The Roles of Israel’s Prophets

Written by David L. Petersen Reviewed By Pete Diamond

This study by David Petersen represents an attempt to address critical issues about the nature of Israelite prophecy by drawing on analytical models from contemporary sociology and anthropology. As such, Petersen’s study fits into a whole group of recent attempts to illuminate biblical studies by this interdisciplinary approach. Among these, one thinks particularly of N. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh. A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 BCE; R. Carroll, When Prophecy Failed. Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament; and R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. For the student who would like an over-all introduction to this trend in contemporary Old Testment studies, John Rogerson’s Anthropology and the Old Testament is to be highly recommended.

The basic aim of the book is to contribute to the construction of a critical theory of Israelite prophecy by utilizing contemporary models of role theory developed by sociologists and anthropologists. The first two chapters provide a basic introduction to the problems inherent in past theoretical discussion of prophecy as well as a sketch of role theory itself with indications of how the author sees the applicability of such theory to the analysis of Old Testament prophecy. We found this part of the book the most helpful and illuminating. His discussion of the problems of older scholarship’s use of categories such as ‘office’ and ‘charisma’ to characterize prophecy as well as that of ‘ecstasy’ are very worthwhile pieces of criticism and provide a good illustration of the benefit to be had by Old Testament studies through recourse to other disciplines.

The rest of the book is taken up with the application of role theory to biblical materials. D. L. Petersen proceeds by isolating what he sees as four major terms for ‘prophet’ in the Old Testament: rō’eh (seer); ’iš (ha)’elōhim (man of God); hōzeh (seer-prophet); nabi’ (prophet). Each of these terms are evaluated as a role label and through higher critical exegetical methods a picture of the role is built up and then compared to the role theory categories particularly articulated by I. Lewis in Ecstatic Religion. An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. For the first two terms rō’eh and ’iš(ha)’elōhim, he distinguishes two separate roles with the former understood from 1 Samuel 9 as an ‘urban maintainance figure’ whose services are available through the payment of fee (pp. 38–39) and the latter understood on the basis of the Elijah-Elisha narratives as holy men to be labelled with Lewis’ term as ‘peripheral prophet’ (p. 43). Here the idea is of a role of ‘secondary importance when compared with the central institutions of the society, and when compared with the classes of highest status in the society’ (p. 44). One is given the picture of an oppressed religious minority produced through internal societal pressures, collected around a shaman-like or charismatic leader as a form of self-preservation and protest against the central institutions of the society (pp. 49–50).

The remaining terms hōzeh and nabi’ are understood differently from the previous two. Unlike the other two terms, both of these terms refer to the same role of ‘central morality prophet’ (p. 63). However, they are not merely synonymous; rather they represent two distinct ways of articulating this one role with hōzeh being the characteristic articulation of Judah, and nabi’ the characteristic articulation appropriate to the ‘symbolic universe’ or world-view peculiar to Israel. By central morality prophet, Petersen understands individuals; who ‘… enact their role in response to generally felt crises. Enacting their role as individuals apart from a group context, such prophets regularly speak on behalf of values central to society and on behalf of the god who sanctions the moral structure of the society’ (p. 68). Crucial to Petersen’s understanding is the ability successfully to identify the key features which distinguished the conceptualization of the Israelite nabi’ and the Judahite hōzeh and then go on to show how these two conceptions gradually merged after the fall of the northern kingdom.

Though clearly written and cognizant of the complexity of carrying out such a cross-disciplinary investigation, Petersen’s study is largely dissatisfying and unconvincing. Here we can only briefly indicate some of its problematical features. No adequate indication is given as to the nature of the societies upon which Lewis developed his role model of peripheral and central-morality prophecy and how analogous or disparate those societies are to Monarchic Israelite society. If general social analogies are tenuous, this might raise serious methodological difficulties for the transfer of analytical models developed on the basis of one society to the other. One must also bear in mind the limits of what can be achieved sociologically and anthropologically when our primary information about Israelite society rests upon literary materials alone which have clearly been written with religious and theological aims uppermost This requires a great deal of caution in the use of such texts for other purposes such as sociological analysis.

But Petersen does not appear to have been cautious enough. And it seems that much of the biblical evidence is forced to fit within his role models. Granted, the literary evidence has gone through a complex process of growth; yet even accepting the stages of growth isolated by Petersen, it is still not clear that four labels for prophet refer to substantively different roles or that they can be referred to specific northern or southern kingdom orientations. For example, the folktale of an unnamed seer in 1 Samuel 9 which Petersen isolates still refers to this unnamed functionary as both rō’eh and ’iš(ha)’elōhim describing the one functionary by two role labels. Petersen’s attempt to treat ’iš(ga) ‘elōhim as a later glossing over of an original rō’eh looks like a piece of special pleading with weak textual warrant. Further, Isaiah 40:10 places rō’eh and hō zeh in parallelism suggesting at least the kind of double label use which Petersen sees between hō zeh and nabi’. Again, while Elijah is clearly labeled as ’iš (ha)’ėlō him, he also labels himself in 1 Kings 18:22 as nabi’. Data such as this tend to suggest invalidity to the kinds of distinctions that Petersen wants to assert. Further, the label ‘peripheral prophet’ for Elijah and Elisha gives too little place to their key role in the political fortunes of Israel (Petersen recognizes the poor fit here). These are more than just confrontations between a religious leader of a minority sectarian group and the label of ‘central morality prophet’ for a prophet like Jeremiah who is in direct confrontation with the central institutions and popular religious feelings of the day does not seem adequate. Jeremiah’s contemporaries apparently did not perceive the prophet as promoting the values which were considered central for the society. Again, Amaziah’s rebuke of Amos (7:10–16) to go and function as hōzeh in Judah does not seem as if it is predicated on the idea of Judah as the proper place for a hōzeh. This appears to read too much between the lines. Verse 13 ’seems to explicitly predicate the rebuke on the impropriety of prophesying doom against the royal cult.

For these kinds of reasons, it is suggested that Petersen’s role theory labels really do not provide adequate models for the construction of a critical theory of prophecy. Apart from the introductory chapters on theory and method we suggest that Petersen’s book will not be very helpful for the general readership of this journal.

Pete Diamond

Research student at Cambridge University