterized as threat. Amos's message dealt originally with eighth-century Israel. He threatened destruction from Yahweh at the hands of an invading army. And, in fact, the Assyrians devastated the kingdom of Israel just a few decades later. That Amos did not pinpoint this invasion indicates that his oracles were not detailed predictions but general threats, which drew on a common source of disaster in the ancient Near East. Amos's threats, moreover, were understood to be conditional, even if their conditionality was rarely made explicit. The objective of prophecy was to effect change (“turn or burn”) in the religious and social practices of its hearers or readers.

The Reinterpretation of Prophecy

Despite its connection to specific times and circumstances, Hebrew prophecy was not static. Subsequent generations, especially after the Babylonian exile, reinterpreted older prophetic writings and applied them to their later settings.

“The booth of David” (Amos 9:11–15)

The final oracle of the book of Amos differs markedly from the foregoing material in at least three ways. First, this oracle is optimistic. Rather than depicting destruction, these verses refer to raising, repairing, rebuilding, and restoring. They look forward to fertility rather than famine, security rather than captivity and exile.

Second, the subject of this oracle is no longer Israel but Judah. The “booth of David” (9:11) is an alternate expression for the “house of David,” a way of referring to the Davidic dynasty, which ruled Judah for its entire history. The royal house of Judah is not a concern in any of the previous material in Amos.

Third, the setting of this oracle is no longer the eighth century in which the prophet Amos lived. The “booth of David” is fallen, an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile of 587 BCE when the kingdom of Judah and its dynasty effectively came to an end.

This final oracle is not part of Amos's original prophecies. Its vision of renewal following destruction is a common feature of the prophetic books. The destruction that follows, however, is that of Judah, not of Israel. This indicates that Amos's original words against Israel were reinterpreted as applying to Judah. Two factors likely contributed to this reinterpretation. First, the destruction of Israel by Assyria in 721 BCE enhanced Amos's reputation as a prophet whose threats had come true and might therefore have implications for other settings. The principles behind Amos's message might apply equally to Judah as to Israel, even if their circumstances were not identical. Second, with the demise of the Northern kingdom, Judah was essentially all that was left of Israel. The name “Israel” itself became ambiguous and could now be used for Judah. Hence, Amos's oracles originally directed toward Israel seemed perfectly appropriate for Judah.

“Comfort, comfort my people” (Isa 40–55)

The best example of the reinterpretation of prophetic works in the Hebrew Bible may be the book of Isaiah. Scholars have long recognized that Isaiah is composite and actually incorporates three distinct books. Isaiah 1–39 contains oracles of the eighth-century prophet from Judah after whom the book takes its name. Isaiah 40–55, often called Second or Deutero-Isaiah, was written in 539/538 BCE as the people of Judah who had been in Babylonian exile were preparing to return to their homeland. Isaiah 56–66, or Third Isaiah, comes from somewhat later, though its precise setting is hard to determine.

The opening of Second Isaiah makes its distinctive setting clear. The Babylonian exile, which began in 587 BCE with the destruction of Jerusalem, is described as a prison sentence that has been served by the city for its sin and is now at its end (40:1–2). Then, the command is issued to build a highway in the wilderness for Yahweh's return to the city (40:3–5). Later in the book, the same imagery is used. Jerusalem again appears as a captive woman, who is roused and told to change her clothes and remove her bonds in preparation for the return of her residents (52:1–2). Afterward, Yahweh leads the returnees out of Babylon back to Jerusalem (52:11–12).

Second Isaiah presupposes the accession of the Persian king Cyrus, who came to power in 539 BCE, after conquering Babylon, and issued the edict allowing the exiles to return home and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (44:28–45:1). The first wave of returnees arrived in 538. Second Isaiah was written between these two events—after Cyrus's enthronement and the issuance of his edict but before the actual return. It describes the return in glorious terms that are idealized and visionary rather than realistic. Not only is the highway from Babylon depicted as straight and level, but springs and rivers break forth in the desert between the two sites, so that the returnees have plenty of water (43:19–20). The mountains and Jerusalem itself break into singing to greet them (49:13; 52:9). The actual return was laden with hardships, as detailed in other biblical books, especially Ezra and Nehemiah.

Isaiah 40–55, therefore, was written two hundred years after the original prophet Isaiah and deals with very different historical and social circumstances. Nevertheless, recent scholarship has pointed out themes that run through all parts of Isaiah. Such themes include the kingship of Yahweh and his relationship to his “anointed,” the significance of Jerusalem, the survival of God's elect, Israel's place among nations, and the establishment of justice.9 See H. G. M. Williamson, Variations on a Theme: King, Messiah and Servant in the Book of Isaiah (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998). Williamson thinks that 2 Isaiah was responsible for the basic composition of Isaiah 1–39. See his The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah's Role in Composition and Redaction (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994). These themes bind the current book of Isaiah together: They begin with the eighth-century prophet, are developed in 2 Isaiah, and then furthered in 3 Isaiah. At each stage there is continuity as well as reinterpretation for a new setting.

The Book of Micah

The book of Micah is one of the best examples in the Hebrew Bible of the process of prophetic reinterpretation. It is also one of the most difficult when it comes to discerning the settings of the different reapplications of Micah's prophecies.10 Though they differ in certain details, the following commentaries offer helpful sketches of Micah's literary development: James L. Mays, Micah: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976); William McCane, The Book of Micah: Introduction and Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998); Hans Walter Wolff, Micah: A Commentary, trans. Gary Stansell (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990).

There is widespread agreement among scholars that the oracles emanating from the eighth-century prophet, Micah of Moresheth, are confined to the first three chapters of the book.11 The reference in 1:6 to the fall of the Northern capital, Samaria, seems to place Micah in the last quarter of the eighth century, since Samaria fell to Assyria in 722 BCE. Some scholars find evidence of later editing in these chapters, especially in 2:12–13, which is positive in tone and looks forward to God gathering the exiles together again. One of the reasons for this judgment relates to the interpretation of Micah's prophecy in Jeremiah's day, which we discussed earlier. That episode shows that Micah was remembered at the time of Jeremiah as a prophet who confronted Hezekiah and denounced him and Judah, threatening the destruction of Jerusalem as punishment for sin. This recollection of the nature of Micah's prophetic career corresponds with the content of Micah 1 through 3. Micah characterizes his mission in these chapters precisely in these terms, as being “to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin” (3:8).

The prophecies in these first three chapters are, like those in Amos, basically negative in orientation. They denounce the people of Judah and Jerusalem for social offenses—specifically, for the oppression of small land owners by stealing their land and property. Micah condemns the upper classes—rulers, priests, and prophets—for perverting legal decisions and religious teachings for bribes and profit. His statement that these people purport to trust in Yahweh and believe that no harm will come to them (3:11b) is similar to the point of Jeremiah's temple sermon that the people have come to trust in the temple building rather than in Yahweh. Hence, it is more than coincidence that Micah's threat of destruction for Jerusalem is quoted in the aftermath of Jeremiah's sermon.

The rest of the book of Micah (4–7) stems mostly, if not entirely, from the Babylonian exile or later. Chapters 4 and 5 are often considered a supplement to chapters 1 through 3 and are entirely positive. They refer to the “remnant,” i.e., the survivors of Babylonian captivity. One verse (4:10) even mentions Babylon specifically. The passages about the remnant look forward to its redemption from captivity and its restoration as a nation. Thus, they all appear to have been written toward the end of the exilic period. Other passages envision this restoration as the establishment of an ideal kingdom of peace. This kingdom includes not just Judah and Israel but other nations, so that these chapters participate with Jonah in the theological concept of universalism, which arose in the late exilic or postexilic period.

A subsequent addition to Micah (6:1–7:7) contains judgment oracles and seems designed to apply the condemnations of the original Micah to a later setting following the exile. The section begins with Yahweh suing Israel for the people's unfaithfulness from the time of the Exodus. Yahweh registers a complaint before the mountains and foundations of the earth and calls on them to judge the case. The following verses then make the point that Yahweh desires faithfulness and loyalty more than ritual sacrifice. They contain a very famous verse:

He has told you, human, what is good.And what does Yahweh seek from you?Only to do justice, to love faithfulness,And to walk humbly with your God. (6:8, AT)

The thought and language of this section reflect the influence of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history and are therefore best dated in the seventh century BCE or later, a century or more after the prophet Micah. The threat against “the city” (6:9–16) is often taken by scholars to refer to Jerusalem shortly before its destruction in 587 BCE, again long after Micah's lifetime. One of the clearest differences of this entire section from the original part of Micah is that it is not just the upper class that comes under indictment. Rather, the entire society is depicted as corrupt and chaotic.

The final section of Micah (7:8–20) is liturgical or psalmlike. It begins with a lament of a person or entity (the city of Jerusalem?) that has suffered punishment for sin. This is followed by a poem that looks forward to restoration (7:11–13), when the walls of the city (Jerusalem) will be rebuilt and the nation's border extended, suggesting a date for the poem in the late exilic or early postexilic period. Next, there is a prayer asking Yahweh to “shepherd” his restored people as at the beginning of their history in the Exodus from Egypt (7:14–17). The book ends with a brief hymn of praise to God for his compassion and forgiveness.

The book of Micah, then, is an exercise in prophetic reinterpretation and reapplication. Less than half of the present book derives from Micah himself. His prophecies of destruction were reapplied to later situations. The Babylonian exile may have been seen in at least some circles as their eventual fulfillment. Other writers apparently perceived that the exile was not the final end and looked forward to restoration, which they articulated in hopeful oracles added to the expanding book. Despite this diversity of compositions, Micah retains a coherence of both literary organization and of themes. Its various parts all concern ideas relating to the interaction of the concepts of sin, justice, judgment, responsibility, hope, and forgiveness.12 On the literary and thematic coherence of the book of Micah and the interplay of these themes see David Gerald Hagstrom, The Coherence of the Book of Micah: A Literary Analysis, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 89 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) and Mignon R. Jacobs, The Conceptual Coherence of the Book of Micah, supplements to Journal for the Study for Old Testament 322 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).

We saw above the significance of understanding the historical setting of prophetic texts in order to grasp their original meaning. The interpretation in Jeremiah's day illustrated that the people of ancient Israel and Judah also understood the importance of historical setting. Nevertheless, further consideration of the process of composition behind the book of Micah shows how prophecy in the Hebrew Bible can take on a life of its own apart from its original setting. Prophetic texts could be isolated from their historical contexts and reapplied to other, often much later and much different situations. This process of reuse and reapplication, rather than one of prophecy and direct fulfillment, is at work in the New Testament's use of prophecies from the Hebrew Bible.

Notes:

1. Despite its proliferation in student papers and the popular press the verb “to prophesize” does not exist.

2. The Hebrew text in 7:4, 7 actually says “I will let you stay.” However, a better reading, attested in the Latin Vulgate, is “I will stay with you.” In the ideology of the ancient Near East, a temple is typically spoken of as the house of the deity to whom it is devoted. The word “place” in 7:3 is a common idiom in the ancient Near East and in the Bible for a shrine.

3. See 1 Samuel 1–4. Jeremiah was especially familiar with Shiloh because he belonged to the line of priests that had served in Shiloh and had trained Samuel. He was from Anathoth (Jer 1:1), where Abiathar of the priestly line of Eli had been banished by Solomon (1 Kings 2:26–27).

4. The books in the Hebrew Bible are not arranged in chronological order, so the book of Micah follows Jeremiah, even though the prophet Micah lived before Jeremiah.

5. There is debate among scholars about the originality of some of these oracles, that is, whether they come from Amos himself or from a later setting. Those against Tyre (1:9–10), Edom (1:11–12), and Judah (2:4–5) are often considered later additions. If they are later, they reflect the reinterpretation of Amos's words about Israel as applying to Judah. This kind of reinterpretation within the prophetic books themselves will be discussed later in this chapter.

6. For more on city gates see Philip J. King and Lawrence Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2001), 234–36.

7. The classic work on treaty curses in the Hebrew prophets is Delbert R. Hillers, Treaty Curses and the Old Testament Prophets, Biblica et Orientalia 16 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1964). Amos's use of futility curses may indicate that he envisioned the relationship between Yahweh and Israel in terms of a covenant. However, covenant ideology does not play much of a role elsewhere in Amos and seems to be a later development under the influence of Deuteronomy. Amos was probably simply familiar with the language of curses, which were not limited to treaties. See Steven L. McKenzie, Covenant (St. Louis: Chalice, 2000).

8. Amaziah quoted Amos as saying that King Jeroboam would die by the sword (7:11). There is no such statement elsewhere in the book, though the threat in 7:9 that Yahweh would arise against the house of Jeroboam with a sword is close. Was Amaziah twisting Amos's words in order to sharpen his accusation? Was he paraphrasing? Or did Amos make such a pronouncement without its having been recorded in the book? Amos does not deny having threatened Jeroboam. According to 2 Kings 14:23–29; 15:8–12 the royal house of Jehu, to which Jeroboam belonged, fell during the reign of his son, Zechariah; Jeroboam himself apparently died peacefully.

9. See H. G. M. Williamson, Variations on a Theme: King, Messiah and Servant in the Book of Isaiah (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998). Williamson thinks that 2 Isaiah was responsible for the basic composition of Isaiah 1–39. See his The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah's Role in Composition and Redaction (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).

10. Though they differ in certain details, the following commentaries offer helpful sketches of Micah's literary development: James L. Mays, Micah: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976); William McCane, The Book of Micah: Introduction and Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998); Hans Walter Wolff, Micah: A Commentary, trans. Gary Stansell (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990).

11. The reference in 1:6 to the fall of the Northern capital, Samaria, seems to place Micah in the last quarter of the eighth century, since Samaria fell to Assyria in 722 BCE. Some scholars find evidence of later editing in these chapters, especially in 2:12–13, which is positive in tone and looks forward to God gathering the exiles together again.

12. On the literary and thematic coherence of the book of Micah and the interplay of these themes see David Gerald Hagstrom, The Coherence of the Book of Micah: A Literary Analysis, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 89 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) and Mignon R. Jacobs, The Conceptual Coherence of the Book of Micah, supplements to Journal for the Study for Old Testament 322 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).

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