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. []

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. []

Using Bible stories to encourage people to be nice/wicked

Scripture (or in this case the Apocrypha) has a "thing" about severed heads (Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, signed Muhammad Zaman, Iran, Isfahan, c. 1680 AD photo from Wikimedia)

There’s quite a bit of talk at the moment in the world I inhabit about two related issues:

  • Neo-Atheists attack Scripture claiming it advocates genocide, portrays God as a monster etc., for the sake of simplicity I’ll focus on one issue, the claim that God commands genocide.  I’m supervising a Master’s thesis on a topic related to this, and I have therefore noticed blog posts on such topics frequently over recent months.
  • Well-meaning Christians who extract nice (or sometimes not so nice) “messages” from Scripture, moralising the heck out of texts that have no interest in morals. This one came for a head for me in two ways, students who extract unlikely but edifying messages from passages set as assignments, and a friend who is trying to wind me up by suggesting that the 2 Kings 10 passage I dealt with in a recent podcast advocates a muscular Christian approach to people who get in the way of our holiness.1

The passage in 2 Kings 10 is a classic for the Rottweilers and Moralisers. It tells with apparent approval of the bloody sequel to Jehu’s bloody coup d’etat, a particularly memorable focus is the seventy heads of Ahab’s sons which Jehu ordered and were duly delivered to his door in convenient carrying baskets. This to the suspicious readers provides yet more evidence that the God of the Bible, or at least of the Hebrew Bible, is a bloodthirsty tyrant. To the moraliser it offers opportunities to spiritualise and at the same time develop a “suitably” muscular Christianity rabbiting on about the need to be ruthless in combatting those who  imperil our “Christian walk” (as Ahab imperiled Israel’s faithfulness to Yahweh’s covenant).

Both sets of extremist are up the pole and have failed to read the text. (BTW Jim West recently unmasked me as an “arrogant bastard” so I am trying hard to live up to the new image in the tone of my remarks – do let me know if you think I succeed?)

The common claim these two sets of poor readers make is that God wanted Ahab’s children slaughtered.

But, did God want that? In 2 Kings 9:7 the “detail” that the sons should be killed is added by a student in Elishah’s class. It was not part of the prophet’s instructions in 2 Kings 9:3. Similarly in 1 Kings 21:21f. Elijah adds this “detail” to what God had told him in 1 Kings 21:19.

So, time and again it is over-zealous humans, not God, that seek such violent solutions. Furthermore, as Jonah recognised God is: “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment.” So if the offspring of those gentle and kind parents – Ahab and Jezebel – had repented, even they would have been spared. Even if God had pronounced the death penalty!

So, if the Bible text in this case does not advocate mass murder as a form of power politics, nor exhort us to greater spiritual exercise (and you will see from the above that I do not believe it does): What is the Christian message of this bloody text?

Go listen to my podcast 2 Kings 10: a really nasty text as a test for the 5 step process to hear my answer :)

  1. He has much more claim to holiness than I undoubtedly, but even so this argument strikes me as specious ;) []