In ancient Israel there were both official and charismatic prophets. The official prophets, as is to be expected, were the propagandists of the throne and the temple. The charismatic prophets confronted the throne and the temple with accusations of idolatry and injustice. Idolatry manifested itself in the importation of foreign gods with the military alliances that, according to the prophets, instead of guaranteeing national security made for its demise. Besides, the cult of fertility deities attracted the majority of Israelites in Canaan.
Injustice was manifest in the unequal distribution of wealth. While the rich who had a summer home and a winter home (Amos 3:15), spent the days eating mutton with an abundance of wine and songs and slept the nights in beds of ivory (Amos 6:4-6), the poor wasted their lives in forced labor with little bread and no beds. The greed of the rich is described as the behavior of wild beasts which tear apart and devour weaker animals. Within creation might makes right and morality does not exist.
In history justice must prevail, and God takes care of its existence. “Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice? – you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people, and their flesh from off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in peaces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron. Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them” (Micah 3: 1-4). It is to be noted that no one made the effort to preserve the oracles of the official prophets.
The message of the prophets, according to most of their reader, has been encapsulated in other words of Micah:
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on High? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with then thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O human, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice. to value covenant loyalty, and to live humbly with your God
Here we learn what we must do to stand before God. The religious life is not manifested primarily by participation in the cult, even when it included extraordinary acts of ritual devotion. The religious life consists of daily living, where our just dealings with our neighbors, our loyalty to our covenant with God, and our recognition of His power and glory are evidenced by our humility.
The prophets distinguished themselves by their engagement with history. In fact, starting with the first one, Amos, they discovered that a person’s life does not acquire meaning by being tied to ceremonial rites that are repeated in annual, monthly or weakly cycles. Life acquires meaning as it forges a future, and God is the One who is actively leading His people toward the future. In this way God makes history and human beings occupy it.
The prophets of Israel have the honor of having been the first philosophers of history, the first to break the circularity of traditional societies that identify themselves with the past that present generations are bound to preserve. Amos proclaimed for the first time a “Day of the Lord” (5: 18-20). This future day is determinative of the quality of all human life. It is the day of the judgment of the nation, the day of the divine verdict on the history of nations. (Eventually, Jeremiah and Ezekiel focused the judgment more particularly on individuals.) For the prophets the central idea is the covenant that ties the people to God. The covenant, obviously, is a historical reality. It was established at the Exodus, the clearest manifestation of God’s action to forge a people with a historic mission.
For the prophets, God is the God of the future. His promises are His invitation to the future. In their struggle to prove that the God on High is not only stronger than the other gods, but that in fact He is the only God, since the other gods are idols and idols are nothing (Is. 40: 19-20; 41: 6-7), Isaiah considers that the final proof for his argument is that the God on High of Israel, the creator who is constantly creating both in the cosmos and in history, is the only One who has the future in His hands and, therefore, the only One capable of predicting it (Is. 41: 21-24). Being loyal to the covenant is what opens the future to the people. Given that this is their central theme, What significance do the prophets give to creation?
The prophets see two very important things in creation. Creation identifies the God on High with whom they are bound by a covenant, and creation is part of the historical reality in which they live, not just a thing of a remote past. In the same way in which God is tied to His people by a covenant, God is also tied to creation. The faithfulness with which God creates each new day is the guarantee of his faithfulness with His people.
For the prophets, nature and history are not, like they are for modern academics, two discrete universes with characteristics particular to each. Classical Hebrew did not have words for nature, society, history, universe. These words name abstract concepts that were unknown to them. The prophets did not distinguish between nature and history. The realm in which God on High acts is one. God’s faithfulness is one and the same in all God’s activity. Jeremiah said it well. Announcing that God intended to establish a new covenant, not like the covenant God had made with the fathers, a covenant which they had broken and as a consequence the people were being taken into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah says, “Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar, . . . If this fixed order departs from before me, says the Lord, then shall the descendants of Israel cease from being a nation before me for ever: (Jer. 31: 35-36).
This declaration merits our attention. The permanency of Israel as a nation is guaranteed by the permanency of the solar system. History and nature are one and the same realm in which the sovereignty and the fidelity of God are evident. In the same way the people of Israel were comforted by Jeremiah as they faced the exile with the promise of a new covenant, Isaiah admonished Israel against idolatry reminding them of God’s action at creation and at the exodus. Was it not the God on High the One who “cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not thou who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Is. 51: 9-10).
Here creation is described as the cut that severed Rahab in two hemispheres, the cut that pierced the dragon to death. Both references recall theogonic narratives of neighboring nations. These monsters represented the chaos that needed to be mastered in order to install cosmos. The reference to the crossing of the sea during the exodus also assumes cosmic proportions when the Red Sea becomes “the waters of the great deep.” Again we notice that the act that brings the cosmos to existence cutting Rahab and the act that brings to existence Israel cutting the sea are considered in parallel by the prophet since the Red Sea is part of the waters of chaos on which the earth is founded. Both acts provide the means for identifying the God on High. Isaiah continues asking, “Have you forgotten the Lord, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth?” (51: 13). God is the God of history who is “ Maker” both of God’s people and of the heavens and the earth. For Isaiah the union of cosmos and history includes the history of all nations (40: 21-23).
While it is true that creation is something God did “in days of old, the generations of long ago” (51: 9), creation was not accomplished then. The One who cut Rahab and pierced the dragon then is also the One who creates each passing moment. If night follows day and dawn puts an end to night is because God on High is actively creating. God is the God who created, formed and made (Is. 43: 7), but also the one who now and in the future redeems (Is. 43: 1-7). Creation is not a fait accompli. It is a creatio continua. To put it in contemporary American terms, creation is not a “mission accomplished”. Amos puts this notion on relief: “He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out upon the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name” (5: 8; compare 4:13). The succession of days and nights and the rising and lowering of the tides are to be seen together with the placing of the Pleiades and Orion in the cosmos.
For the prophets cosmos and history are one, but it does not follow that on account of it they are interested in the “how” of creation. In fact, as we already saw, when they refer to how it happened they relapse to the mythological language of the cosmogonies known to them. Instead of making reference to a Genesis account they parade Rahab, Leviathan, the dragon of the sea, and the waters of the deep.
For us the language of mathematics has become the best vehicle to convey our understanding of creation, and with mathematics we are creating (or discovering?) a universe best understood cybernetically. The prophets were the precursors in the transposition of the description of the universe from mythological narratives to the historical existence of Israel. This was a most significant discursive shift. This transposition of references to creation from mythological to historical discourse was the first step in the secularization of nature, even if what they considered history is not what we today call history. They were the ones who took away the gods from nature and thereby began the process of secularization. By insisting that human beings must become responsible for their future, the prophets broke the ties that had bound humans to the cycles of nature. As a result, creation became the guarantee of God’s faithfulness. Creation became a servant to history.
The apocalypticists, the heirs of the prophets who rehabilitated the language of mythology, felt then free to predict the destruction of creation and history. They took a mayor step to the future by distancing the creation from its Creator. According to them God is free to break the covenant with creation and revoke the order of the sun, the moon and the stars. The prophets considered creation God’s identity card. The apocalypticists saw it infected by The Fall. Paul heard it groaning for redemption, but John the theologian saw it ready for destruction.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2873