July 30, 2017
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Then I read the book of Amos. It was a revelation. Stunning. Although I had grown up in a devout Lutheran family, I had never read Amos or any of the prophets. I knew about the prophets primarily as predictors of the coming of Jesus. I had memorized many Bible verses, probably more than any youngster in my town. I could name all of the prophets, but the only thing I knew about t hem is that they foretold the coming of Jesus. Those were the verses I could recite.
Amos led me to realize that the Bible had a dimension that I had never seen before. Amos was about God’s passion, God’s desire, God’s dream, God’s yearning, for the transformation of this world to a world of greater economic justice. So were the books of the prophets of ancient Israel more generally, and the story of the exodus that gave birth to Israel, and the story of Jesus and Paul and early Christianity–though these realizations took longer for me to develop.
What offering should I bring
when I bow down to worship
Yahweh, God Most High?
Should I try to please him
calves a year old?
Will thousands of sheep
or rivers of olive oil
make God satisfied with me?
Should I sacrifice to Yahweh
my first-born child
for my terrible sins?
Yahweh has told us
what is right
and what Yahweh demands:
“See that justice is done,
let mercy be your first concern,
and humbly obey your God.”
Robert Miller, Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy
Rick Warren, wrote the hugely popular “Purpose Driven Life” and is pastor of Saddleback Community Church, a non-denominational evangelical megachurch in Orange County, California. Warren’s immense following and his celebrity status among evangelical Christians make it a safe bet that his public beliefs are widely shared by American evangelicals. Here is the essence of one of Warren’s devotional postings from 2013.
Biblical Prophesies [sic]: What Are the Odds?
One of the reasons I can know that the Bible is true and trustworthy is that it has thousands and thousands of prophecies that have come true and will come true in history. Every one of the Bible’s prophecies have [sic] either come true exactly as God predicted or will come true sometime in the future.
The Bible contains more than 300 prophecies about Jesus alone—all written a thousand years before he was born…What are the odds that I could make 300 predictions about you and every one of them would come true? It’s so astronomical, you couldn’t write the number down. It takes more faith to believe that the Bible’s prophecies were a coincidence that to believe that God planned them.
During Bible times, nobody wanted to be a prophet. The law in Israel was a prophet of God had to be correct 100 percent of the time. If you were wrong just once, then you were considered a false prophet and would have been put to death. A prophet better be right!
And the Bible prophecies were right—every one of them. You can rust the Bible because what the Bible predicts comes true.
This short piece is an ideal snapshot of popular Christian notions of biblical prophecy and so is worth our close attention. The piece is structured as an argument, that is, as a series of statements that lead to a conclusion (the Bible is true), which is set out strategically at the top of the excerpt and in the last sentence….
A bit of critical thinking can spot the fundamental error in this argument’s reasoning. What is the evidence that Jesus fulfilled prophecy? Answer: the Bible says he did. So, the argument actually amounts to something like this: I know the Bible is true because Jesus fulfilled prophecy; and I know that Jesus fulfilled prophecy because the Bible says so, and what the Bible says is true. In other words: I believe the Bible is true because I believe the Bible is true.
My aim in this analysis is not primarily to demonstrate that this argument is logically empty but to explore its effect on its intended audience. Who would be persuaded by this argument? Only those who already have faith in the Bible….
The argument from prophecy outlived its usefulness long ago. It is implicated in ugly anti-Jewish attitudes that are, at best, ethically dubious and, at worst, grotesquely immoral. And if that weren’t enough, the argument is illogical and rationally indefensible. It is long past time for thoughtful Christians to retire the argument from prophecy.
I use the word “retire” advisedly. To retire something does not mean to denounce or condemn it. It means to take it out of service, to put it on the shelf, to give it an honorable discharge. If one is reluctant to part with it—perhaps because it played some meaningful role in the development of one’s faith—one can envision an imaginary retirement ceremony, in which the argument from prophecy can be thanked for its contribution and then told, respectfully but firmly, that is services are no longer required. Then it can be conserved in the Museum of Obsolete Ideas.
Selected Readings from the Minor Prophets
The Good: The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. –Amos 9:13-14
The Bad: I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
The Ugly: I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame. I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle.
What is a prophet? In our quest to cover the Bible from beginning to end, we come upon these mysterious figures who are hard to hear and hard to read. They make up fifteen prophetic books in the Hebrew scriptures. Three major prophets and twelve minor prophets. In a bulletin insert, I printed a chart that shows where each prophet fits in ancient Israel’s chronology and a sentence or two about their message.
The prophets criticized those in power. Beginning with Amos, the first prophet, he made economic justice the first of two pillars supporting the relationship of Israel and Yahweh. The second pillar was the covenant with Yahweh. This Yahweh, and the principles of this Yahweh, are what hold you together. Don’t forsake your principles and your covenant for an easier message.
The prophets also, less successfully in my opinion, based geopolitical events on whether or not the rulers adhered to the two pillars, economic justice, and exclusive devotion to Yahweh. Assyria and Babylon, Persia and Alexander the Great, likely would have done what they did regardless of whether or not little Israel or Judah prayed to the correct god.
Not all prophets are equal. Amos stands above as does Isaiah. The Bible could have done without Nahum. His use of the metaphor of sexual assault and rape as Yahweh’s punishment is wrong. At times the prophets’ emotions got the best of them. Zephaniah is so mad that he has Yahweh predict the destruction of every living thing. He lightens up near the end, though.
The prophets are good, bad, and ugly. But they don’t pull any punches. They have inspired countless others to speak truth to power, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Prophets spoke to the people in their time about events. They cared about justice for the poor and devotion to Yahweh.
But that isn’t how we often think about the prophets. I should take a few moments to talk about what prophets are not. The prophets do not prove the truth of Christianity or of any Christian doctrine. Prophets do not prove that the Bible is true, that God exists, or that Jesus is the Son of God.
The excerpt from a new book by Robert J. Miller makes this case as clearly as possible. His book is titled, Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy. I spoke with him on my podcast that will be available later this summer. I saw Bob Miller at the Spring Westar meeting in Santa Rosa. He gave a presentation about his book.
He went through scripture verse after scripture verse in the New Testament in which the author used a statement from the Hebrew scriptures, usually one of the prophets, to bolster the claim that Jesus fulfilled what was predicted. Here is an example from Matthew 2:14-15:
That night, Joseph got up and took his wife and the child to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod died. So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, “I called my son out of Egypt.”
Remember, according to Matthew’s story, Herod kills all the newborn children in order to kill the one who is supposed to be king. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape to Egypt, then when Herod is dead, the angel tells Joseph that all is well and it is safe to return. Joseph follows orders and brings the family back home.
Then the author of Matthew finds a verse in the book of Hosea to insert in the story.
“I called my son out of Egypt.”
Jesus is the son of God, so God calling his son out of Egypt to return home is what Matthew says this ancient prophecy points. It points to this very story.
If we look up the prophecy we find it in Hosea 11:1-2. According to the chart in the bulletin, Hosea made his statements around 740 BCE or 740 years before the birth of Jesus and the escape to Egypt and the return home of the holy family. Hosea says something that isn’t supposed to happen for 740 years. Was Hosea predicting this event when he said, “I called my son out of Egypt?” How could anyone listening to him at the time ever get that? They couldn’t of course. You only could understand Matthew’s use of this phrase after the fact, and after you already believe that that is how prophecy works.
This is the text from Hosea 11:1-2:
When Israel was a child,
I loved him,
and I called
my son out of Egypt.
But as the saying goes,
“The more they were called,
the more they rebelled.”
They never stopped offering
incense and sacrifices
to the idols of Baal.
Yahweh is speaking through the mouth of Hosea. What Yahweh is talking about is the people of Israel whom Yahweh refers to as a son. The call “out of Egypt” is the release from slavery back in the day of Moses. The point Hosea is making, is that Yahweh is broken-hearted because He did this wonderful thing for his son, the people of Israel, and how do they repay him? They offer sacrifices to Ba-al. When we read Hosea, we see Father and son as a metaphor for this broken relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Israel is imagined as a rebellious son as well as an unfaithful spouse and Yahweh is torn emotionally about his love and his anger toward Israel.
When we read the historical context of Hosea, we find that he was speaking to the northern kingdom of Israel on the eve of its demise at the hands of the Assyrian empire. Hosea blames Israel’s impending doom on its rejection of the covenant. That is a common theme among the prophets.
What is Matthew doing? Matthew takes one line out of context and applies it to this story of Baby Jesus that has nothing to do with what Hosea was speaking about. But Matthew assumed, and it appears that he assumed correctly, that his audience would find that use of Hosea convincing.
Christians, from the time of the earliest Christians to the present day, use this argument from prophecy. The prophets predicted Jesus, and thus prove the Jesus story is true. Who would this convince? Only people who believe it already.
You find this throughout the gospels and in other writings of the early Christians. The authors will sometimes take a line completely out of context and apply it to a story about Jesus. At other times, they change the wording of the prophecy to make it fit. At other times they make up a prophecy. At other times, they create a story about Jesus based on a prophecy.
Christmas time is all about this. The carols, the anthems, and the liturgy feature the prophets predicting Jesus, “Isaiah ‘twas foretold it.” The virgin birth is from a statement from Isaiah that has nothing to do with Mary or Jesus. Historically, it has to do with a potential attack on Jerusalem from the king of Syria and the king of Israel (the northern kingdom). Yahweh through Isaiah, is saying to Ahaz, king of Judah. Don’t worry about them. By the time a pregnant young woman, mis-translated into the Greek as virgin, gives birth to a son and before this child knows right from wrong, that is has moral agency, in other words a few years old, these kings will be destroyed. Yahweh or Isaiah might have been talking about Ahaz’s wife, or even making up a metaphor to indicate “a short period of time.” (Isaiah 7:10-17).
Early Christians thought this was a nice prediction of a virgin birth and used it to support their stories and doctrines of Jesus. Now, the way around this is to say that the prophets were speaking about historical events in their time, but there was a hidden meaning in what they said that didn’t come true until the time of Jesus. We read the prophets through the eyes of Jesus and see that he was predicted.
The only response to that is “Fine. Sure.” But it proves nothing as you can say that anything ever written has double or secret meanings and you can make up anything to prove that some event was predicted in the past. You can have the scriptures predict Jesus, but only if you believe it already. It convinces no one who does not already believe.
And yet, Christianity is based on Jesus fulfilling prophecy. The Bible is true because Jesus fulfilled prophecy, so say the apologists, such as mega-church leader, Rick Warren.
Why did early Christians do this? It was likely a way to connect the story of Jesus with the larger tradition. The stories of Jesus, and not just the prophecies about him, are interwoven with the Hebrew Scriptures. These first tellers of the Jesus tales had an experience with him or with the community that was based on his teachings and his life and what they believed about him. That experience sent them into their own scriptures to reinterpret everything in light of this person.
As it says in Luke 24 when two are walking along and a stranger joins them that they later discover is the risen Christ:
“weren’t our hearts burning within us when he was opening the scriptures for us!”
The scriptures were bathed in a new bright light.
I have had this experience. It was a couple of churches ago. I found myself involved with the movement for inclusion for gays and lesbians in the church. It was intense. I found many places in the scriptures that spoke to me, that resonated with my experience, that felt empowering. The passion and the parables of Jesus came alive. The words of the scriptures didn’t change, but new light shone on them because of my experience.
I think Jesus fulfilling prophecy was like that. These early authors of Christian texts found a revelation in Jesus. His life, his teachings, whatever it was, and it may have been different for different people, but this experience drove them back to reinterpret their scriptures, because the scriptures were their connection, historically, socially, theologically with God and their ancestors. The Jesus experience opened the scriptures to speak to them in a new way.
Cool. Because scripture is not about a book written in the past. We are gathered here not to study a book in the past, but, at least in part, to hear, speak, share something of value to our present, to hear sacred speech. The task in part of our gathering, to use an old theological word, is redemption. There is a task before us.
We see the suffering and the perils of our time. How do we engage? How do we find whatever it is we need, courage, strength, joy, hope, to live in these times, to participate in The Great Turning as Joanna Macy calls it? We may need old familiar words to speak in vital ways. We need imagination. We need vision. We need a narrative that counters the narrative of commodity, war, and greed. We need perhaps to live for something that is so idealistic that no politician could vote for it. We hold out the possibility of perfect justice, compassion, and peace to be our guide and goal.
Twentieth century theologian and ethicist, and Barack Obama’s favorite philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, concluded his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society with these words:
In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men [and women] who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of [hu]mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.
The prophets embodied a “sublime madness of the soul.” Apparently, Jesus did as well. The dude was kind of crazy. These early Christians felt this sublime madness in Jesus. They were so sublimely mad that they
“shared everything they had. They would sell their property and possessions and give the money to whoever needed it.” Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-37
The early Christians were communists. How sublimely mad is that? They broke gender barriers. Slaves and the wealthy shared. Ethnicities didn’t divide them. They shared beyond divisions of class. They shared beyond divisions of religious history.
They experienced something. They tasted something. Of course, they were going to rewrite their stories. Something new was breaking in. It was like San Francisco, 1967. Jefferson Airplane and Allen Ginsberg and believing, not ironically, but for a moment literally, that peace and love were possibilities. Check out a great book by Danny Goldberg, In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea on the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love.”
You can never make significant change unless you’re kind of crazy. You might need to drop some acid to get to that level of consciousness. That or read the Hebrew prophets with new eyes. Or both.
But here is where, according to Miller, the church went wrong. It is fine to interpret your experience. It is necessary. The problem, is when you think your experience is true for others and that you can prove something with your experience, when you really cannot.
The Christian problem with prophecy wasn’t the creating of the Jesus stories or the interpretation of Jesus’s words and deeds in the light of scripture. The problem was saying, and they did say it, that those who refused to see it that way were deluded, misguided, wrong, and bad. The Jews who weren’t convinced by the twisting of the scriptures were called children of the devil who didn’t understand or believe their own scriptures. That legacy continues today.
There is a difference between articulating our experience and arguing for our experience.
That is why Bob Miller writes that it is time to send the argument from prophecy to the Museum of Obsolete Ideas.
That said, my takeaway from the prophets is a reminder to me that to envision and enact justice requires a vivid imagination and a willingness to push the envelope, to step out of our comfort zone, to risk ridicule and rebuke, to take a principled stand and to trust that it is worth it.