Prophecy and prediction II: genres and function


My post “Prophets and prediction: when conservatism and Bible clash” generated some interesting discussion, it almost felt like the good old days when blogging was on the frontier and people actually conversed with each other. Thank you all so much (and particularly Jerry Shepherd and also the bloggers, like George Athas, who linked to the post). I’m returning to the topic because that post left some interesting loose ends, and because the comments which too few readers actually see (because so often comments threads are full of venom and vitriol and so are filtered out). helped clarify other loose ends.

Form and function

In that first post I was careful not to say that prophets never foretell. Yet I did not, perhaps, make clear exactly what I was denying. For me, the issue is the nature of prophetic speech and therefore the function of the future-talk. After all Motyer’s quote was in a section headed “The Function of the Prophet”. The word at the heart of my issue with Motyer (and Jerry’s with me) was “prediction”. I talked about prophets “warning” and “encouragement”, how is this different from “prediction”? It seems to me that while there may well be no difference at the level of form – the sorts of speech I refer to may be couched in the same language as “prediction” – there is nevertheless a functional difference. The purpose of a prediction is to foretell future events. A prediction is successful if the event(s) foretold happen as foretold. By contrast the purpose of a warning (even when couched in the same language as prediction) is to change behaviour and thus avoid the predicted event. A warning is successful when the event warned about does not happen.

Formally a prediction and a warning may use the same words, the difference is in their intended effect. That is, the locution (what is said) is the same, but the perlocution (intended effect ) is the opposite.

Prophets and prediction: when conservatism and Bible clash


In this post I will examine and criticise a passage from Alec Motyer’s writing on the Old Testament prophets.  I do this not because I think Motyer is a poor scholar, but because I find his presentation an interesting example of how even the most conservative scholars risk allowing their existing ideas1  to take precedence over the evidence of the biblical text.

The section I am interested in comes from his article: Alec Motyer,  ‘Prophet,’in  Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997). It is thus intended not as deep scholarship but an introduction for beginners. In the section headed “The Function of the Prophet”, Motyer writes:

It is sometimes said that prophets are not foretellers but forthtellers. As far as the OT is concerned, however, the prophets are forthtellers (declaring the truth about God) by being foretellers (predicting what God will do). Prediction is neither an occasional nor a marginal activity in the OT; it is the way the prophet went about his work, under the inspiration of God. Not only the actual evidence of the books of the prophets, wherein the gaze is uniformly forward, supports this contention but also a key passage like Deuteronomy 18:9–15, which explains the function of the prophet in Israel: the surrounding nations are revealed as probing into the future by means of a variety of fortune-telling techniques (vv 10, 11); these things are forbidden to Israel on the ground of being abominable to the Lord (v 12); Israel’s distinctiveness is maintained in that the nations probe the future by diviners, whereas the Lord gives Israel a prophet (vv 13–15). Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27) is surprised when foreknowledge is denied him; Amos teaches that foreknowledge is the privilege of the prophets in their fellowship with God (Am 3:7). But prediction in Israel was totally unlike prognostication among the nations, for in no way was it motivated by a mere curiosity about the future.

This begins sensibly enough, as a warning that the neat slogan which explains that the biblical prophets are not foretellers but forthtellers is simplistic. Of course, in this Motyer is quite correct. The prophets often do look to the future. They consistently warn of danger threatening people who consistently transgress God’s standards. They also often point to glorious future hope. My beef with Motyer is that he calls this future focus “prediction“. The term is useful to Motyer (I think) because it links his point with traditional language about prophecy. This is a comfortable point for a conservative scholar to make – his article will be less threatening to its likely readers, sounding more like the many sermons and TV religious gurus they have heard speak about biblical prophecy.

But is he right? Do the prophets predict? Or do they rather warn and encourage? Prediction, insofar as it is different from mere warning, implies saying in advance that a certain event will happen. Is this what the prophets in the Bible do? It often seems so, the messages God gave them often involve future events. Thus when God commissions Jonah the second time he instructs: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) This Jonah does. (Jonah 3:3) The message he proclaims is:  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) But, if this message is intended by God as a prediction, then God is mistaken, for Nineveh is not overthrown in forty days. It is turned upside down, almost immediately, by Jonah’s message, in repentance. But ironically, this repentance leads to God sparing Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).

This is quite clear. Either God’s message is a prediction – in which case it is false, or it is a warning – in which case it succeeds.

Motyer does not cite Jonah, rather he focuses on Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27) and Amos (3:7). The first (like my example) is a narrative, Elisha, in the verse Motyer cites, states that God has hidden and not revealed to him [the child’s death]. Do Elisha’s words suggest that he understands his role as predicting such events? Or could it be rather that having given the miraculous child as a reward Elisha feels God “ought” to have warned him of the coming disaster? In Amos 3:7 the prophet declares: “Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” Verse seven however is not the point of the passage, that comes in verse  eight: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” Amos’ point is not that Prophets are predictors, but that prophets must declare the message God gives them, even when the warning is of destruction. As we saw in the example from Jonah, what God “plans” is not always what God does!

  1. This originally read “their preconceived ideologies” this was falsely polemic and not what I intended, thanks to Jerry Shepherd’s comment below I have edited it. []

Excluding people from the Church

Photo by unaesthetic

food-23453_1280A couple of issues recently have raised the question of when and why Christians might exclude others from the Church.

One issue arose when I was to address a combined churches group (in an overseas context) and one or two influential people looked at my 5 minute Bible site and (as far as I can tell without actually listening to the “offending” podcast) decided that I sounded as if I might deny the (according to their understanding) biblical truth that hell is a place of eternal horrible punishment. If true, this for them would exclude me from speaking in such a setting. So, is denying the doctrine that hell is eternal horrible punishment, or alternatively holding that view, a good and proper reason to exclude someone from the Church? I can understand that either might be sufficient reason for someone to cease to have desire to fellowship with the person who holds the view. But should that lack of desire for fellowship translate into exclusion for Church?

The other issue concerns attitudes to homosexuality, and in particular to the marrying of homosexual couples, some among NZ Baptists today certainly see a difference of opinion on this issue as grounds for exclusion from the fellowship of NZ Baptist churches, if perhaps not from the Church.

In both cases the potential excluder sees the issue as the “offender” being unfaithful to Scripture. In both cases the “offender” claims that their understanding of Scripture is different. In one case the disagreement is around the meaning of words and whether certain phrases are to be understood as literal or metaphorical, in the other case (while this sort of issue is in play) the main issue is more around the relative priority of different aspects of the teaching of Scripture and ways our social setting differs from the original contexts of Scripture.

My take is that neither issue is sufficient grounds for exclusion from the Church, and that the second (at least) ought not to be grounds for exclusion from the fellowship of Baptist churches in NZ. So, what sort of issue might give such grounds?

Asking the question in reverse, i.e. on what grounds do we include people in the fellowship of the church. We include people in the fellowship of communion, very commonly in NZ Baptist churches, by an invitation like “those who love the Lord Jesus Christ and seek to be his true disciples”. If that is sufficient grounds for inclusion in Communion, why is it not sufficient grounds for inclusion in the Church? Or what is the Church except the community of those who share communion in Christ?

I also wonder what Paul, in the light of his comments about the relative merits of theological truth and salvation, in relation to the issue of food offered to idols (1 Cor 8, esp. vv.1-2), would say.

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons -
"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - (edited)

“Starsinthesky” by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – (edited)

I confess, I have never really read the famous “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”, the idea of defining the authority of Scripture in terms of lack of error in propositional statements strikes me as so wrong headed that I have never been really tempted to start. However a friend on Facebook showed me a post that linked to a copy of the statement.

Now I’m really puzzled. Article 12 reads:

Article XII.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

The first part of “WE DENY” seems to claim that the Bible (regardless of the intentions of its human authors?) can be used to learn about scientific questions – I assume this means things like the age of the universe/earth, how species came to be etc… and not that somewhere in Scripture Boyles Law is taught.

OK… but the second part seems to claim that whatever Science may with high degree of confidence assert cannot be used to “overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood”. Which seems to imply that those passages of the Bible that teach about creation and flood are exempt from the first statement?

Is there (even a twisted sort of) logic here, or is the statement just daft? In either case why do so many American, and American influenced, religious people find the statement helpful?

Please, these are serious questions and I just do not understand, so help me!

Reading the Bible Faithfully (as seen on TV?)


book-623163Well this has been a roller-coaster of a 24hr day.

First it seemed that 1 Samuel and the delights of biblical story-telling were so unattractive, or I am, that there might be no students for my class (the journey is worth it though, as Barbara has a big class for her teaching about dealing with adolescents – I guess some human issues are really cross-cultural in this globally franchised world). Then there was the possibility of doing a series for Swarga TV using the Reading the Bible Faithfully material.

That is a possibility that really excites me! Encouraging people to read the Scriptures well, faithfully to the ancient meaning, yet attentive to contemporary application is fun and rewarding. To do it via TV and video with a professional crew, lighting, two cameras etc. is a dream (possibly) coming true! That it seems likely that they would be willing to either let me use the video or to make it accessible online, opens possibilities of it being useful in NZ as well.

So when, this morning under the monsoon rain, it became final that there were no students interested in 1 Samuel, the rest of today was spent preparing the first few sessions. This evening an email came to say that the studio is fully booked while I am in Colombo, but that there is a day free when we are meant to be at the beach. (Enjoying a few days rest before heading home, in a plush resort no less!)

Barbara understands how much this project means to me, so she is willing to curtail our restful time on the beach… so, currently the plan is to spend Mon 21st trying to record 12 sessions of 22 mins each. All before heading south in the middle of the afternoon… Please if you are the praying sort (as they say, but really – as they also say – “there are no atheists in foxholes”, in extremity prayer comes naturally to us all) please ask that somehow this may all work for the best!

Land of the Bible Seminar


IMG_5529Our visit to the Baldwins was a great experience. It’s a small town, off the tourist trails, mainly serving the rural sector. The nearest “attraction” is 26Kms away, and has been there for a very long time – dinosaur footprints. There are very few Christians is this area, yet almost a hundred from several churches met on Friday evening. They shared in praising God till the hired hotel hall almost rocked to the voices. They prayed fervently and joyfully. I think, as we turned first one way then another, we were praying for different parts of the town, perhaps for the different churches represented. It was a lovely example of Christians united in Christ.

It was also a beautiful privilege to be the speaker, translated (since I have none of the local language – being tone deaf has made learning even simple phrases well impossible) and most of the gathering speak little English (except a very few who had worked for Americans during the period of the Viet Nam war when there were US bases here near the border). People seemed interested and excited to learn about the places where Bible stories happened. Real places, real people…

It was also encouraging that almost half returned on Saturday for four more sessions. And even more so, that they were an attentive audience through the long day. The translator did sterling work, and the few who were more bilingual (some local people with good English and some missionaries) helped her out from time to time. Translating is far more exhausting than just speaking!

It was also encouraging to spend a little time with Andrew and Roanna and with Peter and Lynley hearing something of their heartbeat to support the few local Christians, and together to share the good news in a needy world.

The “daughters of Adam” (Women from the Bible #4)


Order66-AoDOther unnoticed women from the early chapters of Genesis include the “daughters of humanity/daughters of the man” in Gen 6:2. This little passage is mysterious and difficult. It is packed with problems..

Starting at the beginning we have to ask who the key characters are:

  • The women are identified as בְּנֹות הָאָדָם but are they Adam’s daughters, daughters of “the human” or daughters of humanity? The use of the definite article suggests not “Adam’s daughters” since names don’t usually take the article.1 Actually since no particular “human” is in view at this point most likely this problem is simple they are daughters of humanity (human girls).
  • But the men are identified as בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים are they sons of the gods or sons of God? Bizarrely, the English translations avoid the obvious answer, and usually render the phrase as “sons of God”. This takes no account of the article. As far as I can see if we are to take this seriously we have a choice of “sons of the God” or “sons of the gods”. Again “the God” is not in focus here, so “sons of the gods” seems the obvious translation. The only problem is (perhaps) theological, since the author(s) of Genesis do not believe in the gods. But this puts theological interpretation in the driving seat.

This gives (an approximate and over literal) rendering as:

“1 When humanity began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them,
2 the sons of the gods saw that they were desirable2 ; and they took women3 for themselves of all that they chose.
3 Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in humanity forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”
4 The Nephilim were in the land4 in those days– and also afterward– when the sons of God went in to5 the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, men of renown.
5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the land, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually… (Gen 6:1-5)

Read like this, it seems to me, many of the difficulties disappear. (The Nephilim are a narrator’s aside and we can, for my purpose here ignore them.) Two main questions remain:

  1. Who are the “sons of the gods”? Are they (minor) gods themselves, powerful (royal) people, or Greek-style demigods?
  2. Why do these liaisons, and or the children they produce, so displeasing to YHWH?6

Cutting a long story short, and to the chase, the most likely understanding seems to me that the “sons of the gods” are royal persons (often claiming quasi-divine status and privilege in the ancient world). The combination of mention of them “taking for themselves women”, who they “go into” and have children, with the mention that they take “from all which they chose” with the suggestion that this is related to the “great  evils” that stimulate the divine wrath (v.6) suggests either rape, coerced sex with the abuse of power (think of David and Bathsheba) or possibly some sort of “first night” custom.

Already, this early in the Genesis story, women are sex objects, and at best the mothers of heroes. Human division has produced classes and ideologies that confer “divine” rights on some and remove the rights of others.

  1. But see Gen 2 where sometimes הָאָדָם is rendered “Adam”. []
  2. The word is the one used for anything “good”, it does not necessarily imply merely beautiful, for which there is a more specialised term. []
  3. Not “married” as NIV since there is nothing here about cultural or familial ceremonies, likewise not “wives” for the same reason. []
  4. The more usual “on the earth” seems unnecessary, this is a narrator’s note breaking the frame, and mentioning that this was during, but not the end of the period when the Nephilim lived in “the land”. []
  5. This is clearly a euphemism for having sex with, a common use of this construction. []
  6. For it seems to me unavoidable that this passage in some way leads to the next, as my inclusion of v.6 above strongly suggests. Only a narrowly source-critical reading allowed people to completely separate this story from the flood that follows. []

Cain’s wife and other Bible “problems”


Between teaching an intensive class to students from a dozen ethnicities and nearly as many countries, and exploring the beautiful scenery in the Cordilleras of North Luzon (photos attached to make you envious) I have been too busy to post properly here (even the women of the Bible series has faltered). So instead perhaps you know someone who is still asking the old chestnut about where Mrs Cain came from?

IMG_4414IMG_3843If you do, if you know someone who is troubled by other “Bible difficulties” please point them to my short article written for the NZ Baptist:

Unpacking Difficult Scripture – Genesis 4: Where did Cain’s wife come from?

The aim is to suggest a better way to approach such “problems” than seeing them as puzzles to “solve”, and reducing Scripture to a sort of jigsaw puzzle to reduce to banal flatness.

Boosting literacy by 1000%

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)
Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Five years ago I linked to a post by Chris Rollston The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet:Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus the URL has changed,but the post is really interesting. I still have no desire to differ from Chris’ expert view his “story” is fascinating and largely convincing. Yet I still think he misrepresents the impact of his evidence on the rise of literacy due to the invention of the alphabet. One quote highlights the issue, and in it Rollston highlights some earlier silly claims:

Some have suggested that with the invention of the alphabet, literacy rates rapidly became quite high, with both elites and non-elites writing and reading (note: these two skills are related, but quite different). For example, during the middle of the twentieth century, W.F. Albright stated that “since the forms of the letters are very simple, the 22-letter alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student and in a week or two by the dullest.” And he proceeded to affirm that he did “not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in various parts of Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges” (Albright 1960, 123). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, R. Hess made similar statements. For example, regarding ancient Israel, he states that there is “continually increasing evidence for a wide variety of people from all walks of life who could read and write.” In addition, he states that he believes “the whole picture is consistent with a variety of [literate] classes and groups, not merely a few elites” (Hess 2006, passim 342-345).

But the literacy estimates Rollston quotes show that for prealphabetic societies literacy rates were about 1%:

for Egypt, literacy rates are often estimated to be at ca. one-percent or lower, and confined to elites (see Baines and Eyre,1983, 65-96; note that even at Deir el-Medina it is elites that are writing). For Mesopotamia, Larsen believes that one-percent is also a reasonable figure (see Larsen, 1989, 121-148, esp. 134).

Yet for societies using alphabetic scripts the estimates he quotes are between five and fifteen percent:

Rather, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the population was not literate. Note, for example, that W. Harris (1989, 114, 267, 22) has argued that literacy rates in Attica were probably ca. five percent to ten percent and those in Italy were probably below fifteen percent (note: within this volume [passim], Harris has cogently critiqued those that have proposed high(er) rates of literacy).

Taking, as an approximation, the middle of this range, the move from Cuneiform or Hieroglyphic may have merely increased literacy by a factor of ten, from 1% to 10%. This is an increase in literacy of 1000%, an imporessive achievement.  An increase in literacy levels this dramatic, or even at the lowest level Rollston’s figures suggest (half this increase or a factor of five or 500%), is quite high enough to produce exciting social consequences.

At 1% literacy few rural people would have easy access to someone who was literate, at 10% it is likely that within a few hours walk most would. Thus his own figures suggest that the alphabet would produce a true social revolution. Clearly not producing a modern writing based culture, but nevertheless bringing text and textuality into the realm of experience of ordinary people as well as elites.