Prophetic Voices

Ever heard of “literary forms”? Sure you have. You probably know at least two different forms: poetry and prose. Of course, these are not the only literary forms in existence. There are plays, fiction and non-fiction, songs (a subset of poetry, perhaps?), history, fables, myths, etc. There are even blogs. There are literary forms that we use today and forms that went out of style centuries ago. When we look at the writings accepted by the Judeo-Christian communities we can see many different literary forms. Don’t forget: we’re considering a library of writings, not just one big one. Different writings use different literary forms. One enormous mistake that readers of Scripture today make is to think that the literary forms used in this library of writings are identical to the ones we use today. They most certainly are not!

First and foremost, the Scriptures are not “history” in the sense we use it today. “Fact” in the ancient near eastern cultures did not mean what it means for us. They were decidedly not scientific, nor did they aspire to be. The writers of these books of Scripture were primarily interested in the meaning of events, rather than any detailed chronology. They wrote about the impact events had on the community and used the “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “why” of the narratives only as tools to explain why the community should care about what went on. So long as the meaning was conveyed, the details were of secondary importance — at best. Don’t forget that the oldest narratives were passed on as oral tradition. In many cases there were no scribes present jotting down “all the news that’s fit to print.” The books of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures that come closest to our modern concept of history are the so-called “historical books”: the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, and Maccabees.

Regardless, we should never take any of the Scriptures as “scientific” history. To do so is to distort the meaning and purpose of the writings and to open ourselves to all sorts of unnecessary anachronistic controversy as well as useless polemics. Trying to count up the years of the generations listed in the book of Genesis leads nowhere. Even more futile is to think that large sections of the Scriptures are history written in reverse — that is, a “history” of the future. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures — in spite of what so many of their defenders may claim — does not, and was never meant to, predict the future. That’s not what “prophecy” is; that’s not what prophecy is all about.

The entire body of Judeo-Christian Scriptures is truly prophetic: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (I’ll consider the Christian Scriptures in future articles). In order to appreciate better what this means, let’s take a look at the Prophets. Prophets were not “seers” in any modern sense of the term. They did not foretell the future. Instead, they were men (and women) who were extraordinarily perceptive and spiritually insightful enough to read the signs of the times. Their wisdom, in retrospect, could be said to be divinely inspired. They were able to see beyond the surface and expose the spiritual meaning behind the people and the events of their own day. They prayed about it. They spoke about it. They taught about it. They wrote about it. Their warnings carried with them an other-worldly wisdom. Their messages of consolation were powerful enough to encourage a whole people. They were, in a very literal sense, “prophetic voices.” We know relatively little about them as persons, but their messages carried with them a power that made the people take notice. In many cases, their words were sufficient to change the course of history.

What about the future? Didn’t the prophets predict what would happen? Yes, they did, but in two very different ways from what we might imagine. On the one hand, their warnings and words of consolation, born of a spiritual discernment, were true. “If you continue on this path, this will happen,” they warned. The people continued; the events happened. “Don’t despair,” they offered, “the Lord will not abandon you.” And God did not.

The second way that prophets predicted the future was much more subtle. The community discovered that, once the immediate situation had passed (whether it was a folly to be avoided or a calamity to recover from), the words of the prophets could be used over and over again to refer to ever new situations. The essence of prophetic literature is this: it is forever open to reinterpretation as history continues to unfold.

Were the prophets, then, aware of what would be happening in the far-distant future? I think not. Their awareness went deep — into the guts of the spiritual experience where God could be found. The real prophets were those in the Faith community who could be embroiled in the midst of a soul-wrenching calamity and come to an astounding awareness that this event exactly matched what the prophets of old were teaching and writing about. Every new generation, then, recognizes their own story in the prophetic writings of the past. That’s the essence of prophecy, and it’s the essence of all sacred Scripture. It is not a closed and dead collection of details (like a history of one of our many wars), but it lives and continues to speak and exert its power and influence in the current age as it will in ages to come. “We were slaves in Egypt . . . ” but the deliverance from slavery continues for us and for our children. The Creation stories answered the question, “Where did all this come from?” (interesting, perhaps, but hardly relevant), but, much more significantly, it answers the question, “Where did we (I and mine) come from?”

How do we know that all of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures are prophetic (can decipher the “signs of the times” for us)? Because the Faith communities to whom these teachings were addressed and for whom they were written have, from age to age, recognized in them their own Faith story. And that, dear friends, is why we read the Scriptures — not to get book-learning about stuff that happened millennia ago, but to learn about ourselves. It really doesn’t matter at all what “God said to so-and-so.” All that matters is what God whispers to us in the “still small voice” that comes to us as prophetic inspiration about where we are and where we’re going. Are there prophetic teachings and writings that are not included in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures? Yes, of course! But, for the Judeo-Christian communities, these writings hold a unique place because, as I’ve said before, the people created the Book while the Book created the people. We are in a unique relationship with this Book, because through it we find our place in the covenant: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

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