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Prophets in Perspective by B. Davie Napier

B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Published by Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville, 1962, 1963. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 3: Pre-prophetic "Prophets"

An essential prophetism was present in ancient Israel long before the rise and development of the classical prophetic moment of the eighth and following centuries. A core tradition of Yahwism, in the broad sense certainly "prophetic," was maintained in a fluid continuum from Moses to Malachi. The expression of the characteristically prophetic bent of mind occurred among the Old Testament people long in advance of classical prophetism. This is to say, then, that the classical prophet, although highly creative and proclaiming a new word, was debtor, and certainly conscious debtor, to a core tradition already long established.1 This is also to say that one must of necessity define the essentially prophetic quality in pre-Amos Israel by the standards of classical prophetism, and further that no history, and perhaps least of all biblical history, may be appropriated in sterile chronological fashion. The past of a people, or any aspect of that people’s past, must be interpreted in the light of what that past becomes.2 Not that we have or will ever have full knowledge of the phenomenon of classical prophetism, but that the emerging form of prophetism in early Israel may be addressed, apprehended, and assessed only against what we may know, rationally and intuitively, of the matured phenomenon.

Prophetic Essence: Address to History

Old Testament prophetism will no doubt continue to be a subject of vigorous debate. On one point, however, there is no possibility of dispute. The characteristically prophetic phenomenon always presupposes the decisive impingement of Yahweh upon history. This is true whether the prophetic word be invective or judgment, assurance or promise, cry of anguish or confession. This is true whether the prophetic act be concrete, symbolic, or relational. This is true whether the presupposition that Yahweh determines history be conscious or unconscious, explicit or taken for granted, immediately relevant or only of indirect ultimate pertinence. Where this sense of the effective relationship of Yahweh to history is absent prophetism is also absent. Where this is present, where without this sense of the interrelatedness of history and deity the utterance, the situation, the personality, or the relationship would be radically altered -- there is prophetism.

Premonarchic "Prophets"

Down to the eighth century the term "prophet" appears linked to the names of a considerable number of persons. Five prominent names from premonarchic times are by tradition attached to the title: Abraham (Gen. 20:7) , Aaron (Exod. 7:1) , Miriam and Deborah (both nebi’ah, fem., nab i’; Exod. 15:20 and Judg. 4:4) , and Moses (Deut. 34:10; 18:18; cf. Num. 11:26-29; 12:5-8) The term was hardly then in use among the Israelites. The word nabi’ came to be applied to Israelite functionaries in the tenth century, and in the later classical sense of the term, sometime during or after Amos’ day. The term as a title applied to these individuals can hardly originate earlier than the latter part of the ninth century, and much more likely reflects the development of tradition in the eighth or seventh century. It is nevertheless interesting and instructive that these five are awarded the title. The patriarchal saga tends noticeably to impute to Abraham a sense of divinely ordained history which in Israel could only be post-Exodus.3 A man who, as remembered in tradition, can in faith (Gen. 15:6) accept the divine promises detailed in Gen. 12:1-3, 7; a man who, in that same tradition, not only stands in awareness of Yahweh’s radically purposive impingement on history, but also understands himself in an absolutely central role therein -- such a man profoundly deserves the ascription "prophet."

Aaron’s case is less significant but also instructive.

And Yahweh said to Moses
"See, I make you as God to Pharaoh;
And Aaron your brother
shall be your prophet." (Exod. 7:1, P.)

Again the linking by later tradition of the name with the title presupposes the understanding of prophetism in fundamental terms of Yahweh’s efficacious relationship to history. It further conveys the definition of prophet as one who articulates the meaning of the divine impingement from a remarkably knowledgeable position. This interpretation is confirmed and elaborated in Exod. 4:14 ff. 4 when Yahweh responds with some heat to Moses’ protest that he is no speaker:

Is there not Aaron . . . ?
I know that he can speak well. . . .
And you shall speak to him
and put the words in his mouth. . . .
He shall speak for you to the people;
and he shall be a mouth for you,
and you shall be to him as God.

To Miriam tradition ascribes, correctly or incorrectly, the composition of the lines which, with brilliant economy, convey the whole prophetic theology of the Exodus: 5

Sing to Yahweh,
for he has triumphed gloriously;
The horse and his rider
he has thrown into the sea!

Equally appropriately, tradition names Deborah a prophet. The "Song of Deborah" (Judg. 5) conveys a premonarchic, if not contemporary, interpretation of a victory of Yahweh and a number of Israelite tribes over a Canaanite coalition sometime around 1100 B.C. Thus Deborah no less than Miriam is represented in celebration of what Yahweh is doing in concrete relationship to the historical existence of Israel.

In the case of Moses, it is instructive that J, the earliest Old Testament historical "source," 6 nowhere accords him the title "prophet." J does not call Moses a prophet because the term is not so employed in Israel in the Yahwist’s day. It is another matter in E, however, which reflects the century between 850 and 750 B.C. The entire E material probably stems from early prophetic circles, and where it deals with Moses it reflects consistently the conviction that he is a prophet, and the greatest of the prophets.

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which Yahweh sent him to do in the land of Egypt . . . and for all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:10 if., E.)8

The prophetism which Moses represents is of a special sort; he is the performing prophet, actively intervening in events. In this Moses towers above all other prophets (Num. 12: 7 ff.) If the qualities of mediation and intercession are here (Exod. 18:19; 32:11-13; Num. 12:11) , these qualities are heightened, augmented in the extreme. In order to save Israel, Moses is prepared to become anathema on behalf of his people (Exod. 32:32; cf. Rom. 9:3)9

In the Deuteronomic perspective Moses is the ideal prophet. In Deut. 18:18 he reports what Yahweh has told him: "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him." A change has occurred in the century or so separating E and D. With D in the seventh century emphasis has passed from the prophet’s deed to the prophet’s word. While the role of the prophet has been altered, however, the central character of prophetism is the same -- namely, concern with and the demonstration of the critical impingement of divine life upon human history.

Moses acquires the title "prophet" by retrojection. In identifying Moses as a prophet, E and D inform us not so much about the man Moses in the thirteenth century as about the best expectations for the prophet in the eighth and the seventh centuries. We may agree that the historical Moses appropriately heads the list of Old Testament prophets as prophetism is broadly defined and that E and D were not wrong in making the identification. For our present purposes, however, the great question of the "historical Moses" must be considered of secondary importance. The real issue is to comprehend the true nature and function of prophetism in ancient Israel. The impression of Moses which is ours from the biblical narrative is already prophetically interpreted (even in the Yahwist, since we shall presently see the Yahwist himself as an early historical figure in the total movement of prophetism) This is a Moses who lived in prophetic experience in Israel not as a figure of the past but as the first of a line of prophets who in the present are continuing to bring Israel up from Egypt into existence under God.10

The primary effort to recover an exclusively pragmatic historical past in ancient Israel is always doomed, and more than that, it is, as effort, in error. The time span between the given "present" and the appropriated past varies widely, from the relatively narrow gap between David and the account of him in II Sam. 9-20 plus I Kings 1-2 to the recreation of Moses in the Deuteronomic corpus and, still later, the priestly writing. But in the Old Testament we have no past which has not already been appropriated in a subsequent present, and so appropriated as to be in the present, to live in the present. If the "historical Moses" is irrecoverable for this reason, so is the "historical Exodus" -- it was past, but it now is. The event lives in faith. It has been culticized. It is as such, psychologically speaking, not so much merely memorialized as re-experienced -- created and lived again. Moses and the Exodus and all of Israel’s recorded past are received by us in a form of penetrating and consistent "isness," and there exists therefore no way whatsoever to effect a concrete recovery of the now totally silent and absent wasness. Prophetism is to confront man with God-in-history. It is timelessly the bringing of Israel, always now, up from Egypt into existence under God! So is Moses a prophet.

The Yahwist as Prophet

This is something else. As an entity so termed we predicate a man, an individual. We presume further to place him within rather narrow limits of time, considering the relative antiquity of his epoch -- i.e., before the death of Solomon and, at the earliest, the final years of David’s reign. We predicate, in addition, a historian -- no mere chronicler of the past, but one who addresses and is overwhelmingly addressed by the present, who is impressed with what is for him the indelible meaning of the present, who comprehends that meaning as the existent form of Israel, and who, in order to articulate that form, spontaneously expands its meaning into a past already present and, in rare, involuntary bursts, into a future equally present but relatively imperceptible.11

The Yahwist is known to us not as one who, like Moses, is appropriated from the past, but as himself an appropriator of the past. His work, which constitutes the basic structure of the Hexateuch, is all that we know of him. It is a creative production whose creativity inheres, not in verbal, but in structural composition. By and large he reproduces what has already earlier been produced and achieves by inspired selection, juxtaposition, and broadly conceived arrangement of varied existent traditional materials an artistically and theologically unified "history." His total achievement is a brilliant, highly coherent definition of the essential form of Israel, a form apprehended in a continuum of meaning from the present to the past and back to the present again. If the irrecoverable and undefinable, but certainly historical, thirteenth-century Moses was among the prophets, as his easy appropriation thereto would lead us to suspect, he is followed in the prophetic succession (and who is to say how many "prophets" may have come between?) 12 by this nameless untitled prophet who is known to us only by the divine name (the Yahwist, from Yahweh) , this tenth-century proclaimer of Yahweh’s critical impingement upon history, this prophetic delineator of Israel’s form and meaning in terms of emergence from Egypt into existence under God.

The Yahwist sees, and through the form and structure of his work proclaims, such an impingement of the divine life upon history as cannot be contained by the life of Israel. The effects spill upon all men and nations, in all time. It is, therefore, quite wrong to argue that Hellenism created the idea of ecumenical history.13 The Greek language and Hellenistic culture provided the term and a specialized content, but ecumenicity already inhered, if in quietness and sublety, in some ancient Israel’s earliest stories. It gained its first emphatic description of meaning, long before the origin of the mere term in the Yahwist’s work. The J opus proclaims Yahweh’s impingement on Israel, to be sure, but at once -- such is the historical form of Israel and its dependent meaning -- upon the world, the whole household of God. The primeval history (the Yahwist’s material in Gen. 2-11) and its structural relationship to the story of Abraham and all that follows testifies to the Yahwist’s sweeping ecumenical perspective.14

The Yahwist’s place in the broad tradition of Israelite prophetism is sure. Acknowledgment of the Yahwist as "prophet" renders the more comprehensible the roles in prophetism of Samuel, Nathan, and Elijah, as well as the classical prophets from Amos to Second Isaiah.


1 See further G. H. Davies, "The Yahwistic Tradition in the Eighth-Century Prophets," Studies in Old Testament Prophecy, edited by H. H. Rowley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1950) , pp. 57-51. Cf. also von Rad Theologie des Alten Testaments (Munich. 1957) , II, pp. 20-26.

2 "A discussion of the emergence of form entails a knowledge of a civilization in its maturity, a familiarity with its classical expression in every field." Henri Frankfort, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East (Garden City, N. V.: Doubleday & Company, 1956), p. 25.

3 See further B. D. Napier, From Faith to Faith (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1955) , pp. 60-71.

4 Conventionally assigned to the E document (representing eighth-seventh century?)

5 F. Cross and N. Freedman have argued that the long poem preceding Exod. 15:21 is the "Song of Miriam" and scarcely later than the twelfth century in its original form. See "Song of Miriam," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. xiv, No. 4 (October, 1955)

6 "Source" criticism ran its full, complex course in the latter half of the preceding century and the early years of the present century. A solid core still stands out of that massive structure. This includes, at least for me, the integrity of J as a documentary entity, representing the brilliant, creative editorial work of an individual whom we call the Yahwist. This work of the Yahwist, J, drew from older sources (and probably chiefly from a pre-J collection of traditional materials) and dates from the tenth century. Adequate grounds have never existed for the repudiation of D and P as sources. E continues to require symbolization, whether or not it ever existed as a separate and roughly parallel source to J, as simply that hexateuchal material differing from or later than J but earlier than D or P. Cf. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, translated by John H. Marks (from Dos erste Buch Mose) in the series Dos Alte Testament Deutseh, II (Gottingen, 1955; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961) , pp. 23 if. and 27 if. (German: pp. 16 ff. and 20 ff.) The reader may also be interested in seeing my fuller, but summary, discussion in Song of the Vineyard (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962) , pp. 25-27 and footnotes p. 26.

7 Von Rad, Theologie, I, 292.

8 Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941) , p. 175.

9 Von Rad, Theologie, I, 292, almost verbatim.

10 So, substantially, Eric Voegelin, Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1956) , p. 428.

11 "Cf. Robin George Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946) ; Frankfort, op. cit.; and Voegelin, op. cit., especially Chap. 4, "Israel and History."

12 If, as seems probable, a prophet-theologian earlier than the Yahwist first brought together the bulk of material now assigned to J, he too must take his place in this succession.

13 "Collingwood, op. cit., p. 52.

14 "See now especially Von Rad, Genesis, p. 22 if. (German: p. 15 if.) Because the passage in Von Rad is crucial to what I am trying to say, and because it is in my judgment still the best interpretive statement on the primeval story in Genesis, I presume to give here my own translation, indicating and/or retaining a few of the key German terms employed by Von Rad:

The structure of the primeval history, which the Yahwist put together from a highly varied assortment of materials, proclaims . . - - with magnificent singleness of aim that all corruption, all disorder (Wirrnis) in the world is the result of sin; and yet at the same time it also bears witness that to the steadily widening breach between God and man there corresponds an inherently powerful expression of grace. The accounts of the Fall, of Cain, and of Noah, also and unmistakably reflect Gods forgiving and sustaining concern for man (Heilshandeln) Only in the Babel story, with the dispersion of peoples and the loss of human unity, does the judgment of God appear to he the final word. But here the primeval history (Urgeschichte) is merged with the story of salvation (Heilsgeschichte) : Abraham is called out of the multitude of peoples, ‘that in him all the families of the earth may be blessed’ Thus at the very outset, Heilsgeschichte replies to the unanswered question of Urgeschichte, the question of God’s relationship to all peoples together. This point where Heilsgeschichte sets in, Gen. 12:1-5, is at once the conclusion of the Urgeschichte and the only key to its interpretation. In this fusion of Urgeschichte) and Heilsgeschichte the Yahwist makes articulate the meaning and aim of the role in the history of salvation which Yahweh has granted Israel. He gives the etiology of all etiologies in the Old Testament and in doing so assumes the true status of a prophet: on grounds supported neither rationally nor by particulars he proclaims the spanning of the chasm between God and all mankind as God’s ultimate, saving, goal to be effected through Israel. The promise in Gen. 12:1f. contains a threefold assurance of goodness: 1) Abraham will be blessed and become a great people. 2) Yahweh will give the land to the seed of Abraham (12:7). 3) in Abraham all branches of the human family will be blessed (12:3) The first two promises were given the Yahwist in patriarchal tradition; but the third obviously has its origin in none of the ancient traditions but precisely in the authenticity (Vollmacht) of his prophetic inspiration.

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