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How The Bible’s Prophetic Literature is Like a Scrapbook

The prophetic performances of the classical Hebrew prophets have been collected in a series of scrolls. Written texts were simply the Iron Age’s version of a recording device.
All manner of oral performances – stories, priestly teachings, songs, prayers, traditions that they claimed had been originally spoken by Moses – were translated through the, then, new technology of alphabetic writing into ink symbols.

Then the incredible thing happened. A reader-proclaimer opened the scroll and “played” the text for the audience. Through the software of writing, the voice of Moses continued to speak through the generations.

And another incredible thing about this process was this: In the early centuries of literacy – before there was any idea of a fixed canon – those written symbols were not a verbatim script. Some sections of the scroll were complete texts; other sections were merely prompts for the reader-proclaimer.

There are plenty of these latter parenthetical remarks and asides in the text of Scripture.

For instance, out of the blue, in Judges 3:31, we hear, “After [Ehud, one of the judges] came Shamgar, son of Anath, who killed six hundred of the Philistines with an ox goad.”

That’s all the text says. Why did biblical scribes preserve such a single dry bone of story?

Because that was all that was necessary to remind the reader-proclaimer to pause here and add the sinew, bones, flesh of detail necessary to make Shamgar come alive.

The contents of the prophetic scrolls represent, in the biblical scholar William Holladay’s term, “scrapbooks.”

Do you still have that scrapbook from high school, the one with the ticket stub from the concert on one page, the picture of mashed-up faces from the photo booth on another, the dried-up prom corsage on still another?

The prophetic scrapbooks include poems, prose, prayers, songs, proverbs and stories.

Consider the contents of one prophetic scroll, Amos. It begins with a long poem that takes up two full chapters: the Day of the Lord ballad.

The scroll also includes accounts of visions, mock trial speeches, a hymn and in Amos 7:10-17 a story about Amos’s showdown with a royal priest at the shrine of Bethel.

There are three large scrapbooks – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, collectively referred to as the Major Prophets because of their length – and a fourth group, the Book of the Twelve, also known as the Minor (that is, briefer) Prophets.

The latter set of scrolls emerged independently of each other but have been sitting together through the canonical journey for so long that they are often viewed collectively.

The combined contents of the Twelve – Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi – are roughly equal to one of the major prophetic scrolls in length, imparting a scribal symmetry to this section of the canon.

We should note that in Christian Bibles, the Latter Prophets section differs slightly but significantly from that of the Jewish Bible.

The Christian Bible has cut two books, Lamentations and Daniel, from the third section of the Jewish Bible, the Writings (Ketuvim), and pasted them into the Prophets. Lamentations follows Jeremiah in Christian Bibles because this poetic elegy for a fallen Jerusalem was traditionally attributed to Jeremiah.

More significantly, the book of Daniel, a late addition to the Jewish canon consisting of a generic tangle of fables and visions that abruptly shifts between Aramaic and Hebrew and is located among the miscellany of the Writings, is counted among the Major Prophets in the Christian Bible.

The Jewish shrub has grown into a Christian sequoia, and the reason is because Daniel’s apocalyptic visions peopled by the Ancient of Days, a Son of Man, angelic Watchers and archangels, Michael and Gabriel, always remained esoteric in Judaism, an acquired taste for certain sectarians in their desert communes, while in Christianity the apocalyptic mood was always and ever at the center of the movement.

These scrolls are the products of a subculture of dissent, of a network of social and religious critics and activists who lived in the highlands of Samaria and Judah in the Iron Age and shared an art form, the versification of the divine word.

Hebrew prophecy has had a dramatic impact on human culture. The prophets’ eloquent demand for “justice and righteousness” (that is, care for the poor) to this day animates activism by humanists and theists, their courageous insistence that royal power be checked by prophetic critique is one of the foundations for constitutional government, and their stringent demand for sole allegiance to the singular but complex Ultimate they knew by the name YHWH allowed for the severe religion of ancient Israel to survive intact from the Axial Age and give birth to Judaism, Christianity and Islam while so many of its polytheistic peer traditions eventually undone by their kindly tolerance for assimilation.

Earlier we mentioned the varied contents of the book of Amos. That book begins and ends with references to an earthquake (Amos 1:1 and 9:1-9). The exact year of such an earthquake is unknown (760 B.C. has been suggested), but archaeological evidence of this geologic event exists.

Did this earthquake, so severe that it was recalled centuries later (Zechariah 14:5), offer cosmic validation of Amos’ preaching?

We cannot know.

Still, even today one can feel the aftershocks of Amos, the first in a brilliant succession of biblical prophets whose words and performances, now preserved in written form, have left their indelible stamp on later thought about God and human history.

Gregory Mobley is professor of Christian Bible at Andover Newton Theological School. This column is an excerpt from his book, “The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible” (Eerdmans, 2012). It’s available at Amazon.com.

Editor’s note: Mobley’s previous column on the Hebrew prophets as performing artists can be found here.