Lesson 3



1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote









           Acts of God 


1. Read the selections that appear on this web site from the Hebrew Bible's Book of Jeremiah.

2. Browse the page below

3. Summarize and reflect on the lesson for an hour in your World Literature Journal.

4. If you are enrolled in this course for college credit, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.

Cultural History and the Jewish Model

From culture to culture, literary histories are very unequal. None is longer, more varied or better documented than the literary history that underlies Jewish culture. The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and its countless derivatives result from devotion to text, study and scholarship, through thousands of years of dramatic historical change and reinterpretation. From the Jewish example, a rough model for cultural history may be projected:

Phase One: myths of the founders

The forecast of a future culture appears to one or more individuals who reside in predecessor cultures but are deeply homeless, striving to find their place in life. In Jewish literature, this phase is represented in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, especially in the stories of the wanderers Abraham and Moses.

Phase Two: histories of the state

The culture finds a home and becomes a political state, in fulfillment of the vision of the founders, but in turn the state is destroyed. The Hebrew Bible represents the emergence and history of the Jewish state in nine books from the book of Joshua, who is the conqueror of Canaan, through the Chronicles, with emphasis on the kingdom of David and Solomon, the division of the state into Israel and Judah, and the eventual fall of both kingdoms, Israel to the Assyrian Empire, and Judah to the Babylonians.

Phase Three: the exile and disintegration

The culture manages to survive after its political state has ended. The Bible, at least as modified by Greeks and Christians, describes at least four various forms of survival. The culture may continue in the form of a stateless religion (in the Second Temple founded by Ezra and Nehemiah which existed under rule by the Persian Empire, the Ptolemaic Empire, the Seleucid Empire and for a time the Roman Empire). It may take the form of a revolt and restoration of political power after all political hopes seemed lost (in Maccabees, when a Jewish revolt overthrew Seleucids creating a new independent state that survived for only two generations). It may be transformed or splintered into a new culture, as Christianity and then Islam evolved from Judaism. But most generally the culture continues in the incomplete assimilation of the dispersed members living under political organizations of foreign cultures which influence them.

Jeremiah, whose book we read in today's lesson, lived in the last days of the state and the first days of the exile. The greatest importance of his book in Jewish cultural history is that it showed how the culture had failed, even when it had enough political power to exist as an independent state and even when it still had a temple. In his view the deep values of the culture did not depend on the state or the temple. They existed in personal belief, and so they could survive after the fall of the state and destruction of the temple.

[4] Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon;
[5] Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;
[6] Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished.
[7] And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

Jeremiah 29

God when singular can be conjugated in the following statements:

First person: I am God
Second person: You are God
Third person: He (She, It) is God

The three persons in our grammar have general associations with the three basic forms of imaginative literature that we call drama, poetry, and narrative. The impersonation or first person act of identity with God is called prophecy, the second person address to God is prayer or hymn, and the third person relation about God is divine story (sometimes called myth or, when expository, theology).

Of these, prophecy is the most dramatic and also the most influential in terms of brain-making and culture (as defined in lesson 1). Prophecy can be a hot topic for discussion because of the fiercely-held views that so many believers and nonbelievers bring to the subject. Do prophets speak words of God, as they claim? Or are they only deluded (believing in the unbelievable) or fraudulent (actors pretending to believe)? And if some prophets' claims are true, but others are false, which is which? where's the proof?

Definitive scientific answers to these questions are elusive, but one line of recent research suggests that any of us can form a belief that we are mediums or hosts of spirits. According to this theory of "self-induction," spiritual possession can be induced simply by acting possessed. Acting turns into belief as the actor becomes absorbed in performing (Wegner 252). The longer an act is repeated, the less it seems to the actor to be performed self-consciously. More and more it seems to run automatically (through an unconscious part of the brain, the putamen) without willful control of the actor.

As one eventually becomes so familiar with a bicycle that conscious thought is no longer given to the act of riding it, so in prophecy the sense of possession eventually occurs when self-awareness slips away altogether, and the novice who at first had difficulty speaking like a prophet is hardly remembered. Jeremiah's book recalls the time in the beginning of the prophet's career when he did not believe in his prophetic powers ( Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child. Jeremiah 1:6). The doubt evaporates as the prophet speaks to the people, his speeches imprint on his mind, and he persuades himself.

Self-induction theory suggests that prophets and true believers in prophets have completed the self-induction process, but nonbelievers are uninitiated or incompletely initiated so that their faith still feels to them like make-believe, delusion or pretense. The theory predicts that the presence of God can be created subjectively by acting as if God is present; repeated reenactment eventually makes the presence seem factual. These acts can be intensified when practiced within a group, especially in a temple (a place where the spirit is believed to reside), among priests (persons responsible for promoting induction), and choral recitals of prayers and hymns (words addressed to the spirit as if the spirit were present). One who joins public prayer five times every day, pays priests, and punishes unbelievers will tend to lose doubts.

Of course, self-induction may explain how people assimilate skills of all kinds. If prophets and other spirit-mediums begin to learn as self-conscious actors, then so do doctors, farmers, golfers, musicians, philosophers and truck drivers, all of whom self-induce roles that initially are not true. Sitting behind the steering wheel of a truck for the first time, the "driver" is only an imposter who doesn't know how to drive. With practice, however, the act of driving becomes so automatic that the truck eventually seems to be driving itself! 

So it may be true that, as Shakespeare wrote, all the world's a stage, and all the people are players. Novice actors opening a show invariably experience "stage fright" (self-consciousness about acting), but if they have rehearsed enough, their playing becomes so routine as to seem natural, self-consciousness disappears, and they no longer are distracted from their roles. Young teachers beginning the first day of class normally suffer the same kind of temporary disorientation. ("Gosh, here I am in front of a class, and I'm not really a teacher!"). And so it goes on the lawyer's first day in court, on the salesperson's first visit to a customer, or on anybody's first date. Inexperienced children, like other beginners learning unfamiliar things, clearly recognize that they are pretending or imagining. Their education seems complete only when they have forgotten that they don't really know! 

Of course, not everybody who speaks in God's name becomes recognized by others as a true prophet.  Prophecy has no cultural effect unless the words of the prophet take root in many brains. Others must be convinced somehow that the prophetic voice is authentic, that the words spoken or written really are God's. This may require not only impressive words but also the performance of miracles and willingness to endure persecution and torture. If you wonder about Jeremiah, you can throw him down a well to see if God abandons him! 

Sometimes it is the converts that teach the prophet to have faith. A Muslim tradition, recorded by Ibn Ishaq, states that on encountering the angel Gabriel, Muhammad at first thought that he had become a mad poet or a man possessed; he did not believe he was prophetic until a learned Christian named Waraqa persuaded him.

In other cases prophets learn their way through the study of other prophets. Many of the Jewish prophets had mentors, as Jesus had John the Baptizer, and all of them seem to have studied the prophecies of their predecessors to the point of memorization. When Paul brought Christ to pagan Europe, he was following the prophecies of Isaiah [Lesson 10.].

To describe prophecy as art is not to say that any particular belief is true or false. The point here in a literature course is not about God or gods or spiritual matters. It's about the power of art, especially words, and particularly texts, to create beliefs and to multiply the beliefs into cults. In Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, Darwinism, Marxism, NBCNewsism, FoxNewsism and many other systems of belief, literature plays a central role in keeping the faith and initiating children and other nonbelievers.







"Prophet" comes from the Greek prophétés, a compound consisting of pro- (meaning "for") and -phétés (meaning "speaker," derived from phánai, the verb to speak). So a  prophet speaks for another!


Left: Jeremiah, marble statue by Donatello.(1423-1426), Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence







Our English word "act," meaning both "pretend" and "do," catches the nature of the self-induction process.


























Early Classical Prophecy

Early classical literature often was performed as spiritual possession. The performers played god (or goddess). Jewish prophecies were associated with the names of their performers--Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others–but they claimed to be the words of a spirit. In performance, the Hebrew prophet impersonated this spirit ("Thus says the Lord..."), much as Hesiod, Homer and other Greek singers were only voice instruments through which the goddess Muses sang. 

Michelangelo's gloomy Jeremiah, from the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.The impersonation of spirits could be a dangerous business. It raised the question, who is allowed to play? Among both Greeks and Jews, spiritual authority was continually disputed between interest groups, especially between prophets and priests. Prophets often denounced the conventional rituals of priests as irrelevant or even hateful to the gods. For example, the Lord's temple in Jerusalem had become "a den of thieves" where the priests served only themselves, according to Jeremiah, who is said to have predicted the temple's destruction by the Babylonians.  

Antagonized priests often tried to silence prophets, or even have them killed, as seems to have been the case when Jeremiah was thrown into a well and left to die, and also when Socrates was condemned in the court of the high priest of Athens. It happened again, according to the New Testament, when Jesus was crucified after creating a disturbance in the temple at Passover, and also when the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death. According to the Christian story in the Book of Acts, Stephen was killed for blasphemy, after he proclaimed that the Jews had persecuted all of the prophets in their history (Acts 7:52). Persecution can be provoked to demonstrate faith, to unite followers, or simply to act as provokingly prophets are known to act.

Ancient prophets held themselves out as experts on a variety of problems. Whether the trouble was political, military, social, economic, meteorological, domestic, moral, medical, or psychiatric, the prophet's diagnosis was usually the same. Spirits were to blame, but they could be appeased or manipulated by following the prophet's advice!

In personal care-giving, prophets were forerunners in medicine and philosophy, curing sickness and unhappiness. Some practiced faith healing and no doubt had successes, as faith healers and placebos still succeed in many cases today. Nearly all were were also moralizers, preaching that misbehavior makes the gods angry. In Book 1 of Homer's Iliad the seer Kalkhas' explanation for the deadly plague in the Achaean camp at Troy, that the disease was caused by Agamemnon's insult to Apollo's priest. The appeasement of Apollo through hymns and offerings takes off the curse and ends the plague. Kalkhas saves the day. [We will read this story in Lesson 6.]

After the disaster ending the Bronze Age, early classical prophets explained why the people had fallen from former times of glory, when gods had befriended them.  

  • Hellenic literature remembered old Troy and Thebes prior to the general collapse of Bronze Age civilization (cir. 1200 BC). Modern scholars may not know what caused the Bronze Age to disappear, but Homer's Muse seems to have known that the formerly successful cult of Zeus was destroyed when its leaders became hated by the god. [This will be covered in Lesson 6.]

  • In Hebraic literature, similarly, the Lord told early classical Jewish prophets that the friendship of the Lord toward the Jews had passed, and impiety was to blame for the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC (see further note 2 below) and also for the destruction of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah by Babylonian invaders under Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC.

According to Jewish prophetic literature, the Lord speaking through Moses promised his obedient followers a homeland in Palestine, and Jewish settlements apparently flourished in this "promised land" for a few hundred years after Moses' time, reaching a high point in the construction of the first temple at Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon (cir. 950 BC). But when Babylonians demolished the Jerusalem temple and carted off its treasures, and many of the Jewish survivors were forced into exile in Babylon and other foreign lands, it looked as if the old prophecies must have been wrong, or perhaps the Lord had new ideas about the Jewish homeland. The time was ripe for new prophets to come forward to reveal the Lord's intentions. 

Jeremiah and other Jewish prophets of this period weighed in on the Lord's motives: the Lord was angry because his people had dishonored him. That is, they had dishonored the Lord's prophets, by listening to prophets of other gods, and so the faithless people naturally deserved to be exiled among nonbelievers far from the promised land! 

A simple moral of obedience underlay many prophetic cults. If a prophet's followers acted righteously -- that is, if people did what the prophet's spirit said to do -- then the spirit's anger eventually would subside. When the spirit finally was appeased, then the community no longer would be afflicted. 

In practice, Jewish prophets came and went, centuries passed, and still Jews suffered. From the prophetic point of view, people didn't reform, so the Lord just kept thrashing them and sending more prophets. Evidently there were always enough believers among the Jewish people to Michelangelo's Jonah, from the Sistine Chapel, Rome.support the prophecy business. Over the years, however, there also must have been plenty of disenchanted Jews to whom the prophets in their midst were only pretenders, arrogant liars or fools, dreamers, quacks or blasphemers whose spiritual claims were unworthy of serious attention.  Ironically, a continuous supply of disbelievers was useful to prophets in explaining why the Lord's anger never cooled. 



Figure left: Hellenic oracle or Sybil at work, listening for the words of the spirit. She is a Hellenic counterpart to the Jewish prophet, but few of her words were saved for posterity.






Figure left: the gloomy Jeremiah ponders the Lord's anger. Playing Jeremiah, Michelangelo boldly painted his own face on this figure in the Sistine Chapel.



















































Figure left: the unwilling prophet Jonah looks over his shoulder forever in the Sistine Chapel. The Book of Jonah (5th century BC) isn't simply a record of the words of the Lord, according to somebody named Jonah. Its subject is Jonah himself, who would rather not be the Lord's voice in Assyria. (Who wants to be eaten by a whale? Who wants to convince dangerous enemies, like the Assyrians, to become friends of the Almighty?)

Biblical Prophecy

Prophecy is an organizing principle of the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible and Qur'an. Nearly all of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible contain prophetic elements, but 21 of them customarily are categorized under the heading of "the prophets." This group conventionally is subdivided into the "former prophets" who appear as characters within general narratives of Jewish history during the settlement of Palestine (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings) and "latter prophets" who came afterwards, each of the latter prophets having his own book, consisting mainly of his prophetic words or words that are ascribed to him.

The canonical latter prophets include three "major" prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and twelve "minor" prophets" (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The terms "major" and "minor" refer only to book-length. Isaiah is the most major, his book having the  most pages. Jonah is minor because his book is short.

Moses is the chief model for both the former and the latter prophets. Compare, for example, the Lord's "call" to Moses in Exodus 3:1 - 4:5 with the similar "calls" to Samuel (Judges 6:1-17), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-11), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-9), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:1 - 3:14), and Jonah (Jonah 1:1 - 3:3). The distinctive arrangement here is that the Lord seeks out these prophets, even if they do not seek out the Lord. Jewish prophets are "called" or "chosen," unlike the typical pattern in other cultures where the shaman or mage does the calling of the spirit. 

Although Moses is the general model, he is by no means the first of the prophetic spirit-impersonators in the Bible. All of the important Hebrew patriarchs in Genesis--Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph--are remembered for their abilities to communicate with the Lord, practice divination, interpret dreams, see visions, and foretell future events. These are the Lord's spokespersons of the Bronze Age, remembered in later times as the "patriarchs," the founding fathers of the culture. 

Although the Hebrew Bible is full of prophecy, its publication was in a practical sense anti-prophetic. The fixing in print of an accepted canon of acknowledged prophets, a process perhaps completed about 200 BCE, had the consequence of painting Jewish prophecy as a historical and completed phenomenon. New prophets continued to speak, but when their words were not accepted into the Hebrew Bible, new kinds of Bibles developed to admit them, and new cultures resulted. The Christian Bible, maintained the "old" Jewish prophets in one part of the book ("The Old Testament") but added a new section of the latest prophets not acknowledged by Jews ("The New Testament").

Christian scriptures endeavor to continue the line of Jewish prophets in their presentations of John the Baptizer, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and seer of The Book of Revelation, John of Patmos. To borrow Jewish terminology, only John of Patmos is a "later prophet" whose prophecy is preserved verbatim, but extensive collections of Jesus' sayings and parables are contained in the Christian gospels, and Paul alludes to his prophecies in several of his letters. These New Testament prophets claim to speak for the Lord, as their Jewish predecessors had, but they emphasize that the old Jewish prophecies are fulfilled in the new non-Jewish ones, the implication being that Jews should update their history by accepting Christianity.  

More radically anti-prophetic is the Bible of Islam. The Qur'an rewrites the prior scriptures, its implication being that both the historical Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible are incomplete or wrong. The new book purports to terminate the prophetic process by declaring the word of Mohammed (570-632 CE) to be the final word of God forever. One effect is to identify Mohammed's lifetime as the culmination of historical time. This is an interesting anti-historical phenomenon with which Muslims must wrestle when coming to terms with developments in the modern world. (More on the Qur'an in Lesson 17.)

















Left: Rembrandt, "Moses Showing the Tables of the Law to the People" (1659 CE). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin.




































Left: many thousands of Muslim pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, retracing the 1400 year-old footsteps of Mohammed in year 2003 CE

Jeremiah's place in the scheme
of Hebrew Scriptures

 Jeremiah (cir. 650-cir. 587 BCE) seems to have based his words especially on the prophecies of Amos and Hosea, who more than a century before Jeremiah's time foretold the fall of the northern Hebrew kingdom of Israel. The focus in Amos is that the Lord is angry because of the social injustices in Israel; in the prophet Hosea, it's Baal worship that upsets the Lord. Baal was the god of the Canaanites (or Phoenicians). Baal worship was based on sacrifice offerings, and according to detractors like Jeremiah this included human sacrifice offerings and Temple prostitution.

After the lifetimes of Amos and Hosea, the northern kingdom of Israel indeed fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Many of the survivors fled south to the remaining Jewish stronghold in Jerusalem, where they made the predictions of Amos and Hosea famous amid fears that Assyria would soon besiege Jerusalem. In his prophecies, Jeremiah picks up these earlier prophetic themes, especially Hosea's idea that Baal worship will drive the angry Lord to destroy the Jewish state.

Jeremiah was also influenced by Isaiah, an earlier prophet in Jerusalem who (according to the Book of Isaiah) called on the Lord to save the city from an Assyrian attack in 701 BCE. [For details, see note 3 below.]

 In Isaiah's time, the Jews were divided over whether to throw in with the Assyrians to the north or Pharaoh to the south. The Jewish party of Pharaoh, which included Isaiah, provoked Assyria and almost brought about the destruction of the Jewish state, though Jerusalem managed to hold out, probably after finally agreeing to pay tribute to the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib. 

Jewish politics were different 100 years later, in Jeremiah's day, only because the Babylonian Empire had replaced the Assyrian as the regional superpower to the North. Jeremiah was a spokesman for the Babylonian faction against the party of Pharaoh. (Rival prophets, like Hananiah, spoke for the pro-Egyptian Jews.) Jeremiah did not make the same political mistakes as Isaiah, but his advocacy of the Babylonian cause led to charges that he was aiding the enemies of the Jewish state. After the fall of Jerusalem, he was taken into Egypt by political enemies, and legend says they murdered him there.

Prophecy or postscript?

If the Book of Jeremiah is true, then Jeremiah foretold the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple of Solomon, and he predicted both the captivity of the Jews exiled to Babylon, and the eventual return of these captives to Jerusalem several generations later.

But did Jeremiah actually foretell these things? His book foretells events after after his death, up until the time that the book was included in the Hebrew scriptures, after the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia, when the Persian King returned the captive Jews to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, cir. 515 BCE. This second temple project included the collection and editing of all of the past Jewish scriptures under the leadership of the new temple's chief priest, Ezra. It is for this reason, scholars believe, that Hebrew scriptures from Genesis to Jeremiah incorporate the viewpoint of Ezra as well as earlier viewpoints in the historical documents that Ezra collected. 

How much editing Ezra did, and what specific scriptural passages were added to the old manuscripts he collected, are subjects of scholarly debate and religious concern. Does the Tower of Babel in Genesis reflect the captivity of the Jews who were forced as exiles to learn other languages besides Hebrew? Does Abram's alleged origin in Ur of the Chaldees reflect an attempt to show that the Hebrews originally were Babylonian--and that they rejected the culture? Are the stories of the Hebrews' captivity in Egypt colored by much later Jewish views about Egypt as an unreliable regional power?

Although there are many unanswered questions about the book of Jeremiah, its fearless critique of Jewish society and its championing of causes of orphans, slaves and the poor became models for many later prophets who sought followers among the masses. The term "Jeremiad" is still in use today to describe any angry ranting diatribe against injustice and oppression.












Left: Raphael's Hosea. Hosea's wife Gomer left him to become a prostitute, a metaphor for the Jews' infidelity to worship of the Lord.







Left: Michelangelo's Isaiah..






Near Eastern timeline
for the preclassical and classical eras

4500 BCE. Horse domesticated in central Asia.

4000 BCE. Plows in use in Mesopotamia. Sails in use in Egypt.

early Near Estaern picture writing3500 BCE. First city-states in Mesopotamia (beginning perhaps with Uruk). Irrigation is introduced.

3400 BCE. Sumerians use the first known written symbols and clay counting tokens. Carts are in use by 3200, and they are buried in the tombs of Sumerian ulers of Ur and Kish. PICTURE WRITING

3200 BCE. Bronze Age begins. Cuneiform script is developed in Mesopotamia.

King Namer stele depicting the unification of upper and lower Egypt.3000 BCE. The Sahara desert begins to expand. Populations move east and south. Narmer unifies the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt and becomes the first Pharaoh. NARMER STELE

2500 BCE. Syllabic script is in use in Sumerian literature.

2340 BCE. Akkadian Empire is founded by Sargon I.

2040 BCE. Egypt is reunited by a new line of Pharoahs, establishing the Middle Kingdom.

1850 BCE. Chariots are in use (invented?) in the western steppes.

1800 BCE? Jewish patriarch Abraham. War chariots and battering rams are in use in the Near East at this time.

1783 BCE. Fall of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt. Egypt is taken over by the foreign invaders from the north, the Hyksos (possibly Hittite, possibly Greek or Phoenician).

1750 BCE. Hammurabi writes the earliest surviving law code, conquers Sumer and founds an early Babylonian dynasty.

1600 BCE. Phoenician (Canaanite) script invented, though its final form is not achieved until about 1000 BCE. Hittites (of Asia Minor) destroy the first Babylonian empire.

 Phoenician alphabet compared to Greek

1550 BCE. New Kingdom of Egypt established with the capital at Thebes.

1450 BCE? Massive Thera volcano in eastern Mediterranean puts an end to the Minoan civilization on Crete. Moses and the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt? (Sometimes exodus is dated as late as 1200 BC.) Mycenaean civilization develops in Greece.

1200 BCE. End of the Bronze Age and beginning of the Dark Age in Greece. Fall of Troy, Greek Thebes, and all of the Mycenaean and Greek cities. Collapse of the Hittite Empire and Near Eastern cities generally. Raiding by pirate "Sea Peoples" into Egypt. 

Bernini's David1020 BCE. Jewish resettlement in Palestine. Saul becomes first King of Israel but is supplanted by David in 1006 BC. David unites the upper kingdom of Israel with the lower kingdom of Judah and establishes the national capital at Jerusalem.

950 BCE? Egypt falls apart into a group of small warring kingdoms. David's son Solomon constructs the first temple at Jerusalem. Earliest Jewish scriptures are probably collected at this time. The Assyrian Empire is founded at the same time.

926 BCE. On the death of Solomon, the Jewish nation divides into Israel in the north (with 90% of the population and land) and Judah (with Jerusalem) in the south.

900 BCE? Foundation of Carthage.

750 BCE. Amos and Hosea prophesy in Israel.

753 BCE? Rome founded. Nubian Kingdom of Cush expands into Lower Egypt

750 BCE? Conventional date for Homer. [But an "original" Homer or Trojan War writer probably flourished at the time of the war, about  1200-1100  BCE.]

Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling722 BCE. Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Assyrians conquer northern Jewish kingdom of Israel. Assyrians invade Judah in 701, but Jerusalem survives when the attackers retreat, either because Isaiah cursed them or because they were bought off.

689 BCE. Assyrians destroy Babylon. In 671 BEC, Assyrians capture the Egyptian capital, Memphis. The empire reaches its greatest extent in 663.  The Iron Age begins at about this time, though some iron artifacts exist from earlier periods. 

612 BCE. Assyrian Empire collapses with sack of Nineveh and Nimrud by Babylonians or Medes.

Jeremiah painting from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.587 BCE. Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. Babylonians conquer southern Jewish kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. Solomon's Temple is destroyed, and Jewish leaders are taken in captivity to Babylon.

550 BCE. Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers the Medes and founds the Persian Empire. Cyrus' son Cambyses conquers Egypt in 525.

515 BCE. The Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt in the period of Ezra, after the Jewish exile in Babylon is ended by Cyrus the Great's Persian conquest of the Babylonians. (Archaic Age temples are built in the Greek world at this time also.) Ezra collects and edits the Hebrew scriptures.

521 BCE. The Persian Empire reaches its height under Darius the Great.

510 BCE. Beginning of Roman Republic (Roman kings expelled).

399 BCE. Death of Socrates.

333-323 BCE. Conquests of Alexander the Great.

300-198 BCE. Palestine under the rule of the Hellenistic Ptolemies.

200 BCE. The canon of the Hebrew prophets in the Jewish scriptures probably is established about this time. The compilation of the whole canon of Jewish writings probably is completed about 100 CE. (There is much scholarly disagreement over dating these events.)

198-142 BCE. Palestine is under the rule of Hellenistic Syrians.

142-37 BCE. Palestine is briefly under independent Jewish rule of the Maccabees.

63 BCE. Conquest of Palestine by the Romans under Pompey the Great.

44 BCE. Assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome.

40-4 BCE. Herod is King of Jews under the Romans.

31 BCE. Octavian defeats Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, ending the Hellenistic Age and leading to the designation of Octavian as Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor.

19 BCE. Death of the poet Virgil. His unfinished epic poem The Aeneid, the official foundation myth of Rome, is published posthumously.

4 BCE? Jesus born

CE. 18-36. Caiaphas is high priest in Jerusalem.

CE 25-36. Pilate is Roman Governor of Judea.

CE 30? Jesus crucified.

CE 46-57. Missionary journeys of Paul in the old Hellenic world of Asia Minor and the Greek peninsula (epistles written cir. 50-60 AD).

CE 64. Rome burns, allegedly while the Emperor Nero sings of the burning of Troy. Christians having called for the burning of Rome, Nero evidently blames the Christians for starting the fire. According to second century Christian sources, which may or may not be reliable, Nero also orders a retaliation in which Peter and Paul are among those killed.

CE 65? Christian Gospel according to Mark, the earliest Gospel.

CE 66-71. Jews revolt against Rome. Vespasian leads legions against the Jews in Judea. The Jewish leader Josephus surrenders to the Romans at Jotapata. The Roman army destroys the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 71. (Josephus later became the foremost Jewish historian of antiquity).  It is the end of the Jewish nation until the establishment of modern Israel in 1948.

CE 570-632. Life of Mohammed, founder of Islam.






Left: "Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem" (Rembrandt 1630)Rijksmuseum,









Lesson Summary: Prophecy is a basic form of cult formationt practiced widely in the ancient world. It is the organizing principle of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures.

Suggested journal topics
and optional readings

1. Prophets just like you and me. All of us want others to believe in us, to heed our words, to do what we say. Aren't modern politicians, CEOs, mob bosses, medical doctors, scientists, movie stars, rock and roll singers comparable to the ancient prophets in this regard? To the extent of their persuasive influence, these are all cultural figures, right?  Who today attempts to control others through predictions? Is prophecy actually broader than religion? Is it a general form of argument or persuasion?

2. Why prophets?  Why would God or Allah or Apollo or any other spirit in control of the world choose to communicate with human beings through the mouthpiece of a human prophet? Why not communicate directly with all people? Wouldn't direct communication put an end to bickering over whether there's a god and what if anything this true god wants from human beings? Are there other means to know God or spirit beings of any kind, apart from revelations or claims of prophets?

3. What's the verdict on Jeremiah?  Is he a patriot or a traitor? Is he aiding the enemies of the Jews by supporting Babylon? Or is he urging a smart political policy warning Jews to accept Babylonian superiority?

4. Jerusalem saved from Assyrian Attack in 701 BC (by God or by gold?).  A famous Christian lyric on this subject is "The Destruction of Sennacherib" (1815, pronounced senak'rib) by the English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, where the Last Judgment is prefigured in the sudden destruction of the grand Assyrian army that attacked Jerusalem in the time of Isaiah:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee. 

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green, 
That host with their banners at sunset were seen: 
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed; 
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, 
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide, 
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride; 
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf, 
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf. 

And there lay the rider distorted and pale, 
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail: 
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone, 
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown. 

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail, 
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal; 
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

According to 2 Kings 19:35, in the morning following Isaiah's prophecy of their immanent destruction, 185,000 Assyrian troops lay dead.

Was this an act of God? The story of the destruction of Sennacherib has been rationalized in some modern religious interpretations to mean that a sudden epidemic must have struck the Assyrian camp, forcing a hasty retreat of the survivors. Sennacherib himself, however, left quite a different account of this invasion in the Assyrian annals:

"Because Hezekiah, king of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took forty-six of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude; and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates to prevent escape...Then upon Hezekiah there fell the fear of the power of my arms, and he sent out to me the chiefs and the elders of Jerusalem with 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, and divers treasures, a rich and immense booty...All these things were brought to me at Nineveh, the seat of my government." 

Sennacherib claims that he was bought off by submissive Jews, so he happily fled  home with the loot. It was not of course the style of kings in those days to write about their military defeats or diseases among their troops. We should be more inclined to believe Sennacherib's version of the story, however, because the Hebrew Bible itself contains a second story that seems to square with it. In 701 BC a rebellion against Assyria, backed by Egypt, broke out in Palestine. Sennacherib reacted firmly, supporting loyal vassals and taking the rebel cities, except for Jerusalem, which, though besieged, was spared on payment of a heavy indemnity, including all of the gold in the temple (2 Kings 18:13-19:36; compare Isaiah 36:1-37:37). This alternate biblical story has been interpreted by some Bible scholars to mean that there must have been two different Assyrian campaigns against Jerusalem, but such an interpretation is unsupported by Assyrian or other sources.

Sennacherib's attack is one of the few incidents in the Jewish or Christian Bible that are also described in any independent, non-Biblical source.

5. Josiah and Deuteronomy.  According to 2 Kings 22–23, King Josiah (the first king in whose reign Jeremiah prophesied) instituted a series of religious reforms based upon a "Torah scroll” discovered by priests in the Jerusalem temple during renovations in about 623-622 BCE. Many scholars believe this old scroll was an early version of the document that we today call Deuteronomy, the "Second Law" of the Hebrew scriptures. Many indeed  argue that the "Torah scroll" was not old at all in Josiah's day, but a new text introduced by the king and the chief priests in order to centralize power and increase revenues in the Jerusalem Temple. (The Second Law, for example, tried to put an end of sacrifices at places other than at JHWH's house in Jerusalem.}

If this theory of Deuteronomy is true, we can see the priests and scribes of the first Jerusalem Temple attempting to control and reform their cult by writing new "ancient prophecies." Jeremiah's angry condemnations of the temple as a "den of thieves," and his attacks on the scandalous false prophecies of the priests and temple scribes, may allude to this hoax or similar ones perpetrated in the temple.

Authorship questions about Biblical texts are always controversial. Those who have doubted the authenticity of texts often find themselves accused of irreverence or heresy. Critical scholars respond that they are simply trying to understand and explain phenomena observable in the writings. It seems unlikely that these debates will ever be resolved until everyone believes or everyone disbelieves, an unlikely event any time soon!

An alternate theory about ancient prophecy arises then from the many questions that have been raised about the historicity of the various Biblical documents. This a political theory that ancient prophetic documents are not predictions of future events at all; rather, they are histories with non-historical elements added to them in order to shape the meaning of the narrative for a later audience. For instance, if Jeremiah did not actually foresee the Babylonian captivity or its aftermath, if Ezra or some other post-Babylonian writer added these elements to Jeremiah's book, this could have been done to show there was a divine plan underlying Jewish history, and that Jeremiah could see what the plan was. We can label this as a forgery or simply as a well-intended attempt to strengthen the community. In this alternate theory of prophecy, a prophetic story is about history as, in hindsight, it ought to have been.    

6. Problems of Prophecy #1: developing a cult:

Belief in spirits has been common everywhere throughout history, and yet it would seem to be difficult to create and maintain. The prophet is "called" to a public "mission" to persuade other people to become his or her clients, but it's natural for the target audience to view this calling with suspicion. Sometimes even the prophet can't believe that people will listen.

A famous Biblical description of the "call" of the prophet is found in the episode of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus chapter 4). The Lord in the burning bush tasks Moses to go down into Egypt to rescue the Hebrew people from slavery under Pharaoh and to lead them away to the promised land of Palestine. Naturally, Moses wonders how he's going to persuade the slaves to believe him. For one thing, they don't know him from Adam. For another thing, he's embarrassingly "slow of speech... of a slow tongue." Here's how the Lord addresses Moses' two concerns about his skills:

 1: And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The LORD hath not appeared unto thee. 
2: And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. 
3: And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.
4: And the LORD said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand:
5: That they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.
6: And the LORD said furthermore unto him, Put now thine hand into thy bosom. And he put his hand into his bosom: and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous as snow.
7: And he said, Put thine hand into thy bosom again. And he put his hand into his bosom again; and plucked it out of his bosom, and, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh.
8: And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign.
9: And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe also these two signs, neither hearken unto thy voice, that thou shalt take of the water of the river, and pour it upon the dry land: and the water which thou takest out of the river shall become blood upon the dry land.
10: And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.
11: And the LORD said unto him, Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD? 
12: Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.
13: And he said, O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send. 
14: And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and he said, Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee: and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart. 
15: And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do.
16: And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.
17: And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs.
                     Exodus 4:1-17 (emphasis added)

To persuade others to believe, the prophet can show "signs" that people may regard as supernatural or miraculous. In Moses' case, and other examples of his period (cir. 1300 BC, the Bronze Age), at least some of the signs were clever illusions that we today associate with stage magic. 

Another common and very ancient prophetic sign is faith healing, where the prophet as medicine-man relies on placebo effect, cognitive psychology, hypnotism, accident, prearranged drama, downright fraud or some combination of all of these to perform marvelous cures or to exorcise demons that are said to be causing bodily dysfunction. Faith healing can work, at least occasionally for those who believe in it. In double blind scientific trials, placebos have been shown to be as effective as many patented drugs that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration! Placebo cure rates of 30% are not unusual. (Should the law require warnings to be printed on medicine bottles? Won't the labels tend to limit the curative power of the drugs?)

The New Testament gospels and The Book of Acts attribute miracles of healing to Jesus and his early followers Peter and Paul. Miracles of this sort were commonly claimed Hellenist world, too. Especially popular were the cures of Asclepius, the god of healing. The Asclepius cults appear to have raised enormous sums of money in the Hellenistic period, for there were many more temples and shrines constructed to this god than to any other deity. No doubt some of Asclepius' patients would have been dissatisfied with their treatment and ready to try other remedies. A few cults at the time also were offering recognizably medical treatments, following the practices of Hippocrates and others pioneers of western medicine.

Certainly the most common sign for prophetic power is prediction, in which as if by magic future events are fore-told. Predictions often come true in fiction, as in the Oedipus story or the Odyssey, but weather forecasters, stock market gurus and business planners in everyday experience seem to be far less accurate.  The history of prediction--spiritualist and otherwise--is filled with failures and reinterpretations of the failed predictions in order to explain the failures.

The ancient Greek oracles were famous for making ambiguous, vague or even unintelligible utterances that later could be interpreted as having come true. "Look to wooden walls to defend you," Apollo's oracle told the Athenians when the Persian army was bearing down upon the city. Later, after Athens had been saved by Themistocles' victory in the great naval battle at Salamis, the "wooden walls" were reinterpreted to mean "ships," even though the city did have walls made of wood and other materials. The real mystery is why the oracle, if she knew, didn't simply say ships in the first place.

This fuzzy magic approach also was taken by the famous astrologer Nostradamus (French 1503-1566 AD), and it can be read in the horoscope column of your daily newspaper. 

The failure of a prediction can cost the prophet most or all of his believers, but a successful reinterpretation can revitalize the cult. Christianity itself may have been reborn out of the original cult of Jesus in this way. Jesus taught that the kingdom of the Son of Man surely would arrive within the disciples' own lifetimes (to accept Mark 13:30 and Luke 9:27), but the disciples eventually died, and the world didn't end, much to the confusion of the remaining cult members (see Paul's 1 Thessalonians 4:15-5:8). For these survivors to continue to believe, and to persuade other people to join their group, there needed to be a new explanation of what Jesus' words had meant. If Jesus had meant that he himself was the Son of Man, then the kingdom had arrived on time after all: the Son of Man had come, though nobody at the time had recognized him! (This is the main theme in Mark's gospel: how Jesus came and went and nobody recognized who He was--not the Romans or the Jews or Jesus' own family or even the disciples, with the exception of Peter: see Mark 8:27.)

The new interpretation that Jesus himself had founded the kingdom gained acceptance after the first generation of Jesus' followers had passed away, and it probably became a dominant Christian belief around the time of Paul's ministry or soon after. The rift with Judaism was completed at this time with the new Christian idea (blasphemous to Jews) that Jesus was Christ. Also, because glorification of Jesus as divine savior went hand-in-hand with this new interpretation, the New Testament gospels were written at this time: Mark (cir. 65-70 AD), Matthew and Luke (both cir. 80-85 AD) and John (cir. 90-95 AD). (Jesus had died cir. 30 AD.)

Another way to correct prophecies is postdiction, changing the prophetic words after the fact. In the ancient world, prophetic books could be rewritten with the advantage of hindsight in order to document that a particular prophet who lived in the past really knew what was going to happen in the future. It's as if we today could rewrite Nostradamus' books to include unmistakable references to the holocaust of World War II (change Nostradamus' "Hister" to Hitler, for instance), the lunar landings of the Apollo missions, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, or any other well known events of modern times. Of course, we can't get away with this strategy because old editions of Nostradamus are available for ready comparison by anyone who troubles to check the facts. In the age of manuscripts, however, it was extremely difficult or impossible to detect forgeries or to check facts of any kind. Prophecy, history or anything else could be rewritten and published with reasonable expectation that the postdiction would pass unnoticed.

Modern literary scholarship has attempted to decipher the rewritings that took place, historically, on the text of the Bible. For example, a growing number of reputable American scholars today believe that the Book of Isaiah isn't entirely the original prophet Isaiah's work. Many say that chapters 1-39 are writings of the "first Isaiah," but chapters 40-55 were composed by an Isaiah #2 (from the period of the Jewish exile), and chapters 56-66 were written by yet a third Isaiah (from the period of the return to Palestine after the Persian conquest of Cyrus the Great), possibly with other bits and pieces by various editors here and there. If this is the case, the text is misleading because it does not state or clearly indicate that different authors composed different parts of the book at different historical periods, or that later "prophecies" actually referred to events that already had occurred. John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and any other ancients who were amazed by Isaiah's predictions obviously did not have the benefit of this modern textual analysis.  

Aside from "signs," the prophet's other essential skill is eloquence, and prophets like Socrates and Jesus are reputed to have had not merely strong but irresistible persuasive talents. Moses' case is very unusual in that he is said to have been such a poor speaker that he had to depend upon a public relations man, his "brother" Aaron, the Levite priest who could speak well. 

7. Problems of prophecy #2: cult maintenance. Once a prophet has acquired a cult, the political problem is maintaining the membership. Non-believers may disillusion the believers, either by undermining the credibility of the prophet or by introducing rival prophets.

A common solution is to restrict cult interaction with outsiders as far as possible. Attempts to isolate the cult members can take many forms:

  • promotion of segregated living communities, such as residence in common compounds or in remote and desolate areas; an alternative suggested by patriarchal Israel is moving from place to place among lands of strangers, including lands of people who speak foreign languages, never staying long enough to be assimilated into any local culture,

  • development of rituals and social customs and institutions such as private schools that will require members to spend large amounts of time in the exclusive company of other members,

  • prohibition of intermarriage and restriction of educational opportunities (focusing on cult indoctrination, avoiding multicultural educational experience), censorship of ideas that don't fit the cult's ideology, and rejection of objective scientific investigation,

  • cultivation of distinctive styles of appearance and behavior, such as uniform dress codes, conventions of grooming and speech; members who don't look or act like nonmembers will feel out of place among nonmembers and will be less likely to be befriended by nonmembers,

  • denunciation of nonbelievers and their spiritual leaders, including persecution of non-believers if the cult has the muscle to suppress its rivals, and

  • assertion that the cult itself is persecuted by non-believers. Nothing pulls a group together more effectively than the idea that all of individuals are being threatened by some common enemy.  A "holy war" against unbelievers is the traditional cult practice which best assures that dissent is minimized and communications with outsiders are shut off. 

Do you recognize any of these common cult strategies in a group to which you belong? Is a friend or relative in such a cult?

 Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
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