Our subject is nothing less than that brilliant fusion of divination and imagination known as classical Hebrew prophecy in which a succession of folk performers over the course of two centuries (about 740-540 B.C.) turned God into a poet.
What do I mean by the phrase “folk performers”?
The Hebrew prophets were performers, not authors. They were not analogous to preachers in morning suits reading jeremiads from prepared manuscripts or notes.
They were more akin to poetry slammers, rappers, performance artists, folk singers, holiness preachers, merry pranksters and street performers.
The biblical prophetic books – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 Minor Prophets – represent the scoring of this folk music of prophecy.
Let me explain.
We remain indebted to John and his son, Alan Lomax, for their 1933 odyssey through the South in search of the musical heritage of “the old, weird America,” of the ballads and blues of a folk tradition in danger of vanishing in the wake of recorded commercial music and its spread through radio.
Thanks to them, one can find a song such as “The Midnight Special” transcribed into musical notation with accompanying lyrics in their “American Ballads and Folk Songs” (1934). Ever since, countless professional and amateur musicians have read, performed and mangled this song.
But what none of them can do is recapture the power of the performance that John and Alan Lomax witnessed in 1933 in Angola penitentiary in Louisiana by a man in chains named Herbert Ledbetter, “Lead Belly,” who transmuted a train’s cry into a prayer for release, for all prisoners, for all peoples, for all times.
“Let the Midnight Special shine its light on me.
Let the Midnight Special shine its ever-loving light on me.”
The Bible contains the lyrics of the prophetic bards of ancient Judah and Ephraim, but we are missing their music.
We have neither Lead Belly nor Amos; we have the scribe’s version, the Lomax’s transcription. We are missing the dynamism of their performances.
Still, we have this consolation. Thanks to ancient Jewish musicologists, wherever, whenever the book of Amos is read, we have this oracle whose dynamism and Mozart-like beauty survives even the fallible transcriptions of scribal Salieris and the feeble cover versions of countless clerics.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” read Amos 5:24.
These lost performances changed the world. They are the products of a subculture of dissent, of a network of social and religious critics and activists who lived in the highlands of Samaria and Judah in the Iron Age and shared an art form, the versification of the divine word.
This is an incredible thing: the Hebrew prophets were not content to channel the dots and dashes that pulsed from heaven and translate them into staccato divine directives (“Thus saith the Lord STOP”).
The prophets made the Word scan; they made the Word sing. The prophets turned God into a poet.
We are accustomed to imagine prophetic vision as foresighted, as seeing forward. In common usage, prophecy is about predicting future tribulations, revelations or football scores.
But prediction is not the focus of biblical prophecy. Rather, as the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, biblical prophecy is “insighted,” not “foresighted.”
Biblical prophecy is insightful; it is about “seeing through.”
The prophet sees through the veil of appearances to glimpse a different reality.
The prophet sees a world that is charged with the grandeur of God and glimpses the cosmic realities that are invisible to the prophet’s peers.
Prophetic vision penetrates everydayness to go deeper than conventional wisdom in order to reveal the story behind the story, the baseline behind the headline.
Occasionally, this type of prophetic vision did uncannily foreshadow the future. But this was not because prophets gazed through crystal balls; rather, it was because, under the river of time, there is another river whose course, cut into the earth during Creation Week, is foundational and paradigmatic.
Tides – of creation to chaos and from chaos to re-creation, of exile and homecoming, of divine mercy and judgment – undulate beneath the surface, and it is by these eternal wave functions that the prophets marked time and announced seasons.
We might understand it this way: true prophets – and there were plenty of false ones – were those with a sixth sense for registering the transcendent reality beneath and behind the surface of the mundane.
Gregory Mobley is professor of Christian Bible at Andover Newton Theological School. This column is an excerpt from his book, “The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible” (Eerdmans, 2012). It’s available at Amazon.com.