The Challenge of the Prophets

Welcome to the first installation of this year’s Vacation Bible School!  Over the next several weeks, Daily Theology will be bringing you all things bible.  Make sure to check back regularly for a variety of posts on the Hebrew Bible, the prophets, the Gospels, and more!

The Major Prophets

The prophetic books make up a significant portion of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, and a distinction is made between the major prophets and the minor prophets (the latter of which will be discussed in a later VBS post).  The Christian Old Testament identifies and groups the major prophets as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  Most Protestant biblical translations don’t include Baruch, and the Hebrew Bible places Lamentations and Daniel with the Writings and also leaves out Baruch.  While the prophetic books differ in time, social location, themes, and purpose, some common elements can be found.

Prophets were women and men who acted as God’s messengers, as intermediaries between God and God’s people.  The prophetic books consist of extended sayings and speeches – oral pronouncements to the public that were later written down, edited, and arranged.  The prophets speak on a variety of issues, including religious complacency and social justice.  They often employ a common speaking formula: “Thus says the Lord.”  This formula serves to give the prophets validity (“hear me, I am speaking on God’s account”) and signal to the public what they should be doing and how they should be acting in relation to God.

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool.

If you are willing, and obey, you should eat the good things of the Lord;

But if you refuse and resist, you shall be eaten by the word: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken! (1:18-20)

From the Prophet Jeremiah:

The word of the LORD came to me:

Go, cry out this message for Jerusalem to hear!  I remember the devotion of your youth, how you loved me as a bride, Following me in the wilderness, in a land unknown.

Israel was dedicated to the LORD, the first fruits of his harvest; All who ate of it were held guilty; evil befell them – oracle of the LORD.

Listen to the word of the Lord, house of Jacob!  All you clans of the house of Israel,

thus says the LORD: What fault did you ancestors find in me that they withdrew from me, Went after emptiness, and became empty themselves. (2: 1-5)

Both passages identify the prophets as messengers of God and instruct and exhort listeners to find their way back to God.

Since an in depth study of all of the major prophets isn’t possible here, I want to use the rest of this blog post to briefly raise the question of what might the prophets have to say to us in our modern day lives.  Here Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination[1] will be helpful.  Throughout the prophetic books we see the prophets, in imaginative and profound ways, consistently affirming justice and creating hope over and against a dominant culture that has lost sight of the importance of its relationship with God and with others.  Brueggemann identifies this type of dominant culture as a “royal consciousness” characterized by affluence, oppressive social policy, and a static religion.  I want to briefly touch on affluence.

These characteristics have parallels in our time.  In the consciousness of affluence, Brueggemann references King Solomon:  “Solomon was able to create a situation in which everything was already given, in which no future could be envisioned because everything was already present a hundredfold.”[2]  It’s not hard to recognize the role of affluence in our own society.  While the U.S. is one of the most affluent nations in the world, how this affluence is acquired and maintained can be troubling and destructive.  The race for affluence and influence – power – pits people against each other.  Brueggemann recognizes the types of relationships that existed under Solomon’s rule that bear a striking resemblance to our current communal relationships.  He says, “Covenanting that takes brothers and sisters seriously had been replaced by a consuming, which regards brothers and sisters as products to be used.”  People become nothing more than tools to be used or dismissed, depending on their ability to help our quest for wealth.  The culture of influence perpetuates a lie of stability and harmony, while in reality an increasing number of people live in poverty and suffer from hunger, homelessness, poverty, and lack of access to quality education and healthcare.  These people – the un-affluent, sick, poor, and disabled – are deemed disposable to the culture of affluence because they remind us of our own vulnerability and fragile economic positions.

Endemic to cultures of royal consciousness is a society falsely content and thus paralyzed to action.  As Bruggemann suggests, “The same royal consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is danger.  Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.”[3]  While I certainly would not go so far as to suggest that the U.S. government or any administration is totalitarian, Bruegemann’s assertion is significant in understanding the way in which the prophets helped and can help us reimagine our own society.  Social systems hoping to maintain the status quo help perpetuate the myth of affluence in order to keep their power intact and unchallenged. Consequently, anything that would challenge the status quo is feared.  The act of imagining, of forming new ideas and concepts about the way society should be is extremely dangerous to systems and structures of the status quo.  Imagination inhabits both the realm of unity (people across demographic, social, and economic lines can imagine) and infinite possibility (within the imagination, anything is possible).  Imaginative thinking will inevitably challenge systems of oppression.

What made the prophets so important, then, was their ability to offer new and creative ways of both criticizing society and imagining a new society.  Bruegemann identifies three tasks of the prophetic imagination in reshaping society. First, Brueggemann proposes that the prophet must “offer symbols that are adequate to confront the horror and massiveness of the experience that evokes numbness and requires denial.  The prophet provides a way in which the cover-up and the stonewalling can be ended.”[4]  Second, Brueggemann says that the prophet must “bring to the community the fear and the pain that individual persons want so desperately to share and to own but are not permitted to do so.”[5]  The prophet, then, works to deconstruct the societal denial of death and suffering.  This realization is important if any reshaping of society is to be possible.  Only by recognizing the reality of suffering will people be able to both share in the suffering of others, while at the same time, experiencing the full, liberative beauty of hope.

Finally, Brueggemann proposes that the prophet must “speak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us.”[6]  Both separate and connected to the prophet’s role in deconstructing denials of death, this final task of the prophet seeks to deconstruct the effects of a society that denies death and suffering.  In other words, the prophet uncovers not just the reality of physical death, but also the affluence-driven death that society creates without realizing it.  This final task is a direct criticism upon our continuous quest for money and possessions that view people as expendable, thus steamrolling all who hinder the quest for more.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 40.

[4] Ibid., 45, author’s emphasis.

[5] Brueggemann, 45.

[6] Ibid.