The Danger of Genre Confusion
During the initial days of the First Gulf War, several local news outlets contacted me wanting to know whether events in the Persian Gulf were fulfilling biblical prophecies against Babylon. I am sure that they expected the Baptist Old Testament professor at the local college to detail an apocalyptic panorama for them. Instead, I told them, simply,
“No.” Of course, I had to go on to explain that the Arabs living in modern Mesopotamia do not descend, genetically or culturally, from the ancient Babylonians and that, more importantly, biblical prophecies predicting the fall of Babylon came to fulfillment millennia ago. The Persians under Cyrus the Great overthrew Babylonian hegemony in the Fertile Crescent in 539 BCE! How many times must a biblical prophecy be fulfilled?
Journalists can be forgiven, perhaps, for inadequately understanding Ancient Near Eastern history, the biblical prophets, and, in this case, the relationship between the two. The same kinds of misunderstanding of the purposes of scripture abound even among devout Christians, however. Fueled by millennialist fervor and a quasi-magical view of the Bible as something to be de-coded – many, ranging from media preachers to lay Christians, comb the biblical prophets for signs, clues, codes, and ciphers by which they hope to unlock secret predictions of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7). They do so, of course, despite Jesus’ warning that even he does not know when the end will come (Mark 13:32).
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other biblical prophets did not preach “encoded” messages intended, in the first instance, for an audience over two thousand years in the future. To the contrary, Jeremiah warned that, unless the people of Judah altered their behaviors and unless the rulers of Judah once again placed trust in God instead of in military alliances, the Babylonians would come. Judah and its rulers did not believe Jeremiah and changed nothing: the Babylonians came. In turn, Jeremiah (and Isaiah and Ezekiel) rebuked Babylon for its arrogance and the excessive violence it employed against Judah, predicting Babylon’s fall, too. Nebuchadnezzar breached the city walls of Jerusalem in 587/86 BCE; Cyrus was firmly on the throne as emperor of a Persia that included Babylon by 539 BCE.
Since we are not Israelite, there are no Assyrians, and the events Amos warned about have already happened, why do Christians continue to read the book of Amos as canonical, authoritative Scripture? Certainly not because Amos predicts the future. Do Isaiah and Jeremiah have purely and solely historical value, then? Have they nothing to say to later audiences?
The key to these questions lies in discerning correctly the genre of prophetic literature. Jeremiah preached to the Judeans, warning of the threat looming. The book of Jeremiah gives every evidence that it recorded Jeremiah’s ministry well after the Babylonians had already conquered Judah (cf. the kings listed in Jer 1:1 and the account of the fall of Jerusalem in Jer 52). In other words, in an ironic act of hope, the editors of Jeremiah gathered his preaching, stories about events in his life, etc. and preserved them for future generations, not as detailed predictions, but as a profoundly theological lesson in how to identify and hear God’s word! These editors assumed that God will not change, that the covenant will not change, and that people will not change. Consequently, they left a detailed record so that, in the future: God’s people would better know how to recognize a prophet like Jeremiah; would remember the consequences of the behaviors Jeremiah criticized; and, above all, would repent as their ancestors had failed to do. Similarly, Isaiah “bound up testimony” to leave to his disciples (Isa 8:16). The headings to almost all the prophetic books suggest that they came to be in much this way.
Of course, the Bible contains many genres other than prophetic literature – each requiring that it be read and understood in terms of its own purposes. In this sense, the Bible (from Greek ta biblia, “the books) consists not of one book but scores, many of which are themselves anthologies (Psalms, Proverbs) or composite works (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, etc.). “Bible,” then, is not a genre itself.
The Psalter, for example, contains psalms of thanksgiving (Ps 9), prayers for the king (Ps 72, for example), and, most significantly for this discussion, psalms of lament or complaint (Ps 74), among others. In psalms of lament or complaint, the psalmist expresses the profound emotion that results from an experience of “cognitive dissonance.” These psalmists know three things that do not seem to add up: (1) God delivers those in need; (2) I am (or we are) in need; (3) God seems to be doing nothing whatsoever to help. Asking the characteristic “why” question, the psalmist of Psalm 74 complains: “Why dost thou hold back thy hand, why dost thou keep thy right hand in thy bosom?” (v 11 RSV). Obviously, one cannot read and interpret Psalm 74 in the same way one does Psalm 9 or Isaiah 40. It serves a unique purpose: not as a model for giving thanks (Ps 9), nor to give comfort (Isa 40), but as a model for the honest expression of desperation alloyed with continued reliance on God. To invoke an earlier blog entry (“The Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life” – 1/5/16), Psalm 74 does not report the “words of God,” but we can be grateful that, through Psalm 74, the Word of God affirms that faith makes room for confusion and despair.
Psalms are not prophecy; letters are neither psalm nor prophecy. Letters respond to specific situations in a conversation between dialogue partners. It is very unlikely that when Paul wrote to Philemon (and the church that met in his house, Philemon 2), he had in mind that he was writing a book of the Bible. If he had, I would hope that he would have gone on, as he almost did, to make explicit that the Gospel cannot condone slavery (v 8). Of course, however, the “letter” genre does not lend itself to gnomic, general, universal pronouncements. Letters are intimate and direct. Paul’s letter to Philemon probably made its way into the canon of scripture because other churches in the Roman world grappled with the slavery problem and Philemon or someone in his church began passing copies around to help.
The Babylonians are long gone (but oppressive, violent imperial powers are not). The slavery issue is finally (thank God), legally resolved, in the West, at least (but the problem of human trafficking is not). My enemy does not own an ox that I could return if I should find it (Exod 23:4; but he or she may own a dog). I have no opportunity to eat meat offered to idols (cf. 1 Cor 8; but I do consume food produced in a system that claims more of my loyalty than it deserves).
Interpreting the genre of biblical prophecy requires that one understand its intended function in relation to its original context. When we interpret in this fashion, however, the Bible comes alive in exciting, substantial, new ways.
‘Babylon is fallen,’ to rise no more. After her, however, came Persia, Greece, and Rome in steady succession. No doubt, other arrogant, oppressive “empires” will yet arise. They may do well to heed Jeremiah’s message to Babylon as a warning across time: “Behold, I am against you, O proud one, says the Lord GOD of hosts; for your day has come, the time when I will punish you” (Jer 50:31 RSV).