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Prophecy, Poetry And Hosea

  • Title: Prophecy, Poetry And Hosea
  • Author: Gerald Morris
  • Series: Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament Supplement Series 219
  • ISBN: 185075599X
  • Publisher: Sheffield Academic Press
  • Published: 1996-05
  • Pages: 167
  • Format: PDF


Exactly what kind of literature is one reading when one reads an OT prophetic book? Dr. Morris seeks to answer this question in this edited publication of his dissertation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As a test case he uses Hosea, and for his methodological approach he uses literary theories of genre and poetics.

To understand any utterance, let alone to interpret it for others, requires a certain amount of shared prior knowledge. Communication, as Saussure and others have spared no pains to demonstrate, consists at least to some extent of learned codes, and if either the sender or the recipient of a message has not learned the codes, then communication fails. This is true of all communication, from gestures to mathematical notations to the entire range of verbal messages. In a verbal communication, an utterance, the most basic level of required foreknowledge is linguistic. The recipient must understand the grammar and vocabulary of the sender. After language, though, an equally basic and often overlooked prerequisite knowledge concerns the utterance’s type. What sort of speech is this? Is it a question? A command? A plea? In other words, what is the genre of the utterance?

In his essay, ‘The Problem of Speech Genres‘, Mikhail Bakhtin argues that these genres are every bit as natural and as important to understanding as language. Indeed, ‘we are given these speech genres in almost the same way that we are given our native language’. In many respects, the genre of the utterance expresses the purpose of that utterance even more than the actual words or sentences used. To misunderstand the genre of an utterance is invariably to misunderstand the utterance itself. Imagine a person who mistakes the polite but semantically empty greeting ‘How do you do?’ for an invitation to discuss his or her recent operation. The error is not grammatical but generic. Nevertheless, identifying the genre of an utterance is quite as important to understanding as recognizing its grammar and vocabulary.

What is true of all communication is at least as true for literary communication. Following the same reasoning as Bakhtin, E.D. Hirsch describes all communication, but especially literature, as genre-bound: ‘A verbal meaning is a willed type. Further, ‘The willed type must be a shared type in order for communication to occur’. This shared type provides the boundaries of valid interpretation; the reader must recognize the intended genre of the text and restrict interpretative hypotheses to the parameters of that type. If the reader does not recognize the genre, it is no longer a shared type, and the text becomes incomprehensible to that reader. ‘Understanding can only occur if the interpreter proceeds under the same system of expectations [as the author], and this shared generic conception, constitutive both of meaning and of understanding, is the intrinsic genre of the utterance.’ For Hirsch, the process of reading is a drama of generic hypothesizing.

From the first line, the reader seeks to categorize the text according to learned generic categories. As the text continues, the first hypothesis is confirmed, contradicted or refined by further information. Each successive hypothesis represents a narrowing of the class. For instance, the successive hypotheses for a given text might be as follows: narrative, fictional narrative, novel, mystery novel, English manor house mystery novel, English manor house mystery novel featuring Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard and so on. The earliest, most general, steps in the process are so obvious that they are taken almost unconsciously; the later, most specific, steps require the most extensive prior knowledge (even among those who read mysteries, for instance, many will not recognize Georgette Heyer’s Hemingway), but also provide the most  complete, most significant, comparisons. Thus, for Hirsch, genres are always heuristic, always subject to further revision or even to rejection as reading continues. No canonized list of universal genres interests him. Hirsch’s reasoning is compelling, and various biblical scholars have applied his work to biblical texts. Mary Gerhart uses Hirsch to make some interesting observations on the New Testament, notably on the genre ‘Gospel’. She says nothing of the Old Testament. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible seems to resist this type of analysis, perhaps because generic identification depends on prior familiarity with analogous texts, and such analogues to the Hebrew Bible are few and of uncertain applicability. The difficulty of generic analysis in the Hebrew Bible is evident when one considers a book like Hosea. It is, of course, a prophetic book; but what is that?

How can one describe the books called ‘Latter Prophets’? What kind of text is a prophetic book like Hosea? The simplest answer, presupposed by more writers than would admit it, is that prophecy is prophecy, a law and genre unto itself. If this is all that one can say, however, then the whole investigation is a dead end. The primary purpose of determining a genre is to suggest comparisons. To say that prophecy is its own genre is to say that a prophetic book may be profitably compared only with another prophetic book. No outside analogues exist, as if this type of writing were created ex nihilo. Surely this is too restrictive. New genres may and do appear regularly, but never from thin air. They come into being in relation to existing genres, perhaps by an extension or a new use of an earlier form, perhaps by combination of two or more. To be content with such a designation—prophecy is prophecy and nothing more— is to suggest that the purpose of generic classification is correct filing.

Thomas Over holt proposes that the prophetic books be classed under the generic title ‘anthology’. The description is hardly new. Critics have long acknowledged that the prophetic books seem to consist of many short, often disparate, units which were combined into the present books long after at least some of the units were composed. The value of this description as a title, however, is much less firmly founded. One may, indeed must, still ask, ‘Anthology of what?’ The mere fact of being a collection is not itself enough to offer any comparative insights. Is it useful to compare prophecy simply to other anthologies, regardless of content? Overholt himself uses this generic designation only to make a historical point: that the prophetic books really were written by prophets. He draws no interpretative conclusions, which may indicate how little interpretative value this classification holds.

The fact is, it is not easy to decide where the Latter Prophets fit or to what they should be compared. Certain portions of the individual books do invite some specific comparisons with non-prophetic books: curses, hymns, laments, parables and lawsuits all may be extracted from their prophetic settings and compared with examples from other texts. But these provide no real help. Any text may borrow elements from other genres for limited purposes, but these borrowed forms may easily be unrelated to the genre of the text itself. A lyrical passage in a novel does not make the novel a poem. Many compare the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible to prophetic writings from surrounding ancient Near Eastern nations, most frequently to the prophetic letters discovered at Man. Certainly many genuine insights have come from the comparison, particularly as regards the role of the so-called messenger formula (“Thus says…’) in prophecy. However, none of the prophetic letters from Man can compare with even the shortest or simplest prophetic book of the Hebrew Bible in length or complexity. As striking as it may be to many to find a few examples of similar formulas at work in Mari and Israel, it is asking too much of these brief epistles that they should define the genre of Isaiah.

In the end, one cannot help sympathizing with those who say that prophecy is prophecy, and that is the end of it. No truly analogous extra biblical text appears to exist. What then can be done? Generic analysis of the prophets appears impossible, or worse, pointless, but only at the most specific level. As Hirsch says, the most significant generic comparisons are made at the most specific level—one will understand an English manor house mystery better by comparing it to another English manor house mystery than to an American tough guy private eye mystery— but if no analogies exist at that specific level of similarity, then one must retreat to more general categories (e.g., mystery) until some basis for comparison is discovered. Eventually, as the process continues, one arrives at a foundational level inhabited by a very few universal genres, than which nothing more basic can be conceived.

As already noted, Hirsch has no interest in ‘universal’ genres, preferring to focus on the ‘intrinsic’ genres represented by individual works. But that such universal forms exist is difficult to deny. By way of example, one need only consider the proverb. From the Hebrew ^00 to the Chinese four-character saying to the French medieval proverb to the wisdom of Poor Richard’s Almanack, proverbs are present in every age and every language and are amazingly similar in form and substance.

The same could be said of such universal sub-genres as folk tales, love songs and fables. No more useful list of the most general genres has been made than that of Aristotle. Drawing from the Poetics and adding the one verbal genre to which he devoted a whole volume, one has a brief list: (1) epic, (2) drama, (3) lyric and (4) rhetoric. Others might easily be added—prose narrative, for instance, has much in common with epic but really deserves its own place—but these are enough for now. These genres are indeed very general, perhaps so general as to have limited comparative use, but before any more specific comparison may be made, these at least must be recognized. One must identify a work as a poem before the specific genre ‘pastoral elegy’ has any meaning.

Returning to the original question, the genre of prophecy, particularly of Hosea, one discovers that in fact interpreters cannot agree even at this most basic level. To put briefly what will soon be expounded upon in greater length, prophecy is generally identified as either rhetoric or poetry or both. An interpreter who has not resolved even this most basic of questions—what type of communication is the prophetic book— begins at a considerable disadvantage.

Before proceeding with the analysis of the basic generic disagreement between rhetoric and lyric, a few parameters must be set. First, as should already be apparent from the foregoing, the concern here is with the prophetic book, not with the individual prophetic oracle (or poem).

Even granting that each prophetic book consists. of various separate units, at some point in its history those units were arranged according to some principle or other and shaped into the discrete book, at least close and perhaps identical to the book as it now appears in the canon. The study of the individual units remains a valid and useful endeavor, but as is now frequently acknowledged, the study of the whole is at least equally valid and useful. This is not to suggest that no analysis of individual passages will be done here, only that all such analyses will be used to draw conclusions about the entire book.

The second qualification stems from the first. Where the focus is on the completed book, no emphasis need be put on the distinction between oral and written literature. The book is, by definition, a written document.

Many have laid considerable stress on the originally oral nature of the prophetic books. Such an emphasis is by no means unwarranted or without interpretive value for the exegesis of individual units within the books. No matter how many oral stages may have preceded a book, however, if that book is studied as a whole, as the total compilation of the individual speeches or poems, it must be read as a written, not an oral, composition. The editorial attention which has given shape to the book is the attention of a writer, not a speaker. For this reason, among others, Michael O’Connor’s comment that ‘orality does not help or hinder the close reading of the text’ is correct.

Dealing with a book as a whole necessarily precludes some of the attention to minutiae in which so much prior research has immersed itself. For instance, much of what follows will have to do with poetry, but it is not our purpose here to describe every device or pattern of Hebrew verse, except insofar as those devices help to define the genre. Enumerations of Hebrew poetic devices have been done and will prove useful, but they are not the concern here. Indeed, at least at the start, very little will be said of prior research into the prophetic books. A basic premise of this investigation is that most of that study has skipped a step, has gone right to micro-analysis without first understanding the genre of the books, even at the most basic level. That initial step, with which too few deal seriously before diving into the many individual complexities of the prophets, is where I shall begin. How about you?

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