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. []

Publications from 2013

I’m not sure I listed these here, and I do want to brag about the quantity, I’ll leave you to judge the quality ;)


“The Troubling Theology of Jeremiah” In Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. . Pearson Education, 2013.

“A Masculine Reading of the Book of Esther” In Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. . Pearson Education, 2013.

“The Book of Amos and the Day of Yhwh.” Colloquium 45, no. 2 (2013): 154–169

Andrew T. Abernethy, Mark G. Brett, Tim Bulkeley, Tim Meadowcroft, ed. Isaiah and Imperial Context: The Book of Isaiah in the Times of Empire. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

“Living in the Empire: What Purposes Do Assertions of Divine Sovereignty Serve in Isaiah?” In Isaiah and Imperial Context: The Book of Isaiah in the Times of Empire, edited by Andrew T. Abernethy, Mark G. Brett, Tim Bulkeley, Tim Meadowcroft. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

Bier, Miriam J., and Tim Bulkeley, eds. Spiritual Complaint: Theology and Practice of Lament. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

“Does Jeremiah Confess, Lament, or Complain? Three Attitudes Towards Wrong.” In Spiritual Complaint: Theology and Practice of Lament, edited by Miriam J. Bier and Tim Bulkeley. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

Dumb and dumber, or how not to use a blog

I’ve been unusually quiet here for a while now for two reasons.

The first is dumb. Something has “broken” this installation of WordPress and half the editing features don’t work. I have to turn off JavaScript, and save the post, to change from Visual to Text mode, but neither way will “Add Media” work, I have to FTP and handcode to get pictures… all that makes blogging hard work. But I’m dumb, I haven’t made the time to either start again (like I did in 2009) so I suffer through :(

The second reason is dumber! I have been busy writing, two deadlines loomed. One of them was a chapter about the genre of the prophetic books.1 Somehow, being busy and having a looming deadline I did not do the sensible thing and post here (much) about the ideas.

That was dumber, because I am not longer in daily contact with scholars from other disciplines in a real common room. Thus I did not hear a physical New Testament colleague say ftf: “That’s a bit like the discussions around the topic of the genre of the gospels.” That piece of wisdom only hit this morning, when I saw that Euangelion Kata Markon had posted a kind notice (HT James McGrath) to my 5 minute Bible podcasts on introducing genre and prose & poetry.

As I wrote in a comment there:

I am now kicking myself. Disciplinary boundaries so often do us a disservice! I should have thought of the probability that there was discussion of the nature of the genre of the gospels. But I didn’t, and I don’t sit regularly in a scholarly common room, so no one pointed it out to me as I wrote my article on the genre of the prophetic books.. I really should have blogged it as I wrote, then someone would have pointed to your stuff and I’d have been able to weave those discussions into mine, but I submitted the article on Monday :(

  1. Basically I am arguing that, rather than any other genre description like “career biography”, “sayings collection” or even “presentation of a prophet” , it is helpful to think of them as “prophetic fictions”. []

Describing the genre of prophetic books

I have finished a first draft of a chapter (for a forthcoming book) in which I seek to defend and illustrate my idea that the genre of prophetic books might best be understood as “prophetic fictions”. (Using “fiction” as I think Alter does to signal a concern for the artistry of presentation rather than as a synonym for “untrue” ;)

I think this idea works several attempts to define the genre together keeping (some of) the best features of each, I also believe it has interpretative power.

BUT I no longer have colleagues down the corridor whom I can bully into reading and criticising my work :( If you would be willing to read nearly 5,500 words and to comment on the flow of the argument or other features that might help me sharpen or improve the chapter I would be really grateful. I am not so much after specialist knowledge as help strengthening the presentation of the ideas.

Amos and those Cows

Cow photo by jacme31

Over at 5 minute Bible I’m putting up my latest podcast in the series trying to find examples of humour in every book of the (Hebrew) Bible, I’ve reached Amos. The example I chose comes from Amos 4:1. Where Amos talks to/about people he calls Bashan Cows.  For a quick take on why I think it’s (meant to be) funny go there, here I’ll deal with the verse in more detail.

The image in the verse is rich in possible meaning. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that Amos is referring to the women of the elite of Samaria calling them Bashan Cows1 what does this mean?

In contemporary English to call a woman a “cow” is neither clever, smart or polite. Yet in ancient Israel there was probably no such rudeness. Cow might have intended:

  • to ironically identify them as wives of the leaders (see King)
  • as a term of endearment (Mays)
  • to evoke agricultural imagery of sleek well-fed cattle (Mays)
  • to identify them as devotees of Ba’al worship
  • even to identify them as worshipers of YHWH represented in the royal sanctuaries of Israel as a bull calf

so the expression in itself is not rude. Calling those (their husbands?) from whom they order a drink “their lords” in any of these understandings suggests their arrogance.  For cattle to demand a drink from their owners, or for women to treat their husbands as waiters (in a patriarchal society) is strikingly arrogant. For a worshiper to thus order a god would be to underline the depths to which their theology had sunk.

Yet none of this makes the image really funny. What does that (at least for certain readers) is to imagine these sleek well-fed mistresses of the elite as cattle, the congruity (the image “fits” descriptively)2 together with the incongruity (these arrogant people are like cows) causes laughter, and removes for a moment the cultural and social “superiority” of the targets of the speech.


  1. This is not always assumed, there are grounds for wondering if men were meant, but I think the use of paroh heifer/cow suggests the addressees are women and all the participles are feminine plurals, however the 3mp suffix on adon “their (mp) lords” does make a male reading of the “cows” possible. []
  2. Again perhaps not in the affluent West, where the rich are slender, but in poorer cultures wealth and fatness are closely correlated. []

Rave reviews and a book launch

This evening (7pm @ Laidlaw if you are in Auckland) we launch our book  The Gospel and the Land of Promise so it was great to be pointed to this collection of rave reviews. As an editor and author in the volume I would be more restrained in my praise ;) as it is all I’ll say is read the comments from reviewers here. They might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

The Gospel and the Land of Promise
Christian Approaches to the Land of the Bible
Edited by Philip Church, Tim Bulkeley, Tim Meadowcroft, Peter Walker

The Gospel and the Land of Promise

Image from publisherIt has taken a while, but the book from the Gospel and Land colloquium is out:

[amtap amazon:asin=1608995453]

My paper is “‘Exile away from his land’: Is landlessness the ultimate punishment in Amos?” on pages 75-85.

NB Amazon are taking longer than their usual very fast to get their data sorted the editors are Philip Church and the rest of us, not someone called just Philip and then a mysterious reference to the Church at the end ;)

On the importance of reading with care

Ursus Arctos Syriacus photo by מתניה

I’m marking at present, therefore in a stroppy mood.

So, when in a students comments on Amos 5:19:

Like someone escaping from a lion,
who meets a bear;
and entering the house,
leans a hand on the wall,
and a snake bites him. (Amos 5:19, TempEV)

Hubbard’s commentary is cited saying:

The lion and bear are signifiers of God; the snake of evil and craftiness.1

I was about ready to consign Hubbard’s commentary to the waste bin. What a load of cobblers’! Isn’t it obvious that for Amos here the animals are simply natural threats? Why spiritualise them? Such over-spiritualising is typical of the worst of old-fashioned Evangelical biblical studies!

But, of course, I should have known, Hubbard is a much better reader than that. The over-spiritualising was my student’s – students are even more prone to such a penchant than old-fashioned Evangelical scholars ;) What Hubbard actually did was to rehearse both the historico-zoological facts of the dangers of these animals, and their possible metaphorical or symbolic significance,2 before concluding:

We view, therefore, Amos’ three figures as well-understood symbols of danger rather than as images with any deeper spiritual meaning.

Oh, that students actually read the works they cite! My blood pressure would be lowered, and their education raised ;)

  1. Alan Hubbard, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Joel & Amos (Leicester: IVP, 1989), 180. []
  2. Noting on the way that few species of poisonous snake are often found in Palestine. []

Lament, complaint or confession: Prophets and “their” books

Brooke commented on my post Did Jeremiah confess? Or: Laments, complaints & confessions?

There’s a somewhat analogous issue in Dan 9:4b-19, with the pious deuteronomistic prayer that contrasts theologically and ideologically with the apocalyptic narrative framework. The scholarship has move over time from:

a) those who deny the issue (“Daniel wrote it, there’s no contrast, take your fancy pants form criticism and go away”); to
b) those who see a “ham-handed pious redactor” who “inserts” the prayer (these are the ones who are getting the goat of the traditionalists); to
c) those who say, “Hey, if the author of Daniel 9 knew the genre of the post-exilic deuteronomistic prayer of community penitence, then maybe he incorporated or wrote such a prayer himself.”

What is the relationship between a book and the "people" it contains? (Photo by kelly taylor)

Indeed the trajectories of scholarship on the two books seems to have been similar. In Jeremiah too most of the ink has been spilled over issues of the historicity (of the words seen as ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah in the late sixth-early seventh century) and more recently the history of the text (seen as growing over time rather like a snowball or a hymn1 ) However, my interest in whether the texts traditionally called the “Confessions of Jeremiah” is not in these areas. I wonder how these texts are intended to function as components of the larger text known as the book of Jeremiah (mainly I am interested in the MT edition, though it would also be interesting to look at whether these sub-texts function differently in the other well-known edition – found commonly in the LXX).

This is partly a question of genre. If the composer(s) of the book thought of these texts as “complaints” then they would function differently than they would if they were thought of as “laments”. But perhaps they were used as “confessions”. In this case the genre attribution would only in part depend on the form, which is close to the lament/complaints in Psalms, but also on how the passages function in the book. Is Jeremiah (the eponymous character in the book, not the putative sixth-fifth century person) lamenting something, complaining to God or confessing?

I hope to use the book of Amos, which contains texts that do all these things, as a point of comparison. The speaker of the book and/or their God laments (5:1-3), “Amos” complains (7:1-6) and the speaker of the book confesses (1:2; 4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6).2

  1. Many hymns that were commonly sung in churches in the 20th century had had verses added over time, many too had had wording adjusted and adapted over the years, as well as in some cases being translated from other language originals []
  2. I had not noticed before writing that, but it is all the major characters of the book who are involved here, among the actors in the book only those satirised and the land are left out. []

The prophecies of Neferti

I’ve finally got to read James Linville‘s Amos and the Cosmic Imagination

[amtap book:isbn=0754654818]

I know it was published back in ’08, but books (especially expensive European books take a while to get to our library down here ;)

The book itself is stimulating, not least because he seems to be starting in the right place i.e. assuming that Amos is something like a work of historical fiction written sometime in the Persian or Hellenistic period, and without making too much fuss about the textual archaeology that seems so often to render studies of the prophetic corpus dull and insipid, he takes the reader (at least in the first chapter or two) on a journey of imagination into reading this work.

The pyramid of Snefru (photo by Charlie Phillips)

However, that’s not what I want to write about here, in an almost passing comment he refers to the Prophecies of Neferti an Egyptian work that I’ve not paid much attention to. It really is fascinating stuff, well at least to me, set back in the days of Snefru some four or five hundred years in the (presumed) writer’s past it tells of a prophetic speech, delivered to the ancient king by a sage. The contents are much like a biblical prophetic book, though with the narrative frame in place of a superscription. So, already a sort of paradigmatic prophetic fiction from the 20th century (BCE), but beyond or as well as that there are loads of phrases and images that resonate with Amos…

Now, how can I work all this together to make a paper on either Complaint or Isaiah and Empire, since I need material for abstracts on those topics fast!?