Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Intertextuality Review: When Prophets Prophesy Prophecy

Okay, which of these two do you think is a prophet?

Madam Trelawney of Harry Potter fame?
Sure, Ron rightly calls her an "old fraud," but
on two occasions she does get it right. She
slips into a prophetic frenzy and accidentally
predicts something accurately about the future.
Is that what a prophet does?

Or the Fool in a Shakespeare play?
The fool's job is to dance and sing and otherwise
entertain the King, but most importantly it is to
tell the truth, not matter how uncomfortable it is.
The problem is that telling the truth to a King
could spell trouble. As King Lear once put it,
"Fool, remember the gallows!"

So, which of these two is a prophet, biblically speaking? Without a doubt the answer is #2, the fool, who risks his neck in order to say what is true. That is one of the biggest bamboozles of Left Behind Theology (LBT), the idea that a prophet is this kind of magical soothsayer, who looks into a crystal ball, or tea leaves, or mind-melds, or something slightly more religious and says, "Eureka, I can see the future!" In Daniel's case, he could see the future with both eyes, one on the events of the 2nd century BCE and the other on events that still haven't happened, although most of the New Testament writers thought for sure they would have happened long before anyone invented a convection oven. In Jesus' case, he too predicted the same thing Daniel did, and even added more graphic detail that changes slightly from gospel to gospel. But, of course, in John's gospel Jesus rarely predicts anything. Hmm...
Anyway, there is prediction and then there's PREDICTION, and the Grandaddy of all predictive prophets is, without question, John the Revelator on the island of Patmos. LBT advocates love this guy like a deer loves a salt block. His symbolic language is sufficiently vague that anyone with an imagination can read his text and say, "This means that, that means this, and oh, by all means, those mean these!" And yet the language is graphic enough that it could make a kid addicted to video games a little squeamish. That quality of John's text is what makes it such a thrill for those who salivate over the possibility of an all-out, absolutely global war. Rivers of blood, running through the streets, as high as the horses' shoulders- how cool is that? And to think, you can hoard those weapons, fire that red button, and kill those unrighteous $&^!*ers, all in the name of God! Show me a skin-headed teenager that wouldn't want a piece of that action!
However, the whole tenor of this "prophecy" changes if we begin with a different notion of what, exactly, prophecy is. If prophecy is predictive forecasting and really good prophecy is outrageous predictive forecasting, then: Okay, let's write a series of graphic novels and play "Guess the Anti-Christ" with every new politician that comes along. When I was a sophmore in college, my grandmother gave me a book that was written by a very earnest preacher, who claimed to have prayed over every page as he wrote it, asking God to reveal to him if there was any error in his claims, and promising that he would have trashed the entire manuscript if even one word of it were not God's truth. The rest of the book was a detailed argument of how Henry Kissinger is the anti-Christ. Every single word, straight from the mind of God? I believe it, don't you? I'm sure history will show that Hank's favorite pick-up line was, "Vell, hello zere gorgeous. How vould you like to spend ze evening vis the vorld's most evil human being? Yes?"
But wait, you say, didn't someone remove Henry Kissinger from the moth balls in order to advise Sarah Palin? Well, yes, but I don't talk politics here, so we'll move on.
My point is that an honest look at how prophets prophesy prophecies in the Hebrew Bible does not show a group of Sybill Trelawneys, making frenzied predictions of the future and then coming back to their senses and saying, "Phew. What just happened?" There is one kind of weirdish story in I Samuel 10 that shows Saul- just anointed to be King,by Samuel, and just receiving a 'new heart' from God- coming across a band of prophets and suddenly prophesying alongside of them for a while. Apparently Saul had that proclivity, because there was a rather well-known proverb that said, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (which parents would use as a criticism of their uppity children before someone invented the more useful line, "Don't you draw that attitide with me Mr. Smartypants!") Later in the story (I Samuel 19), when his heart had gone sour and when Saul was trying to kill young David, he ran across a group of prophets again and, once again, started prophesying. This time he seemed to lose his clothes in the process. Nothing is said, however, about what Saul 'prophesied.' It certainly was not the case that his prophetic frenzy produced a prediction of which nation would be the next to smite the People of Israel, or whether the Messiah would be born in a stable, or whether Gog or Magog wins the mother of all battles, or even who would eventually kill Voldemort. He just prophesied and after a while he stopped and went about his business. I told you it was weird.
The more typical activity of a Hebrew Bible prophet was to tell the truth, not the future. That's what a prophet does, s/he tells the truth. Most importantly, the prophet was called to supress her or his own spin on things and to speak God's truth, thus the signature phrase of prophets, "Thus says the Lord!" That is what makes being a prophet such a risky job. First, there were kings and even priests who wanted nothing more than for prophets to shut up and go away. In fact, they wanted the truth to shut up and go away, but they often settled for throwing a prophet into a pit instead. Then, there was the risk of a prophet prophesying wrongly, which was punishable by death. To prophesy wrongly was a violation of the third commandment, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain!" The general consensus was, if you are going to pronounce something with the prefix "Thus says the Lord," you had better be speaking on behalf of the Lord and not just saying your own opinions loudly.
I think that is still advisable, don't you? And, let me tell you, I feel that advisability quite strongly every Sunday when I stand up to preach. That is why I feel that I need to be as honest about studying the Scriptures as I can be, so that I'm not just taking my opinion, or some LBT Bible commentor's opinion, or even public opinion, and just baptizing it with enough holy water to make it appear to be "the Word of the Lord."
The prophet's job is not to predict future events. It is to tell the truth, to open oneself up to speaking honestly when prefacing one's comments with "Thus says that Lord." Tomorrow, we'll see how taking a prophet seriously does not mean ascribing to her the gift of foresight; it means that we ascribe to her the gift of wisdom in our hindsight. I may not have said that too well, so I'll need to give it some thought before tomorrow. Meanwhile, please don't hesitate to respond.

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