Friday, July 21, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 4.3

The Prophets

The Prophets includes the ‘former prophets’ and the ‘latter prophets.’ The former include the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings (because of its narrative unity and connection to the book of Deuteronomy, this section is often called the Deuteronomistic History). The latter prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 minor prophets (the Book of the 12).

Most notable for our purposes is the ongoing commentary on the Torah that gets carried out in the prophetic books. The Torah as scripture is continually brought up as a reminder of who God is and how God’s people are to order their common life accordingly.

In the former prophets, the political vision of the Torah is worked out in new situations. The Torah more or less envisions a theocracy, in which prophets or ‘judges’ relay God’s messages to the people. But after a long period of strange and unsuccessful judges, the Israelites demand a king so that they can be ‘like other nations’ (1 Samuel 8:5, 20). Nevertheless, throughout the period of the kings (Saul, David, etc.), God continues to raise up prophets to call the kings and the people to faithfulness to the Torah. But the kings do not lead the Israelites to greater faithfulness—only greater territory—and the narrative of Deuteronomy to Kings as a whole seems to be a sharp political criticism of kingship in light of the Torah.

One specific use of scripture in politics worth pointing out from the former prophets occurs in Josiah’s reform. Josiah was king of Judah during a rough time for the people of God: foreign superpowers threatened Judah with their militaries, Israel was divided (Judah was the Southern Kingdom), and God’s people worshiped foreign gods. When Josiah’s high priest found the long-neglected ‘book of the law’ in a back corner of the temple (many scholars think it was Deuteronomy), Josiah declared a time of national repentance. Altars and temples of foreign gods were destroyed, the Passover was celebrated in Jerusalem, and ‘the words of the law that were written in the book’ were established by kingly decree (2 Kings 23:24).

The latter prophets continued the tradition of political critique based on the Torah. The following comment from Isaiah is typical: ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of rights and rob my oppressed people of justice, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless’ (10:1-2, NIV). We need to be careful here to recognize that ‘laws’ and ‘decrees’ were not generic terms, but referred directly to the Torah as a legal source book. Similarly, in a passage we will discuss more later, the proclamation of the ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ in Isaiah 61 seems to be a call to the economic and social practices embodied in the Torah’s jubilee laws (in which land and food were regularly redistributed to the poor).

Finally, the use of Torah by the former prophets in international politics was complex. On the one hand, foreign invasion was sometimes depicted as God’s just punishment for the people’s disobedience. Thus Cyrus, the invading emperor of Persia, is depicted as God’s anointed king (Isaiah 45). On the other hand, the prophets sometimes proclaim judgment on foreign nations for their unjust practices. (It should be pointed out, however, that it is unlikely that the foreign nations ever heard those critiques; rather, they may have served to warn Israel about how serious God was about the Torah.) At another point, when the Jews are captive in Babylon, Jeremiah recommends they ‘seek the welfare [shalom]’ of the Babylonian city (Jeremiah 29:7). Again, the concepts ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ were not neutral terms, but would have directed their readers back to the political vision of the Torah.


One helpful book for understanding the politics of the law is Christopher J.H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).


1) Think about our own political context—how is it different from the Israelites’? Would Josiah’s Reform make sense in our national setting, or would it better be undertaken within faith communities? What do the latter prophets suggest about our ability to communicate prophetic critique to ‘foreign’ nations (including our own)?

2) The prophets’ language of peace and justice was rooted in the Torah’s vision of those terms. But those terms are also common in our American political discourse—do we mean the same thing as the prophets when we use them? What traditions lie behind our political language?

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