Cultural History and the Jewish
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
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
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
division of the state into
Israel and Judah, and the eventual fall
of both kingdoms, Israel to the Assyrian Empire, and Judah to the
Phase Three: the exile and
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
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
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.
 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;
 Build ye houses, and
dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;
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.
 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.
can be conjugated in the following statements:
First person: I am God
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
and narrative. The
impersonation or first person act of identity with God is called
prophecy, the second person address to God is
hymn, and the third person relation about God is
(sometimes called myth or, when expository,
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,"
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
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
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.
The doubt evaporates as the prophet speaks to the people,
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
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.
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!
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
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
it is the converts
that teach the prophet to have faith. A Muslim tradition, recorded by
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
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,
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!
Jeremiah, marble statue by Donatello.(1423-1426), Museo dell'Opera
del Duomo, Florence
meaning both "pretend" and "do," catches the nature
of the self-induction process.
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
this spirit ("Thus says the Lord..."), much as Hesiod, Homer and other Greek
singers were only voice instruments through which the goddess Muses sang.
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
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.
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,
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,
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
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
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
in 722 BC (see further
2 below) and
also for the destruction of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah by
Babylonian invaders under Nebuchadnezzar
in 587 BC.
Jewish prophetic literature, the Lord speaking through
his obedient followers a homeland in Palestine,
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
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.
and other Jewish prophets of this period weighed in on the Lord's motives:
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!
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.
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
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
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
left: the gloomy
Jeremiah ponders the Lord's anger. Playing Jeremiah, Michelangelo boldly painted his own face
on this figure in the Sistine Chapel.
left: the unwilling
prophet Jonah looks over his shoulder forever in the Sistine Chapel. The
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?)
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.
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.)
"Moses Showing the Tables of the Law to the People" (1659 CE).
Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin.
thousands of Muslim pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, retracing the 1400
year-old footsteps of Mohammed in
year 2003 CE
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
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,
with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the
forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
5. Josiah and Deuteronomy.
According to 2 Kings 22–23, King
(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.
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.
Problems of Prophecy #1: developing a
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.
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)
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.
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
treatments, following the practices of
Hippocrates and others
pioneers of western medicine.
the most common sign for prophetic power is
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
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.
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
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
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'
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.)
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),
Luke (both cir. 80-85 AD) and
John (cir. 90-95 AD). (Jesus had
died cir. 30 AD.)
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.
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.
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.
Problems of prophecy #2: cult maintenance.
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.
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
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.
you recognize any of these common cult strategies in a group to which you
Is a friend or relative in such a
2007, 2009, 2012