The word prophet is one of those terms that is difficult to define because it means different things depending on context. My rather lame pun in the title for this sermon points to another possibly confusing definitional challenge. P-R-O-F-I-T means ‘to derive benefit or reward’ but sounds the same as this biblical term. Maybe it’s not such a bad place to start in understanding what a prophet is, though because what the term implies is someone who has information for you that, if you accept it and are guided by it, will indeed be profitable.
Kris Kristofferson’s song, which Miles performed so powerfully for us this morning, points to the prophet’s primary frustration; their words are usually sung or spoken to “the people who don’t listen to the things that [they] are saying”. But if the prophet is faithful then they keep “praying someone’s gonna hear” because they “don’t believe that no one wants to know.”
What prophets are saying is not predictive in a deterministic sense; they are not announcing an inevitable future that God will bring into being. Prophets can be thought of as not much different from the little boy, who according to the story, spoke up and told the emperor that he had no clothes. They speak truth to power. Biblical prophets are responding to a call by God to call the rulers and the ruled to live in right relationship with God: to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in the land, and to worship no false gods, such as money, power and status.
Prophecy, in that sense of speaking truth to power, is a Biblical concept that can be difficult for the church to emulate because for most of its history the church has been part of the power structure. Many of the Old Testament prophets were speaking not only to the rulers of their day, but also to the religious leaders who were serving their own interests and thereby driving a wedge between the people and their God.
One of the reasons I love Kristofferson’s song is that it holds the promise that even in our day there are prophets willing to challenge the status quo and by doing so, empower ordinary people to change the conditions that oppress them. At times, though, the people really are powerless and that is when prophets are particularly needed, to speak on their behalf. This was the situation that Jesus found himself in and his daring to speak out against the oppressors very likely led to his death.
In the Christian Old Testament there are 15 books named after prophets. Some of them give us some information about the person whose name they bear, but many give us none at all. We aren’t sure who wrote these books. Some are written in the voice of the prophet, the first person, and others in the third person suggesting someone else has recorded the prophet’ s words. We can’t be sure that even those written in the prophet’s voice are his own words, however. Prophets collected around them groups of followers, much as Jesus collected his disciples. And it was an accepted practice for followers to speak in the name of their leader, particularly after the death of the founder. Differences in perspective and a variety of authors do not make these books any less ‘authentic’ or significant as scripture. Having different voices speaking to us broadens and deepens our conversation with our ancestors in the faith, giving us more to draw on in the search for truth that speaks to our own context.
Let me return to my theme for this sermon series of taking a ‘helicopter’ view of the Bible and discovering some of what that broader view can tell us about this core document of our faith. To repeat what I’ve said earlier, the Christian Old Testament and the Hebrew Tanakh contain the same books, but they are arranged slightly differently.
Both begin with the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law that ends with the death of Moses just as the people are about to go into Canaan. I think it’s worth noting that the book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five, was written some two to five hundred years after the first version of the story was recorded in Exodus. Recall what I said last week about repetition as a Hebrew way of emphasizing the importance of a concept or a story. Deuteronomy is not a simple repetition, however; there is much change, embellishment and elaboration to make the story relevant to the context of the writer.
There next follow, in the Tanakh, four books that tell the story of how the Hebrew slaves conquered those people who were already in Canaan and then established their own kingdom under David. Jews call these books “the former prophets” which refers to the fact that they tell the story of the building up of the kingdom of Israel. Though there are prophets mentioned in these four books, there is not a lot of prophecy of the sort I have alluded to – speech that challenges the status quo.
The second section of the Tanakh, after the Pentateuch, is called the Prophets and it contains the four former prophets I mentioned and then the books of the latter prophets, which can be further divided between the major and the minor, the longer and the shorter books.
The term ‘latter prophets’ points to the fact that these fifteen were active during the time when Israel was an established kingdom. This was a period of perhaps three or four hundred years. For all but about fifty years there were bitter political fights, assassinations of kings and even a split into two kingdoms. This period in the life of Israel ends with its conquest by Babylon and the people being taken away into exile. The prophetic writings cover these years and the century or so following when Cyrus, the Persian emperor who defeated Babylon permitted the Jews to return home.
Much of the prophetic writing is directed at the powerful ruling classes of Israel – secular and sacred, chastising them for leading the people away from God. One of the reasons we have come to associate prophecy with prediction is that much of what the prophets said was in the order of: “if you keep behaving in this way, God will be angry and foreign enemies will be used by God to punish you.” These pronouncements or ‘oracles’ as they are called were certainly predictive, but only in the sense that the prophets were drawing conclusions about the future from the evidence they saw in the present. Their intention was not to say what must happen, but to change current behavior so that their gloomy forecasts would not in fact occur.
Whether they were reciting the words of a deterministic God is a matter for us to decide based on our understanding of how God works in the world. My own view is that God was calling on the prophets to try to change peoples’ behaviour, which suggests that the nasty outcomes were not inevitable. I believe that God wants to be in relationship with humankind and if we are creatures following a predetermined path, we are hardly fit for the fullness of relationship that seems to be God’s desire. Part of being in relationship with us, too, is using God’s capacity to see the big picture to provide us with guidance, pointing out where our behaviour can lead us. This is not unlike the role of a parent who shares wisdom and experience, not to control their children but to encourage them to behave in a way that will lead to a more fulfilling life.
It is interesting to note that the Protestant Bible appears to follow a deliberate pattern in the way it has organized the books taken from the Tanakh. When the Christian Old Testament was compiled, the four books of the former prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, along with four others (Ruth, Esther, Chronicles and Nehemiah/Ezra) that Jews include in the grab bag they call “the writings”, were classified as the historical books. Curiously, these eight books became twelve as four of them were divided in two, giving us First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First and Second Chronicles and Nehemiah and Ezra as separate books rather than one as in the Tanakh. This made a total of twelve in the ‘historical books’ section. Twelve may have been chosen to link with the twelve tribes of Israel, which is part of the story these books tell.
The Christian, or at least the Protestant, Bible (the Catholic version has some variations I won’t elaborate on) places five books of Wisdom after the historical books. The best known of these is the Book of Psalms. These five have been taken from that part of the Tanakh called the Writings. They are collections of poetry and prose of a clearly ahistorical nature – they do not purport to describe events as history rather they speak of God’s relationship with the people during difficulties such as can arise at any time. I’ll focus on these next week.
Then come the three Major Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. But the compilers wanted to structure the Bible according to a pattern that required five books in this next section, not three. So they pulled up two books from the Writings section of the Tanakh: Lamentations, a book of psalms attributed to Jeremiah, though that is doubted by most scholars; and Daniel, a book of apocalyptic literature. Both of these properly belong with the five books of wisdom. They are not prophecy at all. They are included here, however, so that we have a symmetrical arrangement in the prophets section as a whole. Now there is a five book Major Prophets section preceding the twelve Minor Prophets.
In summary, the Protestant Old Testament has Five Sections; five books of the Pentateuch, Twelve Books of History, Five books of Wisdom, five books in the Major Prophets section and twelve Minor Prophets. The Tanakh has three sections with five, nineteen and eleven books respectively. The Christian rearrangement is built around the number five – the number of books in the Pentateuch that is the most important part of the Old Testament – and the number twelve, which is the number of disciples as well as the number of the tribes of Israel. I don’t think we can read into this arrangement anything of earth shattering importance, but it does suggest some careful and deliberate planning when the early church compiled the Bible. The Church it seems clear to me wanted to make a point.
Much more significant than the symmetrical structure given to the Old Testament, is the decision to shift the latter prophets to the end. The Tanakh ends with the Book of Chronicles, which is a retelling of the stories from Samuel and Kings about the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel and its rise to become at least a minor power in the geopolitics of the Middle East of the eighth century before the common era. Chronicles was written some five hundred years after the two earlier books. Its placement at the end of the Tanakh may be intended to suggest that the path of history for the Jews will lead to reestablishing the Kingdom of Israel.
The Christian agenda was different. When the early Church placed the books of the prophets at the end of the Old Testament, its intention was to draw the reader’s attention to the foretelling of a Messiah that is part of many of the prophetic writings. This way of reading the prophets coheres with the New Testament which, in a number of places, including the passage we read today from Luke, suggests that the coming of Jesus signifies the fulfillment of what was foretold centuries before.
Let me finish my discussion of prophecy by returning to the Old Testament story we heard earlier. This was the story of Jeremiah’s call – the moment when God spoke to him and told this youth what was in store for him. Jeremiah’s reaction, to protest that he was too young, echoes the reaction of several other prophets – Moses, Isaiah and Jonah among them. They were similarly reluctant when God thrust this dangerous and lonely office upon them. “Get me out of here,” they cried, which suggests that one of the ways you can tell if a prophet has been ordained by God is if they display humility and hesitation in taking on the role. But God is persistent and eventually a true prophet will accept the call and then go on to steal the devil’s song and drink his beer for nothing.
Jeremiah 1: 4-10, Luke 4: 16-24
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