Lemche on the Prophets

April 26, 2015

I’ve already devoted a couple of posts to Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History.  But there’s more to it worth mentioning, such as its discussion of the prophetic books.

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The prophets are literary, not historical, characters

Lemche points out that extra-biblical sources witness to the existence in the ancient world of “prophets” in the sense of people who claimed to foretell the future, but “prophet” in the sense of moralizing gadfly is found only in the Bible.

The prophetic literature in the Old Testament remains unique. With their emphasis on moral disorder and social injustice, the biblical prophets are still more lay preachers than prophets in the proper sense. (3015-16)

He suggests that the image of the preacher-prophet was made up at a late date and then injected into the early history of Israel by the Old Testament’s ultimate editors and authors.  Thus both the activity and discourse of the prophets that we find in the Old Testament is largely fictional, each prophetic book having been constructed or substantially elaborated much later than its putative author lived. This is not an uncommon conclusion among biblical scholars.

Today, many scholars are more hesitant when it comes to attributing certain passages to prophets who might have lived several centuries before their books achieved the shape in which they have been handed down to posterity. (3025)

The prophets’ discourses as we have received them in the prophetic books often don’t even address issues relevant during the supposed time of the prophets’ lives.

These basic prophecies were worked over in several phases in such a way that they represented the sentiments and ideas of the time of their reworking rather than their original situation. (3044)

Likewise, the biographical details found in prophetic books may be complete fabrications.

Much of this construction [of the prophet’s life and career] might only be literature, and the handling of Jeremiah’s biography in his book might be compared to the way early Christianity elaborated the traditions about Jesus, resulting in the present construct of his life in the Gospels. (3033)

What is striking about Lemche’s discussion of the prophets for one who has read New Testament scholars such as Brodie is the degree to which the literary handling of the prophets, and the limited degree of historical knowledge we can have about them, parallels the way New Testament authors handled Jesus and the limited degree of historical knowledge we can have about him.

Just as some scholars have come to question Jesus’s existence as a historical character, so too with the prophets. Lemche points out that ultimately we don’t even know if any given prophet existed historically, even in the case of such an important one as Isaiah.

When scholars argue in favor of the existence of a prophet of this name attributable to the eighth century BCE, it is no more than the scholar’s assertion, which has no support in other ancient documents. This does not mean that there never was a prophet of the name of Isaiah; it only tells us that we have no information that proves his existence. (1542-44)

Because of a lack of evidence, it cannot be denied that fragments of prophecies may originate … in the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Whether such fragments go back to prophets like Isaiah or Hosea is basically a question that cannot be answered. It is probably also a question of no real importance. (3285-87)

Protestant theology distorted modern scholars’ interpretation of the prophets

Lemche explains that modern scholars realized early on the questionable historicity and late origins of the bulk of the prophetic books, but it didn’t suit their theological inclinations. They were predominantly Protestant and wanted to see a division between Protestant-like prophetism and later rules-bound Judaism. So they portrayed the prophets as predating the Law.

In this way the prophets was considered to be “proto-evangelists” and their religion much closer to Christianity than later Judaism. (3141)

Their groundless historicizing of the prophets led to interpreting fictional texts as historical in ways that misrepresented what they were about, and also to inconsistent translations of English versions of the Bible.

According to this line of scholarship, the prophets used the word torah without the connotations that became part of its semantics in Judaism. This is the reason for the many times when, even in the NRSV, torah is translated as “instructions” in texts believed to belong to preexilic prophets, and as “law” in texts considered “Jewish.” (3142-43)

Another thing that struck me from reading Lemche’s book is the degree to which a putative division between “early Israelite religion” and Judaism is a figment of the imagination of historians who are mistakenly attributing an early date to certain texts that in reality are much later. Just as Trobisch argues for the unity of a New Testament that appears to have been published as a literary unit, the Old Testament appears to be composed of texts that were substantially molded at a given time — making them to a great extent a literary unity as well.

In both cases the scriptural authors and editors devoted their efforts to creating narratives and treatises intended to influence people’s behavior. In both cases we see a determination to depart radically from historical reality wherever doing so would better serve the intended function of the text, to the degree that anyone who today interprets a scriptural text as a reliable historical source will be largely misled.

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Bike-walking Buck

April 5, 2015

It’s been a while since I wrote a dog-hike post, mainly because I’ve only been doing familiar, close-in trails. Buck has not been entirely happy with this state of affairs, as he considers even a six hour hike covering 14 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain disappointingly short.  So I’ve been keeping him active in other ways.

For a while I gave him more run-free time by going to a large unofficial off-leash area near the Microsoft Advanta campus in Bellevue. This is a former airport, later garbage dump, and now a grassy field east of 156th Ave NE across from the State Troopers facility.  There a group of dog owners regularly congregate around a bench to talk while the dogs play.  In the picture on my About page I’m sitting on that bench.

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Taking Buck there had its disadvantages.  He’s not a fetch-and-retrieve dog, so he didn’t get much exercise.  And the area is teeming with rabbits.  It would have been fine if his only rabbit interaction was chasing them from grass to blackberry thicket, but he spent far more time seeking out and eating “rabbit nuggets.”

Then it occurred to me that we could go farther on our daily walks if I rode a bike.  At first I resisted the idea, thinking it would be really awkward and the leash would get tangled or I’d run into Buck or he’d stick his nose through the spokes while the wheels were turning.  But I decided to try it, and it worked out much better than expected, with one exception.

The leash-tangling hazard was resolved by using a retractable leash – it always stays taut between you and the dog.  I have two – a 16 footer and a 26 footer.  The 16 retracts more reliably, the 26 allows more freedom of movement for the dog.

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This all worked out well until one day I was biking with Buck along 156th Ave NE on the sidewalk the other side of the road from the State Trooper facility.  Suddenly he took off running hard, after I knew not what.  The leash spun noisily out to its limit and yanked me forward. Brakes were useless and soon I was speeding along much too fast for safety.  Then Buck crashed into the bushes and I knew I was next.  I let go of the leash just as my bike plunged into the undergrowth in the ditch.  The thicket stopped the bike abruptly and I went head over heels past the handlebars.  At least the thick branches cushioned my fall – a little to the right or left and I’d have landed head first in rocks. 

Meanwhile I heard a pitched battle going on somewhere beyond me in the woods, growls and snarls and yips and barks, and it sounded like Buck was getting beat up.  But I couldn’t see anything, as my glasses had come off.  And when I found them the lens on one side had popped out.  Never did find it.  Slowly I climbed up out of the bushes and made my way over to the battleground where I found Buck tangling with a raccoon.  I found the leash end, and with great effort dragged him away.  I bicycled home with one-eyed glasses, keeping Buck on a shorter-than-was-really-necessary leash. irrationally upset with him though of course the mishap was my fault for not being prepared for such an eventuality. 

Buck paid for that encounter by having to wear the “cone of shame” after getting treated for Raccoon scratches. 

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I had to get a new pair of glasses.  And a new plan for bike-walking Buck.  I developed a new strategy:  whenever bike-walking the dog I am prepared to let go of the leash immediately if Buck takes off after something (usually it’s a squirrel hustling to get the nearest tree).  Then I catch up at a safe bike speed, dismount, and retrieve the end of the leash.

(Why not just train him to stop when commanded, you ask.  I’ve done that, and sometimes it works.  But over time between refresher courses the strength of that training wanes.  And even when the training is fresh, sometimes instinct trumps even effective obedience training. Different dogs respond differently to training, and so-called dog training experts who assume you can achieve anything with any dog don’t realize dog personalities are as varied and unique as humans’. )

These events don’t happen very often, but I’ve avoided a couple crashes that way since the raccoon affair, and we’ve done a lot of bike-walking.  Here’s a picture of my bike and Buck at Enatai beach in Bellevue, with the leash hanging from the fence rail in the background.

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Of course, it’s also nice to be able to ride without holding on to a leash where that’s possible, and I’ve been doing more of that too over the last year. Here’s a picture taken near lake Keechelus. The yellow bottle in the bike water carrier is the dog water bottle you see in the Granite Mountain post.

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