Why Only in the Jewish Bible Did the Prophets Address the People?
It is well known that whereas ancient Near Eastern prophets (such as in eighteenth century BCE Mari and seventh century Assyria) almost always addressed the king, biblical prophets addressed not only the king (and occasionally other leadership groups or the wealthy), but primarily the people at large. It is further known that while ancient Near Eastern (ANE) prophets almost always addressed the king about cultic, political, and military issues, biblical prophets predominantly rebuked the people on moral concerns and paganism. Additionally, biblical prophets called for “return” to God and His commandments, prophesied redemption after destruction and exile, and proclaimed against foreign nations. It should be noted that it is generally agreed that a prophecy hails from a prophet who claims that a god revealed to him or her a message to be delivered to another person (or a group of people).
Why exactly were biblical prophets virtually unique in addressing the people as a whole? What is there about the Jewish Bible that explains why this phenomenon occurred only in the literature of ancient Israel and not elsewhere in the ANE?
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This article’s conclusions are connected to analyses found in chap. 4–6 in my recent book, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, JPS Essential Judaism (Philadelphia/Lincoln: Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press, 2017)—although the topic here does not appear in that book.
All dates are BCE—before the common or Christian era—unless otherwise indicated.
Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1965), including a reprint of his article “Israel” from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. See, for example, pp. 398–425, 482–513, and such comments as “They [the prophets] do not preach on set texts… their creed is not to be found in any book. It is barbarism . . . vain imagination to suppose that the prophets expounded and applied the law,” 398–99 (see below in the last section of this article, on Amos and Hosea), and “For what holiness required was not to do good, but to avoid sin,” p. 500—completely ignoring the counter-evidence of Lev. 19.
It is sufficient to cite here only a few examples of the convincing, sound methodological work of such scholars as Avi Hurvitz, The Transition Period in Biblical Hebrew: A Study in Post-Exilic Hebrew and Its Implications for the Dating of Psalms (Hebrew; Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1972); “The Evidence of Language in Dating the Priestly Code – A Linguistic Study in Technical Idioms and Terminology,” RB 81 (1974), 24–56; A Linguistic Study of the Relationship between the Priestly Source and the Book of Ezekiel: A New Approach to an Old Problem (CahRB 20; Paris: Gabalda, 1982); Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Innovations in the Writings of the Second Temple Period (SVT 160; Leiden: Brill, 2014); and others, for example, Frank Polak, “The Oral and the Written: Syntax, Stylistics and the Development of Biblical Prose Narrative,” JANES 26 (1998), 59–105, and Jan Joosten, “The Distinction between Classical and Late Biblical Hebrew as Reflected in Syntax,” Hebrew Studies 46 (2005), 327–39; “The Evolution of Literary Hebrew in Biblical Times: The Evidence of Pseudo-Classicisms,” in Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew, ed. C. Miller-Naudé and Z. Zevit (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012), 281–92. Attempts to question these works have been discredited on the grounds of insufficient evidence and poor methodology.
Nissinen, Martti, Prophets and Prophecies in the Ancient Near East, Writings from the Ancient World 12 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).
A prophet of Marduk stood at the gate of the palace [of Hammurabi], proclaiming incessantly: ‘Ishme- Dagan will not escape the hand of Marduk…’ This is what he kept proclaiming at the palace. [Nobo]dy said anything to him ... Directly he stood at the gate of Ishme-Dagan, proclaiming incessantly in the midst of the whole citizenry as follows:‘You went to the ruler of Elam to establish peaceful relations… you had the treasures of Marduk ... delivered to the ruler of Elam ... He who dissipates my treasures must not demand from [me mo]re!’ [As he] kept [pro]claiming [this] in the midst of [the whole] ci[tizenry, nobody] said anything to h[im].
Patrick D. Miller, Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays, JSOTS 267 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 512–13.
John S. Holladay, Jr., “Assyrian Statecraft and the Prophets of Israel,” HTR 63 (1970): 29–51. Holladay’s article and the perspectives therein are cited by, for example, Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (London: SPCK, 1984), who comments that “beginning with Amos, the prophets now direct their message for the most part to the entire people rather than to an individual; and they do so because of an entirely new situation then coming into existence on the international scene” (pp. 87–88). Here, he cites Holladay’s article in a fn in which Blenkinsopp says, p. 125, “Holladay . . . argues a con- nection with the Assyrian practice of holding the entire people rather than the ruler alone responsible for maintaining treaty obligations.” Similarly, Miller, Israelite Religion, 519 (italics below are in the article): “At least by the eighth century, prophetic oracles came to be directed against various segments of society or against the society as a whole. . . . In specific instances, the prophet moved to the center of the community and spoke to the larger whole, Elijah at Carmel, Amos at Bethel, Jeremiah at the temple in Jerusalem. With the data at hand, this move to a kind of popular prophecy, which one scholar has associated with developments in Assyrian statecraft [fn: “So Holladay, ‘Assyrian Statecraft’.”], cannot be claimed to be unique in Near Eastern prophecy, but its dominance in biblical prophecy represents a development not attested elsewhere.”
Ibid., 37. Italics in the original.
Ibid., 38. Italics in the original. 15. Ibid., 38–39.
Peter Machinist, “Assyria and its Image in First Isaiah,” JAOS 103 (1983), 719–37.
John T. Greene, The Role of the Messenger and Message in the Ancient Near East (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).
Eckart Otto, “Assyrian and Judean Identity: Beyond the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule,” Literature as Politics, Politics as Literature, eds. D. S. Vanderhooft and A. Winitzer (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 339–53, 344. Otto does not mention Holladay in this article, despite his affinity to Holladay’s perspective. Otto cites Parpola here, but Parpola’s view contradicts that of Otto—see note 26 below.
Moshe Weinfeld, “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East,” JAOS 90 (1970), 184–203.
Nissinen, Ibid., 122, “the covenant (ade) now refers to the treaty of the king with the citizens and vassals of Assyria, whose gods act as the witnesses of the treaty. What follows is a description of the meal of the covenant that was served on the temple terrace;” Simo Parpola, Assyrian Prophecies, State Archives of Assyria, vol. 9 (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1997), xix–xx, states: The text consists of five interrelated oracles, all by the same prophet, four of which are identified or identifiable as ‘words of Ishtar of Arbela.’ The middlemost oracle ... , however, deviates from the pattern. It begins with a reference to the king’s cry for divine help... . This oracle ... is the only oracle in the whole corpus ascribed to Asshur. In its subscript, it is defined as an oracle of well-being placed before ‘the Image,’ doubtless that of Asshur himself, and it is certainly no accident that the reference to the ‘covenant tablet of Asshur’ occurs immediately after it... . Clearly, then, [this] oracle ... constituted the essence of the ‘covenant tablet of Asshur.’ However, in the very next oracle ... , it is not Asshur but Ishtar of Arbela who actually concludes the covenant... . The formulation of the passage makes it clear that Ishtar is not acting as a mere mediator here. The covenant in question is between her and the other gods Accordingly, the phrasing of [this] oracle, considered with [the previous one], unquestionably implies that, in a way or another, Asshur and Ishtar were considered identical by the author of the text. On the other hand, in [the second oracle] ... and other oracles of the corpus, the Goddess refers to Asshur in the third person and thus evidently as a distinct divine entity How can two gods at the same time appear as identical yet distinct entities in one and the same text? Parpola goes on to posit that sometimes Asshur or Ishtar represents the totality of divinity and other times they are separate gods (p. xxi).
For example, Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, trans. and abridged M. Greenberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 212–16, 344–46; Ronald E. Clements, Prophecy and Covenant (London: SCM, 1965), 16, 23; George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1, ed. David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1179–201, particularly, p. 1186–87; Richard V. Bergren, The Prophets and the Law (Cincinnati: HUC-JIR, 1974), 221; Frank M. Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 15–21; Moshe Greenberg, Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: JPS, 1995),143; Moshe Weinfeld, “Ancient Near Eastern Patterns in Prophetic Literature,” Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, compiled David E. Orton (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 84–102 (origi- nally published VT 27 , 178–195), 95; Shalom Paul, Amos, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 22–24; David L. Petersen, “Prophet, Prophecy,” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, ed. K. D. Sakenfeld (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 622–48, particularly, 646–47; cp. William W. Hallo, “Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Literatures: A General Introduction,”Literature as Politics, Politics as Literature, ed. D. S. Vanderhooft and A. Winitzer (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 151–65, especially 158–59.
Translations here are based on the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translation—JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (Philadelphia: JPS, 1999)—with adjustments when deemed necessary by the author. Note that q is substituted for h in the Tetragrammaton, in accord with traditional Jewish practice.
Michael Fishbane, “Torah,” Encyclopedia Mikrait, vol. 8 (Hebrew; Jerusalem: Bialik, 1982), 469–83, 473.
For example: the Song of Moses (Deut. 32) influenced the beginning of Isaiah 1; Isa. 1:9–10; 3:9; 13:19 hear- kens back to both Gen. 18–19 and Deut. 32:32; Isa. 10:2 seems to reflect Exod. 23:6 (see also Deut. 24:17; 27:19); Isa. 24:5 speaks of instructions (the plural of torah), law, and covenant in one sentence (cf. also 33:8); Micah (ca. last quarter of the eighth century) refers to the Tenth Commandment—to not“covet”— (a rarely used term) in 2:2; Micah 3:4-5 mentions Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Balak, and Balaam—showing familiarity with Exodus and Numbers; Micah 6:10–11 juxtaposes an unjust ephah and a fraudulent weight in an accusation of the wicked who apparently transgress Deut. 25:13–15; Micah 6:15 mirrors Deut. 28:38–40; etc.
See chapters 2–6 in Unterman, Justice for All, cited in note 1 above.
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