07 April 2010

Yet 40 Days and You Will Read This, part 3

See the first and second parts of this series on reading canonical prophetic literature.

In sum, we left off with the argument that prognostications found in Scripture have tacit conditions attached to them. This applies to every form of prediction found in the canon: 1) those explicitly qualified by conditions; 2) those explicitly qualified by assurances; and 3) those with no explicit qualifications (see part 2 for more on these classes of prophecies).

But what about Deuteronomy 18:22? We're still left with: "…when a prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that Yahweh has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him."

Could it be that black-and-white? Is this a straightforward test? Failed predictions mark false prophets? What about those intervening historical contingencies?

As economical as this interpretation may be, it does not account for the information gleaned in part 2 of this series. Is it therefore unique to Deuteronomic theology and contradicted by later biblical traditions? To be sure, many modern exegetes take the test as a general rule to which there are few exceptions. Alternatively, though, I would suggest that the primary audience (of Moses' day) realized that unqualified predictions had implied conditions. If this dynamic was indeed well-known, then it need not be repeated explicitly when the criterion of Deuteronomy 18:22 was offered ("if the word does not come to pass"). Thus, this test instructed the Israelites to expect a prediction from a true prophet to come about, unless significant intervening contingencies interrupted. Maybe that is why so many passages highlight historical contingencies that have interrupted many fulfillments? Why were the various biblical authors so specific in detailing the human responses that curbed the outcome of the predictions? Could it be that by pointing to significant historical contingencies, the Israelites would have no trouble accepting interruped predictions as originating with Yahweh?

It should be seen as indisputable that historical contingencies affected the outcomes of unqualified predictions, but did tacit conditions apply only to this last category or did conditions attach to all prophecies? The answer, which I've already mentioned in the first part, is found in Jeremiah 18:1–10. Here we see that the Jerusalmites opposed the prophet (see vv. 11–12) because they believed divine protection for the holy city was entirely unconditional (e.g., Jer. 7:4). But what Jeremiah 18:1–10 amounts to is a rebuttal of this false security. It stated that all unqualified predictions, even those concerning Jerusalem, operated with implied conditions.

How do I dare suggest that this text is paradigmatic? "At some time" (v. 7); and "at some other time" (v. 9), suggest to me that Yahweh's words apply to every situation. Secondly, the all-inclusive phrase "any nation or kingdom" (v. 7) also points us in this direction. Thirdly, the oracles described in this pericope are categorically judgment and salvation oracles. At the very least, an attempt to classify all of the prophetic oracles in Scripture reveals that they all gravitate in one or both of these directions. The text, then, portrays a God who exercised great latitude because his responses were situation specific, appropriate for the particularities of each event. But there is also a basic pattern at work: the realization of all unqualified predictions were subject to modification as Yahweh reacted to his people's responses. In sum, historical contingencies had a bearing on all three major types of predictions discussed in this series. In every case, significant responses preceding fulfillments had the potential of effecting to some degree how Yahweh would direct the future.

I could go on, of course, but I think if the patient reader has read this far, he or she gets the point. A subsequent post could deal with this principle of reading biblical prophecy as it relates to various New Testament predictions—like those found in the Olivet Discourse, the Apocalypse, etc. I do believe they fall into the categories I have listed above. Such a discussion could focus on, for example, how the Messiah has not re-appeared (in body) yet, and how that relates to the immiment predictions found in the NT.


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