Review: Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context

Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context

Edited by Christopher A. Rollston
(University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018), 624 pp., tables, graphs, 1 map, $99.95 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Marvin A. Sweeney

Popular belief holds that prophets are essentially engaged in prediction of the future and that they were always critics of the state, the church, or other power centers in their contemporary worlds. Neither of these beliefs is entirely true.

Prediction of the future is only one of the roles that ancient prophets filled. Fundamentally, they were spokespersons for the deities of their cultures, and they were primarily concerned with analyzing their world and providing insight into the causes of issues within their societies and courses of action that would address these issues. Most were professionals, well trained in reading, writing, and mathematics. Sometimes prophets critiqued governments and other organs of state power; at other times, they spoke on behalf of those powers.

To shed light on the various roles, techniques, and messages of prophets in the ancient Near Eastern world, Christopher A. Rollston has assembled a team of some 28 specialists who produced the volume under review.

There are a number of highlights in this volume. Alexander H. Joffe begins with an essay on the nature of the state in the ancient world and the role of prophets in relation to states. He reminds us that ancient states were organized as city-states, family-based dynasties, and religious establishments with complex social dimensions in which prophets were necessary sources of information and influence concerning the will of the gods. Miriam Y. Perkins argues that prophets often represented marginal voices, but the biblical prophets she chooses as examples (Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah) all had different forms of institutional identity that enabled them to speak to power as representatives of institutionalized opposition.

Looking outside of biblical Israel and Judah, Thomas Schneider raises questions as to whether Egypt actually had prophets, insofar as prophecy functioned rather differently in Egypt than it did in the biblical kingdoms. Jonathan Stökl examines prophecy in ancient Mesopotamia and argues that prophecy functioned there as a form of royal advisory service.

The late Gary N. Knoppers and Eric L. Welch provide an insightful discussion of Elijah and other prophets in the narrative books of Joshua through Kings, including Samuel’s role in addressing the needs and costs of monarchic government and the challenges posed by Elijah to the northern Israelite king Ahab, where more could be said concerning Elisha’s role in bringing the House of Jehu to power. Francesca Stavrakopoulou provides an important treatment of Huldah, a female prophet in late-seventh-century B.C.E. Jerusalem, who advised King Josiah of Judah in 2 Kings 22–23. Lester L. Grabbe presents a much-needed treatment of prophets in Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, where theological perspectives differ greatly from those of Joshua through Kings.

Robert R. Wilson provides a masterful discussion of attitudes toward the state by the eighth-century prophets Amos and Hosea, who lambasted the northern kingdom of Israel, albeit with different and distinctive theological agendas. Stephen L. Cook characterizes Ezekiel as state priest and state enemy, insofar as he speaks critically as a representative of institutionalized Zadokite priestly power even after having been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia. Mark W. Hamilton presents a very perceptive study of Second Isaiah’s efforts to draw on past tradition in an effort to redefine the former Judahite concept of state at a time when the House of David had come to an end and the Persian Empire emerges as Yahweh’s elected rulers of the Near Eastern world.

Eric M. Meyers examines the differing portrayals of the potential restoration of the House of David in conjunction with the building of the Second Temple in the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Other essays treat apocalyptic texts, apocryphal texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, various aspects of the New Testament and early Christianity, and Josephus and rabbinic Judaism. Unfortunately, there is no essay devoted to the rabbinic Hekhalot visionary texts, in which rabbinic figures travel to heaven to question God concerning the destruction of the Temple and Jewish exile.

Altogether this volume is a treasure trove of information, analyses, and perspectives that will serve an academic reading audience as well as general readers seeking to understand the nature of prophecy in the ancient world.

Marvin A. Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Claremont School of Theology. He specializes in prophetic literature, biblical theology, and the relationship between religion and politics in the ancient and modern worlds.

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