the social location of israelite prophecy

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  • American Academy of Religion

    The Social Location of Israelite ProphecyAuthor(s): James G. WilliamsSource: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Jun., 1969), pp. 153-165Published by: Oxford University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 17:25

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  • The Social Location of Israelite Prophecy



    THIS essay is intended to address the question, "What was the social location of Israelite prophecy?" with particular reference to an essay written by Peter L. Berger.' Berger has sought to interpret the

    socio-cultural framework in which and to which the prophets spoke. The "social location" of Israel's prophets, he maintains, should not be identified with the content of their messages or their verbalized attitudes, which in the case of many of the "classical" or "canonical" prophets was anticultic. Berger concludes that the prophets - even the classical prophets - did not function as isolated individuals, but were closely related to the cult and perhaps even performed as cultic officials.

    For support of his thesis Berger is heavily indebted to secondary literature flowing from numerous modern studies of the prophets.2 He correctly points

    JAMES G. WILLIAMS, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse Uni- versity. His articles have also appeared in the Hebrew Union College Annual and the Journal of Biblical Literature.

    1 "Charisma and Religious Innovation: The Social Location of Israelite Prophecy," American Sociological Review, XXVIII (1963), pp. 940-50.

    2 E. g., A. Jepsen, Nabi - Soziologische Studien zur alttestamentlichen Literatur und Religionsgeschichte. Miinchen: Beck, 1934 (Jepsen distinguishes between prophecy accom- modated to court and cult in the southern kingdom and an independent nabiism of the northern kingdom); A. Johnson, The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel. Cardiff: Univ. of Wales, 1944 (Johnson claims there is "considerable evidence" for the function of the prophet as a significant member of the cultic personnel, especially in Jerusalem - "evi- dence" which I do not find "considerable" at all); A. Haldar, Associations of Cult Prophets among the Ancient Semites. Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksells, 1945 (Haldar emphasizes oral tradition of prophecy transmitted in cultic circles; the prophet, both canonical and non- canonical, is a functionary of the mahhu type found in the Mari texts, i. e., he delivered oracles in a state of ecstatic seizure); E. Wiirthwein, "Amos-Studien," ZAW, LXII (1949/50), 10-52 (Wiirthwein holds that Amos functioned initially as a cultic nabi, but experienced an inner development from a Heils- to an Unheilsnabi); A. Gunneweg, Miind- liche und schriftliche Tradition der vorexilischen Prophetenbiicher. G6ttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1959 (canonical prophets began as cultic nabiim, but their experience and message moved them away from their Amt; "phenomenologically" [see Berger's remark about this term, op. cit., 947] they were of the old nabi variety, but "factually" they were not).See also Adam C. Welch, Prophet and Priest in Old Israel. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953; H. Gunkel, "Jesaja 33, eine prophetische Liturgie," ZAW, XLII (1924), 177-208; P. Humbert, "Le problkme du livre de Nahoum," RHPR, XII (1932), 1-15. For a sample of the older literary critical approach at its best see J. Skinner, Prophecy and Religion. London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1922. For the most recent comprehensive survey of studies


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    out that in the formative period of biblical criticism the classical or canonical prophets were usually viewed as the "great Protestants" of ancient Israel, solitary critics of Israelite society and religion, whose insights represent the high point of Israel's religious development. It was with these prophets that true "ethical monotheism" first emerged in history. This kind of interpretation of Israel's history in general, and of Israel's prophets in particular, received its decisive impetus from the pioneer biblical critic Julius Wellhausen (1844- 1918),3 whose original "liberalism" became the cornerstone of an "orthodox" stance in biblical study engaged in by most biblical scholars.

    A reaction against this interpretation of Israel's history so influenced by concepts of linear religious evolution and the assumptions inherent in focusing upon literary criticism, began developing after World War I and remained vital into the 1950's. Characteristic of this reaction was the methodology employed in form criticism.4 An especially important figure in this develop- ment, as indicated by Berger, was the Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel.5 Mowinckel presented the thesis that there was a prophetic office in the Israelite cultus. The responsibility of the prophetic office was that of mediating the divine word to participants in the ritual ("sacramental" function; cf., e. g., Psalms 60:6-8; 75; 82; 110:1-4). This office was not the same as the priestly office, through which the community's sacrifices and prayers were mediated to God ("sacrificial" function). Mowinckel's distinction between the offices, however, does not mean that he saw the cultic personnel as distinct, separated into various divisions for various functions. The same official may well have performed several functions in the cultic celebration.

    However one may evaluate Mowinckel's thesis of the "prophetic" office in the cult, it is highly questionable whether it can be applied to the canonical or literary prophets as a whole without obscuring their function and distinctive self-understanding. We cannot simply assume a cultic Sitz im Leben for figures and passages whose social location is not clearly given in the literature to be studied - figures who even engage in radical polemic against the cult in their respective social situations (see below).

    Moreover, Berger's discussion of Mowinckel's thesis is misleading, for he implies that Mowinckel places the canonical prophets within a cultic

    of the prophets and prophetic literature see G. Fohrer, "Zehn Jahre Literatur zur alttesta- mentlichen Prophetie (1951-60)," Theologische Rundschau, XXVIII (1962-63), 1-75; 235-97; 301-74. - Sigmund Mowinckel, whose studies on this question are pivotal in the history of biblical scholarship, will be discussed below. I should add that Berger believes Gunneweg and Wiirthwein represent a consensus in modern Old Testament studies, which is questionable.

    8 Cf. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel., tr. Menzies and Black. Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, World Publishing Co., 1961.

    4 For a critique of the form-critical method as it has been employed see G. Fohrer, "Remarks on Modern Interpretation of the Prophets," JBL, LXXX (1961), 309-19.

    5 Berger, op. cit., 944. Cf. the third volume of Mowinckel's Psalmenstudien, "Kult- prophetie und prophetische Psalmen." Amsterdam: Schippers, 1961.

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    situation." As a matter of fact, Mowinckel does not do this. Perhaps it is best to let Mowinckel speak for himself:

    If, however, the psalm [Psalm 50] is "prophetic," this does not mean that it can be clarified out of the spiritual world of the so-called great judgment and literary prophets. In the main it stems out of the idea-forms and thoughts of a cultic situation. Also in the condemnation of sacrifice it distinguishes itself from an Amos or Isaiah or Micah. These men reject the external cult actions in general as they were then practiced, "the noise of the songs" not less than the smoking offerings (Isa. 1:10-17; Am. 5:21-23). Our poet, to the contrary, finds the cultic songs (and also the rites corresponding thereto) beautiful and pleasing to God, and the offerings necessary because commanded, although not fully comparable to the songs in value.7

    So here I wish to call into question the misapplication of Mowinckel's thesis. The supposed "prophetic office" in the cults hardly lends itself to an adequate understanding of the classical or literary prophets.

    II Berger's essay on the social location of Israel's prophets deals primarily

    with the problem of cultic prophecy. Therefore "social location," in this context, refers primarily to professional status or role within the cult as over against detachment from cultic institutions. In Max Weber's