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. []

Help me please

For work I am doing on the “confessions of Jeremiah” I need two sorts of help. I need help because here in the hills between Rotorua and Tauranga I library resources are limited to a journal database and Google books (plus

  • People with friends: if you have a friend who has worked on the “confessions of Jeremiah” please help me contact them.
  • People with access to Baumgartner’s Jeremiah’s Poems of Lament or Diamond’s The Confessions of Jeremiah in Context. (Both books I owned and gave to a seminary in Myanmar when I retired, and both have limited access on Google.)For Diamond I need to know if his first few footnotes (probably just #1) to the “Introduction” give any indication of the origin of the usage “Confessions of Jeremiah”. (The PhD his book was based on is listed by the British Library but is not accessible.)For Baumgartner the issue is a little more complex does he in Chapter 1 (in the first few or last couple of pages of the chapter) talk about this at all? Or indeed use an expression like “the confessions of Jeremiah”?

I would be really thankful is someone could help me in either or both of these two ways.

Otherwise I am stuck, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when expressions like confessions of Jeremiah were used to refer to the content of (much of) the book (Cheyne 1888), or to a particular mode within the book, but already Buttenweiser (1914) talks of “the so-called confessions” and may have the collection of texts we name thus today in mind, certainly the habitual use of the expression to refer to particular texts seems established at the latest by John Skinner, Prophecy & Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah (Cambridge: University Press, 1922), 114 and ch.xi.

Skinner regards the usage as “common”:

These two passages are interesting in another respect. They are the first of a unique series of devotional poems commonly known as the ‘Confessions of Jeremiah,’ which unfold the secret of his best life, the converse of his soul with God through which the true nature of religion was disclosed to him. (114)

On p.201 Skinner calls the usage “recent”, yet I have so far found no use of the expression with this meaning before Buttenwieser!

I am stuck and stumped, and lack access to a suitable library to get much further alone. Please help!

The best things are free


the-old-testament-library-series-isaiahI thought it was an April Fool’s joke, they are always a bit behind the times in the USA, Logos is giving away Childs’ massive Isaiah commentary for free!

It’s no joke, they are! Sorry about the exclamation marks, but Childs’ is a fine and useful commentary, and to get a digital edition (more useful in many ways than my print copy) freely is a real blessing.

Whatever you think of Childs’ canonical reading strategy, his masterly and encyclopedic summaries of previous scholarship are brilliant. Personally I am a real fan of his reading too, it seems to me the “right” way to approach a text that is both complex and canonical,

Theological snobbery


I caught myself in some theological snobbery yesterday.

We had a promo for (which looks to be a fine resource for children) and in the course of it they took the account of Jeremiah’s call and applied it to everyone.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me. (Jer 1:5a-b)

“This is God’s word for you.” They said. And, of course it is not. The remainder of the verse makes that quite clear.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me.
    I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations. (Jer 1 :5)

It was God’s word for Jeremiah, not for you. Just as that lovely promise in Jer 29:11, or the horrible one in Jer 18:11, do not necessarily both apply to us, nor can we pick and choose!

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jer 29:11)

Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. (Jer 18:11a)

In each case we have to look at the circumstances of Judah and at our own situation and actions to see if either might apply.

So <INSERT horrid and raucuous grinding noise> fail!


Except… setting aside Jeremiah’s particular and peculiar calling (as “prophet to the nations”) the passage affirms that God’s call on Jeremiah’s life predates his birth and conception. If that call is timed like this what about your calling and mine?

“Ah,” say the clever and theologically trained wise ones, “but Jeremiah is special, and his calling is special. What applies to Jeremiah does not apply to you. God isn’t calling you to be a prophet to the nations. QED!”

But are the theologically trained wise ones right?

After all it is a key feature of Old Testament narrative that all the great heroes are portrayed “warts and all”, not one is presented as a super-human like the heroes of almost very national story as taught to children in schools. Thus it seems that after all this claim by Jeremiah might be your claim and mine…

Humour in the Bible 2.2: Humour in narrative texts – Telling funny events


The book of Jonah is interesting in a number of ways, not least how it continually subverts our expectations. It is found among the prophetic books (in both Hebrew and Greek canons) yet contains only five words that we could classify as prophetic speech. Jonah son of Amittai appears to be a known and true prophet (from 2 Kings 14:25) yet his first action on receiving an instruction to preach from Yahweh is to run in the opposite direction. The prophet regularly speaks sound theology, usually using a pastiche of quotations from other biblical texts, yet thus he puts himself in conflict with Yahweh at every turn of the story.

Not only does the narrative subvert expectations, but it displays many of our criteria, suggesting that we should expect to find humour here:

  • incongruity – see above
  • lighthearted mood – not found
  • surprise – as well as the surprise generated by the shocking incongruities of the prophet’s behaviour, we are also surprised by the size of everything (“big” gadol is used more often per 100 words in Jonah than in any other Bible book) 1 and by unlikely events e.g. an eloquent prayer of thanksgiving “from the belly of the fish” (Jonah 2:1) a plant that grows in a night to provide shade (Jonah 4:10)
  • ingenuity- Yahweh, the God of heaven who made sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9) shows considerable ingenuity in his efforts at the end of chapter 4 to get his prophet to understand that his mercy is as justifiable as it is generous
  • inelasticity – despite the divine persuasive efforts Jonah remains stubbornly determined that death is preferable to mercy
  • puncturing pretension- Jonah’s human pretension to “know better” than the creator?
  • hyperbole – fish swallows man (Jonah 1:17), animals fasting in sackcloth (Jonah 3:7)…

Despite this powerful concentration of cues that the text is intended to be humorous, there is little in fact in the telling that is funny. The remarks above that are “funny” are mine, not from the text of Jonah. The text does not picture Jonah with fish guts draped around him, though Jonah comes close to this in his prayer (Jonah 2:5), we find animals in sackcloth humorous, the text merely implies this picture rather than drawing it. If Jonah’s repeated death-wish is funny (as students invariably found it when I have read those passages) it has more to do with the tone of voice of the reader than the tone of the words.

The telling of Jonah is not humorous, the narration is “straight”. Yet the events described move from melodrama to bathos. In chapter 1, a gallant Jonah is willing to place his life in jeopardy to save the lives of some pagan sailors he has only just met, and is thrown into the stormy sea. A few verses later he is sufficiently comfortably lodged in the belly of the fish that he can pray a prayer that is full of deep irony (which “Jonah”2 cannot have intended, but which the narrator can hardly have missed). For example:

v.3 ” You [Yahweh] cast me into the deep…” Jonah was thus cast because he disobeyed instructions from Yahweh that did not necessitate a sea voyage

v.4 “I am driven away from your sight…” Jonah was not driven, but ran

v.8 “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty…” Jonah, who (Jonah 1:9) worships Yahweh has forsaken loyalty, while the idol worshipers are now busy offering sacrifices to the one true God (Jonah 1:16)

Although not told in a humorous way, the events are humorous, for example the repentance that implicates animals in sackcloth (even if forcing them to fast is cruelty).

In Jonah (as in some other biblical narratives)3 the telling is deadpan, but the events told are humorous.

  1. At 1.4 per 100 this is twice the next book, Haggai, which has 0.68 per 100. []
  2. The character. []
  3. For example the death of Eglon. []

Digital commentary for the 21st C

At the conference I attended in Sydney recently one of the stimulating conversations I enjoyed was around ways to present Bible commentary in a digital medium for non-specialist readers in the 21st C. The Amos – Hypertext Bible Commentary was already beginning to show its age even when it was first published in a stable peer-reviewed edition.

[The pictures and other design elements were planned for a 800×600 screen, and mobile phones were not considered as a delivery system.]

Move forward a decade and responsive design (that will work on both hires screens and on portable devices) seems basic, and indeed one must envisage mobile devices as most likely the hardware of choice for accessing such a work.

This leads to the interesting possibility of packaging the commentaries as apps, and thus potentially breaks the funding barrier. Few people in the developed world or even middle class people elsewhere would balk at spending a couple of dollars for a Bible commentary.

The other interesting idea came from a presentation on visualising biblical studies ideas, and the thought that it would be nice to have a drill down menu that worked a bit like Prezi.

I like the idea, but am having trouble “seeing” how it might work. The Prezi below is my attempt to play with this concept… What advantages, disadvantages, alternatives, possibilities etc. do you see?

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. []

Getting Bible Commentaries without a library

A few years back I posted a video showing how to get to the relevant pages of a Bible commentary using Google Books. Since then the video hosting service I used has removed the video, and Google has changed their interface. So, here is a renewed one.

What this means is that any serious Bible student can get at the latest and best biblical studies without a library and from wherever they happen to be.

Commentaries are the lifeblood of serious everyday Bible Study, as they present the results of extensive reading packaged and simplified.