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. []

Travel plans

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

I realise I have not posted here about our travel plans for later this year. We will be visiting and teaching in (at least)1 two places:

  • View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

    View across the hills near Baguio – envy us!

    Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, Baguio Philippines. Where Barbara and I will each teach a course (OT Intro for me and Pastoral Counseling for her). I visited APTS as Menzies lecturer last year and am really looking forward to returning to a lovely place and people. Since Barbara will be going too, this time we hope to see a bit more of the northern part of the Philippines as well.

  • Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Colombo Theological Seminary, Sri Lanka. Where again both of us will teach, in my case on 1 Samuel as an introduction to reading biblical narrative texts. We’ve both visited CTS before and had a lovely holiday seeing more of the country last time. Christians in Sri Lanka (though still smarting from loss of status following the colonial period) have a special place as a religious minority that includes both ethnic groups in a strife torn land.

We will leave towards the end of July and return in late September. We have a nice family (with experience on a lifestyle block in the UK) from Bethlehem College to look after the house and animals while we are away.

  1. Teaching in Thailand is also possible. []

PS on “covering your feet”

These men in the Ha'aretz report were NOT "covering their feet"!

The men illustrating the Ha’aretz report (above) were NOT “covering their feet”. 

In conversation on Bob’s blog, related to my post below about foot as a possible euphemism for male genitals in the Bible, he points out that there are cases where the phrase “cover his feet” is clearly euphemistic for “going to the bathroom” – to use a more contemporary American euphemism. I entirely agree. It is. Clearly when Saul in 1 Samuel 24:3 goes into the cave to “cover his feet” להסך את־רגליו he is as the Living Bible said going “to the bathroom” (cf. Judges 3:24).

I am left with two problems, do two case make sufficient precedent for seeing euphemisms everywhere, and more importantly, how does this euphemism: “cover … feet” = “go to the bathroom” work? The way it seems to me to make sense is that when one needed to relieve oneself in the fields or on a journey one squatted, thus “covering one’s feet” with ones robe, and hiding the action from passers by. Thus it seems to me the clear euphemism is “cover the feet” = “relieve oneself” and not “foot” = “male organ”.

Ahab, Megiddo and Jezreel


For my latest video in the Land of the Bible series we visit the Jezreel Valley. The focus of the video is on Megiddo (as the site that has more Iron Age remains for the visitor to see).

Tel Megiddo with its massive gate complex, large palace and associated military complex as well as the extensive storage buildings is a fine picture of a major military and administrative centre. The size of king Jeroboam’s grain silo also suggests the hard taxation required to pay for and operate such a centre. Megiddo is located to control the exit southward from the Jezreel Valley.

Jezreel has less to impress visitors today, but was also a significant base defending the entrance to the rich Jezreel Valley from the east. Jezreel has beautiful views, fertile surrounds and plentiful water, no wonder Ahab chose it as his alternate capital.

The biblical accounts of his reign do not focus so much on the magnificent “public works”, or the power of his army, but rather on the injustice and oppression that were associated with the rise of such magnificent kingship, and even more on the religious underpinnings of such kingship in the myths of the gods, in particular Ba’al the “lord” (ba’al) by right of conquest of the pantheon.

As you read 1 Kings 18 and 21 keep in mind these impressive and beautiful cities.

Mourning Ba’al and 1 Kings 18

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons
Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

A post at Carpe Scriptura 1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls”  highlights a problem for online biblical studies, there are no easily available translations of the Ugaritic narrative texts. The texts themselves can be downloaded in PDF Ugaritic Data Bank. The Text1 is available on, but as far as I can see no English translations are.(If you know of a source please let me know!)

So as background to my podcast comments on Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Ba’al in Humour in the Bible 11: 1 Kings: In an idol moment I offer this extract from Smith’s translation of the section KTU 1.5 l.8 to KTU 1.6 l.10a 2

Messengers announce the death of Ba’al

“We [c]ame upon Baal fallen to earth;
Dead is Mightiest Baal,
Perished the Prince. Lord of the Earth.”
Then Beneficent El the Benign
Descends from his seat. sits on the footstool,
[And] from the footstool. sits on the earth.
He pours dirt on his head for mourning,
Dust on his crown for lamenting;
For clothing he puts on sack-cloth.
With a stone he scrapes his skin,
Double-slits with a blade.
He cuts cheeks and chin,
Furrows the length of his am
He plows his chest like a garden,
Like a valley he furrows the back.
He raises his voice and cries;
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Dagan! What of the multitudes?
After Baal I will descend to Hell.”
Then Anat goes about hunting,
In every mountain in the heart of the earth,
In every hill [in the he]art of the fields.
She comes to the pleas[ant land of] the outback.
To the beautiful field of [the Realm] of Death;
She com[es] upon Baal
[For clothing] she puts on sack[cloth,]

The text continues on Sixth Tablet after the superscription in Column 1

With a stone she scrapes her skin.
Double-[sl]its [with a blade]
She cuts cheeks and chin,
[Furrows] the length of her arm.
She plows her chest like a garden.
Like a valley she furrows her back:
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Daganl What of the multitudes?
After Baal we will descend to Hell.”
To her descends the Divine Lamp, Shapsh,
As she weeps her fill,
Drinks her tears like wine.

  1.  Cunchillos, Jesús-Luis, José-Angel Zamora, and Juan-Pablo Vita. Ugaritic Data Bank The Texts. Madrid: Instituto de Filologia, CSIC, 2003. []
  2. Smith, Mark S., and Simon B. Parker. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. [Atlanta, Ga.]: Scholars Press, 1997, 149-151. []

Otagosh goes soft?

It is pleasant to have some reliable comfortable regular experiences in this troubling world. One of mine in recent years has been the stream of tart yet gentle posts on Otagosh that pillory sloppy thinking on “Biblical” matters.

But today Gavin’s gone soft. He links to a Yahoo! News report titled ‘Finds in Israel add weight to theory God “had wife”.’

Now, it’s true, the find does add to the, already significant, weight of archaeological evidence suggesting that Ancient Judeans commonly worshiped a goddess alongside Yahweh (presumably therefore thought of as a god).

Shock, horror! The Bible tells me so, just read II Kings (or to save time do a search for ‘Asherah’). What please about this discovery is new? Where is the academic novelty that excites? Only for “Biblical” Fundamentalists (of the sort Otagosh usually reliably skewers) and trendy “critics”, neither of which class of idiot seem to actually bother to read the Bible, find this sort of “Biblical” discovery strange or really new.

Camouflage Equivalence: another example

Back in April I somehow missed Bryan Bibb’s interesting post Camouflage Equivalence1 it focuses on places where translators:

…seek to obscure rather than reveal the meaning of the original. He [Robinson] defines the term as “rearranging the semantic elements of the original… in a plausible way that disguises their dynamic meaning” (p. 6).

The idea, like the term used to describe it is really helpful. It neatly describes those places where translators soften the offense inherent in Scripture. The NIV regularly does this when a more “literal” translation leads to theological difficulties. One example is the rendering of ha’almah in Is 7:14 as “virgin”. Whether ‘almah can carry this meaning is at least debatable. As far as I can see the logic of Isaiah’s speech however demands a present focus and a translation like “young woman”. NIV has exercised camouflage equivalence.

I am less convinced by Bryan’s example. He claims that the ambiguous language (full of sexual double entendres) in Ruth 3 contains at least one such camouflage equivalence translation in almost all English Bibles. “Uncover his feet” in Ruth 3:4 is (Bryan thinks evidently, I’d say possibly) a euphemism. While most translations diminish the sexual tension in Ruth 3, where there are a string of words and phrases like this one that might carry sexual connotations, sometimes a foot is just a foot! The whole point (I think) of using that concatenation of ambiguous, possibly sexual, terms in Ruth 3 is surely to remain ambiguous. To uncover what the text deliberately leaves veiled but suggested is as “bad” as to cover what the text reveals…. So, “uncover his feet” (NIV, NAS, NRSV) gets it right neither camouflage, nor sex for the sake of shocking the horses, but a good serviceable translation.

On the other hand in Psalm 90:2 common translations are split, some opt for camouflage equivalence:

NET Psalm 90:2 Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God.
NRS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

While others dare to reveal the clear implication of the Hebrew:

NAS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.
NIV Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

For both verbs yalad and hul speak of procreation and birthing, and though yalad might refer to the father’s role hul cannot, but clearly refers to birthing.

  1. I had also missed Douglas Robinson’s book, Translation and the Problem of Sway, from which he apparently got the fine phrase. []

Jacob Wright’s course, week two

Last week I offered some first impressions of Jacob Wright’s excellent MOOC The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future.

The second week’s lecture material has been interesting for two strikingly different reasons. Jacob presents a mediating view between “Minimalists” and “Maximalists”, sensibly taking the best ideas and arguments from both “sides”. Though many conservative viewers will feel in this week’s that he is too ready to ditch the Bible’s account in favour of alternative ways to explain the archaeological data. And therein lies the rub, for although usually careful to present the evidence and arguments that underlie his presentation [my impression was that] here and there at key points the viewer is asked to accept a scholarly consensus or the views of a few named scholars without the evidence being presented. [ Inaccurate example deleted, see comments below.]

The interviews with three scholars about their work on Assyrian imperial intentions, the lemelek seals and the Judean Pillar Figures were excellent at presenting data and reasoning.

I understand that in such a brief course one cannot argue and present evidence for every point, but I suspect that the lectures would carry more people with them if there had been time to lay the foundations more solidly.

For me the formal issue raises questions about my own teaching.

The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future: First Impressions

Since this session concerns the background to the emergence of “Israel” in Canaan the Mereneptah Stele is mentioned and shown several times, photo from Wikipedia

When Jacob Wright’s MOOC “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” was announced and promoted I posted about it on Facebook.

I’ve enrolled and have begun the first week (the course started on Monday, but my first criticism is that I did not get an email reminder until I visited the course site again today – one of the biggest problems with MOOCs in my experience is lack of feedback for the student1 ).

Jacob is a fine teacher he keeps his material lively, and has an engaging presence and voice. The video “lectures” are broken into convenient chunks (of varied size from a couple of minutes to nearly a quarter of an hour2 which for me works well (as someone who as a teen would have been diagnosed ADHD, if the designation existed in those far off days, I have a short attention span and lectures bore me). Each is closed by one or two simple multichoice questions. This is brilliant, it gives the student instant feedback, and if we get them right instant reward and the sense that we are learning something. (Or if we are ourselves Hebrew Bible teachers at least the sense that we listened closely enough ;)

The videos make very skillful use of animated still shots of artifacts and places with the occasional video clip thrown in to create the sense of a video production. The technical values are as one would expect from an official university production.

That’s the good news, and if you are thinking of enrolling, do! The list is not yet closed, and if I have not yet learned much that is (to me) new, I have gained some interesting perspectives and ideas on how to put the material together. This is a MOOC for beginners that specialists can learn from! A fine achievement.

The bad news is that the videos are not optimised for viewing on tablets or phones. On my Phablet the screen resolution is small enough that the video (if played in the browser) overlaps the screen. I have tried the two different formats, and turning my screen around etc. but so far have not found a comfortable way to use the mobile device. (On a PC, even a netbook, all is fine, I guess university testers unlike poor adjunct faculty and students use phones with hi-res screens!)

At this stage I’ll also add a comment that perhaps reflects my context. Jacob uses a lot of Latin expressions, more than my usual audience of Kiwis, Pacific and Asian people would be comfortable with. I am not sure why, as usually the Latin expression is less familiar to me than kit’s English equivalent (like “divide and rule”) perhaps US audiences need “long words” to demonstrate academic credentials? It’s odd because in most ways the presentation is very simple and accessible with the few technical terms explained…

  1. see below. []
  2. so far. []