Home > Study of the Old Testament > Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar

Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar

  • Series: Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
  • Editor: John Day
  • Pub. Year: 2010
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 484
  • ISBN-10: 0567473643
  • ISBN-13: 9780567473646
  • Format: PDF
  • Price:            $148.27 – $180.00

This major work re-examines prophecy and the prophets in ancient Israel, with essays ranging all the way from Israel’s ancient Near Eastern background right up to the New Testament. The majority of essays concentrate on prophecy and the prophets in the Old Testament, which are approached from a remarkable number of different angles.

Particular attention is paid to the following subjects: Prophecy amongst Israel’s ancient Near East neighbours; female prophets in both Israel and the ancient Near East; Israelite prophecy in the light of sociological, anthropological and psychological approaches; Deuteronomy 18.9-22, the Prophets and Scripture; Elijah, Elisha and prophetic succession; the theology of Amos; Hosea and the Baal cult; the sign of Immanuel; the rewriting of Isaiah in Isaiah 28-31; Deutero-Isaiah and monotheism; Jeremiah and God; Aniconism and anthropomorphism in Ezekiel; Habakkuk’s dialogue with God and the language of legal disputation; Zephaniah and the ‘Book of the Twelve’ hypothesis; Structure and meaning in Malachi; Prophecy and Psalmody; Prophecy in Chronicles; Prophecy in the New Testament.


Elie Assis, John Barton, Kevin J. Cathcart, Hywel Clifford, John J. Collins, John Day, Susan Gillingham, Lester L. Grabbe, Tchavdar Hadjiev, Walter Houston, Philip S. Johnston, Paul Joyce, Gary Knoppers, Reinhard G. Kratz, David Lamb, Jill Middlemas, Ernest Nicholson, Martti Nissinen, David Reimer, Christopher Rowland, Jonathan Stökl, Stuart Weeks and H.G.M. Williamson.

*Sorry only for premium member, but here’s the review:

Hallvard Hagelia

Ansgar College and Theological Seminary

Kristiansand, Norway

The present book is a collection of twenty-three essays presented as papers to the Oxford Old Testament Seminar between January 2006 and October 2008, covering such areas as “The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Prophecy” (part 1, three essays), “Specific Themes” (part 2, two essays), “Sociological, Anthropological and Psychological Aspects” (part 3, three essays), and “Prophecy and the Prophets in Specific Biblical Books” (part 4, fifteen essays). Most of the essays are written by British scholars (fourteen); the other authors come from Israel, Ireland, the United States, Bulgaria, Germany, Denmark, and Finland. It is not possible to review each essay adequately and in detail, but a few remarks will be given to each.

The book opens with an essay from Marti Nissinen (Helsinki) on “Comparing Prophetic Sources: Principles and a Test Case.” Nissinen writes on ancient Near Eastern prophecy as the context of biblical prophecy. His purpose is to “outline some methodological principles” (2) for the comparison of biblical prophetism with prophetism from Mari and Assyria. Nissinen “fully subscribe[s]” (15) to the idea that prophecy is a subtype of divination, “though I would like to emphasize the distinctive characteristics of different divinatory practices,” adding: “What unites different divinatory practices is their function in guiding the decision-making in society by means of revealing the divine will” (16). In  conclusion, he claims that “it is easy to note that none of the ancient Near Eastern documents reflect a development comparable to the one … that took place in Yehud” (20). But he sees “a conceptual distinctiveness” between “that of biblical prophecy and ancient Hebrew prophecy on the one hand, and that of written prophecy and literary prophecy on the other,” seeing the former, for example, in the book of Amos and the latter in the prophecies of Bayâ of Arbela.

Stuart Weeks (Durham) writes on “Predictive and Prophetic Literature: Can Neferti Help Us Read the Bible?” With main reference to the Egyptian Sayings of Neferti, he also has side glances to Mesopotamian literature. He concludes, among other things: “It may be difficult, but it is not illegitimate to seek historical information about prophecy from the prophetic books. Some of the materials which they contain may be indeed authentic oracles, and it seems likely that the literature seeks to reflect the common forms of address and patterns of speech used by prophets. The function of prophetic literature, however, is not inherently the same as the function of prophecy, and the act even of preserving an oracle verbatim is functionally and qualitatively different from that of delivering an oracle” (43).

Jonathan Stökl (Cambridge) concludes his essay on “Female Prophets in the Ancient Near East” by claiming that “the vast majority of named prophets in the Neo-Assyrian texts are female, and that female prophecy, often in the name of some form of Ishtar, was well established in the Neo-Assyrian empire. As far as the sources tell us, female prophets fulfilled all the prophetic functions performed by their male colleagues.… no differences between men and women can be found with regard to their prophetic function.” As for Mari, “there is a correlation between the social status of a prophetic profession and the numerical distribution of gender—the higher status, the fewer women we find” (56). In “Prophetesses in the Hebrew Bible,” Hugh G. M. Williamson (Oxford) studies Noadiah (Neh 6:14), Deborah, Huldah and Miriam, and the anonymous prophetess in Isa 8:3.

About Noadiah we know next to nothing, but Williamson indicates that she and the other prophets of Neh 6:14 “were in fact so enthusiastic about him [Nehemiah] that they wanted to go further than he himself was prepared to go by proclaiming him as king” (cf. 6:7). The anonymous prophetess in Isa 8:3 was not Isaiah’s wife (65) but a prophetess on her own, “a public figure” (75). Deborah and Huldah are paralleled by their similar presentations (Judg 4:4–5; 2 Kgs 22:14 [68]). They are also placed as the first and the last named prophets in the Deuteronomistic History (70), and Huldah is classified as “one in the Mosaic succession” (71; cf. 72), a role Williamson also ascribes to Deborah (72–73).

Deborah, Huldah, and Miriam were prophetesses along the same line (72). The most consistent element with them was their association with singing, instruments, and dancing (73), and it “seems likely to me [that] the figure of the prophetess was not nearly so unfamiliar in monarchical Israel and Judah as our scant sources initially suggest. The broadly male orientation of our present prophetic texts is therefore to be seen as later theological constructs overlaying an earlier social reading” (74).

David J. Reimer (Edinburgh) has two purposes with his essay on “Interpersonal Forgiveness and the Hebrew Prophets”: gathering sources from the writing prophets for reflection on interpersonal forgiveness and to account for the relative paucity of such sources (81). The problem is that the writing prophets of the Old Testament have little to offer by way of stories of forgiveness, even though fractured relationships abound in the Old Testament. He also explains that his study forms part of a “slowly evolving project” mining the Old Testament for an aspect of Christian ethics. After surveying a series of Old Testament texts for possible examples for possible reflexions on interpersonal forgiveness, he ends up emphasizing divine forgiveness as the foundation for human forgiveness (95): “In the Hebrew prophets, the seeming paucity of material directly related to interpersonal forgiveness nevertheless yields a result: repairing fractured human relationships requires divine participation.”

Walter J. Houston (Oxford) writes on “Exit the Oppressed Peasant? Rethinking the Background of Social Criticism in the Prophets,” with particular attention to Amos, Isaiah, and Micah and a few words of Zephaniah and Ezekiel. Houston concludes that “the hypothesis is plausible … that prophetic accusations of social injustice have a background primarily in the capital cities of Samaria and Jerusalem, and that both oppressors and victims mostly resided in those places, or nearby” (113–14).

Lester L. Grabbe begins his “Shaman, Preacher, or Spirit Medium? The Israelite Prophet in the Light of Anthropological Models” with a survey of anthropological examples of different kinds of shamans and diviners from different parts of the world, before arguing that “many biblical passages on prophets yields themes that cut across both the anthropological and the biblical material” (124). He mentions cosmology, ethical criticism, religious criticism and describes different religious roles, relationships to the establishment, the prophet as war leader, prophetic cults and conflicts, and the development of the prophetic tradition. As ideal types and prophet models, he mentions diviners, shaman, spirit mediums, and scribes. He does not use anthropological models “to impose a structure found in one cultural situation onto another. It is only a means of trying to probe more deeply into the (biblical) tradition … and ask whether there is more to be discovered and learned” (130). His claimed aim is “to seek clarity and illumination” and to make two responses to the critics of such an approach: his models “are just models,” and “the point is not that these models provide something exactly what we find in Israel. Rather, they suggest how prophets might have functioned, forcing us back to the biblical texts to read more carefully, to notice forgotten details, and to put aside our prejudices” (130).

Paul M. Joyce (Oxford) writes on “The Prophets and Psychological Interpretation,” with the intent to “illustrate some possibilities of psychological reading in relation to selected books named after specific prophets” (133). In the spirit of Paul Ricoeur, he writes of “the word behind the text” (with particular attention to texts from Ezekiel), “the world of the text” (also with particular attention to Ezekiel), and “the world before the text” (with particular attention to individual subjective text reading). Joyce has a balanced opinion about the usefulness of psychology in biblical interpretation. He sees the value of interdisiplinary work, for example, between biblical scholarship and psychology, and regrets that critical biblical scholarship has often neglected insights from psychology. He concludes that “I contend that psychological insights are really not newfangled or so detached from much that is generally taken as familiar and valuable in biblical criticism. If we approach such insights with an open mind and yet also a critical spirit … we have potentially much to gain in our reading of the prophets” (145).

Ernest Nicholson (Oxford) writes an essay on “Deuteronomy 18.9–22, the Prophets and Scripture,” arguing that this pericope is dependent on the book of Jeremiah and that the author of it was familiar with “a corpus of scripture that included Deuteronomy and its related literary corpus into which it had already been incorporated … as well as a series of prophetic books” (168), that is, Jeremiah, the eighth-century prophets Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk; whether Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah should be included “must remain an open question” (167).

David T. Lamb (Hatfield, Pennsylvania) writes on “ ‘A Prophet Instead of You’ (1 Kings 19.16): Elijah, Elisha and Prophetic Succession.” Lamb argues that, while ancient Near Eastern sources from Mari, Assyria, and Babylon indicate the existence of prophetic institutions and probably successions, nothing similar is evident from the Deuteronomistic History. The succession of Elijah by Elisha is an unusual exception. Elisha’s succession was not actively willed by Elijah; he was called by God, like all other individual prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Group prophets were always viewed with suspicion.

John Barton (Oxford) writes an essay on “The Theology of Amos.” In his approach he deals with four senses: the theology of the prophet himself, the theology of the additions to the book, the theology of the final redactor of the book, and, finally, the theology Amos presupposes as shared by his audience (188). This approach is epitomized in his four subchapters, though not in the same sequence. His conclusion ends with “a plea not to abandon the attempt to get back to the ideas of the prophets themselves. The prophets are among the earliest theologians in the ancient world.… However difficult it is to reconstruct the thinking of these theologians, they are among the first witnesses to the theological thinking in ancient Israel, and at least in the case of Amos their thought is highly distinctive, differing markedly from both the popular religious ideas of their day and the theological systems that came into force in later times” (199).

The editor of the book, John Day (Oxford), offers an essay on “Hosea and the Baal Cult.” Day argues convincingly that “there is a solid deposit of pre-exilic, eighth-century material contained within the book of Hosea, whatever later redaction the book might have undergone” (203). The most dominant feature of Hosea’s message is his critique of the nation’s apostasy, in particular to Ba’al, the only Canaanite deity explicitly mentioned in the book of Hosea. Northern Israel was “highly Ba’alized” (206).

John J. Collins (Yale) writes an essay on “The Sign of Immanuel,” a matter of particular relevance in Norway, as the Norwegian Bible Society completed in 2010 an updated translation of the Bible into Norwegian (to be published in 2011), a venture in which I was a part of the translation committee. Collins writes on Isa 7:14 from its historical and literary context, as an oracle of reassurance, on whether it should be read as a proclamation of judgement, and on its messianic interpretation.

Reinhard G. Kratz (Göttingen) contributes an essay on “Rewriting Isaiah: The Case of Isaiah 28–31*.” Kratz is concerned with the literary and relative chronological relation of texts within the book of Isaiah (see 245), in particular the relation between chapters 1–12 and 28–31, as these two collections “with good reason are conjectured to contain the basic material and mark the beginning of the book … the main lines of the composition and the origin of the book of Isaiah” (246). To be more explicit, Kratz uses chapters 28–31 as an example, “to study and understand the laws of rewriting prophetic texts within the Bible” (246–47). As for the concept of “rewriting,” he refers to the French term relecture as a correspondent. In his summary of this rather detailed study, Kratz argues that chapters 28–31 as a whole “are to be regarded as a successive rewriting of earlier states of” chapters 1–12, that is, “as an ongoing rewriting in the book of Isaiah, no more and no less” (263–64). We have to reckon with a growth of the text that extended from pre- to postexilic times, beyond the historical prophet and the Israelite-Judaic religion practiced in the First and Second temple periods (see 264).

Hywel Clifford (Oxford) writes on “Deutero-Isaiah and Monotheism.” His “principal purpose is to argue that the consensus view regarding its theology is correct: that ‘monotheistic’ … is a term that can be used of the theology of these chapters (esp. 40–48) because they claim that Yahweh is God versus other gods as idols” (267). The basis for the monotheism is that Yahweh is the creator, because “creatio prima and creatio continua are entirely confined to the activity of Yahweh” (268). As creator, Yahweh is also the sovereign of history and in prophecy. Deutero-Isaiah shares the ancient Near Eastern incomparability rhetoric, which by itself is not monotheistic, but functions monotheistically in Deutero-Isaiah. Also, exclusivity formulae should be interpreted as absolutes. With these and other arguments, Clifford claims that Deutero-Isaiah proclaims monotheism.

Philip Johnston (Oxford and Cambridge) writes on Jeremiah and God in an essay entitled “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t.” This essay on Jeremiah’s portrayal of his perception of Yahweh “takes the typical for granted, and instead probes the untypical or unexpected in relation to Jeremiah and Yahweh” (290). Johnston concentrates on chapters 1–20 and treats, among other things, Jeremiah’s call and in particular his laments. He concludes: “most poignantly, Yahweh seems to make Jeremiah’s experience both his presence and his absence, both response and silence, both jubilation and despair. … it remains a potent and troubling portrayal of God” (306–7).

Jill Middlemas (Århus, Denmark) writes on Ezekiel and aniconism in “Exclusively Yahweh: Aniconism and Anthropomorphis in Ezekiel.” Middelmas argues that Ezekiel is able to see the likeness of Yahweh and representative symbols alongside it, even though no single or stable image emerges to represent Yahweh. “Ezekiel had been aniconic and iconoclastic all along. Aniconism was not just a cultic phenomenon, it entailed a literary reformation as well” (321).

Tchavdar S. Hadjiev (Sophia, Bulgaria) writes on “Zephaniah and ‘The Book of the Twelve’ Hypothesis.” His purpose is “to examine in some detail the validity” of the claim that the Book of the Twelve does constitute a single literary work, like the threefold book of Isaiah, not twelve separate books (325). To illuminate that question, he concentrates on the book of Zephaniah as a case study. In conclusion, he argues that “the transmitters and editors of the book of Zephaniah were not particularly concerned with integrating this prophetic text with some of the other Minor Prophets. If such a project as ‘creating the Book of the Twelve’ ever existed, it must have been undertaken after Zephaniah’s editors had done their job” (335).

Kevin J. Cathcart (Dublin) “ ‘Law is Paralysed’ (Habakkuk 1.4): Habakkuk’s Dialogue with God and the Language of Legal Disputation” on the legal language in Habakkuk, building further on an article he wrote in 1986. Cathcart also highlights similarities between Habakkuk and Job and Habakkuk and Jeremiah and psalms of lament.

Elie Assis (Bar-Ilan University, Israel) writes on “Structure and Meaning in the Book of Malachi.” Assis wishes “to show that the significance of the book is vital for a proper understanding of the history of Yehud at the beginning of the second temple period” (354). His essay is mainly an analysis of the relation between the book’s six oracles. Susan Gillingham’s (Oxford) “New Wine and Old Wineskins: Three Approaches to Prophecy and Psalmody” addresses cult-functional readings in the preexilic period, literary-theological readings in the later postexilic period, and reception-historical readings in the Second Temple period, with short surveys of a series of psalms. Through these lenses she intends “to illustrate how differently a ‘prophetic psalm’ is understood depending on the method used” (371), concluding at the end “that the relationship between psalmody and prophecy is complex” (387).

Gary N. Knoppers (Pennsylvania State University) writes an essay on “Democratizing Revelation? Prophets, Seers and Visionaries in Chronicles.” His intent is “to explore what prophecy is and is not in Chronicles” (393), which is presented in three sections on what the prophets in Chronicles are not, what they are, and what they do, ending up in his conclusion by underlining the great differentiation of prophetism in Chronicles. “The diversity is quite striking. There is a certain amount of democratization or diffusion in the means by which Yahweh speaks.” The words of Paul in Acts 14:17, “God does not leave himself without many witnesses,” is Knoppers’s last claim.

Christopher Rowland (Oxford) writes the book’s last essay, on “Prophecy and the New Testament.” Rowland follows prophecy, both as described and as reflected, through the Synoptics and Acts, Paul’s Letters, and the Johannine literature, including the book of Revelation, concluding: “Prophecy is one of the most important features in the New Testament, historically, theologically and hermeneutically, and a way of comprehending the diversity contained in them. … Indeed, we cannot understand early Christianity as a movement in history without all the many facets of the prophetic” (425).

For the simple reason of lack of space, this review does not admit more than a few glimpses of the different essays in this book, just to let the reader have an idea of what the book is all about.

Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel is a book few readers will read straight through from beginning to end. But to me it has been a pleasure to do exactly that. This book will be consulted for its individual essay, and let it be said explicitly that this book is a veritable gold mine. Some essays are more technical than others and therefore not so reader friendly, but no essay in this book is indifferent. Even though readers will prefer some essays before others, all of them are important—and most of them very well written. The scholarly guild around Oxford, with John Day as its editor, is to be congratulated with this book. These are essays of high standard. Thank you!

Source: Hallvard Hagelia, review of John Day, ed., Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament SeminarReview of Biblical Literature[http://www.bookreviews.org] (2011).


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