Atomistic Approaches to the Prophets

How do modern interpreters often read prophetic texts atomistically?

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When it comes to interpreting the Prophets and preaching from the Prophets, I think one of the things that happens in the contemporary culture is that we’re not always sure where the Prophets fit in historical narrative. And if you look at the Prophets, you’ve got sixteen prophetical books. The Prophets are not written in chronological order, so that makes it difficult to put them in their historical context. In fact, it looks like the Prophets are grouped according to the length of the book, so therefore, for someone who’s preaching from the Prophets, they have to do additional work to try and put it in its historical context and in its literary context. So, that’s a lot of work to do that, and so what people tend to do is pull out Bible verses. They will take it in isolation, not being in the historical context of the book or in the literary context. And an example you see is, I often hear sermons on * from Joel that God will restore what the locust has eaten, and it is taken to be a promise that, you know, if you have had difficult things in your life that God is going to restore that. And again, if you look at within the book of Joel in its own literary context, no, the locusts are referring to the Babylonian army that’s coming. It has a historical context, and of course theological context. So, it is referring to the Babylonians coming against… The locusts is potentially a real plague of locusts or it might be simply a metaphor for the army. So, when God is saying he is going to restore that, it’s speaking about the restoration coming after the exile, that there is going to be a restoration time, and so it’s not speaking about a personal promise of individual restoration, but it’s speaking about a promise of corporate restoration for Israel. Now, is God a God who restores people? Absolutely. But is that * Joel promising that for the contemporary reader today? No, I don’t think it’s an individual promise of restoration. I think it is giving a corporate promise for Israel. So, I think that’s one of the ways that we do that. We pull out these Bible verses, give the promise without really understanding the context and the literary context.

Answer by Dr. Carol Kaminski

Dr. Kaminski teaches Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston MA.