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. []

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?

Different sorts of “humour” in the Hebrew Bible: Appeal for help

In my previous post I quoted a table from Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage1.

HumourDiscoveryHuman natureObservationThe sympathetic
WitThrowing lightWords and ideasSurpriseThe intelligent
SatireAmendmentMorals and mannersAccentuationThe self-satisfied
SarcasmInflicting painFaults and foiblesInversionVictim and bystander
InvectiveDiscreditMisconductDirect statementThe public
IronyExclusivenessStatement of factsMystificationAn inner circle
CynicismSelf-justificationMoralsExposure of nakednessThe respectable
SardonicSelf-reliefAdversityPessimismThe self

In this post I’d like to add to Fowler’s table with some suggested (Hebrew) Bible passages that (I suggest) reflect that sort of humour:


DeviceMotive or aimProvinceMethod or meansAudienceBible example
HumourDiscoveryHuman natureObservationThe sympatheticRuth 2
WitThrowing lightWords and ideasSurpriseThe intelligentIs 5:7
SatireAmendmentMorals and mannersAccentuationThe self-satisfiedIs 5:22
SarcasmInflicting painFaults and foiblesInversionVictim and bystanderJer 22:14
InvectiveDiscreditMisconductDirect statementThe publicJudges 5?
IronyExclusivenessStatement of factsMystificationAn inner circleJon 2 esp. v.8
CynicismSelf-justificationMoralsExposure of nakednessThe respectableXXX
SardonicSelf-reliefAdversityPessimismThe selfXXX

Some are fairly straightforward like Ruth 2 as I suggest in Humour in the Bible: 8 Ruth: Ruth is from Moab, Boaz is from Bethlehem. Here gentle pointing out of the social and cultural differences between semi-nomadic Ruth and peasant farmer Boaz leads to some smiles and a richer sense of the characters involved in the story. I think this example fits Fowler’s “humour” category neatly, through the observation of human nature our sympathy with the characters is enhanced.

But is Isaiah’s punning  “he expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (sedaqah), but heard a cry (sea’qah)!” (Is 5:7 NRSV) wit, for there is certainly surprise and light thrown by words and ideas, but the aim is surely amendment (the goal of “satire”).

Though Is 5:22  “Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink…” (Is 5:22 NRSV) is fairly straightforwardly satire.Yet goals are tricky, if the goal here is arguably change in Jer 22:15  “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.” One doubts the intent is a change of behaviour, and so suspects sarcasm…

In Jonah’s psalm (Jonah 2)  there is plenty of irony, note especially “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.” (Jon 2:8 NRSV) on the lips of a prophet fleeing God while pagan sailors offer sacrifices to Yahweh above him in the ship. But is there any exclusiveness or mystification here?

This post has taken too long, and anyway its goal is to encourage you to comment and enter a conversation on the topic so I will leave it to you to either propose answers to my questions, or candidates for cynicism and the sardonic (I suspect Job and Ecclesiastes might be fertile hunting grounds…).

My conclusion so far is that these characteristics of different varieties of humour will be helpful in discussing biblical humour, but that they are far from the neat and clear classification that they seemed at first glance!

Into what category though does something like the ironic presentation of Sisera’s mother and her ladies gloating over Sisera and his men enjoying the Israelite women they capture as booty in Judges 5 fall?2 There IS irony, since at the time elsewhere Sisera is lying dead struck through the head by a tent peg driven by Jael. Yet there is no mystification or exclusiveness to the telling… Nor does it fit “satire” since the goal is hardly amendment, or sarcasm since the Canaanites wil hardly hear the song… Perhaps “invective fits best?

  1. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. []
  2. I address the passage here  Humour in the Bible Book 7 Judges: Gender Bending. []

Biblical sense and sensibility

Open Bible has a fascinating on post Applying Sentiment Analysis to the Bible.

Sentiment analysis involves algorithmically determining if a piece of text is positive (“I like cheese”) or negative (“I hate cheese”). Think of it as Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes backed by quantitative data.

The post started with a plot of the data for the whole Bible, which for anyone interested in the “big picture” of the Bible’s story is fascinating. But the data, calculated using available software on an English translation based on the calculated probability of a verse being positive or negative in sentiment, allows a closer look, and running a five verse running average gives really striking and thought provoking “pictures” of each Bible book.

While Jonah goes from bad to worse ;)

Ruth moves from negative to positive

Which both seem intuitively “right”. However, Esther needs some thought:

Esther: is the beginning really the happiest part?

I’m currently teaching the Song of Songs, and last week was Ecclesiastes, so these are interesting:

They both fit common preconceptions pretty well...

…but is it as simple as that? ;)

Performing Jonah

When I finish markin the Isaiah essays I get to examine the last performances of texts from Genesis. Performing a text is a great way of assessing students on a synthetic task that is based on analytic groundwork.

Imagine if I’d been teaching Jonah and someone submitted this:

The story of Jonah from Corinth Baptist Church on Vimeo.

What comments would you suggest I make? In what ways is it a good performance? Where does it fail?

BTW there are no marks for the performance itself, i.e. was it a well-acted, filmed etc. only for how well the performance actually performs the Bible text. In the real thing a student would also submit a paper that supports their performance with exegetical evidence.