The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction

David L. Petersen Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville April 1, 2002

Petersen, professor of Old Testament at Emory University and newly elected president of the Society of Biblical Literature, has written a concise, informative, and serviceable introduction to the prophetic literature of the Bible. He synthesizes a wealth of knowledge into an easy-to-understand yet informed introduction. Written at the introductory level, his presentation will neither patronize nor overwhelm the beginning student. Instead he balances method and content by raising questions and summarizing various views.

His approach is historical, literary, and theological. He attempts to show how all three approaches complement each other. He follows the Christian canonical arrangement rather than that of the Hebrew Bible, where Joshua-Kings are part of the prophetic corpus. He does this because he understands prophetic literature to be the literature that grows out from Israel’s prophets. Because of this definition, in his last chapter he discusses the prophets who do not have books attributed to them (Elijah, Elisha, and others). Like the Hebrew Bible and proponents of canon criticism, Petersen treats the Minor Prophets as one document (“The Book of the Twelve”). He devotes individual chapters to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve.

An introductory chapter raises the salient issues concerning prophets and prophetic literature, for example, the nature of prophetic literature, the roles of the prophets, their historical and social setting, literary perspectives, form criticism, the growth of prophetic literature, and the theological and ethical issues of the prophets. His surveys are concise, his arguments are fair, and his conclusions often take mediating positions. While an introductory volume must of necessity be concise, one could wish that Petersen’s discussion of theological themes were more extensive. Even so, his treatment of the cosmic dimension of Yahweh’s kingship in the prophetic literature is especially insightful.

In the final chapter, “Prophetic Literature outside Prophetic Books,” he discusses the concept of Moses as a prophet. He points out that the Latter Prophets mention Moses, the greatest prophet (Deut. 34:10–12), only four times (Isa. 63:11–12; Jer. 15:1; Mic. 6:4; Mal. 4:4). He concludes from this that “a tradition of Moses as prophet was neither known nor influential in prophetic circles” (p. 221). He adds, “To be sure, some in ancient Israel maintained that Moses was like a prophet. But this conviction was shared neither by prophets nor by those who preserved and edited the literature attributed to them.” Opting for a tradition-historical and sociological explanation for this, Petersen pits the authors and editors of the Pentateuch against the prophets. He argues that the tradition of Moses as a prophet is polemical in nature, propelling the Torah to the first rank within the canon. He proposes that “the idea of a Mosaic prophet was designed to curtail the power and authority of those whom we know as prophets.” He adds, “To claim that Moses was a prophet is, finally, to maintain that Israel witnessed only one individual who spoke the constitutive word from Yahweh. For the authors and the editors of the Pentateuch, the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve pale as literature in comparison. This view highlights Torah and tends to diminish the authority of the more historically contingent oracles and sayings of the prophets” (p. 226).

Most evangelicals will find this proposal and its presuppositions concerning the dating and nature of the biblical literature problematic. While the paucity of references to Moses by name in the Latter Prophets is striking, one should not make too much of this. After all, apart from Malachi 4:5, Elijah is not mentioned in the Latter Prophets and Elisha’s name is omitted entirely. Furthermore greater literary sensitivity will detect the presence of allusions to Moses as a prophetic figure. This is especially the case in the Servant Songs, where the servant is cast in the role of a new Moses. See, for example, Gordon Hugenberger, “The Servant of the Lord in the ‘Servant Songs’ of Isaiah: A Second Moses Figure,” in The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts, ed. P. E. Satterthwaite, R. S. Hess, and Gordon J. Wenham (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995), 105–40. Hugenberger concludes that the Mosaic allusions in the Songs suggest “an identification of the servant with the expected ‘prophet like Moses’ mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:14ff. and 34:10ff.” (ibid., 138). Also if one follows the Jewish canonical arrangement, one notices that Moses’ name frequently occurs in the Former Prophets. If these books reflect deuteronomic thinking, their witness would be no less valuable than Jeremiah, who never mentions Moses by name.

In an epilogue addressing the legacy of the prophets Petersen concludes that the most lasting “legacy of prophetic literature is not its literary predecessors, nor apocalyptic eschatology, nor the expectation for the return of the prophets. It is the literature itself, which, like a faceted gemstone, can appear so differently when it is turned in the light” (p. 240). The literature does indeed deserve high praise, but more so the One who stands behind it. Its real legacy is the breathtaking vision that it provides of the sovereign God who rules over the world He created, relates to human beings through covenant, violently opposes those who selfishly seek their own well-being at the expense of others, ultimately will crush those who oppose His righteous standard, and will establish His kingdom of peace on the earth. 

—Jake R. McCarty with Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

October 1, 2004

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2004 vol. 161 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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