To my parents

The late Rev. James R. Troxel (1921–2011)

and Mrs Rosemary E. Wolfe Troxel


There are many ways to read a prophetic book. Early readers often cited individual oracles in the same way as today’s tabloids cite statements attributed to Nostradamus. For instance, a treatise written by the group that lived at the ancient site of Qumran, on the shores of the Dead Sea, quoted Isaiah 40:3’s call to prepare a way in the wilderness as anticipating their community (1QS 8.14), and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) quoted the same passage as presaging the work of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3; Matt. 3:3; Luke 3:4).

Another long-standing way of reading identifies a book’s structure and themes as keys to its messages. Characterizing a book’s literary units under terms like “judgment,” “salvation,” or “covenant” is one way of epitomizing its messages. Sometimes this type of reading presupposes that the prophets were vehicles of divine communication, but it has also been used in an attempt to evaluate an individual book’s contributions to a collection like the 12 shorter prophetic books or the entire corpus of prophetic books.

The prophets have also frequently been read as moral guides. This is consonant with their repeated emphasis on “justice and righteousness,” their calls for attending to the needs of society’s most vulnerable, and their criticisms of those who misuse religion, authority, and power for their own ends. The books’ varied forecasts of an age when injustices will be set right and flaws in the world’s structure cured imply ethical ideals. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, is probably the best-known exponent of this way of reading the prophets.

Conversely, it is possible to highlight the ideas and values in these books that strongly conflict with modern ethical standards. Feminist critics have rightly called attention to passages that ascribe degrading roles or qualities to women, since historically many men have used these to justify despicable treatment of women. Likewise, the prophets’ notion that the LORD sponsors or wages war grates on our sense of morality and deserves to be critiqued, and its use today scrutinized. The same is true of the notion that some nations enjoy divine favor while others do not, an idea already challenged by the prophet Amos. Highlighting these issues rightly cautions us against adopting the prophets’ norms without thinking critically about what their words endorse or have been used to justify.

In recent decades, a strong interest in studying the prophets as literature has arisen. Some readers look for literary devices betokening structural coherence that permits reading them as wholes. Whether such readings imagine how a book was understood by audiences in a particular historical period or suggest how the finished product can be read today, the focus is on how the book functions as literature.

While the current literary form of these books is the necessary starting point for any attempt to understand them, reading them on the literary plane alone leaves questions. How, for example, did the book of Nahum become part of the collection of the prophets when it takes such delight in the gory defeat of Nineveh? Why is the prophet Hosea ordered to take “a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom” (Hos. 1:2) and then told to take her back after losing her to another man (Hos. 3:1)? How do we explain Amos’s abrupt shift in tone in 9:11–15 where, after consistently condemning his audience in 1:1–9:14, he suddenly forecasts Jerusalem’s restoration and an ideal age (9:11–15)? How do we account for distinctive phrases that are shared among multiple books, such as, “The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem,” in Joel 3:16 and Amos 1:2?

This book addresses questions such as these in light of what we can perceive about how the prophetic books were composed. Doing so involves detecting editorial expansions, perceiving how oracles were arranged, and noting embedded “hyperlinks” to other books. Even if many traces of editing were so smoothly executed that they are undetectable, and the way back to the original wording of a particular passage is barred, enough hints survive about how the books evolved to shed light on their origins. Answering questions about what gave rise to these books does not provide the key that unlocks them, for the questions they raise are too many and varied to yield to one key. Nevertheless, addressing questions about what lies behind these books offers one way of reading them to be used alongside others.

The notion that these books arose through editing and expansion might seem sacrilegious to some readers. However, such observations, afforded by biblical scholarship, have led many people of faith to reframe rather than abandon confessions that these books mediate divine communication. This is not the place to pursue those questions, but a variety of helpful discussions of such issues are available (see, for example, Barton, 2007; McKenzie, 2005a; Roberts, 1979).

A couple of notes on terminology used in this volume might be helpful. The prophetic books stand in a collection most widely known as the Old Testament. That label, however, presumes a collection called the New Testament. The opposition of New Testament to Old Testament was constructed by Christian clerics of the third century to demean the older collection in favor of writings by early Christians. Owing to the resultant religious bias that the phrase “Old Testament” carries, contemporary scholars refer to this collection as “the Hebrew Bible,” a title recognizing that most of these books were written in Hebrew.

In the same vein, rather than identifying dates under the rubrics of BC and AD – the former meaning “before Christ” and the latter representing the Latin anno domini, “in the year of the Lord,” intended as a reference to Jesus of Nazareth – this book will utilize the more inclusive abbreviations commonplace in scholarship: BCE, “before the common era” (of Judaism and Christianity), and CE, “the common era.”

The English translation of the Bible used, unless otherwise indicated, is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), published by the National Council of Churches (1989). I am deeply grateful to the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches for granting permission to quote this translation extensively. Verses will be cited by the chapter and verse divisions found in English translations rather than by those found in medieval Hebrew manuscripts, which sometimes differ significantly.

Reading this book with the NRSV in hand will prove beneficial. The benefit of the NRSV, beyond its translation of Hebrew into contemporary English, is that its translators paid special attention to textual criticism (bold will be used for the first occurrence in a chapter of a word treated in the Glossary). Textual criticism is the art of evaluating differences in wording between manuscripts that have survived from as early as 200 BCE, with the goal of recovering the most likely wording for a passage. The NRSV does much of that legwork for us, although I will occasionally note that I prefer a different manuscript reading than the NRSV has chosen.

The NRSV, like most translations, uses small caps with LORD or Lord GOD. The personal name of Israel’s God, equivalent to the four English consonants YHWH (thus, called the Tetragrammaton, “four letters”), came to be considered too sacred to pronounce. In its place the religious community uttered a form of the Hebrew word for “lord.” Correlatively, it is conventional for translations to represent the Tetragrammaton with LORD. When the simple Hebrew word for “lord” stands before the Tetragrammaton, the convention is to translate the phrase with “Lord GOD.”

Occasionally it will prove useful to represent Hebrew words in English characters. In place of the technical system of transliteration used by scholars, I will use phonetic equivalents that are (hopefully) user-friendly for non-specialists.

Many people helped see this book to completion. The undergraduates in Prophets of the Bible, which I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 20 years, forced me to think regularly about the books of the prophets and how best to convey issues in studying them to non-specialists.

Andrew Humphreys of Routledge, formerly an editor at Wiley-Blackwell, first approached me with questions about what I would like to see in a textbook on the prophets and later offered me the opportunity to write the book. Upon his departure from Wiley-Blackwell, I gained the benefit of Rebecca Harkin as editor. She has been a wonderful support and sounding board. The entire process of conceiving and writing this book was greatly assisted by the numerous readers Andrew and Rebecca secured to read and comment on chapter drafts. I cannot express deeply enough the debt I owe these readers and editors.

During the final year of writing I was fortunate enough to have a graduate student as a project assistant. Mr Aaron West read every chapter, wrote detailed comments, pointed out weak arguments, corrected verse references, suggested clearer wording, and saved me from a multitude of embarrassments. In the final stages of preparing the manuscript for publication, Ms Laurien Berkeley scrutinized the text again, providing valuable refinements and removing additional problems. Having benefited from all this assistance, I am forced to acknowledge surviving flaws as mine alone.

My wife, Jacki, has been a steady support during the three years I have worked on this book, and she remains my closest confidant on all matters that are truly important. My sons, Ben and Bryan, provided me with visible reassurance that I have brought other projects to successful completion, so I could expect to finish this one, as well. Without a doubt, the project of seeing them to adulthood has been the most significant and rewarding of my life.

Among those to whom I owe the largest debt of gratitude are my parents, Mrs Rosemary E. Wolfe Troxel and the late Rev. James R. Troxel. From early on they taught me to cherish the Bible, acquainting me with its words more than any other book. When I was a child, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel were as familiar to me as family, even though their words filled me with mystery and fear. For the impetus to study the Bible and its prophets I am forever and profoundly grateful to my parents, who in so many ways set me on the path I have taken. In particular, with the death of my father fresh as I write, I am reminded that he was the first to teach me that the Bible must be studied in its original languages and historical contexts. To his memory and to my mother I lovingly dedicate this book.

Madison, Wisconsin
July 2011

Resource Acknowledgments

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The maps were created with Accordance Bible Atlas, © 2008 Oak Tree Software. Reproduced with permission.

The ancient Near East (created using Accordance Bible Atlas, ©2008 Oak Tree Software)


Israel and Judah (created using Accordance Bible Atlas, ©2008 Oak Tree Software)