Thursday, September 20, 2012

Prophets, Priests and Kings: The role of the prophet in Deuteronomy

Which One Are You?

Church leadership focused on the message


leads through communication
larger audience
air war

Spiritual gifts:


Prone to Sin:

Self-righteous w/knowledge

So now we're back to the question that came up earlier in this series--if the role of the priest was to instruct God's people and see after the welfare of the congregation spiritually and physically (go back and read house inspection instructions and instructions on leprosy outbreaks) then what was the role of the prophet?  

Most people who would claim to be small p prophets because they're pastors may simply not know what they're talking about.  When we discuss how in Jesus the role of the prophet and the priest and the king are most fully and truly fulfilled this does not mean that we then take these categories and translate them into some David Keirsey-style set of variations on the three temperaments or giftings for ministry. This is not because Christians don't think the Holy Spirit provides gifts and abilities through which the members of the body of Christ serve the Church, it's because the three grab-bag categories that some people (like Pastor Jamie Munson, who probably got it from Driscoll) simply don't have any necessary correlation to what the Bible itself says about the roles of prophets, priests and kings.  

Now here we've got some things on the list Munson provides that are simple assertions with no evidence.  There are some that "could" be true if they were qualified.  There is something to be said for a prophet having a strategic rather than a tactical concern, the "air war" analogy is not entirely out of place.  But in 1 Samuel Saul goes to consult Samuel "the seer" about where missing livestock have gone.  Now if that seems petty and stupid and unspiritual keep in mind that a few animals in an ancient near eastern society still represented a lot of money.  The case that Saul was unspiritual can be made at great length and on other grounds and there's a solid overview of that case made by V. Phillips Long in his doctoral dissertation on the rise and fall of King Saul.  Go read it and if you don't know biblical Hebrew (as I admit I don't) Long's case is still clear enough that you shouldn't balk at reading it.

Prophets did often deal with the biggest stuff but they could deal with stuff that was small.  Rumors that Samuel could be paid spread enough that Saul tried to pay Samuel and Samuel wouldn't take it.  Samuel was also from the priestly caste and, we may note, did not seem at all interested in being a judge or seer for pay and this may have been possible because his role in the priestly life of Israel meant that he could live off the offerings as others in the priestly clan were supposed to.  Why that matters has something to do with, basically, maybe that Samuel would be harder to bribe or curry favor with ... in theory ... though his sons were worse than the sons of Eli and this remorseless corruption on the part of Samuel's sons was actually one reason Israel requested a king.  They knew that Samuel's kids were not chips off the old block but greedy scoundrels.  Sadly Samuel turned out to be as guilty of letting selfish, imcompetent sons to run things as his predecessor Eli had. 

Now here's the part some Christians and Christian bloggers don't get, God didn't actually say it was unconditionally wrong for Israel to want a king.  God doesn't necessarily even say in 1 Samuel 8 that it was wrong for Israel to want a king when the status quo was an aging Samuel who appointed his sons as judges, sons who accepted bribes and perverted justice.  God still finds fault with Israel for wanting a king, of course, but not necessarily because they are so fed up with the corruption in Samuel's family they want an alternative. In fact the close of Deuteronomy 17 presupposes the legitimacy of wanting to establish a king and prescribes a set of rules about that

Since these days lots of Christians don't read Deuteronomy for edification or enjoyment a lot of people wrongly assume that when Israel asked for a king in 1 Samuel 8-10 that they were wrong for asking for a king.  No, not exactly, because what you ask for isn't always exactly the same as why you're asking for it.  If a child asks his parents if he can stay up late and eat ice cream on a school night that would be wrong and get rejected but if a child asks his parents if he stay up late and eat ice cream during Christmas vacation while the family is staying with other family and playing games and watching movies and there's no school for days then the parents will respond the same request in a different way because the context, motive, and the details aren't the same. But we'll take some time to get to the kingly stuff later.  Right now we're looking more at prophets like Samuel.

Now let's get back to some of the stuff on the list.  For instance let's discuss "visible" and "larger audience".  Yes, this can seem to be the case.  The prophet was expected to play a public role but not all prophets played public roles.  Some prophets are only known about because of works and words they did behind the scenes that we only hear about because someone wrote things down.  How many people would have heard of Nathan the prophet?  He played a significant role in the reign of David but he was not, let's remember, the official prophet or seer of the king?  Who was?  Someone I'm pretty sure has not been the subject of a lot of sermons.  When's the last time your pastor or community group or Bible study leader said, "Let's talk about prophets and the important role that Gad the seer played in David's life."  We're clearly not looking at someone who had that visible a role and even though he was described in a few spots as David's personal prophet through whom he may have enquired of the Lord we're not going to see anyone published a 120 page monograph on him that gets widely read.  

It is also important to note that the role of the prophet was not exactly to be "visionary".  The role of the prophet was not to vision-cast anything.  If the Lord's will were made known through a vision then, well, it was that case in that time.  But the reason why the Lord's will would need to be sought will come later.  We can see that Gad the seer either wrote nothing down and did no preaching or that all that material just somehow never made canonical status. Yet Gad the seer was described as David's prophet and advisor.  It was some guy named Ahithophel who is never described as a prophet at all who was said to have wisdom so great that when he spoke it was though he were speaking on behalf of God.  Apparently wisdom likened to wisdom from the Lord could manage to not get mentioned as coming from Gad in any specific way while Athithophel's wisdom was so widely known that when the man sided with Absalom in an insurrection David prayed that the man's wisdom would be made foolishness.  I encourage you to go look that up.  

Since we've established that the biblical books say priests had the role of instructing the people it would be tough to say prophets had that role.  Had not God assigned that role already to the priests?  What then were the prophets supposed to do?  Well, in order to see that we need to understand what the role of the prophet was in the judicial/legal/political system laid out in Deuteronomy.  I went into that last year at great length on the relevance the prophetic role has in the domain of cessationism/continuationist pneumatology and ecclesiology.  Or, at least, as great a length as a laymanw ith no pretenses to being a professional biblical scholar or pastor could likely go with help from the writings of Frank Crusemann.  But what about in terms of leadership roles?  Fortunately a bit from Leviticus and Deuteronomy would seem to walk us through that.  

Leviticus 10:8-11

Then the Lord said to Aaron, "You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses. 

Deuteronomy 16:18-20
Deuteronomy 17:8-13

Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes ine very town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess teh land the Lord your God is giving you. 

If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge--whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults--take them to the place the Lord your God will choose.  Go to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict. You must act according to the decisions they give you at the place the Lord will choose.  Be careful to do everything they instruct you to do. Act according to whatever they teach you and the decisiosn they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left.  Anyone who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the Lord your God is to be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel.  All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not be contemptuous again.

Note that Samuel didn't accept payment and his sons did.  The Israelites had some fantastic reasons to consider Samuel's sons corrupt perverters of justice.  So was "that" a wrong reason to ask for a king?  Speaking of which ... 

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,”  be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests.  It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees  and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

As Frank Crusemann put it in a book about the Torah these prohibitions are shorthands that indicate other things.  Too many wives would not just be about the polygamy itself but the military alliances with pagan nations that would go with them.  The warning against amassing too much gold is a warning against the king being vastly richer than his subjects and Crusemann notes that the Torah never grants the king the power to tax, a point that is significant when we get to Solomon, who did pretty much everything Deuteronomy forbade, it seems.  The detail about chariots, Crusemann explains, would have been a warning that the king's private professional army should not be so large or powerful that it could take out the civilian militia.  These are warnings to the Israelites about what kind of king they should not have, the kind of king that is against the law.  The king is also not here shown as someone who appoints judges (David did not and that was a catalyst for Absalom's insurrection as much as failing to punish Amnon for raping Tamar) but the king, in terms of Deuteronomy, was not tasked with appointing judges, the people were, it seems.  

Now, back to those priests.  They get no inheritance and the priests and the judges were shown to be the ones to adjudicate cases too rough for the local tribal leaders.  What kinds of cases?  Let's not forget the obvious, that we're reading all this stuff in the context of the Torah, the Mosaic laws. 

Deuteronomy 18: 1-8

The Levitical priests—indeed, the whole tribe of Levi—are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. They shall live on the food offerings presented to the Lord, for that is their inheritance. They shall have no inheritance among their fellow Israelites; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.
This is the share due the priests from the people who sacrifice a bull or a sheep: the shoulder, the internal organs and the meat from the head. You are to give them the firstfruits of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the first wool from the shearing of your sheep, for the Lord your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the Lord’s name always.
If a Levite moves from one of your towns anywhere in Israel where he is living, and comes in all earnestness to the place the Lord will choose, he may minister in the name of the Lord his God like all his fellow Levites who serve there in the presence of the Lord. He is to share equally in their benefits, even though he has received money from the sale of family possessions.
Occult Practices 9-13

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft,  or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.  Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you.  You must be blameless before the Lord your God.
The Prophet 14-22

The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so.  The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.  For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”
The Lord said to me: “What they say is good.  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.  I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.  But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”
You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?”  If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.

Let's notice something.  The prohibitions against divination come right after discussing how Levites may come and serve.  As literary contexts go the ban on divination follows up on a further discussion of what the priests are and aren't permitted to do.  If a priest does not already know the will of the Lord through the Law he is not supposed to use divination to find out.  What is to be done?  The prophet gets consulted.  

So if you had a case that needed to be heard you'd go to the local tribal head or the judge.  If you couldn't get help there you might go to the priest.  But if you had some situation that was not covered by the Torah's case law and was beyond the wisdom of anyone else in the land then you would consult the prophet.  This is exactly why would expect Saul to head for Samuel the seer about the lost livestock that would cost his family some significant money.  Prophets were the people kings and priests consulted about whether this or that war was a good idea.  Prophets were to be on hand when a drought might have been anger from the Lord or just something else.  Remember what we observed earlier about Gad the seer, the prophet of David.  David was the annointed king.  The prophet is not necessarily the public face or "air war" leader but the advisor who would advise the kings and priests on the subjects where their respective knowledge or wisdom on the scriptures and legal precedent proved inadequate.  

Notice, too, that when Agabus predicted famine in Acts he was playing a prophetic role.  He was anticipating a problem that had no direct origin in any recorded words of Jesus.  The cessationist can argue that the office or gift of prophecy ceased after the scriptures were complete but that requires a fuller explanation of why even after Jesus' resurrection any prophecy happened, let alone for seven daughters of Phillip the evangelist.  As Frank Crusemann put it we must remember that the kind of prophecy described in Deuteronomy is not prophecy that would be eschatological in any sense.  It was, instead, the case that prophecy played a role in case adjudication and in policy for the nation of Israel.  If we overlook this detail we may bungle discussions about cessationist/continuationist debate on the one hand and a fuller understanding of the prophet/priest/king stuff with Jesus.  If Jesus fulfilled all these roles so perfectly why was there even a need for Agabus?  That may be a topic for some other time.

So, what we've seen from Deuteronomy is that the prophet is mentioned after we're warned that divination is off limits, especially for the priests.  Prophets, as Crusemann noted, don't get mentioned under that ban.  There's no way to know precisely how a prophet might divine the will of the Lord.  It could even be observed from the whole of the narrative literature that Elisha used symbolic action and musically induced trances of the sort that pagan prophets used.  I'm not sure how much scholarly work has been done on prophets in the ancient world and how they figured things out so if people have recommended reading materials there post away in the comments.

The overall portrait of the prophet as described in Deuteronomy is an established but conditional authority.  It was clearly possible for a prophet to predict something that didn't come to pass.  If that were the case the admonition is to not fear the prophet and ignore what he says. Crusemann pointed out in his book on the Torah how open-ended even this test is.  The people are told that if the prophet's prediction fails to not be alarmed.  Was it common for prophets to make false predictions where people lived in fear that the prophecy might yet come true?  Maybe.  I don't know.  

What is clear is that Deuteronomy tells us that God Himself will hold to account anyone who doesn't listen to the words of the true prophet.  That might tell us something there, that the people might not be in a great position either to know for sure who the real prophet of the Lord was or they might risk wanting to punish people for not obeying what might turn out to be a false prophecy or, alternately, people might rush to destroy a prophet without having a proper basis for doing so.  Crusemann points out that when people in Israel wanted to kill Jeremiah as a traitor some elders spoke up and said that people wanted to harm Micaiah who made a prophecy.  But Micaiah's prophecy came to pass.  It seemed wise, the elders proposed, to leave Jeremiah be in case what he predicted was really from the Lord.  Crusemann pointed out that this would be a textbook case study of elders in Israel handling the controversial claims of a prophet in the proper way. I.e. they didn't just kill him because they didn't like what they heard and they were open to testing whether it was going to come to pass what this prophet said.  

Jeremiah 8, let's recall, shows the prophet beginning a passionate diatribe against the priests and scribes who had so corrupted the Law they had transformed the scriptures themselves into lies.  It's important to keep in mind that if we're going to try to understand what prophets actually did we have to clear the ground as to what they were not.  They were quite simply never the "pastors" of their time.  Though some prophets were priests and retroactively king David would be credited as a prophet, though Samuel was considered a prophet, a priest and a judge all at once these roles have to be understood as existing within checks and balances.  Even though Samuel himself was shown as exceptional and in many ways incorruptible he was as fallible about nepotism as Eli was.  When confronted about this problem by the people of Israel we should not take it as given that Samuel's response was entirely righteous or right.  The men of Israel came to Samuel and told him straight up his sons were corrupt and not walking in the ways of their father.  If this corruption of the sons of priests and judges was going to continue for two generations of Israelite history then maybe it really was time to ask for a king ... or was it?  As textual scholars have not-so-famously debated (for us lay-people) there's a lot of debate about that.  V. Phillips Long once wrote that though we could insist on reading 1 Samuel as deriving from multiple conflicting sources the final document, if we read it as it is, shows up a pretty ambivalent picture.  

But what is clear from the life of Samuel in prophetic, priestly, and judicial roles is that his most common role within Israel would have been as priest and judge, which was why the corruption of his sons and not a prophetic prediction about this or that precipitated the request for a king.  Samuel's track record as a seer was apparently above reproach and made him famous.  It was in his capacity as a judge and the corrupting influence of nepotism that got people questioning whether Samuel was any longer fit to keep on keeping on.

Munson's simplified and tendentious break-down suggests that common sins for prophets are that they are harsh, cold and arrogant about knowledge.  Absolutely no textual or historical evidence is provided for this.  One of the most common condemnations of prophets in the OT was that they were lying sycophantic suck-ups who told corrupt and godless kings what they wanted to hear. In fact some of the prophets were quite good at not just giving kings pleasing words but possibly even good advice that God decided to let a lying spirit go down and confound the prophets of Ahab so that Ahab would die.  There may be a pious fiction among American conservative Protestants in some settings that imagines that false prophets are easily identified and that they are characterized by this or that.  There are those who would propose that the sins most common to prophets would be how they treat other people.  That is the gist of the sins Munson's matrix credits to prophets.  

There's nothing in Deuteronomy 18 that says a bad prophet will say something in a way that hurts your feelings or reflects an arrogant attitude or suggests that there's some heart issue where they don't appreciate how a word from the one true God might make its recipient feel.  The sins condemned by prophets in other prophets is that they do things for money and they lie and tell people what they want to hear.  One prophet said that the false prophets declared "peace" for anyone who would feed them and called down curses on those who would not feed them.  When genuine prophets of the Lord could be found at fault it was often due to a navel-gazing self-pity that seemed connected to not being the center of attention anymore.  Elijah was brave and bombastic when confronting the prophets of Baal but when Jezebel, the big powerbroker behind the scenes, told Elijah he was as good as dead the prophet was scared and hid himself.  When God commanded Elijah to go appoint Elisha as his successor and appoint a couple of kings Elijah doesn't actually do ANY of those things.  He delegates a task to Elisha and Elisha himself delegates a couple of tasks.  Yet ... God took Elijah up in a chariot of fire anyway even though Elijah had actually not done what God told him to do in a few cases.  How weird is that?

Does that look like a case study of a prophet being cold and harsh?  Would Elisha cursing kids for calling him bald be what a guy like Munson has in mind?  Or are these sins considered common among prophets just a grab bag borrowed from someone else who possibly didn't do any real research and has just been spinning some fancy words about things without digging into the wealth of OT literature that actually shows us what prophets said and did? 

Saying harsh things, being emotionally detached, and realizing one knows more than other people are not things that can be described as sinful.  Pride, sure, that's bad. Everyone agrees on that in theory. The biggest sin the prophet is most likely to risk committing is perverting justice for his or her own convenience and lying about who God is and what God's will is to further what are convenient political and economic agendas.  A prophet may not be a nice guy or easy to talk to, a prophet might even seem to be completely insane (see Ezekiel as a sometimes-proposed case in point) but the point is that the prophet, whether he or she is a nice person or not, has the role of being able to tell the highest and lowest people what the Lord's will is and who the Lord is.  As we can see from Saul consulting Samuel, this might be as mundane as helping the man find livestock.  

We can see in Deborah's case it would be advising Barak about a battle.  We can see that for Samuel it can be to tell the corrupt Eli his time is up and then, ironically, God will tell Samuel he must annoint a king that Samuel absolutely does not like because doing so means Samuel is officially admitting by annointing Saul king that his own sons are considered too corrupt to be trustworthy guides for Israel. Yet Samuel, according to 1 Samuel, does it anyway!  Generations later the prophet Jeremiah warns that the scribes and the priestly class have perverted even the scriptures themselves.  During Josiah's reform the prophetess Huldah is consulted to find out of the book of the Law is legitimate and authentic.  Huldah confirms that it is and then having done that, her job was kinda done as a prophetess playing a role in the life of Judah went.  Contrary to those who might shill the idea that leaders are "prophets" in some consistent ongoing way the prophets who we see in the biblical texts were often men and women who had temporary walk-on roles during exceptionally bad times when people either had no idea what the divine revelation was or were ignoring it or corrupting it enough that a critique of institutional power advancing its own ideas for its own benefit had to be made. Whatever being a prophet was some people wanted the job when offered and they discovered they were made fit for it (Isaiah).  Others, like Moses or Jeremiah, kinda really didn't want to have to actually go do that job because kinda sounded unpleasant.  

Whatever being a prophet might be it would not by definition entail "writing books of the Bible".  The role of the prophet was a role and not necessarily an official job description.  Prophets often aligned themselves to political leaders and regimes or set themselves against them.  It is understandable why many Christians would today imagine that they are playing a prophetic role simply because they can't stand Obama or Bush or whoever happens to be their subject of ire.  The trouble is that that's not quite what the concerns of Old Testament prophets was.  If you look at the role of the prophetic literature within the canon and compare that to the role of the prophet prescribed in Deuteronomy you'll see that it's a bit more complex and shifting than some might want it to be.

Crusemann's observation that there's nothing in the job description of the prophet in Deuteronomy indicating that prophecy played any eschatological function is worth noting.  Prophecy in the Torah was not defined as necessarily adding to or modifying the Torah.  This might happen if unusual cases came up where the received case law was inadequate but the narrative books show that the role of the prophet was an occasional rather than a regular one.  There might need to be a prophet on hand to verify whether the book of the Law was legitimate, there might need to be a prophet around to determine whether this or that war was a good idea; whether this or that building project met with the Lord's approval; and whether or not this or that climatic disaster might have had something to do with the sins of the people. But it was not given that any given prophet had the job of "writing books of the Bible" so much as fielding issues that the "books of the Bible" (i.e. the Torah) had not addressed.  Prophets could be considered the ultimate ad hoc divine committee for things that weren't covered in the previous board meetings where all the policies were established.  That sounds rather less pious than the analogy is intended to be.

But in the hands of contemporary marketing and development teams that might actually be how small the role of a "prophet" could be considered to be these days.  The prophet was not the top company visionary.  It wasn't unheard of for prophets to have other jobs and roles.  Some prophets came from the priestly class.  Others just showed up without any background establishing who or what they did before, like Elijah.  Contrary the quasi-Keirsey style "Please Understand Me" job-placement categories of prophet, priest and king the prophets were supposed to play a significant role in the judicial and policy leadership of Israel but they were not necessarily or automatically already in places of power in the royal court (even though they could be personal advisors) or in the priestly class).  Why?  Well, it would take a further consultation of prophetic literature to explain that.  The best way I can try to describe the prophetic function is that it was supposed to supplement the limitations of the priestly/royal/judicial system on the positive side and on the negative side (though with a positive function) serve as a check on the abuse of institutional power in the other branches or, as evinced by stinging criticisms of other prophets, even its own propensity to abusive or fraudulent teaching. 

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