An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
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For too many Christians the Old Testament prophets are foreign territory, and today we talk about a book that can remedy that problem simply.
Greetings, I’m Fred Zaspel, and today we’re talking to Dr. Eric Tully about his really excellent new book, Reading the Prophets as Christian Scripture: A Literary, Canonical, and Theological Introduction.
Eric, welcome, and congratulations on a really good book!
Thank you. It is great to be with you today.
What is your book all about, and what is the contribution you hope to make?
It was originally envisioned as a textbook that focuses on the prophets in the Old Testament, Isaiah through Malachi. I do hope that people outside the classroom will find it to be of benefit as well. I focus on those classical writing prophets with a chapter on each one and some chapters of introduction. I am also interested in the whole institution of prophecy in the Old Testament. The text tells us that Abraham mentions himself as the first prophet and Moses is the climax of prophecy. Instead of at the end, he is at the beginning and kind of the fount of all prophecy. He has the role of receiving God’s revelation and teaching it to the people.
I suppose in the Hebrew tradition we can also talk about the former prophets. The authors of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings did not have, as far as we know, a public ministry of declaring oracles, but wrote and taught God’s word through the means of history and things like that. I deal with all that in the book and then with special attention to the major prophetic books.
My book is a part of the series from Baker Academic. In the series, there is one volume on the whole Old Testament and one on the entire New Testament which has already come out. This is one of the tier two volumes that will cover each of the major sections. There will be volumes on the Pentateuch, historical books, and mine on the Prophets. I am really honored to be a part of this series. The book deals with the standard introduction to matters of authorship and historical context. But the focus is on the message of the prophets and theology and how the prophets relate to the New Testament and are a part of this trajectory. Also, I deal with how they contribute to God’s great plan of salvation we find in all of Scripture.
Explain what you’re after in your chosen title, Reading the Prophets as Christian Scripture. What do you mean? And what is it you do not mean?
That is the series title. I appreciate the question because there are some things, we do not mean by that. In some ways when we talk about reading the Bible as Christian Scripture it is a reaction to secular higher criticism that studies the Bible fully within a presupposition of methodological naturalism. These are presuppositions about the Bible reflecting ancient Israel’s religion. They made their best attempt at saying something about God. Other groups in ancient Israel disagreed and the Bible became this anthology of religion. In the end, with that kind of approach, what we end up with is a text that has been dissected and dead on the examination table. It is usually devoid of authority and unity.
When we talk about reading the prophets or Old Testament as Christian Scripture, what I mean by that is, recognizing it as Christian Scripture. Also, recognizing the authority that it has as Christian Scripture. It is a part of the whole biblical canon including the New Testament. What I do not mean is that it is some sort of special reading strategy. For example, a false thinking could be, this is Israelite’s Scripture but if we read it as Christian Scripture, hopefully, we can get something out of it. No, it is Christian Scripture. What we are doing is accepting it as such. We recognize its authority and the critical contribution that these books make to our understanding of God, his entire plan of salvation that was accomplished, and that is being accomplished in the work of Christ.
I love the passage from Acts 26 that you put at the head of your Introduction. Tell us how that is significant.
I was looking at what the New Testament has to say about the Old Testament prophets and Old Testament prophetic literature, and I thought that was such a fascinating passage. A lot of times, at least in practice, the prophets are viewed as maybe these angry proclaimers of judgement and thankfully the New Testament came along with the message of grace. Or the prophets are viewed as repositories of these predictive proof texts that legitimate Jesus’ ministry in some way. As I think about growing up in the church all my life, I can never think of a sustained sermon series on the prophets. Just on special occasions.
In Acts 26 we have Paul and Agrippa, the Jewish king, who was friendly with Rome. Both recognized that the prophets are not just Jewish Scripture, but that they teach Christianity. When Paul said, “do you know the prophets?” Agrippa’s response was, “would you have me become a Christian.” That is a perfect illustration because Paul did not have the New Testament, his Bible was the Old Testament. He took authoritative Scripture and then proved the claims of Christ, he viewed the prophets as books that would do that. When we talk about the prophets in that bigger theological context and how they relate to the New Testament we are on really firm ground.
Why are the Prophets often so foreign and difficult for so many Christians, and what do you want to say to those who feel that way about them?
They are difficult. I can speak personally. When I was in high school, I sort of intuitively knew that these books had a very distinctive contribution theologically to teach me about the character and the heart of God. I was fascinated by the way that prophets like Jeremiah and Habakkuk struggled with God. I was fascinated by the practical ways that the prophets deal with theology on the ground as it relates to people’s lives and gets at the motives of our hearts. However, I did not feel like I had been equipped in church to handle these books or understand them. I understand they are difficult. They are some of the most difficult literature in the Bible.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One reason is that they take place within the midst of a much bigger theological story and context. When we open a book like Isaiah or Obadiah, we are jumping into the middle of a conversation that has already been taking place for a long time. Sometimes I tell my students an example. If I were to speak prophetically about the evils of abortion and a space alien were to hear what I had to say, think of all the background and context of that discussion that would be obvious to me and my listeners. However, the space alien would know nothing about the political parties and various ways that Christians have tried to help either to protest at clinics or through adoption. Or the way this issue comes up in supreme court justice nominations. There is such a massive background to that issue.
In the same way, the prophets are speaking into this theological context that goes all the way back to the patriarchs. The covenant, land, kingship, the Davidic line, and the importance of Jerusalem and Zion. Unless we know our Bible well, so many of the references to the prophets are going to be obscure. This is the same thing with the historical context, they do not bother to catch us up or fill in the background. They just start talking about neighboring countries that are at war. For example, a high priest at Bethel was angry at Amos for encroaching on the king’s territory. They make geographical references and military campaigns. Unless we know the history of Israel, the geography, and so on we will be lost.
In terms of literature, they do not have a table of contents. Sometimes it feels like you can take all those narratives and oracles and they have been put in a blender. One of the things I think is a contribution of the book is that I try to be clear about the way these books are structured and how they make coherent arguments. There are a lot of reasons why the prophets are hard. That was my motivation for the way I worked on this book. If we all admit what is difficult here, how can we ease that and help people overcome some of those difficulties?
Chapters 2 and 3 on the Context of the Prophets – theological and historical – I thought was essential and wonderfully helpful. Give us a brief snapshot of what you’re after there and explain how this is essential to understanding the Prophets. You may need to take a few minutes here but situate the prophets for us both theologically and historically.
From a theological point of view, the Bible tells one big story of God’s salvation from the garden of Eden to the garden of Gethsemane. What I do is choose the covenant as a way of talking about that. The reason I do that is that is what the prophets did. They talked about the covenant with Abraham and God’s people as not only the objects of his grace but the means of his grace to all the nations of the earth. The prophets spent a great deal of time talking about the covenant with Israel and God’s expectations to be faithful to the covenant. Not only do they talk about those vertical obligations of faithfulness to him but also the horizontal obligations of how they are to treat each other in that covenant community.
The prophets also recalled passages like, Deuteronomy 28, and what will happen when they break the covenant and disobey. That forms the basis of what the prophets said about coming judgement. God stripped them from the land and scattered them among the nations. The covenant with David helps us understand Zion theology. We need to understand how all of this helps give a framework. That way we can categorize each prophet’s contribution to the story or message.
I assume that the historical context, Israelite history, chronology, and geography are things that my readers will not be totally up to speed on. I try to be selective and situate these prophets in relation to each other. For example, there was a cluster of prophets around the end of the northern kingdom, a cluster in Judah, and post-exilic prophets. It is helpful to understand which prophets were contemporaries and what issues they were dealing with. It gives us better insight into their message.
What, then, was the role of the prophets? And talk to us about what “prophecy” is. And in broad terms, not necessarily in reference to individual prophets, what was the prophetic message?
In the book I define prophecy happening when someone receives a message from the Lord at his initiative, receives revelation from the Lord, and preaches it in a particular situation. Sometimes you hear people say that the prophets were not “for-tellers” they were “forth-tellers”. They were not interested in the future but only in their own circumstances and they critiqued social and theological norms of the day. I do not think that is true. They had a great deal to say about their future and our future. Some people go to the other extreme and treat them only as “for-tellers”. They were just making these pronouncements about the future. There is not much interest in what they had to say to their own contemporaries. That is also a problem.
Instead, the way to think about it is that they were receiving God’s word. Some of that has to do with the past. God had taken care of Israel and been faithful. Many times, prophets were rehearsing the sins and unfaithfulness, and were interested in the present and near future. They declared that curses are coming. As God promised, he will make life difficult for them. He will prevent them from flourishing. He will give them to captivity and scatter them because they were speaking on behalf of the Lord. It is just as easy for the Lord to speak about the future as he does the past.
The prophets seamlessly transitioned into talking about the future as well. They talked about how on the other side of judgment, there was a restoration bringing them back from exile and the land. In the eschatological future, they expected the day of the Lord when he will set up his King. The remnant of the nations will stream to Jerusalem to worship him, and he will preside over a new heavens and new earth and will live with his people in peace and prosperity forever.
The prophets had a multifaceted message that is about past, present, and future. As a result, that is part of the reason why they are so crucial in our biblical theology and understanding of what God has done and is doing. They set up this fulcrum between Old and New Testament. They looked back on the previous part of the Old Testament and looked forward to what God is accomplishing in Christ.
Help us understand how predictive prophecy works. In particular, a given prophecy, say, of Israel’s return from exile, can seem to look beyond that return to something more.
Some people use the analogy of mountain peaks in the distance. For example, if your listeners have been to the Grand Canyon they can think of where you stand on the rim. The canyon is just so vast that you begin to have troubles with depth perception, and everything starts looking kind of flat and you cannot discern the distance from one peak to the one behind it. Everything becomes chronologically conflated. I used to think that that kind of lack of distinction between the near future, the distant future, and the eschatological future. I used to think this lack was a result of the prophet’s ignorance. They were doing their best to communicate what God would reveal but they were limited because they were anticipating events in the New Testament.
I no longer believe this. I think that this is not a bug, it is a feature. The reason they did that, sometimes referred to as telescoping, is because they were using events in their own time or even events in history, in the near future, as analogues or prototypes of eschatological realities in the future. The reason that those mountain peaks are being conflated and not clearly delineating the distance between is that they wanted us to think of those in relation to each other. It is a pattern in the way that God works.
We get a picture of what it will be like to live in the new heavens and new earth when we see God bringing his people back from exile into the land. He then gives them their own farm to live in peace and prosperity. By the same token, they used events in their own time negative or positive as a picture of what God is doing and what he plans for the future. Whether it’s the judgement on the Edomites because of how they reacted to doubtful Jerusalem in the book of Obadiah, God’s judgement on the kingdom of Assyria, or the completion of the temple. It is a persuasive strategy and rhetorical device they used that is a feature and not a bug.
Okay, you’re invited to a church to speak to the congregation about the Old Testament prophets. You have one shot – what will you want to say?
What I would talk about is the way that God is characterized and revealed in the prophets. You have Ezekiel who declared these particularly nasty judgments against Israel and said repeatedly, “then you will know that I am the Lord.” People will know who God is accurately, not only when saved but when judged. Another example is Hosea who presented God as incredibly conflicted because he must bring consequences against Israel and bring judgement for their lack of faithfulness. He is conflicted because he cannot allow that to be the last word. His heart for the people is too warm and loving. He will find a way to show grace. His determination to save is greater than theirs to rebel. Or Jeremiah and Micah with God’s salvation of the remnant. It is a remarkable portrait presenting God as who he is. It presents an amazing opportunity to get to know our loving God.
I would also say there is something else about the prophets that are so crucial. One of those that has been particularly impactful for me is the way that the prophets talked about the judgment of God as a good thing for God’s people. They are only relieved of oppression, persecution, and mistreatment by the enemies of God when those enemies are put down. Turning the other cheek and God’s grace is one thing. But we also must reckon with the very good news when God brings justice. When evildoers who have oppressed and exploited the vulnerable and made life miserable for God’s people are put down in the eschatological future, then God’s people can breathe a sigh of relief and they will know God fought for them and delivered them.
That has been something to think about. God’s ultimate justice is something that we should long for. We do want the unbeliever to be saved because God wants that. We want to evangelize, love, and hope but at the end of the day for God to put down his enemies is a big thing. There are all kinds of things like that going on in the prophets we need to know about as Christians to strengthen our faith. These books are the only place, we will get that.
Tell us about the structure of your book and maybe a quick overview so our readers can know what to expect.
The first eight chapters are introductory and that seems like a lot but as we have already said the prophets are difficult. Chapter 2 is on the theological context. Chapter 3 is on the historical context. There is a chapter on what it means to be a prophet, the institution of prophecy, and what it means for God to call prophets. A chapter on false prophets and the prophets of the nations. I have a chapter on the rhetorical or persuasive strategies used by the prophets. We look at the various things that they do that we may not be used to.
The most obvious example is when the prophets acted things out. Isaiah walked around naked; Ezekiel was told to cook his food over human excrement. Jeremiah buried a belt that turned rotten and used that as an object lesson. I wanted to take some time to explore some of those devices and strategies the prophets used so that when we get into the prophetic books, we understand the message they were communicating to us.
I have a chapter on the difference between the prophet’s oral ministry in history, the books that we have now in our Bible, and how prophetic oracles become prophetic books. That can be exegetically significant at times to think about the difference there and the kinds of expectations of how a prophetic book is put together and structured.
There is a chapter for each book, Isaiah through Malachi. In the first section, I introduce the book. The second section is an exploration of the contents and message of the book. The third section of each chapter is called implementation. This is where we think about theology, the relationship of this book to the Christian life, and the New Testament. I spend a lot of time with diagrams, art, illustrations, and maps. The book is printed in full color. Baker Academics has done a really nice job of making these illustrations look great. I am hoping that visually all these elements of the book will serve to help people understand.
We’re talking to Dr. Eric Tully about his wonderful new book, Reading the Prophets as Christian Scripture: A Literary, Canonical, and Theological Introduction. I have thoroughly enjoyed it myself. It is both well-informed and very accessible, and I will be eager to commend it to readers anytime. Get a copy and find what you’ve been missing.
Eric, thanks much for talking with us today.
Thanks for much for having me. It has been great to have the conversation with you.