Book Write-Up: The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World

Victor H. Matthews.  The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World: An Introduction, second edition.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.

I would like to thank Baker Academic for sending me a review copy of this book.  See here for Baker’s page about it.

I have encountered a variety of ideas about Hebrew prophecy in the course of my studies.  Some believe that the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible were written by the person to whom they are attributed, within the historical context to which they are attributed.  Others, however, are more skeptical about this.  Otto Kaiser, in his commentary about Isaiah 1-12, treats a number of passages in that section of the Book of Isaiah as exilic or post-exilic.  Some contend that the introductions to the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible were added later, and thus they may be unreliable in terms of locating or dating the prophecies within the books themselves.  Some appeal to literary shaping and modeling, perhaps to undercut accepting the historicity of much that is claimed about the prophets within the Hebrew Bible.  There are other issues, as well.  Some argue, in a rather apologetic fashion, that biblical prophecy was superior to prophecy and divination elsewhere in the ancient Near East, in that biblical prophecy challenged authority and social injustice.  Then there is the issue of how the biblical prophecies got written down, in a world in which many scribes needed support from some authority in order to write documents.  What authority would sponsor the writing of controversial, anti-establishment prophecies?  Moreover, since the New Testament claims that Jesus fulfilled prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, many Christian scholars wrestle with the question of how this can be true, if the prophecies appear to mean something different within their original historical contexts.

Victor Matthews in The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World did not explicitly engage every one of these scholarly ideas and questions, but they were in my mind as I was reading this book and seeking to place Matthews on the scholarly spectrum.  Here are my impressions:

1.  Overall, Matthews appears to accept most of the introductions of the biblical prophetic books as reliable.  He believes that Amos delivered most of the prophecies attributed to him, and that Jeremiah delivered most of the prophecies that the Book of Jeremiah claims are his.  This is significant in Matthews’ book, for Matthews offers thoughts about how the social situations of various prophets could have shaped the content of their prophecies: Amos, a farmer, uses agricultural images, whereas Isaiah, who is more entrenched within city-establishment life, appeals to vineyards as an analogy.  Matthews has no problems acknowledging the existence of later interpolations, however, for he states that the prophecy in Jeremiah 33 about the restoration of the Levitical priesthood may be from a later, post-exilic  hand, since Jeremiah was quite critical of the priesthood.  Matthews also accepts the existence of First, Second, and Third Isaiah, as well as First and Second Zechariah.  He also believes in a Hellenistic date for the Book of Daniel.

2.  Matthews acknowledges that something literary is going on in the biblical depiction of the prophets, for he notes similarities between prophetic calls and the call of Moses.  At the same time, Matthews appears to treat the biblical narratives about the prophets as historical (at least overall), for he provides historical context for events in the narratives, context that pertains to the settings that the narratives themselves depict (i.e., in the case of the Elijah story, the time of Ahab).

3.    Matthews points out some differences between ancient Near Eastern divination and Hebrew prophecy.  He still acknowledges, however, that other ancient Near Eastern writings valued social justice.  Overall, I would say that Matthews focuses on the similarities between Hebrew prophets and ancient Near Eastern prophets, not their differences.

4.  On the writing of the prophecies, Matthews discusses this topic on pages 34-35.  He states that the collection, writing, and editing of them “took place over many years and reflected shifting theological agendas as the fortunes of the nation changed”, and that “Decisions made by editors (members of the priestly and prophetic community) and redactors during the Persian period must have had an impact on the final version.”  Matthews also appears open to the possibility that “what is eventually recorded is a synthesis of [the prophets’] themes rather than a dictated, word-for-word message.”  Matthews does not explicitly engage the question of what authorities would have sponsored the writing of the anti-establishment prophecies, but he does note considerations that may be relevant.  Matthews believes that the post-exilic Jewish religious authorities may have had a role in the final written form of the pre-exilic prophecies, and these were authorities that were sympathetic to the pre-exilic prophets.  He notes rare occasions in the Hebrew Bible when prophetic writings were written down by the prophetic community.  He mentions Isaiah’s connection with the Judean establishment.  He also argues that prophets were respected, even when their message was controversial, and thus a prophet could protect himself by claiming “prophetic immunity.”  I still wish that Matthews had explored more deeply the role of sponsorship by authorities in the writing of prophecies, especially when he was discussing the contrary points-of-view in post-exilic Israel, as inclusivist voices challenged reigning exclusivist voices.

5.  On the relationship of Hebrew prophecies to the New Testament, Matthews acknowledges that the Hebrew prophecies in their original contexts meant something different from how New Testament writers applied them.  Matthews regards the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, for example, as Jews in exile.  At the same time, he states on page 181 that “the indeterminate nature of this person or group known as the servant allows for multiple interpretations of these passages, and so it is not inappropriate for Christian writers to reinterpret the passages in light of Jesus’s suffering and redemptive act.”

Overall, Matthews’ book was excellent.  The strongest part of the book, in my opinion, was how he addressed the restoration of exiled Jews to their land: Why did some stay in exile, and why did some return?  Matthews also explored the different exclusivist and inclusivist perspectives within the post-exilic period.

An issue that I wish that Matthews had explored, however (in addition to the issue of sponsorship and writing), is how to approach the Hebrew prophecies religiously, when there are many scholars who maintain that many prophecies did not come to pass.  Matthews does not focus much in his book on the role of the prophets in Christian theology or religion—-except when he criticizes the misuse of the Book of Hosea to sanction spousal abuse.  He would have done well, in my opinion, to have included at least a section dealing with the problem of unfulfilled prophecy in terms of Christian (and maybe even Jewish) theology.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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