Chapter 6: Rupture

Song of the Vineyard
by B. Davie Napier

Chapter 6: Rupture


I KINGS 11-16

1 will not take the whole kingdom out of David’s hand.

I Kings11:34

It is time now to look, if briefly, at the form and nature of the book of Kings. Here is a simple, three-part outline of the contents:

I 1-11Solomon.

I 12-II 18:12 The two kingdoms, North and South, to the North’s demise in 722-721.

II 18:13-25:26 The South to its own destruction in 587. (The brief narrative of Jehoiachin’s release from prison in Babylon some years later, 1125:27-30, appears to be in the nature of a subsequent postscript to Kings.)

DH and the Sources

Kings is the editorial work of DH, perhaps a school of theologians-historians thoroughly impressed with and largely controlled by the perspectives and even the language and style of Deuteronomy. As we shall see later, the bulk of Deuteronomy appears to date from the seventh century. The total DH work, Deuteronomy-I I Kings, is probably a sixth-century product as it stands; but Kings may well have been formulated before the fall of the South in 587, since a number of passages suggest the historians’ ignorance of that enormous catastrophe. On the other hand, the story carries through the bitter narration of Jerusalem’s collapse and destruction, and elsewhere betrays editorial knowledge of this tragic end. We assume, then, the probability of two "editions" of Kings, both Deuteronomic, that is, both DH, one edition prior and another subsequent to the final termination of Israelite monarchy.

The most conspicuous structural feature of Kings is the repeated use of a formula defining and summarizing in brief, rigid categories the reigns of the various kings. It appears first, in an abbreviated form, at the end of I 11, to mark the close of the narrative of Solomon’s reign. The first full use of the formula is in its application to Rehoboam, I 14:21-24. The formula appears (with elements here and there omitted, e.g., the name of the king’s mother) in the case of all kings, North and South, as an introductory formula, or a concluding formula, or both. It presents two problems in particular. The length of reign of the king in question is characteristically correlated with the reign of the king in the sister kingdom, e.g., "in the eighteenth year of Jeroboam [North], Abijam [South] began to reign" (I 15:1). This exclusively internal synchronism makes absolute dating exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, although our margin of error even at the upper extreme of dates now hardly exceeds more than a few years. The second problem concerns the formula’s categorical judgment of each king — a sweeping judgment of the king based, however. on only the single item of the king’s relationship to the cultus of the Jerusalem Temple. In the sense of the formula, the good king is the faithful king, faithful to the Temple institution. Now it follows, of course that without exception every king of the North is condemned: under the circumstances not one of them could, even if he would, support the South’s royal Temple. And as a matter of fact, DH’s terms being exceedingly demanding, most of the Southern kings are castigated. Hezekiah (II 18:3-7) and Josiah (II 22:2) alone are completely exonerated. The praise of four other kings of the South (Asa, I 15:11 15; Jehoash, II 12:2-3; Azariah, 15:3-4; and Jotham, 15:34-35) is qualified only with the phrase, "but the high places were not taken away."

Inevitably, of course, our own historical sensibilities are sometimes appalled by this parochial and arbitrary basis of judgment. Perhaps the strongest single illustration in Kings is the case of Omri. He inaugurated the North’s strongest dynasty. He was able to effect and maintain peace during his reign by various means including sheer strength of arms. He possessed the wisdom and strategic sense — and the resources — to purchase and begin construction of a capital city on the shrewdly chosen hill of Samaria. A hundred years after his reign an Assyrian historian, an official recorder for the then world-ruling power, termed the whole territory of Palestine "the land of Omri."1 Yet aside from the usual formula, which rates him as "more evil than all who were before him"’ (I 16:25 ff.), DH includes only one verse (16:24) to inform us of the twelve-year history of his reign.

It is apparent that DH has employed a number of sources in compiling Kings. We have already cited the Book of the Acts of Solomon mentioned in I 11:41. DH elsewhere assumes that the reader of Kings has at his disposal the Books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (I 14: 19) and of Judah (I 14:29). (Incidentally, the name Israel is now commonly applied to the North, while the South reverts to the older tribal designation, Judah.) What an incredibly exciting find any one of these ancient works, apparently forever lost, would be! They must have contained detailed and highly diversified material relating to the history of these two kingdoms. For example,

Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam, how he warred and how he reigned, behold, they are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. (I 14:19)

Now the rest of the acts of Zimri, and the conspiracy which he made, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? (I 16:20)

Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory house which he built, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? (I 22:39)

In addition to these three named sources, we suspect the existence of others: perhaps a History of Ahab, comparable to that of Solomon, since we have more material on Ahab than any king since Solomon; almost certainly an Elijah story since one unique hand appears to be responsible for the bulk of I 17-19,21; maybe a collection of stories about Elisha in II 1 ff.; and almost certainly the official Temple Records.

Yahwism, Secession, and Division

I 11-16

No comment is called for here on the basic conditions of the North’s secession. DH provides us with an uncommonly adequate narrative in I Kings 12. The Northern tribes, now designated Israelite, gather at Shechem, which has served from the beginning as their real, if informal, capital. They gather with the serious intention of making Rehoboam king (12:1) — already established in Jerusalem in the place of his father Solomon. But they are smarting still from Solomon’s oppressive measures and when arrogantly assured that these will be in the future only more severe — "My little finger," says Rehoboam, "is thicker than my father’s loins" (12:10) — the old cry (cf. II Sam. 20:1), "What portion have we in David" (I Kings 12:16), is heard again, and the one Yahweh-covenant-community becomes two.

Prophetic Yahwism plays again the crucial political role — even if we are unable to assess that role precisely. The function of the prophet Ahijah is primary through the episodes of the catastrophic event of political rupture (Ahijah dominates the narratives of I 9:9-39; 12:1-32; and 14:1-18). The mighty protest of the North in which Jeroboam figures centrally is inspired if not led by prophetic Yahwism in the person of Ahijah. Jeroboam is again, like the judges, like Saul and David, a charismatic figure, endowed by prophetic declaration and demonstration with the spirit of Yahweh. It is prophetic Yahwism, in the North at least, which prefers the chaos of a broken people to the chaos of a united people under abusive and anti-Yahwistic monarchy,

For roughly the first three-quarters of the tenth century all the tribes of the unified Israel participate in the reigns of David and Solomon. Now, for a half century — the last quarter of the tenth and the first quarter of the ninth — the larger, stronger North and the smaller but more compactly integrated South know a relationship if not of war, at least of unceasing armed bickering over disputed common boundaries (14:30; 15:7,16). And while they quarrel, the Syrians of Damascus, the Egyptians under Pharaoh Shishak I (I Kings 14:25-28), and even the old and vastly weakened Philistine enemy make life hazardous for one or the other segment of the broken kingdom. The high hopes of prophetic Yahwism are dashed again. Two prophetic narratives "predict" Jeroboam’s failure. One, I 13, is a relatively late legend of a prophet led into disobedience of Yahweh after proclaiming the fall of Jeroboam. It is apparently inserted here to underscore the South’s negative view of Jeroboam. In I 14, the story of Jeroboam ‘s wife’s visit to Ahijah, we have a narrative, late to be sure in its present form, which may well be an expansion of an old narrative better preserved in the Septuagint version. Jeroboam’s wife Ano goes to Ahijah before Jeroboam is king; Ahijah is not blind, and Ano is not disguised since she is not yet queen and therefore needs no disguise; Ahijah, giving no reasons, simply foretells the death of the child and the fall of the house of Jeroboam. The point is that both of these prophetic narratives, the one late and Southern, and the other older and out of the North, express prophetic disillusionment with the very course of prophetically inspired events.

This is, of course, the recurring theological tragedy in ancient Israel. Yahweh created Israel (and the world) for purposes totally frustrated. Yahweh brought Israel into a land and an existence free and redeemed from slavery, again for purposes of his own which Israel successfully frustrated. Yahweh made a covenant in that land with David on behalf of all Israel, only to have his covenant intentions frustrated again. Now, Yahweh’s intent to salvage order from the chaos of Israel in the person of Jeroboam also comes to the same frustrated end; and prophetism, which had inspired every significant event of Israel’s history, once more must declare void the movement in which faith and hope inhered briefly.

The singular fact is that prophetic faith and hope nevertheless persisted. Prophetic Yahwism — the sustaining force in ancient Israel — never abandoned the quest for and expectation of the fulfillment of covenant. Yahweh, together with Israel in some recognizable form, will fulfill the purposes of Yahweh’s creation and covenant.

We know very, very little of the fifty years from Jeroboam to Omri in the North, from Rehoboam to Jehoshaphat in the South. In Israel — we shall now use that term for the Northern kingdom — it was then, as it was throughout her history, far more turbulent politically than in Judah where the Davidic line held fast (with the single brief exception of Athaliah). Israel gained previously unprecedented internal security, and Israel and Judah an appreciable measure of concord, with the reign of Omri and the establishment of a short-lived but strong four-member dynasty in the second decade of the ninth century (from c. 876-842?).

But the greatness of the Old Testament people in the ninth century B.C. centers not in Omri or any other of her kings, but again in prophetic Yahwism and particularly in the persons of her distinguished prophets.


I will put my words in his mouth.

Deut. 18:18

The history of the Old Testament is for the most part transmitted to us through the eye and mind of prophetic Yahwism, a phenomenon to be sharply distinguished from the popular Yahwism of the Old Testament people. Indeed prophetic and popular Yahwism were in unceasing tension, for Israelite prophetism always found its message and action determined by what was deemed to be the prostitution of Yahwism in its popular conception and practice.

In Part III of this book, we shall discuss ancient Israel’s most notable development and her finest, most widely appropriated legacy to us and the world — classical prophetism. Prophetic Yahwism, certainly already in existence and creatively at work in the whole exodus event of the thirteenth century, attains its full identity and character in the classical prophets of the eighth to the sixth centuries, most notably in Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah of the eighth century; in Jeremiah and Ezekiel of the seventh-sixth century; and in the so-called Second Isaiah of the sixth century. But it is important to recognize an essential prophetic Yahwism, a preclassical prophetism, present in Israel from her earliest beginnings and maintained in an unbroken but fluid continuum from Moses to Amos.

The classical prophets from Amos to Second Isaiah strike ancient Israel, and continue to impress all of us, with freshness, vigor, and originality. Indeed, individually and collectively these classical prophets are unique. But in emphasizing a tradition of prophetic Yahwism never significantly broken from Moses in the thirteenth to Malachi in the fifth century, we intend to insist that the classical prophet, albeit proclaiming the new, was nevertheless debtor, and consciously debtor, to this core tradition. And we will, of course, understand classical prophetism better in awareness and knowledge of that tradition of prophetic Yahwism.

Prophet and Prophetism

The Hebrew word for prophet is nabi’ (p1., nebi’im). It is a common noun, employed more than three hundred times in the Old Testament to designate a remarkable range of characters from an Aaron (Ex. 7:1) to an Elijah, from the "true" to the "false" (e.g., I Kings 22), from the relatively primitive (e.g., I Sam. 10) to the relatively sophisticated (the Isaiahs, for example), from the highly visionary (e.g., Ezek. 1-2) to the concretely ethical (e.g., Nathan in II Sam. 12 or Elijah in I Kings 21), from the seemingly objective perspective (of an Amos) to the intensely participating attitude (of a Jeremiah).

What does nabi’ mean? The etymological pursuit is vain: we do not know and cannot now determine the original meaning of the Hebrew root. One strong hypothesis sees it as related to cognate Accadian and Arabic words meaning "to call" or "to announce." In the light of what we know the prophet to be this commends itself to us. The prophet of the Old Testament is "an announcer" or "the one who announces" the force and meaning of the impinging divine Word and life. Or, taking this etymological hypothesis in the passive sense, the prophet is the recipient of the announcement of Yahweh, he is "the one who is called."

And how may we define essential prophetism? It may be broadly defined as that understanding of history which accepts meaning only in terms of divine concern, divine purpose, divine participation. Of course, by this definition the bulk of biblical record is emphatically prophetic in its understanding and interpretation of history. In a narrower sense, prophetism refers to the particular succession who are called prophets and who in some real sense fulfill the role of prophet. But in essence, whether referring to person or concept, prophetism presupposes the decisive impingement of Yahweh upon history. This constitutes the basic prophetic character. Where this sense of effective relationship of Yahweh to history is absent, prophetism is also absent. Where this sense of the interrelatedness of history and deity is present and where its role is decisive to the utterance or the person, or to the understanding of historical event or human relationship there is prophetism.

Prophetism in these terms was an ingredient of core Yahwism from Israel’s earliest days. But the word nabi’, "prophet," probably did not come into current use in Israel before the tenth or even the ninth century. I Samuel 9:9 recalls that "he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer." The role and function and particular identity of the prophet is a development of monarchic times influenced not only by the older institution of "seer" (a professional role illustrated in the Samuel of I Sam. 9) but by the Canaanite phenomenon of organized, contagious prophecy.

In that same, relatively old narrative of I Samuel 9:1-10:16; we see that kind of prophetism native to Canaan. This is the first recorded instance of its appropriation among the tribes of Israel, by Israelites. We remember this narrative. Saul, with a servant, consults the seer Samuel in his efforts to recover his father’s lost asses. Samuel, "seeing" the animals, reassures Saul and then anoints him "to be prince over his people Israel" (10:1, with RSV and the Septuagint). Samuel informs Saul of what is about to take place, and sure enough,

When they came to Gibeah, behold a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God [the word in Hebrew is not the name, Yahweh, but the general term for deity, ‘Elohim] came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them. And when all who knew him before saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, "What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets

Therefore it became a proverb, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (10:9-12)

I Samuel 19:18-24 repeats the proverb in a more dramatic setting, with even stronger emphasis on the contagious nature of the seizure and with a fuller description of its manifestation. Saul, this time in pursuit of the outlawed David, sends a company of men to take him forcefully from his position of refuge with Samuel and a band of prophets, who, though perhaps Israelites, exist in the fashion of ecstatic Canaanite bands of prophets. When Saul’s men saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the spirit of God [again ‘Elohim] came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. (19:20)

Two subsequent squads are dispatched by Saul, neither returning since both companies are seized by the same contagion. Now Saul himself comes, and the spirit of God [‘Elohim] came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied, until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel, and lay naked all that day and all that night. Hence it is said, "is Saul also among the prophets?" (19:23 f.)

We cannot be sure of the relationship between these two narratives in I Samuel 10 and 19. In literary-critical judgment, it has been common to see the second as a duplicate, and perhaps an historically dubious explanation of the proverb, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" We ourselves see no reason why both passages may not be deemed to portray the phenomenon of Canaanite prophetism as in that form it began to be appropriated by Israelites. We shall see how radically the Canaanite institution is transformed in its final adaptation in Israel.

For the sake of comprehending that very transformation, we will do well to understand this form of the Canaanite institution. We note first that the phenomenon of prophecy is induced. Samuel says to Saul, "You will meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them. prophesying" (10:5). Secondly, it produces a total transformation of personality. "You shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man" (10:6). It is further, created and sustained as a group phenomenon; and to "prophesy" (from the same root as nabi’) primarily denotes ecstatic behavior, if this state or action of prophesying is initially induced, it is capable of spread by contagion. And it is popularly interpreted as indicative of seizure by the deity: the prevailing (but not exclusive — 10:6 reads "spirit of Yahweh") term is ‘Elohim.

This kind of prophesying indigenous to Canaan’s culture (we will meet it again in the ninth century brilliantly described in the Elijah narratives) is certainly among the antecedents of the classical prophetism which emerges out of prophetic Yahwism. The roots of the great Yahweh prophets are sunk even deeper into the broad culture of the ancient Middle Fast. Prophet-like persons appear in the Mari texts from the middle Euphrates in the eighteenth century B.C. — a thousand years before Amos. But . . .even if we assume a historical connection between the messenger of God in the Mari texts and the prophet of the Old Testament, there is a clear difference between the two. This difference lies not in the manner of the appearance, but in the content of that which is announced as the divine message. At Mari the message deals with cult and political matters of very limited and ephemeral importance. Any comparison with the content of the prophetical books is out of the question. The prophetic literature deals with guilt arid punishment, reality and unreality, present and future of the Israelite people as chosen by God for a special and unique service, the declaration of the great and moving contemporary events in the world as part of a process which, together with the future issue of that process, is willed by God.2

What Israel freely borrows from all her environment she radically transforms. The distant antecedents at Mari as well as the more immediate antecedents in ecstatic, contagious Canaanite prophetism differ from the prophets of Israel drastically. And the root of the difference is, of course, Yahweh, in whose name Old Testament prophetism always speaks, "who alone disposes of the great powers of world history, and whose will all powers and movement of history serve."3

Premonarchic Prophets

Five prominent figures from premonarchic times are awarded the title of prophet by tradition — Abraham (Gen. 20:7); Aaron (Ex. 7:1); Miriam and Deborah (both nebi’ah, the feminine form of the noun nabi’, Ex. 15:20 and Judg. 4:4); and of course Moses (Deut. 34:10, 18:18; cf. Num. 11:26-29 and 12:5-8). A brief look at why these five were so designated increases our understanding of the place, function, and nature of the prophets in the history of the kingdoms.

The patriarchal saga, as we have seen, imputes to Abraham a sense of divinely ordained history which in Israel could only he postexodus. As the person of this first patriarch tends in tradition to take typological form, Abraham is able to accept in faith (Gen. 15:6) the divine promises of Genesis 12:1-3,7. He is seen in the maturing tradition as acutely aware of Yahweh’s purposive impingement on history. And more than this, he is himself called to play an essential role therein. It is inevitable that in Israel such a figure should be given the ascription "prophet."

The case of Aaron is perhaps less significant, but it instructs us no less in comprehending the nabi’ of monarchic Israel-Judah.

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

Again, tradition’s linking of an early name with a subsequently developed Israelite role presupposes an understanding of prophetism in primary terms of Yahweh’s participating. purposive relationship to history. This instance further defines the prophet as one who articulates and proclaims the sense and meaning of the divine impingement, a definition further confirmed in Exodus 4:14 ff. (E) when Yahweh responds to Moses’ objection 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.

Miriam and Deborah (see Ex. 15:21 and Judg. 5) come to acquire the designation because both play eloquent and dramatic roles in celebration of what Yahweh is doing in concrete relationship to the historical existence of Israel.

It may be significant that Moses is never called a prophet in the J-work, the tenth century Yahwist’s creative, but largely editorial, composition; and on this continuing question of primary "documents" a reiterative, summary word is in order. We have consistently regarded J as a concrete entity, the (probably) written work of an individual. Adequate grounds have never existed for the repudiation of D (Deuteronomy, plus the work of DH) and P as for the most part identifiable strata produced, however, corporately as the work more of "schools." And E, we submit, continues to require symbolization, whether or not it ever existed originally as a separate and roughly parallel narrative source to J, as simply that hexateuchal material later than J, earlier than D or P, and reflecting the provenance of the Northern kingdom.4

The term prophet certainly was in use in the Yahwist’s day (as witness, again, the authentic, "Saul" proverb, I Sam. 10:12 and 19:24), but the function and practice of prophetism remained still by and large alien, that is, Canaanite. It is, of course, another matter in E, which reflects the period about 850-750, and betrays every evidence of stemming from Israel’s early prophetic circles.5 In the various E material Moses consistently appears not merely in the role of prophet, but prophet par excellence:

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 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 ff., E)

Well may one comment:

The prophetism which Moses represents is of a special sort [as understood by E]; he is much more the performing prophet, actively intervening in events. . . In the last analysis, indeed, Moses towers above all other prophets (Num. 12:7 f.). His charisma was so powerful that even a part of it, and that itself further divided among seventy elders, threw the recipient out of his normal senses and transferred him into a state of ecstasy (Num. 11:25ff.). Even mediation and the intercessory is here (Ex. 18:19; 32:11-13; Num. 12:11); but again we see this quality heightened, augmented in the extreme: in order to save Israel, Moses was prepared to become anathema for the people (Ex. 32:32: cf. Rom. 9:3).6

In the deuteronomic perspective Moses is the model prophet. Here is Moses reporting 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. (Deut. 18:18)

In the century or two separating E and D a marked change has occurred in the function, and therefore the concept, of the prophet in Israel: by the seventh century, emphasis has passed from the prophet’s deed to the prophet’s word. The basic character of prophetism, however, remains the same — that is, concern with and the demonstration of the critical impingement of divine life upon human history. If E and D perpetrate a terminological anachronism in ascribing to Moses the title of prophet, the essential identification is nevertheless sound. Prophetism was — and always is — to confront man with God-in-history. Timelessly, prophetism is the bringing of Israel up from Egypt into existence under God.7



So shall my Word be.

Isa. 55:118

Sometime in the second half of the eighth century, but before the destruction of North Israel (722-721), the prophet Isaiah envisaged a catastrophic event to be inflicted upon Judah by the might of Assyria. Contemplating that tragedy (and Judah was in fact severely ravaged by Assyria just before the turn of the century), Isaiah declared to King Ahaz of Judah,

Yahweh will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah! (Isa. 7:17)

Israel’s loss of order and meaning began in the very structure of the David-Zion covenant; took explosive, catastrophic form "the day that Ephraim departed from Judah"; and was climaxed, in seeming hopelessness, first in the North’s and subsequently the South’s (587) destruction.

We have the story only as the story was understood and interpreted in core Yahwism, in what we have broadly called prophetism. This is how, in the Yahweh faith, the whole tragic sequence was comprehended. The order which Yahweh would create out of the people Israel is made chaos by Israel’s rebelliousness, by her obstinate refusal to assume the form and character and identity of the Yahweh covenant. That which Yahweh purposed for Israel from of old was thus frustrated but not Yahweh himself, not his power and his Word. Israel’s unfaith brings her back again to the formless and the void, to the meaningless and the chaotic. She knows at length a figurative "return to the land of Egypt" (Hos. 11:5). But all of this deterioration of form, this negation and destructive judgment, is seen as the positive work of Yahweh’s word toward that original purpose — the creation of a covenant people and through them the blessing of all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1 ff.)

The Yahwist as Prophet

We very briefly surveyed the premonarchic prophets in the preceding section. Among early prophets of the united kingdom, the Yahwist surely has a place. We have already presumed to place the Yahwist within rather narrow limits — somewhere between David’s mature years and the death of Solomon. We predicate in the Yahwist a prophetic historian who addressed himself to the question of the existing form and significance of the entity, Israel. But to comprehend this entity of Israel as she is, and to give expression to her meaningful existence, he must articulate all in her past that he deems relevant to the present, and indeed (he does this, of course, in rare, almost involuntary bursts) he must also speak of that to which the present meaning of Israel ultimately points (so, again, Gen. 12:3).

We recall that the creative prophetism of the Yahwist inheres in his still discernible basic organization of the Hexateuch. We assess and affirm his role as prophet not from what is conveyed biographically, since there is not a single word about him, nor from the content of his independent utterances, since no oracles or commentary of his is preserved, but exclusively from his inspired selection, juxtaposition, and broadly conceived arrangement of varied existent materials. By means of this fundamentally editorial process, the Yahwist prophetically proclaimed Yahweh’s critical impingement on history, and brilliantly delineated Israel’s form and meaning in terms of her emergence from Egypt into existence under God.9

The judgment is surely wrong that "it was Hellenism that created the idea of ecumenical history."10 The Greek language and hellenistic culture provided the term and a splendid vessel for ecumenical history. But essential ecumenicity inheres, if in quietness and subtlety, in the Decalogue; and it receives its first emphatic description of meaning in the Yahwist’s work in the tenth century B.C., a work which proclaims the central thesis of God’s impingement on Israel, to be sure, but at the same time — such is the historical form of Israel and the meaning of her life — on the world, the whole household of God. The primeval story (see Chapter 2) and its structural relationship to the patriarchal stories and all that follows proclaims the Yahwist’s sweeping ecumenical perspective.

The Yahwist’s place is sure in the story of Old Testament prophetism and the roster of the prophets. Indeed, he renders more credible and comprehensible the roles of Samuel, Nathan, and Elijah, as well as the classical prophets from Amos to Second Isaiah.

Samuel to Elisha: The Tenth and Ninth Centuries

I 17-II 13

Samuel whose career begins in the eleventh century, Nathan and Ahijah in the tenth, and Elijah, Micaiah, and Elisha in the ninth — these six prophets dominate the history of preclassical prophetism. Although they differ radically from one another and appear in widely varied contexts, these early prophets evidence in two significant ways their place in the movement of prophetism from premonarchic times to the decay and collapse of monarchy and on into the days of Jewish reconstruction. First, they address themselves powerfully and sometimes passionately to the contemporary scene in the characteristic prophetic conviction of Yahweh’s impingement upon the sociopolitical institution. All six are intimately related to the life of the state and are effectively, if not always decisively, involved in crucial contemporary events; and all six function as prophets to kings.

The second characteristic of the pre-Amos prophets, which sets them apart from the prevailing pattern of contagious-ecstatic group prophecy, is their relationship and responsibility to the debar-Yahweh, the Word of Yahweh. In all these prophets, the address to history takes its content from the Word, and the divine impingement upon history is made articulate and is interpreted by the same Word.

As we have observed, the Word, through Samuel, is responsible for the establishment of monarchy, first tentatively under Saul and then securely and full of promise under David. Through Nathan the word not only interprets the reign of David but decisively determines the course and nature of that reign. Ahijah and the Word effect the kingdom’s tragic rupture. The next fifty years — from about 925-875, from Jeroboam and Rehoboam to Omri and Jehoshaphat — were on the whole bleak years in both kingdoms and apparently without prophets of outstanding stature.

Under Omri in Israel and Jehoshaphat in Judah a substantial measure of security was regained in the sister kingdoms. Concord was achieved within the family, and relationships with nearby neighbors, except Damascus-Syria, ranged from tolerable to good. Jehoshaphat enjoyed a long reign (873-849, according to the Albright-Bright chronology), and the four-member Omri dynasty survived from 876 until Jehu’s bloody revolution in 842.

Elisha the prophet was a younger contemporary of Elijah (I Kings 19:19-21; II Kings 2-13) who died during the reign of Joash, Jehu’s grandson (837-800). During the second half of the ninth century, especially under the rule of Jehu, Jehoahaz. and Joash, the Northern kingdom led an increasingly miserable existence brought on by her own internal weakness and the ravaging attacks of Syria (note, for example, II Kings 5:7, and the Syrian siege by Samaria, 6:25). In the closing years of Joash’s reign the North was almost destroyed, but was brilliantly, if briefly and superficially, revived in the long reign of Jeroboam II (786-746), the fourth and strongest member of the Jehu dynasty.

Now, like Samuel and Nathan and Ahijah in the tenth century, Elijah, Micaiah, and Elisha are instrumental in the ninth century in bringing the Word of Yahweh into history, in conflict with and in judgment upon the life of the king, and in effective encounter with the life of Israel.

The Word is at its weakest in Elisha. Indeed, of the six prophets in the preclassical succession, Elisha appears in the least substantial form. This is not to deny his historical reality and his powerful influence on the events of his time. The cycle of stories collected around his name and exploits testifies to his impact on Israel over a long prophetic career; but elements in the cycle partake of the stuff of sheer legend far more than in the shorter Elijah cycle (I Kings 17-19,21; II Kings 2 and even II Kings I are of different origin).This is true even of one of the theologically most profound stories in the cycle — the story of Naaman’s leprosy in 11 Kings 5. The narrative presents insuperable historical problems, but speaks with inspiration to the theme of faith’s simplicity and the perennial human problem of the validation of faith. Other stories of the cycle, even less credible historically, are unfortunately at the same time aesthetically or theologically repulsive. One wonders whether the Elisha cycle may not betray efforts to assert the "superiority" of Elisha over Elijah. The only two direct parallels in the two cycles strongly suggest this. The role of the widow her son, and the prophet is far more realistic in the two episodes of I Kings 17 (vv. 8-16; 17-24) than in II Kings 4 (vv. 1-7; 18-27). "Sons of the prophets" appear prominently in the Elisha cycle, a circle of prophets over which Elisha presided on occasion. Are these disciples in part responsible for creating out of their prophetic master a figure possessing fantastic magical powers?

The phrase, "the Word of Yahweh" (and the corresponding verbal phrase, "thus says Yahweh") appears in the Elisha cycle. We do not doubt the prophetic authenticity of the historical Elisha, but again, the historical person as well as the prophetic Word are largely obscured in the present cycle of Elisha Stories. The most decisive event for which Elisha is responsible is the anointing of Jehu as king (II Kings 9). Elisha and his "young man, the prophet" act upon and pronounce what they represent to be the Word of Yahweh (9:3,6) with radically effective and appallingly violent results (II Kings 9:21-40:27). Quite properly, as it seems to us, classical prophetism in the person of Hosea (1:4) subsequently repudiates Jehu and his whole rebellion, and implicitly, therefore, denies that this could be the responsibility of the true Word of Yahweh.

We see the Word of Yahweh imposed upon the king earlier in the eighth century in that brilliant scene of II Kings 22 immediately preceding the death of Ahab. The Word through Micaiah works its historical effects, and another preclassical prophet is instrumental in the efficacious juxtaposition of divine life and divine judgment upon human events. Incidentally, the narrative attests the official court adoption in Israel of the originally Canaanite form of group prophecy.11


I 17-19, 2112

Like David (in II Sam. 9-20, I Kings 1-2), Elijah found a brilliant narrator, whose original brief account of a few episodes from the prophet’s life has unfortunately been augmented with some well-intentioned but tedious or offensive details. The narrator wrote with economy of words, as witness the three succinct, eloquent scenes of I Kings 17. His use of the Hebrew language was fresh and original: a surprisingly large number of words and forms are unique. His portrayal of character is powerful in its simplicity and subtlety. Nowhere surpassed in the Old Testament are, Elijah himself; Ahab, in briefer scenes but especially in chapter 21; even Jezebel, especially in the line omitted in the Hebrew manuscripts but authentically preserved in the Greek translation, the Septuagint, at 19:1 — "If you are Elijah, I am Jezebel!" The narrator wrote also with humor, profound sensitivity, and theological insight. His portrayal of the explosively voluble Obadiah (18:7-16) is a masterpiece of humor. The depth of his "psychological" penetration of the prophet himself is astonishing (ch. 19). And only a man himself nurtured and articulate in the tradition of prophetic Yahwism could record Elijah’s racy, earthy verbal devastation of Baal (18:27) and Yahweh’s rebuke of Elijah in the climactic Horeb scene (19:9-18), unquestionably simpler, more direct, and even more moving in its original form. And finally, he also intimately comprehended what Elijah comprehended — that the honor of Yahweh in the Yahweh community involves a theological ethic which not even the king may violate (ch. 21).13

In the prophet Elijah, and certainly also in his narrator, both in the ninth century, the prophetic understanding of the Word of Yahweh has come to full, conscious maturity. Perhaps Elijah and his narrator would not have put it as the Second Isaiah did about three centuries later, but his words express what was essentially their own understanding of the Word-with-power: the entity not merely verbal and descriptive but also instrumental, by its very nature containing the resources for its own accomplishment and fulfillment:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:10-11)

We note in the Elijah narratives the relative frequency of the term, "the Word": I Kings 17:2,5,8,16,24; 18:1 (and vv. 31 and 36, which may not be from the original narrator, however); 21:17 (and v. 28, also possibly secondary). Note also that, as in the records of later classical prophetism, the Word here conveys the sense of a formula whose nature and potency are widely known. Note further that the Word is associated not only with the king but with the people as well. It creates and terminates the drought as a judgment upon people and king (chs. 17,18). It is surely instrumental in the prophet’s indictment of the Carmel assembly (18:20 f.), "How long will you go limping with two different opinions?" It is, of course, the Word which sends the prophet back from Horeb (19:15 ff.) to minister to Israel in the good company of multitudes still faithful to Yahweh.14 And it is the same Word again confronting and judging the king for murder and theft — thus says Yahweh, "Have you killed, and also taken possession!" (21:19).

Although Elijah belongs to the company of preclassical prophets, more than any other in the company he anticipates in two regards that succession of prophets beginning with Amos. Elijah alone of all prophets properly belongs to both groups. In Elijah the Word has attained substantially full prophetic definition and form. Through him the Word finds its mature expression and application, not merely or even principally to the king, but to the nation, the whole people of the covenant. Yahweh’s Word now impinges decisively upon the history of Israel with such force as to involve all history, and upon the royal house with such intensity as to judge all men. Jesus, among others, condensed the Old Testament prophetic ethic (quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus) when he declared that "all the law and the prophets" depend upon love of God and love of neighbor (Matt.22:35-40; cf. Mark 12:28-31). But in reality he reached back ultimately to Elijah, in whom these two propositions find impassioned expression, for the first time in biblical record, in a single life. The divine life confronts and decisively qualifies the life of history. To repudiate Yahweh’s lordship and his historical impingement ("The people of Israel have forsaken thee"), to delimit it or run in the face of it ("Have you killed and also taken possession"), to attempt to compromise with it ("How long will you go limping with two different opinions") — all of this is not folly but unqualified disaster. Thus to deny the Word of Yahweh is to invite loss of meaning and fulfillment and the imposition of chaos and death.

Elijah’s address was of course to his own people and his own time; but in his passionate intensity, all men and all history are implicitly embraced. It remains the task and function of classical prophetism to make concrete and specific the decisive involvement of Yahweh in historical existence.15



1. In the Annals of Tiglath-pileser III (745-727). See James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 2nd ed., Princeton, 1955, p. 284.

2. M. Noth, "History and the Word of God in the Old Testament," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, XXXII, no. 2 (March, 1950), 200 ff.

3. Ibid.

4. Cf. G. von Rad. Genesis, trans. J. Marks (from Das Erste Buch Mose, in the series Das Alte Testament Deutsch, vol. Il) Philadelphia, 1961, pp. 23 ff., 27ff.

5. Cf. G. von Rad, Theologie des Alten Testaments, Munich, 1957, vol. I, p. 292.

6. Ibid.

7. See E. Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, Baton Rouge, 1956. p. 428: "The Moses of the prophets is not a figure of the past through whose mediation Israel was established once and for all as the people under Yahweh the King, but the first of a line of prophets who in the present, under the revelatory word of Yahweh, continued to bring Israel up from Egypt into existence under God." See further B. D. Napier, "Prophet, Prophetism," The interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Nashville, 1962.

8. Cf. Pss. 2, 20, 45, 72, 110.

9. See above. Chapter 2. See also von Rad, Genesis, op. cit., pp. 27 ff.; and Voegelin, op. cit., especially chap. 4, "Israel and History."

10. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, Oxford, 1946, p. 32.

11. The contention that the account of I Kings 22 is not authentic and, at best, mistakenly assigned to Ahab’s reign is unconvincing. See M. Noth, History of Israel, trans. S. Godman (from Geschichte Israels, 2nd ed.), New York, 1958, pp. 178 ff.

12. Cf. II Kings 1-2.

13. If the character of Ahab comes off rather poorly in the Elijah narratives (I Kings 17-19, 21), I Kings 20 and 22 return the impression of an administrator of considerable ability and power and a man of stature. Assyrian records offer one item of significant support. Shalmaneser III (859-824) fought a battle in 853 against a coalition of smaller Western states including Israel. Since he does not claim to have destroyed this alliance (see Pritchard, op. cit., pp. 278 f.) historians have assumed that the allies gained at least a draw. Shalmaneser’s own records report that Ahab supplied the largest corps of chariots; and it may be that he was the moving force behind the alliance. I Kings 20, probably before this battle of Qarqar, suggests precisely Ahab’s long-term strategy aiming at such an alliance with Syria. I Kings 22, which includes the narrative of Ahab’s heroic death, makes clear that the alliance did not long survive the battle of Qarqar.

14. This is against the interpretation of some who read in the seven thousand faithful in Israel an early insinuation of the "remnant" idea.

15. In the foregoing I have borrowed freely from my article "Prophet, Prophetism," op. cit.