Finally! I have been waiting to do this for a long time. And I am inviting you to be part of the learning experience.
I will summarize the framework for this project below, but this four-minute video does a better job than written words can do, so please watch it and then come back to read this letter. It includes the first reading report, something that is not part of the video podcast, so you need both the podcast and this letter to get the full picture.
Special Project Framework
This is the book:
Mark J. Boda & J. Gordon McConville (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012).
This is the basic idea:
- I aim to read this book in ten weeks (which would mean just over 90 pages per week).
- Once every two weeks I will write a report on what I am learning; in part these will be “extra editions”. I may still do a separate, “normal” Create a Learning Site letter next month on a different topic.
- If all goes well, the September issue of this letter will bring you the final report, which will include my Top Ten of most helpful and informative articles.
- I have not looked inside this book before I started reading, two weeks before this letter is due, so I may have to make adjustments to this plan; in that case this will be part of the learning experience.
This is what I hope to accomplish:
- I get up to date on scholarship dealing with the OT prophets and gain a number of new insights on the way, to be shared with you.
- It helps you and I to understand – and appreciate – the prophets better.
- You are inspired to do some serious reading yourself.
I wrote the intro above a few weeks before posting this, so I could start reading and include the first reading report – which is what follows:
Reading Report 1
Well, it took more time than I anticipated: more like eight hours per week instead of five. This still seems doable for the summer months, so I will stick with my plan.
Fact is, this dictionary is not a great place to start if you are looking for a first introduction to the prophets. Its articles assume too much that the reader is supposed to already know and it offers too much detail for the beginning reader. It is for people looking for a thorough introduction to the prophetic literature in the Old Testament, including the varied opinions of scholars in the past, the present, and the future.
Oh no, wait. It does not contain scholarly opinions of the future, since it is not a prophetic book itself. But it does contain a lot of detail and makes for heavy reading. Of course, as a reference work it wasn’t written to be read as a normal book. Still, I have quite enjoyed my reading so far (hmm… draw your own conclusions here about me).
The most important thing I have noticed in these two weeks may be this: this way of reading – knowing that I have to write something about what I read, or even just that I want to make some notes about it – greatly intensifies the reading and learning experience. I am far more concentrated in my reading. Afterwards I remember better what I have read. So this is one important takeaway from this project: I benefit more of my reading when I scribble a few notes every once in a while in Word or Evernote or on the back of an envelope.
Most articles seem to fit in one of these four categories:
- Introduction to a prophetic book (my favourite so far)
- Important theme in the prophets, such as animal imagery, angels, creation, death
- Background information
- Methodologies and approaches in biblical studies
Here are a few highlights I would like to pass on.
Daniel (Category: Introduction to a Prophetic Book)
Since I have only made it as far as the letter “E”, I have only read two articles in this category: Amos and Daniel. Both introductions made for an exciting read, even if the one on Daniel took the position that the book was not completed until the 2nd century BC, and therefore not by Daniel himself. The latter lived in the 6th century BC, 400 years earlier.
At least the author is cautious in his presentation and does not categorically reject an early date for the book: “Evidence regarding the date of the final form of Daniel is not clear-cut. A reasoned, and reasonable, defence can be made of either an early or late date” (p. 120).
I found it surprising that the article hardly offers any arguments for this date. The older argument, that the language of the book points to a late date, since it is too modern (relatively speaking, of course), is rebutted by the author. The whole case then leans rather heavily on the fact that this is what most scholars today believe – is that an argument?
In addition, there are considerations linked with Daniel 11 that may point in this direction as well. It certainly is an absolutely unique chapter in the Bible. Dated in the year 536 BC (see Dan. 10:1), the vision describes in detail what will happen in the next four centuries. No other passage in the prophets includes anywhere near this amount of detail regarding future events. After all, the prophets are not a Christian or Jewish alternative to soothsayers and astrologers. They did not publish future prognoses, but offered a call to repentance. I can therefore understand those interpreters who hesitate: this chapter seems out of character and it does not fit easily with the way God reveals (or not) in other places in Scripture.
So should we embrace a 2nd century date for the completion of Daniel after all (taking Daniel 11 as historical writing that was reformulated as prediction)?
Here is one more interesting detail to consider: near Qumran, in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, numerous ancient scrolls were found in 1948 and after. They include eight copies of the Prophet Daniel (so they must have quite liked him in Qumran). The oldest of these has been dated to the late 2nd century BC. So… within a few decades after the supposed completion of the book it was accepted by the Qumran community as authentic.
So an early date for the book after all?
I suppose the final word on the dating of Daniel will not be spoken or written for a long time…
The article on apocalyptic literature does not really fit the four categories that I listed earlier. Instead, it defines and explains a type of literature. Such a clarification is important, because the term is often used inconsistently. On top of this our popular culture likes to put the apocalyptic label on anything destructive or seriously bad that happens in our world, thereby adding to the confusion.
It has become common to use a definition proposed by the Society of Biblical Literature in 1979. It is dense and difficult, but worth reading several times and slowly:
A genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, and so far as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world. (p. 36)
Next to Daniel there are other passages In the Old Testament that partially fulfilled this definition and are therefore often considered prototypes or forerunners, such as Zechariah 1-8 and Ezekiel 40-48.
Unfortunately, the article reintroduces confusion by including passages like Isaiah 24-27 and Zechariah 9-14 as proto-apocalypses. It even designates Zechariah 14 “a full-blown apocalypse” (p. 42). This in spite of the fact that these passages only fulfil a single one of the criteria included in the definition: they describe an eschatological intervention by God. However, belief in such an intervention followed by a new age was so widespread among postexilic Jews that it is virtually a characteristic of Judaism at the time (including Jesus, Paul, and the early church), and not just of this one type of literature.
It seems quite misplaced to call such passages (or Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Mark 13) “apocalyptic” in the sense of the definition just given.
Chaos and Cosmology (Category: Background Information)
Especially the two articles “Chaos” and “Cosmology” reminded me of how important background information can be for understanding the Old Testament. People almost literally lived in a different world. Already the word cosmology makes this clear. Cosmos is the Greek word for the ordered world, the world we can live in. For us today this word cosmos refers first of all to the universe and not, or not exclusively, to the earth or to the inhabited world. And the earth we know to be a planet of spherical form circling around the sun.
In biblical times, this concept of space or universe was entirely unknown. And the earth was understood as something more like a disk surrounded by the chaos of an unformed ocean that was perceived as an ominous and threatening power. In mythology this ocean was often personified and portrayed as a frightening monster. It was against this evil power of chaos that the gods had to wage battle to put or keep it in its place.
Interestingly, both the prophets and the psalms play with this element, especially to portray God’s ultimate victory over the nations and over evil:
In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Is. 27:1, ESV)
The wording of this statement is very close to that in a Canaanite myth dealing with Baal’s fight with the sea god Yamm. The parallel is too close to be a coincidence: Isaiah is borrowing a mythological image, even though he gives it a new meaning.
This cosmic battle mythology can also be found in the New Testament. The dragon and the beast rising out of the sea in Revelation 12-13 reflect this same background and likewise are filled with new meaning.
In closing an example of how background information can help us to understand a text better. The example also illustrates how rich and powerful the prophetic language is.
Thus says the Lord: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.” (Am. 3:12, ESV)
It had been clear to me before that this statement is ironic. Not much will be saved! Two legs and a piece of an ear, this cannot really be considered a rescue. But there is more to it.
A leg and an ear are the sort of evidence a shepherd had to provide to prove that the missing animal had been killed by a wild animal, so he would not be liable. He would therefore try hard to “rescue” these parts – for his own sake. Likewise, the “rescued” rest of Israel, so Amos, will serve to prove that God’s judgement has indeed taken place.
I wish the dictionary would contain more of such gems!
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