Friday, March 2, 2012

Book Snap: Samuel Meier's "Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy"

This year my USDA work has been compressed into a shorter time period, meaning I've been busier than usual while it's been going. So I'm pleased to have a guest review to offer by veteran Tekton reader and contributor "Derek" -- not only for the timeliness, but also for the depth of quality he offers in his work.

Samuel A. Meier is associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and cultures at Ohio State University. In this extremely readable work his desire is to highlight the differences between the literary prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Using Rabba, the fourth century Babylonian Rabbi, and his comparison of Isaiah and Ezekiel as a template, Meier notes that the prophets are not “uniform in their language, their concerns, their personalities, their remedies or their visions of the future” (11-12). Meier is not interested in providing biographies for the prophets, nor does he wish to explore the literary development of their works. Rather he seeks to explore each of these works and how they relate and differ from each other.

He notes that the placements and description of the “major” and “minor” prophets can throw some new readers because these works are not anywhere close to being in chronological order. Rather, as with the letters of Paul in the NT and the Suras of the Qur’an (14-15), the arrangement of the prophets is due to the desire in antiquity to place works in order of their sizes. Meier also, however, includes discussions of the non-literary prophets of the Hebrew Bible when they are needed.
Meier begins chapter two by noting that in the Hebrew Bible there is only one group of people who claimed to stand in the presence of Yahweh and His council. This council is made up of cosmic creatures like the Seraphs who are associated with stars and planets. As in the opening chapters of the book of Job, there are times when Yahweh calls the council and times when the council is not with Yahweh. Meier also sees this motif present in Gen 18:17, where God asks (his accompanying angels according to Meier), “Shall I hide what I am about to do from Abraham?”
Different reports come from different prophets as far as what their role in the council is. Micaiah in 1 Kings 22:19-23, for one example, is simply recorded as only observing and not participating in any capacity. Isaiah is the only one among the prophets who volunteers his services, and others even cause God to reconsider His plans or else offer alternatives.

Here is one place where social historical factors seem to have a huge impact on the history of the prophets. By the time of Ezekiel the temple is no more and the prophet himself is far from Israel. This time, God is described as having his throne brought to Ezekiel. After the end of the exile, there is no mention of the prophet participating in God’s divine council again. In Meier’s view, being “plugged-in” to the divine council was, in many cases, something one must posses in the Hebrew Bible to be called a “prophet”.

Meier states, “we have observed that prophetic texts associated with the pre-exilic period have a decided stress upon the unique status of the prophet as one of God’s advisors on his council” (26). One question I would posit is why do we see the ”watering-down” of prophetic literature into the Daniel-like apocalyptic genre? Is it truly because of factors like the exile? Or is it because of increased interaction with foreign literary forms?

Building in the arguments of the previous chapters, Meier begins 5 by noting that in the Deuteronomistic history God engages his prophets as a man would typically engage a friend (53). There is not much of a component of fear or awe as would be seen in some of the later prophetic works. Prophets like Samuel, Elijah and Nathan are able to meet with God in many different forums and engage him in many different ways.

Moreover, in these accounts there does not appear to be much desire to describe, in detail, the manner in which God “reveals” things to the prophets. Nor are the prophets (in this literature) incapable of acting without consulting God at every step (54-5). This close link between God and prophets is preserved in the early literary prophets as well. Jeremiah and Hosea both experience intimate/friendly encounters with God that do not need to be described to the thousandth degree.

Not surprisingly the change comes with the (exilic) book of Ezekiel (59). This prophet cannot stay on his feet when God comes in tremendous power to him. Interestingly, this is compared to the mundane behavior exhibited by Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13) when God passes by him with tremendous power. Zechariah, as well as Daniel in some places, are also out of step with the earlier prophets, as they experiences divine encounters at night. Daniel, like Ezekiel, experiences a myriad of physical reactions when he interacts with God.

In the next chapter, Meier shows that there is no revelatory role for angels in any of the literary prophets before the exile, which barely mention angels at all (63-4). With the Dtr history, the one instance in which an angel delivers a revelatory message to a prophet is in 2 Kings 1 when Elijah is told to deliver a message to the king. Meier however argues that there is good reason to believe this exception is no exception at all because of probable scribal modification.

Neither does Jeremiah, which was completed before the exile was finished, mention angels in this way either. Ezekiel, who was a contemporary of Jeremiah, devotes an entire chapter “to a description of supernatural beings”. Further, throughout chapters 40-42, Ezekiel does not once mention God as the source of the revelation, only and angelic intermediary (66-7). Zechariah does not need the divine council motif because the angels are the ones who bring the message to him.

Daniel is even more different. Whereas every prophet up to this point is either directly spoken to by God, or else utilizes indicators (like “Thus spoke Yahweh”) that make it clear that their message has God’s authority, Daniel has neither. Also, just as Ezekiel devoted more time to describing divine beings, Daniel goes a step further by noting two of them have names: Michael and Gabriel. In the end Meier believes the data reveals there is a direct correlation between the decline of the prophets role in the divine council, and the use of angels as revelatory intermediaries.

The most helpful part of this chapter was when Meier described the stark differences between Ezekiel and Daniel and the remaining prophetic books. But I do have some follow up questions regarding his treatment of 2 Kings 1 and an angel revealing a message to Elijah. Meier, it seems to me, presents a plausible argument that a later scribed erred because there is a minor difference between two similar-sounding Hebrew words, his explanation as to why they would be motivated to seems insufficient. I wonder if there are any other examples of similar, manuscript-based alterations in the OT that Meier can point to.

Once again in chapter seven Meier introduces evidence from a post-exilic prophet that drastically differs from the ones above. In Haggai for example, the author makes clear in the first eight verses when the Lord is speaking and that Haggai is speaking the word of the Lord. In fact, Zechariah and Malachi, along with Haggai, manage to use phrases like “thus said Yahweh” 94 times throughout their works.

In between these extremes are “transitional works” like Jeremiah and Ezekiel which were both completed during the exile itself. Jeremiah, Meier notes, seems to preserve the pre-exilic type of prophetic literature (not distinguishing carefully between the voices of God and the prophet) while showing more concern in certain places for the post-exilic type (carefully distinguishing between God’s word and the prophet’s). Ezekiel, on the other hand, begins to use phrases and markers for distinguishing between God and prophet more regularly. An explanation for this may be that Ezekiel, unlike Jeremiah, began to write during the exile itself, a few years before the destruction of the Temple.

Meier notes at the beginning of the ninth chapter that writing appears to have played a very small role in Early Israelite prophecy (94). He further notes that in contrast to the NT, writing as a form of preserving data about the prophets does not appear in the extensive accounts of prophets like Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha (96).

Along these lines Meier identifies a few places in the vast prophetic corpus were writing is mentioned as a medium for communicating important data. Yet there are two books in which writing takes center-stage, the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Using the instances in Jeremiah where Jeremiah offers his words in writing (because he cannot be there himself) as a basis for his argument, Meier wonders if the exile plays a significant role here.

Ezekiel is the first among the literary prophets to intentionally present his oracles in written form. The return of Ezekiel’s ability to speak, Meier points out, coincides with the destruction of Jerusalem, perhaps illustrating God’s new preferred mode of data distribution: in writing (108). Daniel goes even further because by the time of it’s writing the other prophets were available in written format.

Once again in chapter 11 Meier presents further evidence that an important shift in prophetic literature occurred around 600 BCE: the shift from oral to predominately written prophetic texts. He next notes that before the eighth century there is no evidence of written prophetic texts. At that time books like Isaiah and Amos suddenly appear. So he asks, why are there no earlier prophetic texts? Why are there no books associated with other known Israelite prophets like Elijah?

One thing that unites these “early prophets” (Elijah, Elisha, Samuel) is there depiction as wonder-workers. Each one of them, especially Elijah and Elisha, are featured in stories within which they perform some extra-normal action. Meier then uses the story of Elijah on mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19:11-12 as a springboard for his next argument. The story is meant to parallel Moses’ earlier encounter with God on this mountain. Unlike Moses however, the direct and full presence of God is denied for Elijah. Meier see here an apologetic for the decline of the wonder-working prophet, and the rise of the literary prophet (123).

Meier also believes he can detect this change being highlighted in Amos 7:14-16. Here, Amos denies that he is a prophet, neither is he the “son of a prophet”. Meier identifies this as Amos saying that he is not like the prophets who have come before. Indeed, this is, according to Meier, Amos redefining what it means to be a prophet in ancient Israel (124).

At this point in the review it should be easy to see that Meier is tracking features that he sees as shifting in the prophetic literature after the exile. And the evidences that he presents for each one are fairly compelling.

In the final two chapters, however, he begins by asking if there are features of ancient Hebrew prophesy that must remain in all contexts. This seems like an appropriate question given the high degree of variation that he has noted in the preceding chapters. What criteria, in other words, did the ancient Hebrews employ in assessing who was a prophet and who was not.

First, Meier notes that the prophets all relied on God. Sometimes the needs of the prophets were met directly by God. An example of this would be Elijah being fed by the birds. At other times, people would be used by God to provide of the prophets (183). Indeed Meier shows that prophets like Elisha, in his interaction with Naaman, are to refuse any other type of reimbursement for their work.

The second criterion is connected with the first. Since the prophet was not tethered to any earthly job, he was free to reject the status quo. If the prophets’ oracle was bad, then it is likely that he was a legitimate prophet (194-95).

The final criterion is one we are all familiar with: If the prophet makes a prediction that does not come to pass, then he is a false prophet. This of course has several exceptions. Meier also notes that Deuteronomy 13:1-2 makes it clear that even false prophets could be lucky sometimes (211-12). If the prophets demand that the people of Israel do something that they know has already been forbidden by Yahweh, then it does not matter if their oracle is correct or not, they are false prophets.

Meier closes the book by looking beyond the final written prophets, into the second temple period. Some features of prophetic change are not positive. He notes, for example, that already in the Psalms (74:9) there are indications that prophetic activity is ceasing in Israel. By the second century book of 1 Maccabees, there had already been a long number of years since a legitimate prophet had come to Israel (221). Could the appearance of a man from Nazareth in the early first century signal a new era of “Hebrew prophesies”?

Meier’s work helps to highlight the differences in the prophetic literature, a genre that is normally assumed to be fairly uniform. Understanding each work in its developmental context (pre-post exile), according to Meier, allows the interpreter to have better insights into what each work was trying to say. As the prophetic literature is extremely important to Christian salvation history and the roles God has played therein, I would wholeheartedly recommended this work to any Christian.

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