Sunday, May 17, 2015

What Do We Mean by Prophetic?

An Article by Christopher Heuertz and Sarah Kim
In the Word Made Flesh vision statement, we collectively commit to serving Jesus among those living in poverty. This calling is realized in being a holistic, incarnational community among, as well as a prophetic community for, those living in poverty. In previous Position Papers on The Cry, we have explored what we mean by “poverty,” “holistic,” “incarnational” and “community.” So, what do we mean by “prophetic”?

The Need for Understanding

Depending on differing faith traditions, the term prophetic may evoke a variety of meanings and concepts for different people. In WMF, “prophetic” is understood through the lens of the historic prophets from the Scriptures. WMF can only qualify as a prophetic community for those living in poverty as we reflect the examples lived out by the biblical prophets.

The prophetic is naturally drawn from what was embodied by the original prophets. “What Do We Mean By ‘Prophetic’” is a WMF Position Paper that seeks to establish and support a biblical understanding of the prophetic by identifying contemporary deformations in order to construct a biblical prophetic paradigm. The multifaceted character of the biblical prophets according to their office, nature, function, role and message informs this biblical prophetic paradigm.

Naming Contemporary Deformations

There is a crisis in our contemporary understanding of the prophetic. Go to most Western Christian bookstores, and you will be bombarded by countless titles from individuals claiming to have a prophetic message or a handle on explaining prophecy. Competing extremes claim that the prophetic is either something very propitious in a constructive and mystical way, qualified by the supernatural and miraculous, or that the prophetic is something very grave and ominous with a harsh message and merciless tone. This crisis has precipitated deformations that have led to great confusion regarding the prophetic.

Contemporary deformations of the prophetic are polarized between the liberal and the conservative, perpetuating stereotypes that caricature prophetic ministries as either overly social or hyper-personal. On one hand, a liberal deformation of the prophetic focuses solely on political- and justice-related concerns, suggesting that a social reading of the gospel and its subsequent application are signs of prophetic ministry. On the other hand, a conservative deformation of the prophetic is often future-oriented, attempting to speculate on answers and explanations to existing prophecies as well as making claims and predictions about new prophecies. The conservative deformation also has a tendency to become very esoteric and over-individualized, demanding special attention from God.

These liberal and conservative deformations of the prophetic are further aggravated when the prophetic lacks submission to the rest of the ministry gifts of the church. In Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul lists the offices or ministry giftings that are dispersed to help build up the church. In many settings, one of these five ministry gifts is leveraged against the others, setting it above the rest as if we are able to suggest a hierarchy within the list. When the prophetic is assumed to be the most important or trumps the impact and influence of the other ministry gifts, a new deformation takes place. The prophetic is merely one gift among a community of gifts that are dependent upon each other for the completion of the body.

Another common deformation is the perception that one can participate in a prophetic ministry from outside a worshipping community. It is often the case that individuals who perceive themselves and their ministry as prophetic lack the credibility of being an integral part of a worshipping community. This deformation assumes that one can volley prophetic messages into a worshipping community from the periphery. This often occurs when a worshipping community rejects a prophetic gifting or message, thereby pushing the prophetic presence from the center. However, the biblical model of the prophet was one who remained within the worshipping community – at times even going into exile with them.

Finally, a predictive element of things relating to prophecy is often assumed when speaking of the prophetic. Though this is one element historically related to the biblical prophets, the qualifying term “prophetic” speaks to a greater gifting and calling than merely speaking and interpreting prophecies. In fact, if the prophetic were to only apply to predictive abilities, then most “modern prophets” would have been stoned under the laws of the Old Testament for their inaccuracy. Sadly, future-telling, prophecy-explaining “modern prophets” give themselves license to get their own prophecies wrong from time to time, leading many in the church to become rightfully skeptical and weary of such prophetic mishandlings.

Constructing a Prophetic Paradigm

In WMF, our attempts to cultivate the prophetic do not merely seek to deconstruct contemporary deformations, but hope to build up a biblical alternative to these contemporary misunderstandings. Further, rather than suggesting a disembodied conceptual understanding of the prophetic, it is necessary to live into a reality that is guided by the biblical prophets.

Biblical scholar Irving Jensen suggests that though the prophet was “a combination preacher, herald, teacher, ]spokesperson], intercessor, reformer, and even shepherd (Isaiah 40:1-2),” the prophet was also “the moral conscience of the people, exposing and rebuking their sins (Isaiah 58:1; Ezekiel 22:2; 43:10; Micah 3:8).” We draw our understanding of the prophetic from the biblical texts and biblical prophets. Avoiding a fragmented and caricatured view of the prophets, we integrate the office, function, nature, role and message of the prophets in an effort to extrapolate our understanding of the prophetic. This composite understanding demonstrates the prophetic and offers a holistic view of the complex tensions that are held together by the prophets. Here we will seek to hold in tension writings on the prophetic from both the Protestant Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann and the Jewish Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel to work out the implications of a Judeo-Christian prophetic understanding.

In his groundbreaking work The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann postulates that the task of the prophet is simultaneously to criticize and energize while working toward the formation of a new community. He writes, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

Brueggemann suggests that the prophet should not only criticize social and spiritual shortcomings, but also energize people with the hope that alternatives are possible: “Prophetic ministry seeks to penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed in and embraced by us.”

In the introduction to his work The Prophets, Heschel states, “The prophet was an individual who said no to his [or her] society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. [The prophet] was often compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what [his or her] heart expected. [The prophets] fundamental objective was to reconcile [humanity] and God.”

Reconciliation, bringing humanity back into right standing with God, is ultimately the purpose of the biblical prophets. We find in even a cursory reading of Scripture that God called forth prophets when the people had simultaneously turned their back on God and those living in poverty. The task of the prophet was then to criticize the spiritual and social fallout of this turning as well as to energize the hopeful reconciliation and restoration of God’s people.

In recent history, the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero illustrated this beautifully and tragically. Archbishop Romero fought to reconcile the church with those living in poverty. In 1977, Oscar Arnulfo Romero became an unthreatening choice to be the Archbishop of San Salvador. An oligarchy of 14 families controlled El Salvador, owning nearly two-thirds of the nation’s arable land. Through a series of stifling laws and systemic repression, those who were landless and living in poverty in El Salvador were routinely detained, tortured and executed. An academic who was uncomfortable challenging the status quo, Romero dutifully went about his clerical responsibilities. Not until two of his friends, also priests, were assassinated by the government did Romero have a conversion to those living in poverty as a symbol of his desire to see true reconciliation take place.

In one of his many passionate pastoral addresses, Romero stated, “To the oligarchy, I repeat what I said before: Do not look on me as a judge or an enemy. I am only the shepherd, the brother, the friend of this people, the one who knows of their suffering, of their hunger, of their affliction. In the name of their voices, I raise my own to say: Do not make idols of your riches; do not preserve them in a way that lets others die of hunger. One must share in order to be happy.” In yet another address, he said, “The church is calling to sanity, to understanding, to love. It does not believe in violent solutions. The church believes in only one violence, that of Christ, who was nailed to the cross. That is how today’s gospel reading shows him, taking upon himself all the violence of hatred and misunderstanding, so that we humans might forgive one another, love one another, feel ourselves brothers and sisters.”

Prophetic proclamations bolstered by his simplicity and solidarity with those living in poverty are what ultimately led to Romero’s assassination. But even in the face of death, Romero kept his hope on the promise that God’s purposes for humanity could be realized – a hope that many dismissed as impossible. His hope was purely an imagination of what could be. As Brueggemann writes, “The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation.” Oscar Romero was shot and killed on March 24, 1980, while celebrating the Eurcharist. His death is a witness to Christians everywhere of a prophetic hope in the body and blood of Christ.

“Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk,” Brueggemann writes. “On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”

In the face of death, disobedience and disunity among humanity and with God, the prophetic finds its integrity and authenticity from within the worshipping community of God. The prophetic must remain connected to the living body of Christ as a reminder of the presence of Jesus within the message of the prophet. This solidarity is a sign and symbol of the love that drives all things prophetic. It also validates the truth that “The prophet does not scold or reprimand. The prophet brings to public expression the dread of endings, the collapse of our self-madeness, the barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each other’s expense, and the fearful practice of eating off the table of a hungry brother or sister.” Thus, the prophet is a truth-teller, demonstrating God’s love for all humanity.

This compels us in WMF to keep the imagination provoked and hopeful. This reality and calling, grounded in our solidarity with the oppressed and our commitment to the church, provides the framework for our service with and among those living in poverty to be hopeful and simultaneously remain prophetic. As Brueggemann writes, “It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures.”

Five Distinctions of the Prophetic Essence

Modern examples such as Oscar Romero boldly embody the form and function of what the biblical texts offer in terms of introducing the irreducible characteristics of the prophetic. In an attempt to understand the prophets’ divinely appointed purpose as revealed in the Scriptures, we have named five distinctions. These are mere signposts to help guide this study of the prophets’ multifaceted attributes and responsibilities. We present the clearest defining features of the prophetic essence: the office, the function, the nature, the role and the message of the prophets.

The Office

The prophetic office was the prophet’s position of authority, which was appointed specially by God. Historically, the Scriptures directly correlate the phrase the “Word of God” with the calling of a prophet. This direct encounter with the Word of God initiates prophets with instructions for a prophetic task. The prophets’ experiences with the Word of God authenticates the divineness of the prophet’s appointment to office, and the prophet uses the Lord’s Word to identify the message as God’s words rather than the prophet’s own. Simply using the prophetic phrase “Word of God” does not validate a man or woman’s position as prophet – the prophesy actually coming to pass confirms it.

The office of the prophet can be seen in many Scriptural examples. In the days of Samuel’s youth when he served under Eli in Shiloh, the Word of God was rare due to a vacancy in the prophetic office (1 Samuel 3:1). Later, Israel recognized Samuel as a prophet of the Lord because God ensured that “none of Samuel’s words remained unfulfilled” (v. 19). The Lord was revealed to Samuel through God’s word and was with him (v. 21). Similarly, the prophet Deborah acted as the mouthpiece of God and communicated God’s command to lead a revolt against Sisera based on God’s promise to put the enemy into the hands of the Israelites (Judges 4). This prophecy came to pass, and Deborah led the rebellion.

Moses, the archetype of biblical prophets, conveyed God’s words of how God appoints a prophet: “I will put my words in their mouth, and they will tell them everything I command them” (Deuteronomy 18:17-18). For Jeremiah, the Lord reached out and touched his mouth and said, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth,” to appoint him as prophet (Jeremiah 1:9). Again and again, it is when the Word of the Lord comes to the prophets that they are designated to their offices, and from this established position the prophets are able to speak with authority.

There was a point in biblical history when the concept of the “Word of God” had a significant shift. Originally, this phrase signified the divinely commissioned speech of prophets; but, this notion changed with the temple priests and scribes in the Persian period. With this change, the “Word of God” is used for citing the Mosaic Law. Thus, a radical modification occurs as the “Word of God,” which was once a technical term for prophetic revelation, becomes a description of the Law of Moses, establishing the Mosaic Law as a new authoritative source. The books of Chronicles affirm the writings of the prophets as new authoritative religious texts. In the process, the concept of the “Word of God” transformed into a means of referencing sacred, authoritative Scripture more generally.

In the New Testament, John the Baptist lived and spoke from his appointed office as a prophet as he quoted the words of Isaiah when preaching to the Jews. The Gospel of Luke explicitly states that the Word of God came to John, who then began speaking prophetically with the words of Isaiah. Similarly, Jesus Christ spoke as a prophet to the Jews when he pointed at himself as the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s words (Luke 4:17-19).

T. Austin Sparks states, “Prophetic ministry is not something that you can take up. It is something that you are.” Hence, the office of the prophet is appointed by God for a prophetic purpose, and finds its fulfillment when receiving and living out the Words of God through word and deed to God’s people.

The Function

The prophets functioned according to the message they were sent to deliver from God. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (referred to in the West as Maimonides) writes, “Their function was that of preachers who called upon the people to obey the Law of Moses, threatened those who rejected it, and held out promises to those who were firm in observing it.” These words usually carried the weight of life or death, hope or despair, restoration or destruction, mercy or judgment. Once Israel strayed from centering God in life and society, the prophet was sent forth to urge the people to obey their one true God.

Walter Brueggemann summarizes the various functions of the prophet in two foundational categories: energizing and criticizing. Brueggemann points to the grieving of the prophet Jeremiah as prophetic criticizing – lamenting the wrong in society. He holds this in tension with the prophet Isaiah’s hopeful prophetic energizing for things to come. The present in its brokenness and the future with its promises create the simultaneous prophetic functions of energizing and criticizing. The prophet cannot merely criticize the present reality without pointing to the potential for God to restore and redeem it. However, simply hoping for better things and claiming the promises of God without critiquing systems, structures and people who prevent the in-breaking of the Kingdom also lacks prophetic integrity. Functionally, prophetic criticizing is a radical form of truth-telling, while prophetic hopefulness is a proclamatory naming of things gone wrong. This has been widely deformed because “prophetic hope easily lends itself to distortion. It can be made so grandiose that it does not touch reality.” Prophetic criticizing and energizing must hold one another accountable for “Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair.”

The functioning duties of the prophet have been compared to being a watchperson, a servant, a messenger of God, an assayer and tester of the people’s ways, and as one who hears the words from God’s mouth and gives warning. They appeared at some of the most crucial moments of Israel’s history to anoint kings, to act as military advisors and to dethrone some of Israel’s rulers. They could be seen as God’s own people’s most oppositional forces. They were commonly seen as charismatic miracle workers, leaders and teachers of a band of prophets, and noticeably as those caught up in God’s Spirit of ecstasy.

One underlying function is consistent in all of the prophets’ duties. They declared the judgments of God and denounced the sins of God’s people. For instance, Nathan confronted King David about his affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:7). In their respective biblical books, Amos attacked the social abuses in the north, and Hosea condemned syncretism and apostasy. In the South, Isaiah criticized the religious appearances and injustices (Isaiah 1:11-15). Jeremiah rebuked unfaithfulness and idolatry (Jeremiah 1:15-16). Similarly, Micah berated false religion and inequity (Micah 3:5-12).

These accusations spoken through the prophets all have a common theme. The people were guilty of forsaking their God, and as a result injustice and unrighteousness became rampant. The cause was the corrupt and unrighteous ways in which the leaders and people conducted their lives. The ones who suffered most from the injustice caused by the unrighteous were the most vulnerable in the land – those living in poverty. The oppression of those in poverty infuriated God, as it is a direct assault against God: “Whoever oppresses [those in poverty] shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to [those in need] honors God” (Proverbs 14:31). As biblical scholar and prominent rabbi, Abraham J. Heschel notes, “To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”

Still, the sins of the people were highlighted against the background of God’s gracious and merciful acts of the past. The mercy of God was an alternative to confronting the wrath of God if only they repented. The prophets’ lives were often personifications of the analogous relationship between God and Israel. We find the husband-wife relationship as portrayed by Hosea; father-son and owner-vineyard relations in Isaiah; shepherd-flock in Ezekiel; potter-clay in Jeremiah. The prophets illustrated the desire for God to lovingly embrace people with mercy and grace, and lead them back to the path of justice and righteousness. Yet, the people usually responded by silencing the true prophets and listening to the false ones. Heschel makes it clear why they would be silenced: “The prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.”

The Nature

The nature of the prophet refers to how the prophets lived out and became the message they were given to deliver. Once a prophet was called by God and appointed for a task, the prophets not only proclaimed the Word of God but embodied it. They intimately experienced and incarnated the Word of God, rather than merely being hearers and deliverers of the Word. As Heschel puts it,

“It would be wrong to maintain that the prophet is a person who plays the role of “the third party,” offering his or her good offices to bring about reconciliation. Their view is oblique. God is the focal point of their thought, and the world is seen as reflected in God. Indeed, the main task of prophetic thinking is to bring the world into divine focus.”

We do not need to look far to see how the prophets actualized the Word of God in their own lives in order to communicate God’s message. The prophet Hosea is well-known for his prophetic calling to marry an adulterous wife to illustrate the love of God for God’s unfaithful people (Hosea 1:2). Hosea himself experienced God’s unchanging devotion to Israel, as he was called to retrieve his wife after she prostituted herself (3:2-3). The prophet Isaiah was called by God to go naked and barefoot for three years to prophetically portray what would happen to the Egyptian and Cushite exiles, those whom Israel sinfully relied upon (Isaiah 20:2-3). As for Ezekiel, he received a prophetic calling to lie on his left side for 390 days, bearing the 390 years of sin for the house of Israel (Ezekiel 4:4-5). Jesus Christ, operating out of his prophetic nature, is the Word who became flesh-the One who came as the incarnation of God to manifest Immanuel, or God with us (John 1:14).

As the prophet embodied the Word of God in his or her life, the prophet usually became a target of scorn among his or her people. “To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction. The mission the [prophet] performs is distasteful to [them] and repugnant to others; no reward is promised them and no reward could temper its bitterness. [The prophet] bears scorn and reproach (Jeremiah 15:15). The prophet is stigmatized as a madman by [his or her] contemporaries, and, by some modern scholars, as abnormal.”

The prophets shared an intense understanding with the heart and Word of God, and it consumed their entire being. The prophet Jeremiah was mocked and ridiculed for his words of violence and destruction, yet felt the burning Word of God in his heart when he attempted to withhold it from Israel (Jeremiah 20:8-9). Isaiah expressed his intimate sympathy for the anguished heart of God over his people Israel in his song about the vineyard of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7). Jesus typifies His oneness in heart with the Father as He embraced the fulfillment of God’s Word by willingly dying for the sin of all humanity.

The Role

The role points to how the prophets postured themselves to accomplish their prophetic duties. In the words of Heschel, “The main vocation of a prophet is ‘to declare the crimes of Jacob and Israel to their faces” (Micah 3:8), to let the people know ‘that it is evil and bitter…to forsake…God’ (Jeremiah 2:19), and to call upon them to return.”

As portrayed in Jeremiah 2, the prophet describes how the Israelites had forsaken the Lord by: chasing after worthless idols (v. 11); committing the two sins of forsaking the spring of living water and digging their own cisterns, which points to the illusion of creating a means of self-sufficiency or dependability (v. 13); and continuing to live in apparent corruption – although they “washed themselves with soap,” the stain of guilt was before the Lord (v. 21-22).

Most importantly, the lifeblood of the innocent poor was on their hands, even though the Israelites thought they were blameless and God was not angry with them (v. 34). The people assumed they were innocent of guilt and sin. Even so, God promised to pass judgment on the people despite their ignorance (v. 35). It is in this similar scenario when the prophet speaks out to God’s people. “The prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security; to him it is a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, not compromise; justice, though not inclemency.”

The human condition’s capacity to deceive one’s self from reality is astonishing. The prophets led the people to face what it truly means to know the Lord as God defines it. God declares, “[They] defended the cause of [those in poverty and in need], and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” (Jeremiah 22:16). Likewise, Heschel reiterates that the Prophet Samuel stressed obedience over sacrifice. Amos and the prophets who followed him not only emphasized the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship is contingent upon moral living, and that immorality that prevails in the midst of worship is detestable. The prophets challenged the people’s right to worship through offerings and songs by showing that the primary way of serving God is through love, justice and righteousness. Again in the words of Heschel, “Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum.”

The Message

The prophets held a radical view of the message entrusted to them by God-not only did they live out and relay the message, but they demanded a response from the people of God. The prophets amplified what was of utmost concern to the Living God: “He has showed you, O people, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In the process, they expressed the worthlessness of religious practice in the midst of injustice. The practice of sacrifice in itself was not condemned, but the deeds of injustice overshadowed both sacrifice and prayer. Heschel affirms, “Men [and women] may not drown the cries of the oppressed with the noise of hymns, nor buy off the Lord with increased offerings. The prophets disparaged the cult when it became a substitute for righteousness.”

The message of justice and righteousness is inherent to the character of God, and equally central to the message of the prophets. Injustice is not an outside moral virtue, or another problem of evil that exists unnoticed by God. The attributes of justice and righteousness are at the core of God’s essence. They are who God is. God embodies these in God’s own person and they are identified in all of God’s ways. The Scriptures declare, “Yhwh is a rock, whose works are perfect and whose ways are just-a faithful God who does no wrong, who is always upright and just.” (Deuteronomy 32:4). The prophets reminded the people of this fundamental truth. Hence, the prophets urged the people to renounce their opposition to God in their unrighteous and unjust ways of living, which oppressed those living in poverty. “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the [those living in poverty] who have been plundered, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.” The prophets pointed out that the stench of injustice which exists in the world is a direct affront to God, or in other words “the oppression of [humanity] is a humiliation of God.”

More importantly, the prophet’s message was spoken to direct the people toward the goal of God’s redeeming activity. God was ultimately preparing the people to actualize the heavenly vision of God’s Kingdom. This includes complete salvation for God’s people through the Messiah, and the ability to live out God’s righteousness. Jeremiah speaks of everyone from the least to the greatest as knowing the Lord (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Hosea depicts God’s people as being betrothed to the Lord in righteousness, justice, love, compassion and faithfulness (Hosea 2:19). Ezekiel describes this preparatory process as a resurrection of dry bones and the giving of a new heart (Ezekiel 37:4-10; 36:26).

The prophets made known the coming day when God will establish absolute sovereignty and will be King over all the earth. The Lord alone will be exalted, and will personally reign on earth (Isaiah 2:11; 11:9). God promises to wipe every tear from the people’s eyes, and death, mourning, crying and pain will be abolished (Revelation 21:4). Simply stated, Apostle Peter calls it the home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13).

With this vision in mind, the prophets could do no less than call out the people’s unrighteous state of affairs. In Lament For a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff speaks of mourners as “aching visionaries.” He writes, “The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence.” Thus, the prophets ached and mourned for the day of the Lord as they lived in the reality of its overwhelming absence amidst injustice and corruption.

The central message is the same today as it was when Jesus first proclaimed the Good News. “The spirit of our God is upon me: to bring good news to those who are [living in poverty]. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison- to proclaim the year of our God’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The demonstration of this truth, love and mercy secured in justice and righteousness is the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, for God is behind this very task of reversing the order of this world into the standards of God’s Kingdom.

This is a message of conversion. As Oscar Romero taught, “we need someone to be a prophet…and call us to conversion and not let us set up religion as something untouchable. Religion needs prophets, and thank God we have them, because it would be a sad church that felt itself owner of the truth and rejected everything else. A church that only condemns, a church that sees sin only in others and does not look at the beam in its own eye, is not the authentic church of Christ.”


So what do we actually mean by “prophetic”? We can conclude that the prophetic is not caricatured by contemporary deformations that overly define it with predictive proclamations, generalized liberal concerns with society and politics, or hyper-conservative exaggerations of personal mystical experiences with the Divine. The prophetic as portrayed in Scripture is one among a number of ministry giftings that must remain submitted in Christian community. The prophetic as defined through the lives of the biblical prophets was simultaneously an office appointed by God, a function of radical grief and hope, a nature of humility and understanding embodied in truth-telling, a role of necessity taken on for the spiritual vitality of a specific community, and an integrated message of interiorized righteousness with an expressed call to justice–all pointing back to the character of God.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Deborah as Leader Over Israel

Deborah was a prophet and a judge, and unlike other judges, was the undisputed leader of Israel (Judges 4:4). Thomas Schreiner contends that Deborah was a special case because (a) she was the only judge who was not a military leader,  (b) she only prophesied privately, and (c) there is no explicit reference to her having been “raise up by the Lord,” as with most of the other judges.1 Others dismiss Deborah as only an exception to the rule of male headship by pointing to a vacuum of male leadership in Israel at this time.  In other words, Deborah was leader only because there weren’t any men who wanted to do it. Schreiner focuses on what Deborah didn’t do, compared to the other judges.  The judges were each very unique. If we applied that same approach to each of the judges we would have a long list of differences.

First, Schreiner characterizes Deborah as different from the male judges in that she was not a military commander.  There is no doubt that Deborah worked in tandem with Barak, her military captain.  However, the narrative is clear that Deborah was Barak’s leader (Judges 4:6, 14), and her leadership was a matter of public knowledge. Deborah, in fact, seemed to act more as a combination military general and prophet, creating strategy, giving orders to her military commander, Barak, and making prophetic announcements.  Moses, David, and Elijah all acted in the same way at one time or another.  Moses is never recorded as directly leading armies into battle, yet his leadership and authority are never questioned.

Deborah’s leadership over Barak is clear, and her orders being carried out by someone else no more diminishes her authority or leadership than it did for David, Moses, or Solomon when they did the same.  On another note, Deborah is shown to be a capable prophet when she predicted that the enemy would be handed over to a woman, and in short order her prophecy was fulfilled (Judges 4:9, 21).

Scheiner further argues that Deborah’s leadership was different from the men because there is no explicit reference to her being “raised up” by the Lord.  However, the Scripture is clear that the phrase “raised up by the Lord” applied to all the judges.  The narrator reported that whenever there was a crisis the Lord would “raise up” a judge who would deliver the people from the crisis (Judges 2:16, 18).  Deborah certainly fits this description.  

Schreiner also fails to note that several of the other judges are not explicitly introduced with the phrase “raised up by the Lord.”  Shamgar, Abimelech (who seems to have been self-appointed), Jair, Jephthah, and Samson, to name a few, are not characterized directly as having been “raised up by the Lord.”  The evidence is overwhelming that the absence of that particular appellation does not in any way indicate a differentiated leader.  It is simply used with some, implied with others, and not used at all with still others. It could also be argued that Judges 5:7 used the same terminology (raised up) to imply that Deborah did “arise” as a Judge commissioned by God. 

Schreiner also bases his case on the claim that Deborah did not prophecy in public, but rather “her prophetic role seem to be limited to private and individual instruction.”2 He uses Judges 4:5 as a proof text.  Yet, it was obviously public knowledge that Deborah was ruling from her position in Ephraim. How else would all “the sons of Israel” know to go there in order for her to pronounce her rulings (Judges 4:5)?  It is erroneous to characterize the palm tree under which Deborah sat, as a private consultation, when (a) everyone in Israel knew about it; and (b) it was outdoors in plain view!  Clearly, the men of Israel saw Deborah as their leader and judge. That’s why they travelled from afar to see her.  How can that possibly be seen as a private endeavor?

In fact, the portrait of Deborah judging under the palm tree as all of “the sons of Israel” came to her is akin to that of Moses.  Moses also ruled (the same word – judge – is used of Moses and Deborah) as all the people of Israel came to him so that he could hear their cases (Exodus 18:13-16).  Deborah was operating like Moses, the greatest and most authoritative prophet in Hebrew history. 

Other scholars point to a vacuum in male leadership during the time of Deborah. There is simply no biblical evidence for this. There is nothing in the text that indicates a lack of male leadership. Some would point to the wickedness of the land during this time. After the death of Ehud, the people turned away from God. But this in no way indicates an abdication on the part of men to lead Israel. This scenario is repeated throughout the history of Israel, and never indicates a lack of male leadership. In fact, in most other cases, a male leader does arise to lead Israel out of the moral morass.  To imply that there was no such leadership available at the time of Deborah is to make a groundless assumption. It is a circular argument that goes something like this – God calls only men to lead. Deborah was a woman. God called Deborah to lead. Therefore, there must not have been any men willing to lead. The argument only works, with the faulty a priori assumption. And it has no basis in the Scripture text.

Others would point to the abdication of responsibility on the part of Barak. He refused to go into battle without the presence of Deborah, thus indicating his refusal to lead. This, some would point out, was representative of the state of male leadership in general in Israel at this time. Again, this is a circular argument, at best. I believe it is also a misinterpretation of Barak’s action. Barak was not abdicating his responsibility or role as a military leader. He was facing an impossible battle. He was outnumbered and out manned, against a technologically superior force. He was simply following in the steps of Joshua who wanted the prophet of God (in that case, Moses) at the battle with him. As long as Moses was present the Israelites would win the battle.  Deborah was Barak’s “Moses.”  He wanted her close by in the battle, as she represented the presence of God. 

Deborah did not chastise Barak for abdicating his responsibility. She chastised him for his lack of trust in her word, and in the word of the Lord.  Because of his lack of trust, Sisera would be handed over to a woman. 

Schreiner admits that the leadership of Deborah poses the most difficulty for the case of male headship.  In the end, his argument that “she exercised her prophetic ministry in a way that did not obstruct male headship,”3 seems like wishful thinking and is not supported by the most natural reading of the narrative.  Although she had no desire to emasculate her male subordinates, she was clearly their leader, and everyone knew it.