Yeshwanth Bakkavemana

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I. Overview of the paper

Hans Walter Wolff attempts to explain Classical prophecy in Israel from eighth century to fifth century. He terms the prophetic phenomenon from eighth century to fifth century as classical prophecy. For Wolff, the prophetic phenomenon is characterized by two aspects. Firstly, it is characterized by the words of the eighth century prophets to the nation of Israel as a whole. Secondly, it should be understood from the futuristic perspective.

Wolff deals with three important features of classical prophecy—origin, development and the meaning. In order to understand the aforementioned features, Wolff, firstly defines “Classical Prophecy.” Secondly, he explains the call and the commission of the prophets. Thirdly, he elucidates the importance of futuristic dimension in the prophetic announcements. Fourthly, he brings out the relevance of the prophetic addresses to their own contemporary hearers. Fifthly, he brings to the light the pain of seclusion and isolation that prophets went through because of the message of Yahweh.

In the first section, Wolff considers three criteria namely literary, chronological and content. Based on his literary criterion, Wolff delimits the texts of classical prophecy from “preclassical prophet” and apocalyptic writing. He also points out to the exceptions to this delimitation as he finds some preclassical prophetic text and apocalyptic literature in classical prophecy. Therefore, Wolff concludes that classical prophecy needs to be lifted out of the later prophets by a way of literary–critical analysis (18).

The second criterion is Chronological. Wolff delimits the time frame of the appearance of the classical prophets to eighth century BC till fifth century BC. He briefly outlines dates of classical prophets. Wolff spreads the dates of the prophets over three historical periods—neo–Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian periods. During neo–Assyrian period in the middle of eighth century BC Amos and Hosea appears in Israel and Isaiah and Micah in Judah. These prophets, according to Wolff, are strictly called “classical.” (18). During Babylonian period in the second half of the seventh century BC until the destruction of the Jerusalem Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah and Jeremiah appears. Obadiah and Deutero-Isaiah appears after the destruction of Jerusalem. Zechariah and Haggai appear just before the reconstruction of the temple. During Persian period in fifth century BC, Malachi appears who has to deal with the spiritual crisis of post–exilic Israel. Here, Wolff notes that the book of Zechariah expresses the loss of legitimacy of prophecy in Israel (Zech. 13:2-6) (18).

The third criterion is content. Firstly, Wolff refers to two different traditions—collections of sayings of classical prophets and narrative traditions of preclasscical prophets. He distinguishes the function of both when these two traditions appear together. For example, the narrative element is secondary in classical prophecy and functions to make the sayings of the prophet understandable. On the other hand, narrative element is primary in the preclassical prophecy and the sayings of the prophet are literary in nature. Secondly, Wolff contrasts the collection of sayings with other collections like legal and Wisdom traditions in terms of authorship, location, history and specific applicability of the message. Other collections generally attribute authorship to the individuals without any specific reference to the location and their message is generally applicable. However, the collections of prophetic sayings specifically attribute authorship to the individuals with the reference to their respective location, historical situation and immediate applicability of their message. Thirdly, the audience in general are Israel. For Wolff this is a specific element in the classical prophets. The audience sometimes may be individuals like kings—a commonality in the classical prophets and preclassical prophets.

In the second section, Wolff considers the call and commission of the classical prophets. Regarding the call, Wolff remarks that the cause of the prophets’ appearance is Yahweh’s call. In other words, Yahweh’s call characterizes the prophets’ work even though the work may vary contextually. Another aspect Wolff points out is the nature of the prophets. According to him, unlike ecstatic prophets who were “taken over” by Yahweh, classical prophets were not taken over but they exercised their own personality, will and behaviour (20). In that they were completely aware of themselves and discerned the word of God that was received and interpreted the same in the light of their context. Regarding consequence of the Word of Yahweh, Wolff remarks that the prophets often had to face isolation and loneliness and that in it gave legitimacy to their proclamation.

Secondly, regarding the prophetic office, Wolff remarks that the problem of whether the classical prophets belong to an institutional office is reconciled. However, he also points out that in general prophets opposed cult and any prophetic groups. Wolff finally suggests that the classical prophets did not belong to any “homogeneous cultic institution” (21). The distinguishing factor between the classical prophets and the homogenous cultic institution is the “new word of Yahweh” (21)—to be expected afresh in different times. Finally Wolff concludes that the “office” of the classical prophets will always be associated with the word of Yahweh.

Regarding the public appearance of the classical prophets, Wolff points out to three aspects—detachment, symbolic acts and being instruments of Yahweh. The detachment of the prophets is very much vivid in the way they communicated the word of Yahweh to their contemporaries. Many a times the communication involved symbolic acts such as marrying a harlot (Hos. 1:2f), celibacy (16:1ff) and so on. Though the prophets are detached individuals, they were used as “primary historical instruments” by Yahweh to convey the “newness” into the history of Israel. It means that prophets were so caught up by Yahweh’s call and commission that the word of Yahweh became their sum and substance of their existence.

In the third Section, Wolff now turns to the “announcement of the future” (23). He points out to the futuristic aspect of prophetic proclamation besides its contemporary relevance. The announcement according to Wolff is about the end, the turning point, and the new. The end is death of Israel which indicates the end of “salvation-and-election-history” (23). Wolff points out that this end is first expressed by Amos and later by other prophets. Wolff provides examples such as Hosea who rejects the covenantal relationship (Hos. 1:9), Isaiah considers Israel as Yahweh’s enemy (Is. 28:21), Micah talks about absolute destruction of Jerusalem (Mic. 3:12) and finally Ezekiel talks about the destruction of the temple. However, this end is not final in itself. Wolff remarks that the “turning point” which is characterized by Yahweh’s compassion is followed by his judgment. He also presents different prophetic views about turning point regarding judgment. Firstly, the judgment is only a “corrective measure” for Hosea (Hos. 3:1-5) (24). Secondly, the judgment is considered as purification for Isaiah (Is. 1:21-26) (24). Thirdly, hope is followed by judgment according to Jeremiah (Jer. 32:15) (24). According to Wolff, the classical prophets also expressed advent of “the new” (24). For him, prophets did not mean to slide back to the old covenant when they expressed the “turning point” rather it is to anticipate a “new covenant.” This newness first expressed by Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34). For Wolff the Jeremiah’s anticipation of newness can be seen in three different forms. They are (1) the Law will be written on the hearts of Israel (Jer. 31:33); (2) God will be the instructor and the teacher (Jer. 31:34a); (3) cancelation of all sins (Jer. 31:34b). For Deutero–Isaiah, the “new” becomes major announcement about the future (Is. 42:9f) which is distinguishable from the “old” (Is. 42:9f) and is hidden before (Is. 48:6). For Ezekiel in 18 and 33 chapters, newness involves individual repentance. Wolff points out that Hosea has different view about the repentance. For him, even warning about the judgment did not achieve the goal i.e., the repentance of Israel (Hos. 28f; 3:4f). Therefore, the newness depends on Yahweh who would forgive the unrepentant (Hos. 2:21f; 11:8f; 13:5) (25). Since this new idea of Yahweh forgiving the unrepentant is realized by Hosea, Wolff considers him as “precursor” to Jeremiah, Deutero–Isaiah and Ezekiel (25). Wolff concludes that firstly classical prophetism with its message of the end and the turning point that lead to the “new” paves the way for the Gospel. Secondly, though the descriptions about the future announcement of the classical prophets may vary, but all the classical prophets unanimously agree that it Yahweh who would bring the end, the turning point and the new.

In the fourth section, Wolff, considers the relevance of prophetic message to its contemporaries or audience. He basically points out to the function, themes and the motifs of prophetic message in relation to contemporary hearers. For him, prophetic message function is primarily confrontational—by which the decadency and religious infidelity of Israel was vehemently criticized and confronted. Regarding themes, judgment and righteousness were predominant themes. These themes were based on the anthropological situation of Israel in which the prophets brings their reproaches very strongly. The anthropological situation includes injustice, marginalization of the poor by the rich, corruption, religious infidelity, dependency on foreign military and political support. Regarding motifs, Wolff points out that the primary basis for prophet’s condemnation is that Israel has forgotten and rejected Yahweh—the God who delivered them out of Egypt. Secondly, the apostasy of Israel is the direct result of Israel’s rejection of Yahweh. Thirdly, a new promise of salvation—salvation as a free gift is offered to the apostate Israel.

Finally, in the fifth section, Wolff considers personal difficulties that the prophets went through in terms of opposition by the hearers, conflict with other institutional prophets, and personal struggle because of the word of Yahweh. Finally, Wolff points out to the suffering servant who would be standing in the place of the convicted—in whom “office and person” (30) are assimilated and “the message and the messenger” (30) are same.


II. Critical reading of the paper and suggestions

In the paper, Wolff attempts to explain Classical prophecy while emphasizing its unique phenomenon in Israel’s history. In the first section, there is a contradiction in the way Wolff attempt to define the classical prophecy. He points out that classical prophecy is found in the later prophets while suggesting that the classical prophesy should not be considered to be the part of later prophets by literary-critical method. In this regard, Wolff’s definition of classical prophesy is ambiguous.

In the third section, regarding the “new” in the prophetic announcement, Wolff misunderstood the concept of Yahweh’s salvation for the unrepentant. He suggests that even the unrepentant would be saved. In this regard, he misreads Hosea as the references provided do not support the claim. Hence, it is very unclear how Hosea is regarded as precursor to Jeremiah according to Wolff in relation to expressing the “New.” (25)

In the fourth section, Wolff talks about indictment of the hearers in terms of the function of prophetic speech, its themes and the motifs. Regarding function, Wolff neglects the aspect of “comfort” in the prophetic pronouncement which is equally important as the prophetic confrontation. In fact, the aspect of “comfort” in the prophetic announcements invoked hope during exilic and postexilic periods.

The fifth section looks similar to what Wolff presented in the second section. Moreover, this section is concluded with the concept of Suffering Servant which is not explained well in relation to the “New” it introduces. It would have been better if Wolff had explained how the classical prophecy introduces the “New” with regard to the Suffering Servant. Finally the paper is not concluded. It abruptly ends as the paper fails to bring the relevance for today’s context. The paper could have made much more sense if it had been concluded with proper application or reflection for us today.

Nevertheless, the paper gives a well researched description of Classical prophecy within Israel’s history and it helps the reader to understand its phenomenon and relevance within its own context.




                                                YESHWANTH B. V.