17 March 2010

You Will Read This (barring any intervening historical contingencies)

To gain a clearer perspective on the idea that the fulfillment of at least some unqualified predictions were subject to the contingency of human response (i.e., conditions did not have to be stated explicitly to be operative), let's look more closely at a few canonical predictions or prophecies. According to Pratt (see the first post about that), they generally fall into three categories:

1. Predictions qualified by conditions: while the qualification was communicated in many different ways, I will simply list the passages with the surface grammar of conditional sentences (note that in the Hebrew language, conditional sentences are not marked as they are in English).
  • Isa 1:19–20; Jer 22:4–5. It is important to see at this point that prophets did not necessarily refer to what the future would be, but what it might be. In other words, they were attempting to illicit certain responses in the community by making their predictions explicitly conditional. The future they spoke of was potential not necessary.
  • Isa 7:9; Jer 7:5–7. These texts show us that prophets did not always spell out all the possible conditions related to their predictions. In these predictions, only one side is stated. We should not be surprised if in other biblical predictions not all the conditions are explicitly stated. It is therefore an appropriate contention that considering unexpressed conditions is vital to a proper interpretation of prophecy.
2. Predictions qualified by assurances: that is, guarantees of different sorts accompanied prophetic oracles. For example, in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet opposed those who hoped for Jerusalem's deliverance from Babylon by stating that Yahweh forbade intercession for the city (Jer 7:15–16). There are others that portray the same qualifications (Jer 11:11–14; 14:10–12, 15:1).
  • Another example of a qualification by assurance comes by Amos' popular formula: "For three sins of [name the country], even four, I will not turn back" (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). The idea of "turning back" would have been well-known as Yahweh's change of divine disposition toward a course of action (Deut 30:3; 2 Chron 12:12; 30:8; Job 42:10, etc.). Amos' audience would have been pleased to know that Yahweh's threat was not empty. On the other hand, the prophet also makes it plain that Yahweh would not reverse himself regarding their judgment either (Amos 2:4, 6). See also Isa. 45:23; Jer 23:20, 30:24; 4:28. Divine oaths also signified qualification by assurance (Amos 4:2; 6:8; 8:7; Isa 14:24; Jer. 49:13). The point is that these predictions are qualified by an assurance. Why?
  • The whole point here is twofold regarding biblical prophecy: 1) on the one hand, some predictions make plain that their predicted events were inevitable. Yahweh would not listen to prayers, violate his oaths, etc. But it is important to keep in mind that these type of predictions are few in number and almost always not very specific about their descriptions of the future. While they assure that some events will happen, they do not guarantee how, to what extent, when, and so on. In other words, they are subject to intervening historical contingencies. 2) On the other hand, this class of prophecies indicates that not all predictions shared this heightened certainty. Possibly, Yahweh forbade prayers in response to certain oracles precisely because it has the potential of effecting outcomes (see Jer 26:19; Jonah 3:10; Amos 7:1–9).
3. Predictions without qualifications: such are these that do not contain explicit conditions or assurances. It is important to affirm at this point that historical contingencies have bearing on this class of predictions. The story of Jonah is proof enough. He proclaims an unqualified prediction (Jonah 3:4), but Yahweh spared the city (3:10). The examples are substantive (2 Chron 12:5, then see 12:7–8; 2 Kgs 22:16, then 22:18–20; Micah 3:12 (Jer. 26:18), then 2 Kgs 19:20–35). In each of these examples, the predicted future did not take place. What caused these turn of events? Each text explicitly cites human responses as the grounds for the deviations. The people of Ninevah (Jonah 3:6), the leaders of Judah (2 Chron 12:6), Josiah (2 Kgs 22:18–19) and Hezekiah (Jer 26:19) repented or prayed upon hearing the prophetic word.

What this indicates is that the fulfillment of at least some unqualified predictions were subject to the contingency of human response. Conditions did not have to be stated explicitly to be operative.


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