The Major Prophets
The Major Prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. These books were declared “major” because of the amount of text, and not because they were considered more important than the “minor” prophetic books. The Old Testament prophet tended to be revealed during times of crisis. God used the prophets to provide direction and wisdom during times of crisis. They were also used by God to remind the people of their covenantal promises.
The relevance of biblical prophecy is not only the information revealed to the audience about the circumstances being faced in their time or in a time to come, but also what the message reveals about the nature of God. Prophecy in the Bible is part of God’s self-revelation, by which we come to know God through what he has done in the past and what He plans to do in the future.
The Minor Prophets include Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The books of the major and minor prophets were considered to be part of the “classical prophecy” era of the Old Testament. The classical prophecy era began in the eighth century during the reign of Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos and Hosea were the earliest examples in the north, while Micah and Isaiah were the first known classical prophets in the southern kingdom of Judah. These prophets addressed both the king and the people and became social-spiritual commentators for the Jewish people.
The events narrated in the books Joshua through Kings tell the story of Israel’s statehood. At the beginning, the people are a migrant wilderness group. As told in the book bearing his name, Joshua moves them into Canaan. Judges recounts the difficulty of settling the land and defending it against various enemies. The books of Samuel relate the rise of kingship in Israel, and the books of Kings relate the history of the monarchy, including Israel’s division into two kingdoms and the destruction of each by foreign powers. The Torah and Former Prophets are called the Primary History, a comprehensive creation-to-exile account of Israel’s story. There is another account of the story, called the Chronicler’s History, which we will cover in RTOT Part 3, “The Writings.”
We will track two main issues through the Former Prophets. One is the theological perspective of the writers and compilers of this account. By recognizing the outlook governing its composition, we can better understand the intent of the story. The theological perspective of the Former Prophets was largely shaped by the Deuteronomist, which we examined in RTOT Chapter 5.
The other issue, not unrelated to the first, is the relationship between this theological literature and the history of events. The Former Prophets may be termed history, but the writers were not creating documentary history. They were believers in Yhwh, it was their conviction that Yhwh was active in Israel’s history, and that is how they told the story. They believed that cause and effect accounted for historical outcomes, but their analysis included divine causality in addition to human power politics and economic factors.
Major prophets and Daniel
Ezekiel confronts the elders. In the Lives of the Prophets, Ezekiel is eventually martyred for his denunciations.
Isaiah. Following the tradition found in the Jewish sections of the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah, the text reports that this prophet was killed by being sawed in two under the evil King Manasseh of Judah. A tradition is preserved that the miraculous powers of the waters of the Pool of Siloam (see John 9) were initiated as a result of Isaiah’s prayer.
Jeremiah. Having escaped death several times previously, Jeremiah was later stoned to death by “his people” at Taphnai in Egypt and buried in honor near Pharaoh’s palace, because his prayers had delivered the Egyptians from poisonous snakes and other plagues. His relics were reportedly moved to Alexandria and placed in a circle around the city, which was consequently likewise protected from asps and crocodiles.
A Christian addition to the text indicates that Jeremiah prophesied to the Egyptians concerning a savior who would be born of a virgin in a manger. The prophet is also greatly praised in more traditionally Jewish terms, and is said to dwell in the next world with Moses.
Ezekiel. This great prophet is said to have died in Babylonia where “the leader of the Israelite exiles” killed him after being reproved for worshiping of idols. Ezekiel was reportedly buried in the grave of Shem, after which the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron was modeled. The text also preserves an alternate tradition that Ezekiel was killed by an unidentified member of either the tribe of Dan or Gad, who had blamed him for cursing their children and flocks.
Daniel. This prophet was apparently unmarried, a “chaste man,” whom the Jews of his day believed to be a eunuch. Various legends from the Book of Daniel are repeated and expanded upon. Daniel is reported to have died of natural causes and was buried with great honor in the royal tombs of Babylon.
Hosea. Born of the tribe of Issachar, Hosea also died of natural causes and was buried in his home town of Belemoth. The text records an extra-biblical prophecy of Hosea, possibly of Christian origin, that “the Lord would arrive upon the earth if ever the oak which is in Shiloh were divided from itself.” Some manuscripts add that twelve oaks indeed came from this one.
Micah was another of the prophets who became a martyr, according the the account of the Lives of the Prophets.
Micah. He is reported to have been killed by Joram of Israel, the son of King Ahab, after Micah rebuked him for Ahab’s impiety. And was reportedly buried in his home district on the “burial ground of the Anakim”—the race of giants who were conquered by Caleb. The story of Joram’s killing Micah is unlikely, however, since Micah prophesied around 735–700 B.C.E., more than a century after Joram’s reign. The author may confuse this Micah with Micaiah son of Imlah, who was indeed a thorn in Ahab’s side (1 Kings 22:1)
Amos. This northern prophet was tortured severely by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, against whom Amos had prophesied. He was then mortally wounded with a club by Amaziah’s son. Amos was able to make his way back to his own district of Tekoa, where he soon died and was buried there.
Joel. Died in peace and was buried the territory of Reuben.
Obadiah. Said to be the same Obadiah who was once the steward of King Ahab’s palace, he is identified as a disciple of Elijah from the area near Shechem who later left the evil king’s service, became a prophet, and wrote the Book of Obadiah.
Jonah. He reportedly lived during the time of Elijah and hailed from a village near the Greek city of Azotus. The fact that the text here mentions Elijah’s resurrection of a widow’s son may be the source of a rabbinical tradition that this child was Jonah. In any case, after his time at Nineveh, Jonah traveled with his mother and lived among the Gentiles, feeling embarrassed because, “I spoke falsely in prophesying against the great city of Nineveh.” The text also gives an otherwise unreported prophecy of Jonah: “When they see a stone crying out, the end will be at hand, and when they see all the Gentiles in Jerusalem, the entire city will be razed to the ground. Returning to the land of Judah after the famine of Elijah’s day, Jonah buried his mother near Deborah’s Oak and was himself buried in the cave of Kenaz, the relative of Caleb.
Nahum. Probably based on the Book of Nahum’s prophecies concerning Nineveh, Nahum is described as Jonah’s successor as God’s prophet of doom to that city. Nahum predicted that the city would be destroyed by fresh water and an underground fire. Unlike the embarrassed Jonah, Nahum spoke truly, as the author reports that the lake which surrounded Nineveh inundated it during an earthquake, and a forest fire spread to the upper city. Nahum, too, died in peace and was buried in his own district.
Habakkuk. This prophet fled from Jerusalem in the face of Nebuchadnezzar II’s advance and lived in exile “in the land of Ishmael.” He later went to Babylon, where he was acquainted with the prophet Daniel.
Zephaniah. The book which bears his name is very briefly summarized and it is reported that “he died and was buried in his field.”
Haggai. This prophet came from Babylon to Jerusalem, as a youth and witnessed the rebuilding of the Temple. He was buried in honor in the tomb of the Jewish priests.
Zechariah. He returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia as an old man and became a very active prophet in the holy city. It was he who named Shealtiel’s son Zerubbabel and blessed him. The text claims that Zechariah had earlier prophesied the victories of Cyrus the Great of Persia and his role in allowing the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem. He died at a great age and was buried near Haggai.
Malachi. A man of great piety and physical appeal, Malachi was given his name, which means angel, not by his parents but by his people. His prophecies were always confirmed on the same day by an angel of God. He died, apparently of natural causes, while still young.
The Lives of the Prophets reports that Nathan (left) tried to warn King David ahead of time not to sin with Bathsheba, but was prevented from doing so by the Devil.
Nathan. It was Nathan who taught King David the Law of Moses. He foresaw that David would sin with Bathsheba but was hindered from warning him by the Devil. Nathan died of natural causes when he was very old.
Elijah. Described as a descendant of Aaron, Elijah’s father, Shobach, had a vision of angelic figures wrapping his child in fire and feeding him with flames. Some manuscripts go on to summarize Elijah’s biblical ministry. The story of his resurrection of the widow’s son is detailed in the section on Jonah.
Elisha. When this prophet was born in Gilgal, the infamous golden calf bellowed so shrilly that it was heard in Jerusalem. As in the case of Elijah, some manuscripts summarize his activities as described in the Bible. At his death, Elisha was buried in the northern capital of Samaria.
Zechariah son of Jehoiada. This Zechariah was the high priest’s son who denounced his cousin, King Jehoash of Judah, and was immediately stoned to death in the Temple courtyard. He was buried with his father Jehoiada. From that time on several unspecified bad omens occurred in the Temple, and the priests’ visionary and oracular powers of the priests came to an end.
FIGURE 2 Torah–Prophets Collections
The Primary History can be subdivided in a variety of ways. Each implies a different relationship between promise and fulfillment, as well as differently reconstructed composition histories.
Some authorities believe that Joshua, the story of capturing Canaan, should be attached to the Pentateuch because it brings the promise of land to fulfillment. This would make the Hexateuch, a six-book unit, the major structural unit. Friedman (1998) finds evidence for a literary source that spans the Torah and the Former Prophets, which he calls “the hidden book.” Essentially, it consists of the Yahwist source of the Torah combined with selected texts from Joshua through 1 Kings. Others believe that Deuteronomy was once attached to the Former Prophets. This would have made Genesis through Numbers a more natural collection too, called the Tetrateuch, a four-book unit. We have seen that the classical literary sources J, E, and P constitute these books, whereas the book of Deuteronomy stands apart for a number of reasons Of course, neither a Tetrateuch nor a Hexateuch emerged within the canonical tradition; instead, the Pentateuch collection, a five-book unit, won the day.
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The standard theory of the Deuteronomistic History says that the writer responsible for compiling this history added Deuteronomy 1:1–4:40 and Chapters 29–34 to an earlier form of Deuteronomy after it came to be used as the preface to the entire Deuteronomistic History. According to this view, the Deuteronomistic History was completed shortly after the latest event mentioned in the book of Kings. That event was the release of Judah’s king Jehoiachin from Babylonian incarceration in 561 BCE.
Much study has focused on the perspective and theme of the Deuteronomistic History. Noth (1943) was the first scholar to develop the theory of a Deuteronomistic History. He argues that the DH was composed to explain why the nation of Israel was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The story, he claims, focuses on the idolatry of Israel’s kings and people and explains why Yhwh allowed judgment to come upon them. Written to the Judean refugees of the Babylonian exile, the DH justified God and at least provided the assurance to the exiles that what happened happened for a reason.
Von Rad (1962) found a more positive motivation behind the DH. In addition to the theme of judgment, which is most definitely present in the DH, von Rad suggests that grace was also there. Hope for the future was based on the covenant that Yhwh had made with the house of David. That hope was still alive in the person of Jehoiachin. Von Rad argues that the release of Jehoiachin from prison, the note on which the book ends, was intended to inspire the exiles.
Wolff (1982) suggests that there is more to the purpose of the DH than justifying God’s judgment or providing hope based on the Davidic covenant. He argues that the DH is essentially a call to repentance. It urges the exiles to turn from their disregard of God and change their fundamental disposition. Only in this way would God restore his people to the covenant.
It is unrealistic to try to reduce such a complex work as the DH to one or two overarching themes. What these scholars have done is demonstrate the presence of certain significant themes that interweave the books of the DH. As you read the DH, be alert to the themes of God’s judgment on apostasy, God’s commitment to the house of David, and God’s call to repentance.
The presence of what seem to be multiple themes probably reflects a complex history of composition. The writers of the DH drew from many different sources and blocks of tradition. Within the individual books of the DH there are references to source books such as the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. And the individual books vary in tone, further evidencing development. A comparison of Joshua and Judges, for example, demonstrates how different in character and outlook they are while both still have Deuteronomic characteristics.
Cross (1973) gives one account of the complex editing of the DH. He theorizes that there were two editions of the DH. The first edition was shaped by a Deuteronomistic editor (Dtr1) during the reign of Josiah (640–609 BCE). Its governing themes were the effects of the sin of Jeroboam, who authorized Baal worship in the northern kingdom, and Yhwh’s commitment to the house of David in the southern kingdom. It was written to be the inspiration for the reform program of Josiah.
The second edition was completed during the exile (around 550 BCE). It consisted of a modest rewriting of the first edition by a second Deuteronomistic editor (Dtr2). It reflects a more sober assessment of the future; it updated the earlier
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edition by adding the events that followed the reign of Josiah. This more complete telling of the history of Israel and Judah becomes the occasion to enjoin the exiles to live faithfully.
The precise setting, intent, and composition history of the Deuteronomistic History is still under discussion, but its broad philosophy of history is not. The DH tells us that Israel prospered as a nation when the people, and especially its leadership, adhered to the terms of the covenant that Yhwh had made with the people at Mount Sinai. If the nation was faithful, they experienced prosperity. If the nation ran into difficulty, it was because they had neglected the service of its God. The consequences of history are laid out explicitly in the blessings and curses of the Torah, most clearly in Deuteronomy 27–28. A consistent pattern was seen to work out in history. If the people sinned, God sent punishment. If the people then repented, God sent deliverance. If the people got in trouble, God was always there to help but only if they reaffirmed their covenant commitment. Israel at times experienced God’s favor and at other times his wrath. But they were never disowned.
This historical cycle is called the Deuteronomic theme and can be summarized by the four arcs of the cycle: sin, punishment, repentance, and deliverance (see Figure 3). This outlook made wonderful sense of the ups and downs of Israel’s historical experience. Moreover, it provided a measure of control over the future. How the nation would fare was up to the people and their faithfulness. Although the DH maintains this consistent overall perspective, each of the four books has its own literary unity, historical focus, compositional style, and theological nuance. These will be unpacked as we examine each of the books in turn.
The documents of the Hebrew Bible that deal with the rise of Israel and the events of the monarchy are not first of all journalistic in nature. Both the Deuteronomistic History and the Chronicler’s History (CH) drew upon historical sources such as court chronicles and lists. But the DH and CH themselves are ideological literature; that is, they bring a certain perspective to bear on the telling. These works may thus tell us a great deal about the spirit of their times and the perspective of the writers in addition to the events of national history. There is a strong tendency in modern studies to view the DH as theological literature as much as historical chronicle. Because the account of Israel’s history is so strongly shaped by the lesson that the writers wanted to teach, students of the text are eager to find independent corroboration to aid in reconstructing what really happened.
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Archaeology was of limited utility when we studied the Torah. External historical documentation and archaeological data were circumstantial at best. As we saw, the likes of Noah, Abraham, and Moses have no independent verification, and even the sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt has nothing to specifically confirm it outside the Bible. This situation changes with the prophetic literature. There is more to work with, and the substantial amount of external evidence available to us in the form of archaeological data and inscriptional documentation has prompted both an appreciation of the biblical text and a reevaluation of the biblical data. This in turn has given rise to new approaches to the history and religion of biblical Israel.
The DH tracks Israel’s history from the end of the wilderness wandering (1200s BCE) to the end of the kingdom of Judah (587 BCE), but no external references exist until relatively late in the event stream. The first solid evidence appears during the time of Omri, an Israelite king of the 800s. This does not mean that the biblical story is necessarily inaccurate or that its players did not exist. Reasonable historians are quick to point out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Still, it is fair to say that the climate in modern biblical studies lends itself to historical skepticism given the arguably ideological nature of the texts and the ambiguous witness of external evidence.
The academic study of the ancient Middle East for the most part has divorced itself from the goal that it had in earlier times, that of reinforcing the accuracy of the biblical text. Today, Palestinian archaeology and textual studies are pursued largely as disciplines independent of a biblical or religious agenda. However, they retain a utility for those in biblical studies because they serve to build a context for Israel’s story. Conditions in Palestine from the time of Israel’s entry into the land until the end of the biblical period have been brightly illuminated by the social sciences though a great deal of work remains to be done. Archaeology has clarified the patterns of settlement, the movements of peoples, population densities, and material culture in all its variations. Social anthropology has defined the nature of tribal societies, patterns of nomadism and urbanization, economic and political processes, and the formation and organization of nation-states. Historical and textual analysis of official and popular documents clarify political, economic, and social conditions. These disciplines will continue to indirectly illuminate the biblical story from the outside.
The question of how accurately the biblical text represents historical events, and even if it represents them at all, has become a hot issue in biblical studies. One scholar has even called it “the crisis of history in the study of Jewish origins” (see Shanks, 2000). Three labels have attached themselves to the main positions though these are broad characterizations. Biblical maximilists would take a position that the biblical text accurately represents history and that at least some of the texts were written contemporaneously with the events. The classic hard form of this is represented, for example, by Bright’s History of Israel (1959), and it is also associated with the names W. F. Albright and G. E. Wright (we might call it the “right” school of Israelite history). Biblical minimalists, associated with scholars such as T. L. Thompson and N. P. Lemche, take a revisionist approach and argue that there was no “early Israel” at all, and no Israelite state before the ninth century BCE. With a radically late dating, they claim that the text as we have it was written in the Hellenistic period. Centrists such as I. Finkelstein