The nature of History
History is always an interesting subject, for it contains events that hold lasting significance. It is not merely a collection of all events that have ever taken place… such a collection would be impossible, in fact. History is a record of events that have significance for some reason. Anyone who records history, whether modern or ancient, begins with a philosophic point of view. One historian may have the point of view that political matters are most important, and this person would record political history. Another might believe that social trends were what mattered, and the result would be social history. In the case of the Bible, the most important consideration was the story of the relationship between the Jewish Nation and their God. The result is sacred history: the history of Covenant people.
The Old Testament Books of History are those that follow the Pentateuch. Interestingly, they are all written by prophets. These prophets are referred to as “former” prophets, for they collected information, and used their revelations from God to make a judgment on whether or not it was relevant to the story of Covenant. This also demonstrates for us the second element of history; events. All things that happen are not historical events, because most things that happen do not contain relevance to your philosophical point of view. For example, you get out of bed every day, but no biographer is likely to write a record of each time you get up in the morning. But the day you graduate from Medical School is an event that will shape your entire life, so that occurance becomes an historical event. The third element of history is the actual meaning of an event. If you graduated from Medical School, but never practiced medicine, the event of your graduation may be little more than an asterisk in your biography. To sum up, history has three components: a unifying philosophy, events, and significant events. Since Old Testament History is recorded by prophets, the unifying philosophy of it is by necessity the history of Covenant.
Two events recorded by the former prophets illustrate their unifying philosophy. The first is contained in 1 Kings 13. There is a young prophet and an old prophet, and in the end the young prophet dies because he defies God’s instructions to him. The point is clear: obey the commands of God. The second is better known and is contained in 2 Kings Chapter 5. In this story, a Canaanite general named Naaman is the central character. If you read the chapter very carefully, you will see that a covenant is made:
Parties: God, through the prophet Elisha and Naaman
Terms: Dip yourself seven times in the Jordan
Promise: You will be healed of leprosy
The bottom line here is, comply with the covenant terms that have been offered and live, or don’t comply and die. This is an event that is cited by New Testament writers as an example of covenant-keeping. (2 Peter 2:1-22; 2 Peter 3:11-18) Both of these instances reflect the covenant priority of the authors, and of the Hebrews in general.
Latter prophets are broken into two groups: Major and Minor prophets. These distinctions do not refer to their importance or lack of importance, but rater to the size of the record (books) they left. The Major Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah Ezekiel and Daniel; the Minor Prophets are Hosea through Malachi. The latter prophets did not act as historians, but more in the role of Lawyers of the Covenant. They were preachers of God of the hour, with a message for that hour. With the coming of the latter prophets came an ominous new turn; the lawsuit motif.
In ancient treaties of the region, it was typical for a party that believed itself wronged by its treaty partner to send a message to the offending party requesting him to make corrections. If the corrections were not made, the offended party would send an official notice to the offending party demanding a hearing before the original witnesses to the treaty; all of this happening prior to force being used.
Remember, when the two parties swore their oath and touched the blood of the oath-swearing animal, they gave permission to each other to shed their blood if they did not keep their oath, so this was a
serious process. It is not all that much different from legal proceedings today, other than in the remedies allowable by law. In the Old Covenant, the original witnesses were identified: see Deut. 30:19; 4:26. The prophet Micah provides a good illustration of this model:
- Micah, attorney for the prosecution calls upon Israel to defend itself:
“Listen to what the LORD says:
“Stand up, plead your case before the mountains;
let the hills hear what you have to say.”
2. He calls upon the Covenant witnesses:
“Hear, O mountains, the LORD’s accusation;
listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth.
For the LORD has a case against his people;
he is lodging a charge against Israel.”
- In verses 3 and following, Micah makes God’s case against the nation and makes it clear that the time for talk is over.
Hosea took a similar approach, in laying out God’s case. Following are the specific sins listed by the prophet in making his case:
|Passage||Terminology used||The Code|
|1:3||“Departing from the Lord”||EX 20:1-3|
|1:5; 5:7||“Children conceived in sin”||EX 20:14|
|2:8||“Used for Baal”||EX 20:1|
|4:11||“to prostitution”||Deut. 5:18|
“no faithfulness of love of God”
|4:17 ff.||“rulers love shameful ways”||Deut. 17:14 ff.|
|10:4-5||“”false oaths… lawsuits”||Deut. 23:21|
|12:7-8||“dishonest scales”||Deut. 25:15|
|13:1-3||“sacrificing babies, kissing calves”||Deut. 18:9 ff.|
|9:7-8||“the prophet considered a fool”||Deut. 18:14 ff.|
Note carefully that the sins or breeches of contract listed by the prophet here are all violations of the Law of Moses. This provides us with further evidence that the message of all of the prophets are within the Covenant context. They used both general and specific terms, but all of the terms they used belong in the same category system: total breech of faith to a covenant partner, and as such are more or less synonymous. Such terms include, but are not necessarily limited to the following, and make reference to what is expected of a covenant partner: love of God, justice, hearing his voice, faithfulness, hesed or mercy, walking in His way and obeying the voice of God. A similar chart can be made from the Books of the other prophets, as well.
Many of the passages contained in the Old Testament books of prophecy contain curses and doom. It is interesting to note that the curses contained are the curses specified in the Torah as the curses to be suffered in the event of breech or default of the people. Following is a list of some of them:
|Prophetic Vision||Echoing||The Torah|
|Jer. 8:17||“terror, fever, drain away your life”||Lev. 26:15|
|Jer. 5:6||“wild animals against you”||Lev. 26:22|
|Eze. 5:10||“eating one’s own children”||Lev. 26:29|
|Isa. 29:3||“besieged in cities…”||Deut. 28:53|
|Isa. 29:9||“stunned, staggering, but not from beer”||Deut. 28:29|
|Amos 6:7||“You noblemen, you shall be first”||Deut. 28:56 ff.|
|Micah 1:15||“I will bring a conqueror”||Deut. 28:49|
|Nahum 3:13||“Look at your troops; they are all (like) women!”||Lev. 26:36|
|Micah 6:16b||“The scorn of the nations”||Deut. 28:37|
The prophets of the Old Testament demonstrate the conditionality of covenant. The whole notion of obey and live or disobey and die, which comes from the Law itself, relates to conditionality. God’s hesed is very much evident as well. Note that time after time the prophets list ways in which God shows patience with a stiff-necked people, how God has come to their aid over and over, and how God has done everything possible to help them, and indeed how the sacrificial system itself provides a means to God’s grace. In addition, the very fact that there were prophets sounding warnings at all is a sign of God’s hesed. God gave warning after warning to the people that they had strayed from the path. Remember also that keeping covenant has two aspects: keeping faithfully what you have promised, and second helping your partner when he falls short. The other side of the covenant coin is that if your partner utterly fails to keep his obligations, you are no longer bound to keep your promises… and that is where the Old Testament prophets saw Israel going, and that is where they told the people they would end up.
A crisis of faith occurs when the people of God put their faith, love and hope on something other than God, and it becomes even more acute when they refuse to understand conditionality of covenant. This was certainly the case during the time of the pre-exile prophets. Jeremiah, for instance was telling of the woes to come, but others were telling the people that God would never allow Israel to be overthrown, for they were the elect of God. Sadly, these people could not comprehend conditionality. Yes, Torah said God would never forsake Israel… but it was conditional on Israel not forsaking God. Israel had long forsaken God, and the day of reckoning came!
One other thing that you might notice here, is that it wasn’t the purpose of the prophets to simply tell about the future in the sense that we might have expected. They had a different purpose, to bring God’s warning to the people at a time of crisis in their relationship with God. We need to bear this in mind when we try to understand their message, particularly if we seek to find meaning for our own future.