Reviews of

Enemies and Friends of the State

In Ancient Near East, Christopher Rollston, Eisenbrauns, HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, Kurtis Peters on January 25, 2019 at 8:38 pm


2019.1.2 | Christopher A. Rollston. Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context. University Park: Eisenbrauns, 2018. pp. X + 613. ISBN: 9781575067643.

Reviewed by Kurtis Peters

The biblical prophets and their historical personae have long fascinated readers of the Bible, scholars and non-scholars alike. They are dramatic; their words both condemn and offer hope; they are culture’s visionaries. However, some of the biblical prophets appear to align themselves closely to the power of the state and some are decidedly out of the state’s favour. In fact, how a prophet relates to the state is very often at the heart of the motivation for the prophet’s message. Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context, edited by Christopher Rollston, is a collection of essays that seeks to tease out and explain this bipolar relationship of prophet and state.

Part I of the book, “Setting the Stage,” constitutes a short section of two essays. Alexander Joffe, “Defining the State,” looks to offer a social theoretical perspective in the conversation of statehood in the ancient Near East as a way to balance or at least to buttress the prevailing archaeological perspectives. States, he maintains, are far from easy to identify (they are not coterminous with societies, civilizations, cultures, etc.) and one should be cautious in how one does so. Miriam Perkins provides the second essay: “The Politics of Voice: Reflections on Prophetic Speech as Voices from the Margins.” This piece is heavily laden with theory and examines the related concentric circles of power and that of worldview within society. Different prophets inhabit different circles within this framework. For example, Isaiah 7 represents proximal power (close to the monarchy) and exhibits a congruent worldview with that power. Amos 7 represents intermediate power (somewhat distant from circles of power) and exhibits assertive opposition to that power. Jeremiah 28, in turn, represents peripheral power (far from circles of power) and exhibits aggressive resistance to that power. Perkins continues to develop the theory of standpoint and voice through these examples, but the eventual payoff of all the theory may be underwhelming, in so far as it contributes to the present volume

Part II, “The Ancient Near East,” is a tour of prophecy from outside of Israel and Judah. Thomas Schneider, “A Land without Prophets? Examining the Presumed Lack of Prophecy in Ancient Egypt,” spends the majority of his essay problematizing the assumption that Egypt lacked a prophetic phenomenon that paralleled the reality in the Levant and Mesopotamia. He suggests that the presumed lack of prophecy in Egypt, as espoused by Stökl and others, is really based on a lack of data. Evidence for divination in pre-Hellenistic Egypt is increasing and it seems that scholars such as Jan Assmann have relied too heavily on a hard boundary between pre-Hellenistic and Hellenistic Egypt. Therefore, the search continues for more evidence for prophecy in ancient Egypt, and one should be cautious about assuming its lack. Jonathan Stökl, “A Royal Advisory Service: Prophecy and the State in Mesopotamia,” argues that prophets in Mesopotamia indeed served the royal court, but our evidence may be skewed since our extant archives come from the royal court itself. These prophecies also insist on social norms and concern the king preserving order against chaos especially in the form of enemies. This again displays the pro-state nature of the Mesopotamian prophecy that has been preserved. When prophecies are critical of the state, they usually constitute a warning to the ruler in order to have said ruler change his behaviour or decision. The third article in this section, “Prophecy in Syria: Zakkur of Hamath and Luʿash” by Hélène Sader, moves the topic a little closer to the land of Israel and Judah. Sader admits of a lack of direct evidence for the region and period in question with the one notable exception being the Zakkur stele. She therefore proceeds to examine the stela and its context, particularly the history of Hamath and Luʿash. This inscription suggests, though based of course on limited evidence, that Syrian prophecy resembled Israelite prophecy in several ways, including the reassurance that the high divinity has placed the respective monarch on the throne and will protect that monarch. The fourth and final essay in this section, “Prophecy in Transjordan: Balaam Son of Beor” by Joel Burnett, uses the person of Balaam to illuminate Transjordanian prophecy. The main sources Burnett uses are the Deir Alla texts and the Hebrew Bible passages which center on or mention Balaam son of Beor. As concerns the Hebrew Bible, he differentiates between texts such as (most of) Numbers 22-24 and Micah 6:5, which view Balaam in a fairly positive light, and Deuteronomy 23:5-6, Joshual 24:9-10, Nehemiah 13:1-2, Numbers 31:8-16, and Joshua 13:22, all of which see Balaam through the lens of increasingly aggressive nationalism. This essay is very well-researched and thorough in its analysis (to the tune of a whopping 70 pages!).

The remainder of the volume evaluates the various prophets (or occasionally, prophetic phenomena) throughout the corpus of the Hebrew Bible as well as a few articles dedicated to the Old Testament Apocrypha, the DSS, the New Testament, and post-70 CE Judaism. Part III, “Prophets in the Deuteronomistic History and the Chronicler,” consists of essays concerning named and unnamed prophets in the so-called “historical” books, i.e. those who do not have books under their names. William Schniedewind, “Prophets in the Early Monarchy,” offers a philological approach to explaining the coexistence of prophets and kings in the early Iron Age. He notes that prophets, at least with respect to the monarchy, were often “king makers” and necessary for royal legitimacy. Gary Knoppers and Eric Welch, “Friends or Foes? Elijah and Other Prophets in the Deuteronomistic History,” set about clarifying that the HB centers prophets such as Elijah who are in reality marginal. This presents a distorted perception that they were the standard or norm for Israelite prophecy. Knoppers and Welch also demonstrate that “false prophecy” should be understood as marginal prophecy, or prophecy that is antagonistic to power (perhaps, “prophetic treason”). Jason Bembry, “Unnamed Prophets in the Deuteronomistic History,” primarily summarizes all the passages in the DH that contain an unnamed prophet. As a group, these texts, suggests Bembry, contain the rebuke of various characters and thereby emphasize the concern for obedient response to God’s word. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, “The Prophet Huldah and the Stuff of State,” provides a highly provocative piece, noting, along the way, that the oft noted gender of Huldah is a matter of misplaced emphasis. Huldah is, she argues, not a marginalized character, but one who well integrated in the matter of state and focuses on its materiality, including the very body of King Josiah upon his death. Lester Grabbe, “Prophets in the Chronicler: The Books of 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah,” reads similarly to Bembry’s piece earlier and provides a summary of texts in the respective texts. He notes that prophets in Chronicles mostly serve to support good kings and denounce bad ones. He also observes that in Nehemiah, Nehemiah himself is accused of gathering prophets, which would serve as a vehicle for claiming royalty for himself.

Part IV, “Prophets in the Prophetic Books of the First Temple and Exilic Periods,” presents a change insofar as the material concerns not stories about prophets so much as prophecies themselves. Of course, some prophets like Jeremiah contain a narrative element as well, but this is the exception. Robert Wilson, “Prophecy and the State in 8th-Century Israel: Amos and Hosea,” discusses Amos and Hosea as 8thcentury prophets in Israel. His chapter reads somewhat like a survey of scholarship rather than having a substantial thesis of its own. Amos and Hosea are both critical of the northern state, but are more generous with that of the south. J. J. M. Roberts, “Enemies and Friends of the State: First Isaiah and Micah,” explores the relationships of the prophets represented in First Isaiah and Micah to the state of Judah. Roberts argues that Isaiah son of Amoz directed his criticism primarily at the royal court of Judah rather than at the king himself. Because Isaiah was a prominent person from an important family, he was not vilified as others might have been. Likewise, Micah was critical, but avoided direct condemnation of the king. Christopher Rollston, “Jeremiah as State-Enemy of Judah: Critical Moments in the Biblical Narratives about the ‘Weeping Prophet,’” walks the reader through the highly tumultuous and life-threatening career of Jeremiah, who made himself many enemies in Jerusalem, prophesying that Jerusalem’s only deliverance would come through submission to Babylon. Rollston clarifies that, while Jeremiah wished to see Jerusalem survive, his prophecies of submission or destruction earned him the role of state enemy. The factionalism of Jerusalem at the time, however, did not mean he was without supporters. Even Zedekiah came to consult him privately and honoured his request for safety (352-353). Carly Crouch, “Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah” contributes a well-written piece, though perhaps the opposition to foreign enemies in prophetic writing is perhaps an obvious point. The coverage of Zephaniah offers more, in that the prophetic material critiques the elites of Judah and Jerusalem. Alejandro Botta and Mónica Rey, “Obadiah: Judah and Its Frenemy,” explore the sibling betrayal committed by Edom in the fall of Jerusalem. They suggest that the perception in Judah is characteristic of conspiracy theory and the actions attributed to Edom may not reflect historical reality. This chapter could stand to be made more professional. Stephen Cook, “The Prophet Ezekiel: State Priest, State Enemy,” counters the position that Ezekiel composed his material out of self-interest as a priest who stood to gain in a post-monarchic setting. Ezekiel’s vision is one of tribal balance rather than sectarianism and reinstating the old holdings of his powerful Zadokite priestly group. Ezekiel likewise critiques the monarchy for its history of arrogance, and advocates for a theocracy, all of which positions him as an enemy of the state and of those who are manoeuvring for a restored monarchy. Mark Hamilton, “YHWH’s Cosmic Estate: Politics in Second Isaiah,” makes the case that Second Isaiah is deeply political, but moves politics into the divine sphere. It judges human politics, Babylonian or otherwise, as mere mimicry of the true divine politics. And unlike Marduk for Babylonia, the true ruler for Second Isaiah is YHWH alone.

The fifth and final part ranges from the time of Haggai and Zechariah to that of the early rabbis. Eric Meyers, “Haggai and Zechariah: A Maximalist View of the Return in a Minimalist Social Context,” reads these two respective prophetic books with nuanced approaches to the state. He notes that Second Zechariah marks a more developed royalist agenda than Haggai or First Zechariah, and therefore reflects a time when the relationship with Persia was strained. Otherwise, these books evince a diarchic tone. John J. Collins, “Apocalyptic Resistance in the Visions of Daniel,” takes the reader through a social evaluation of the apocalypse in Daniel, and suggests that a “resistance to empire” reading of the text is too simplistic. While the texts indeed decry the abuses of empire, they call readers to purity and right worship rather than to armed resistance. Hope for a divine intervention undermines the fear that the subjugated were supposed to have toward the subjugator. There is a real hope of afterlife, which arises because the erstwhile link between Torah obedience and prosperity was no longer tenable. Obedience now meant persecution, and hope for blessings in one’s earthly life was minimal. Robert Owens, “References to the Prophets in the Old Testament Apocrypha,” provides a lengthy catalogue of references to the biblical prophets in the Apocrypha. There is little discussion of the relationship of these prophets to the state. James Bowley, “Prophets, Kittim, and Divine Communication in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Condemning the Enemy Without, Fighting the Enemy Within,” compares, with good results, the community of Qumran with the modern Seventh Day Adventist tradition, insofar as they deal with disconfirmed prophecy. While the Adventist discussion may take more space than necessary, it does illustrate well the feature of Qumran apocalypticism that identifies external opposition as the foreign enemy, i.e. the kittim. The enemy within the community is discouragement, doubt, disbelievers, naysayers and sect dropouts. James Tabor, “John the Baptizer: More than a Prophet,” argues that John the Baptizer was an oracular prophet, rather than an “action prophet” trying to initiate a rebellion. John expected divine, rather than human, intervention to judge the political and religious establishment. However, he clearly agitated the ruling state and was executed for it. Richard Horsley, “Jesus of Nazareth: Prophet of Renewal and Resistance,” sees Jesus as more than an oracular or eschatological prophet, but as one who led a renewal movement. Horsley examines the Jesus stories in connection with his sayings, “taking the Gospels whole.” In the end, this eloquently written chapter leaves the reader wanting more substantial evidence to support the argument’s rhetoric. Jennifer Knust, “Late First-Century Christian Apocalypic: Revelation,” makes a strong case for reading Revelation as distinctly anti-Rome. Though this may be unsurprising, she notes how curious the book’s subsequent interpretation has been. Both marginalized groups and groups in power have, throughout history, used Revelation to construe the enemies of God as they see fit, and place themselves in the category of the righteous. Both groups, powerful and marginalized, are against a state of some kind, but appeal to the state of God in their anti-state polemic. In demonstrating her point, Knust borrows from conversations of war photography. The effect of this may not warrant its inclusion. Andrew Gross, “Oracles on Accommodation versus Confrontation: The View from Josephus and the Rabbis,” looks at three separate oracles in Josephus that align with the interests of the conquering state: that concerning Alexander, that concerning Cyrus, and that on his own lips concerning Rome. The rabbis model an oracle on the last of these, but put it on the lips of Johanan ben Zakkai. All but that of Josephus have to do with the preservation of the Jewish people. They were all in the service of seeking a peaceful relationship with the conqueror.

As with any edited volume, this one has its high and low points. Among the high points are the pieces by Joffe, Knoppers and Welch, Stavrakopoulou, Rollston, and Collins. Some of the pieces could have been improved by clarifying the relationship of prophet to state, such as in the piece by Crouch. It became evident that there was not a very tight research question that organized the volume as a whole, with some pieces pressing into the nature of the relationship between prophet and state and others merely cataloguing prophets or prophetic texts and yet others generating their own somewhat related research questions. Lastly, Part I is entitled “Setting the Stage,” but given the wide variety and occasional lack of coherence, it is hard to see how chapters on defining the state (Joffe) or especially the politics of voice (Perkins) have much relation to the rest of the material. Perhaps this section ought to have been entitled something such as “Preliminary Considerations.”

Rollston notes in the very brief preface that the editing process had some hurdles and took much longer than anticipated, which meant that some articles were already somewhat old by the time of publication. Also, though commissioned, chapters on Deborah and on Wen-Amun did not arrive. These would have been a welcome addition. Despite these setbacks, the book is nevertheless a solid exploration of the prophetic phenomenon and many chapters therein deserve to be at the forefront of the discussion as to the role of prophets vis-à-vis the state.

Kurtis Peters
University of British Columbia
Unceded Territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples



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