Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Prophets' Call to Awaken (4/13/08)

The Prophets’ Call to Awaken
John Shuck
April 13th, 2008

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

During the month of April we are reading the Minor Prophets or the Scroll of the Twelve.   This is part of our quest to cover the Bible in a year.  I have been devoting Sunday mornings to highlighting tidbits from the selections assigned for each month.   For those who are keeping score there is a difference between Major prophets and Minor prophets.   The difference has to do with quantity, not quality.  Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are Major prophets.  This is because their works were so lengthy, that each text required its own scroll.

The twelve Minor prophets are each so short, that all twelve fit on one scroll.

Here are a few insights that I have learned about these texts that might be of interest to you. 

The first insight has to do with their historical setting. 

Hosea, Amos, Micah in the 8th century.
Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah in the 7th century.
Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi in the period of the exile or 6th century.

Jonah, Joel, and Obadiah do not fit easily into those time periods.   Jonah is a legendary story about a prophet.  Joel is hard to figure out altogether, and Obadiah is a rewrite of a text from Jeremiah.  They are not easily dated. 

The historical method of interpreting these books is to look at each one, try to determine when and where it was written and to whom it was addressed.  In this sense, each writing has its own context.   This historical-critical method has been revolutionary.  It is especially helpful in keeping us from employing these texts for the purposes of fortune telling.   By fortune telling, I mean the use of these texts to say that they predicted the future such as the arrival of Jesus.    Some even use these texts to suggest the authors were predicting events in our time or in some future.   All of that is fantasy.

The historical-critical method helps us to understand these texts as specific documents that addressed specific social, political, and theological issues in their own time. 

I don’t know why I torture myself in this way, but now and then I flip through the channels and land on a religious station.  I found the 700 Club the other night.  The report was about people on the continent of Africa emigrating to Europe, just getting on boats and heading across the ocean, because the conditions are so horrible.   It is a serious issue.  We have serious problems all over the world. 

One of the television announcers was sympathetic and then said something to the effect:  “It says in the book of Isaiah that these times would come.”   I said to the person on the television as if that person could hear me, “No, it doesn’t say that.”   That book in the Bible says whatever you think it says about our present as much as me thinking you hear me while I talk at the TV.   

The church and our nation could move ahead into a more enlightened age if we ceased viewing the Bible as a vehicle by which some being that we call  God sends out vibes through secret code.   While I am on my soapbox, I will say that goes for all religious texts.  The historical-critical method, a product of the Enlightenment, helps us understand texts in our time period.  

The second insight is that the texts in their final form were edited and revised.  Scholars, such as Walter Brueggemann, use the word traditioned.  These texts were edited and updated until placed in their final form in the canon.  For example, even though Amos speaks to Israel, the northern kingdom in the 8th century, his text was edited and adapted to speak to contemporary situations several centuries later.  

A third insight is a recent one that scholars are just beginning to explore.   As a result of this traditioning process which includes the order of the texts, the twelve disparate documents form a literary whole.  Beginning with Hosea and ending with Malachi, there is a storyline.     It is a theological storyline.  It goes something like this:

Israel has a special relationship with YHWH.
Israel broke this relationship.
The prophets tell the truth about this.  This truth-telling is called judgment.
There are consequences for this broken relationship.  YHWH acts with punishment.
Finally, there is the promise of restoration.  YHWH will act to restore humanity to life-giving proper relationship.

As we read the minor prophets we can read them with this storyline in mind.   Judgment, consequence, hope.

A fourth insight as that these texts as well as the Bible itself, still command our interest.   Here we are in the 21st century, hearing a preacher talk about texts that are 2000 years old as if they are important.  Communities of faith still look to these texts to tell us something about who we are and what we might become.    It is this fourth insight that makes the other insights most important. 

Because this book shapes our common life, worship, and ethics, we should try to read it responsibly.  This includes historical-critical understanding, its literary shape, and its theological convictions.

Finally, the fifth insight is that we are free to use our creativity, imagination, intelligence, and love to draw insights from these texts for today. 

One of the insights I have learned since moving to Elizabethton comes from you.  Rebecca Nunley voiced this.   The planet upon which we live has a proper name, Earth, with a capital “E.”  Earth is not an it.  It is not the earth as if it were an object separate from ourselves.   We are part of Earth and we have a relationship with Earth.  That relationship involves human beings and the rest of Earth’s life, Earth’s children. 

This insight has been helpful to me in a number of ways.  I have had a struggle with the character YHWH and with the term God.  It has been difficult for me to think of YHWH or God as a being out there.   I have found that Earth can be a modern metaphor for YHWH or God.   People may object vociferously that I am equating the creator with the creation and so forth.   I don’t think I am doing that but I am open to critique.   I just want to suggest that Earth is a manifestation of God.   Earth is a personality of God.    Earth is subject not object. 

This insight has helped me to engage these ancient texts in a new way.  I have begun to substitute Earth for YHWH when I read these texts.   Earth as divine personality speaks to me through these texts.  If Earth had a voice what would she say?  The Prophets of the Bible are articulating Earth’s concerns to us in the language of their time and place.

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