Sunday, September 07, 2014

Divination, Politics, and Ancient Near Eastern Empires--prophetic literature as political speech that is both imperial and counter-imperial in narrative

Divination, Politics, and Ancient Near Eastern Empires
Edited by Alan Lenzi and Jonathan Stokl
Copyright (c) 2014 by the Society of Biblical Literature
ISBN 978-1-58983-997-7 (paper binding)
ISBN 978-1-58983-998-4 (electronic)
ISBN 978-1-58983-997-7 (hardcover binding)

One of the things that American evangelicals too often seem to let slip by without much of any commentary at all is prophetic literature.  We'll roll out the prophets when it's time to talk about predicting the coming of Jesus and maybe a smattering of passages in the prophets may get trundled out when it's time to talk about spiritual warfare and Satan, but even though it would seem like it should be common enough to hear preaching and teaching from and about the prophets this may not be all that common an evangelical experience.

The reasons are fairly simple when we dig into them, though, the prophetic literature in the Bible presupposes an often astonishing amount of military, economic and political background that the average lay reader in an evangelical setting simultaneously may not wish to know or see any need to know.  And if we were in a church setting in which the mantra is, say, "It's all about Jesus" then naturally such a church would by disposition and mantra be incapable of responsibly engaging with prophetic literature because at some point if you're going to interpret and preach on the passage about the acquisition of Naboth's vineyard a direct link to "it's all about Jesus" is going to be a little difficult, let alone the baffling passage about the old prophet deceitfully counseling the younger prophet in 1 Kings.  But that's narrative literature! 

For prophetic literature there can be a propensity to filter things through a premillennial/dispensationalist angle.  If one "were" to delve into Ezekiel then a lot of speculation about how Gog and Magog must refer to the Soviet Union (in the 1980s) or somewhere else (now) can be hard to resist.  Having grown up with a more dispensationalist/futurist background and having since abandoned that interpretive prism, it may be good that the prophetic literature has largely been set aside in some church contexts if taking it up again (or at all) would simply mean interpreting prophetic literature from some Hal Lindsey or Jack van Impe style "signs of the times" approach.

While traditional Christian interpretation in the West has held that the "Lucifer" or "light-bearer" passage in Isaiah and the "prince of tyre" passage in Ezekiel refer to Satan these interpretations are presented, in evangelical settings more often than not, as primarily about Satan even though this interpretation and application in both cases is a medieval gloss.  You can consult the writings of Jeffrey Burton Russell researching that interpretive history, if you like.  The point is that when evangelicals do engage prophetic literature there can be a tendency to employ shortcuts to get to "what's the practical meaning of this text for me today right now?"  To do that is, in some sense, to completely fail to take prophetic literature seriously on its own terms. 

When students of the Bible hear about the term "exegesis" this refers to the process of finding out what the text most likely meant to those to whom it was intended--the scholarly task is not to find out what this writing means for me today as an American but what it meant to those who were the intended recipients, at the risk of keeping things a bit too simple.  Fail to anchor prophetic and apocalyptic literary forms in their place and time and the odds of finding a suitable and plausible interpretation of the literature becomes impossible. This is why no evangelical Christian in America who presupposes the "one world religion" alluded to in Revelation might be Islam is going to, for even one fifteenth of a second, be engaging in a responsible exegesis of the apocalyptic work. Steering closer to the imperial cult of venerating Caeser on the other hand ... .

Anyway, this book on divination as political speech in ancient near eastern empires (now that I've gotten all that preamble out of the way) might be a difficult but useful start for someone interested in reading about prophetic literature in the Bible while also providing some reference points for non-biblical oracles and prophetic writings from empires referenced by biblical authors. 

But to understand the significance of biblical prophetic literature it is important to get some understanding of oracles and divination in other ancient near eastern settings.  So it's not a huge surprise that the opening essays by Jeffrey Cooley and Beate Pongratz-Leisten deal with divination in non-Jewish settings.  Briefly, Cooley provides an overview of Assyrian oracles as political speech as part of a largely system of governance in which the Assyrians deftly used bureaucracy and symbolic narrative (i.e. oracles etc) as a way to consolidate power.  In a setting in which literacy was nowhere near as common as it is today prophetic literature could be seen as propaganda written by a cultural/political elite for a cultural/political elite. 

Cooley's essay gets technical and gets into texts and you may just have to read it for yourself.  He points out that a certain king required that the signs and celestial movements be recorded and preserved as accurately as possible but then when the time came for interpreting the significance of those signs, well, everything looked good for the king because the king said so might be the easiest way to put it.  In this way the king could simultaneously display a concern for the input of diviners while also revealing a working knowledge of the tools and processes of divination and conveniently getting the message out he wanted to get out for himself and about himself.

A concept mentioned or alluded to in the earlier essays points out that astrology and other forms of divination sought to understand the significance of the cosmic order of the universe as a thing that could be binding even upon gods; if you could properly ascertain the trajectory of signs and events in the cosmos to which even gods were subordinate you could have the universe on your side when you made a set of decisions.  While gods could be and were invoked for success in battle divination was supposed to be able to find out if the signs and portents of the physical universe and the laws governing it could be ascertained clearly enough to commit to a decision ... just in case even gods turned out to not quite be right.  This, by the way, could also be a concept to bear in mind for how and why so many cultures were polytheistic--from that perspective hedging your bets on a variety of gods wouldn't have seemed unreasonable.  Pongratz-Leisten's essay fleshes this concept out a bit more, if memory serves.

It is in the third essay, by Stokl, we start getting into biblical literature proper.  Stokl discusses divination as warfare and the use of divination in military contexts.  Stokl points out that divination tended to be a strictly intra-imperial practice but this was not always the case, obviously.  In fact divination as political speech toward the other, the other empire, was certainly heard of.  Stokl notes that while the Roman rite of the evocation (basically where a Roman invasion force would publicly invite the god(s) believed to be protecting a soon to be besieged city to abandon the protection of the city in exchange for a more impressive and better-kept cult) may be subject to literary license and may not have been practiced much, the propagandistic role of such a thing in Roman literature would retain its effect.  It conveyed the idea that if the Romans came marching up to you they might invite your god to hand you over to them in a great military victory because they can give your god a better form of veneration than you could. As cynical as some are apt to believe the Romans were in our day and age, Stokl notes, you'd be hard-pressed to wonder why the tradition of augury was preserved by the Romans if they didn't think there was anything worthwhile in preserving the discipline.  That's more a little aside.

Skipping ahead, Stokl discusses 2 Chronicles 35, in which an Egyptian leader describes himself in a prophetic way. Stokl also goes on to describe an Assyrian siege described in 2 Kings 18-19 and Isaiah 36-38.  That a theodicy could emerge in which a local divine being might take the side of the invading army over against his/her worshippers isn't unheard of.  It was, as Stokl notes (pages 60-61) not unique that a nation could imagine its god sided with the enemy as a way to rationalize defeat but what made this particular theodicy unique within Jewish thought was the monotheistic anchoring point.  If you're a polytheist and your god you worship who protects your city sells you out then maybe the other god(s) were stronger; if you're a monotheist and committed to your god being the one true god and he/she sells you out to your conquerors you're compelled to do a significant amount of soul-searching.

Which thematically gets us to one of many things that makes the Jewish biblical prophetic literature what it is--in contrast to ancient near eastern empires where prophecy and oracle tended to cement empire Jewish prophetic literature has an unusually flamboyant tendency to direct a lot of vitriol at king and country.  There's a penchant for an often scathing internal critique of moral decay, corruption, and misuse of authority or power.  While Wenatchee The Hatchet may be seriously overdue tow rite more about Martin Shields' The End of Wisdom as a book discussing the possibility of conflict and resentment between professional scribes/sages on the one hand and prophets/seers on the other this isn't the place for that.  This is supposed to be more a summing up of interesting bits about this intriguing book.

One of the most intriguing essays in the book is chapter 5, C. A. Strine's analysis of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel.  Particularly striking is Strine's proposal that Gog and Magog should not be understood and probably were never intended to be understood as specific empires; rather Strine makes a case that what the author of Ezekiel did in chapters 38-39 is subversively redeploy the images, symbols, and narrative tropes of writings about Marduk.  Though coded and esoteric this obscurity would have been necessary given that Ezekiel is accepted as prophetic literature written in an exilic context.  If Ezekiel simply declared that Yahweh would destroy the pagan empire that would have gotten Ezekiel killed or imprisoned.  By coding the anti-imperial claim in an esoteric literary form that simultaneously evoked, invoked yet subverted stories about Marduk it was possible for the right people to get what was going on while having the literary unit be obscure and esoteric enough to secure plausible deniability if the powers that be even ever got the idea that something might be amiss. 

That's a theme that gets considered by other contributors at more length, that the biblical literary genre can be seen as navigating an uneasy relationship between imperial and counter-imperial narrative.  As it has become popular to discuss the emergence of the Jewish canon in an exilic and a specifically Persian exilic context there's a lot more that could be unpacked that isn't really in Wenatchee The Hatchet's formal areas of expertise. :)  The idea that a large chunk of the Old Testament is the result of Persian-era exilic editorial work is ... interesting ... but may be a little oversold.  It may be a new iteration of JEDP which, however useful it may be in particular textual problems is best considered one of a variety of academic tools that can be brought to bear on the literature.

For the purposes of discussing nay of this for ostensibly evangelical readers (if any) out there, Wenatchee The Hatchet finds this book under discussion handy as a way to ground the biblical prophetic literature in its political and military context.  What makes the Old Testament prophetic genre fascinating is its scathing criticism of its own imperial context--that the Judean and Samarian kingdoms were scarcely more than blips on the radar in the ancient near eastern world would, if anything, merely reinforce the observation within the prophetic oracles that Samaria and Judea thought far too much of themselves, their power, their "empire" and their worthiness than Yahweh himself did. 


jedpaschall said...


Nice post on OT/ANE stuff, right in my wheelhouse!

I'll have to put this on my reading list. All I would add is that the OT in general has a fairly abysmal view of empire, with the exception of the idealized messianic Kingdom, which is rather unique in the ANE. As well as being bound up in a specific political and military context, it seems that the intra-empire critique of Israel/Judah is bound up in their ethical violations of the covenant (e.g. neglecting the poor, amassing wealth at the expense of fellow countrymen, violence, etc.). The inter-empire critique seems to be grounded on natural theological grounds that the nations have breached basic ethical universals that they should be well acquainted with as image bearers.

What is interesting to me is to see how the NT develops its response to empire. Jesus in the synoptics is basically ambivalent, while Peter and Paul see it as a God appointed institution to promote civic good and stability. However, Revelation picks up right where the OT prophetic and apocalyptic authors leave off. Seems to me that there is a lot more tension regarding empire in the NT versus the OT

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

thanks for the comment, jed. :) It's nice to see some rare occasions where someone comments at this blog about something that doesn't connect to, er, the corporation.