Who Cares About the Prophets?

By Julia M. O’Brien
Lancaster Theological Seminary
February 2010

As a scholar of the Minor Prophets, I sometimes feel that I spend a lot of time and energy on topics that few people care about. A ready audience eagerly awaits the latest scoop on what Jesus really said, what Paul really meant, or what Mary Magdalene really did. But an expose of Nahum? Not so much.

The relative lack of interest in prophets is partly a reflection of pro-New Testament bias--but not exclusively. After all, Bruce Feiler’s books on Abraham and Moses have sold well, and a lot of people want to know more about David. But those figures are the rock stars of the Tanak. In comparison, Obadiah’s the guy singing karaoke in his room: his youtube video might get some hits, but he’s never going to make it on the stage of a world tour.

But it’s not just what I study but how I study it. People like historical reconstructions of individuals: the “real” Jesus or Abraham. I suspect that the main reason is The Red Tent is so appealing that it imagines a historical scenario we would like to be true: that ancient women had more power than the Bible is willing to admit.

I’m not particularly interested in the historical Amos, and I don’t think I want to know the historical Nahum. When I analyze how a book portrays a prophet, I’m not looking for clues to an actual person. Rather, I’m trying to understand the rhetorical and ideological interests of the writer(s), as well as their interaction with the ideological interests of readers. How does this text imagine the world and what are the social, political, and ethical implications of that construal? What work might this text have done in the ancient world? What work does it do on contemporary readers?

These kinds of questions are a lot more complicated than “was Amos really a shepherd?” or “why was Nahum so mad?” But just when I doubt that anyone cares about ideological critique of the prophets, I am confronted by examples of “prophecy” being used to advance particular political and social agendas.

That happened this week, when I consulted various websites describing Tekoa, an Israeli settlement at the foot of Herodion in the West Bank (which just so happens to be the traditional site of the birthplace of Amos). I wanted to test out what a Palestinian said about Tekoa during my trip to the West Bank in January: that the settlement is expanding and attempting to confiscate the land of the Palestinian village of Tequ’.

Not surprisingly, the different websites I read gave different takes on the situation. The ARIJ site (Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem) corroborated our guide’s account, posting pictures of Palestinian land slated for confiscation. The official website of the Tekoa settlement, however, memorialized the members of the community who had been killed by Arabs and described the “town” as under siege. On the Arutz Sheva site, a writer protested that the proposed path of the “separation wall” will lead to the settlement’s own destruction.

In these discussions, the prophet Amos was invoked several times. On the Great Shofar site, a resident of Tekoa poetically explained how the Jewish presence there is “a literal fulfillment of our hometown prophet Amos’ prophesy (sic). He wrote 2,700 years ago of the destruction and exile that would befall the Jewish people. Then in the end of the book of Amos he wrote of the redemption that would come afterward.” The Arutz Sheva piece deemed the tenuous existence of the Jewish residents of Tekoa “ironic,” since the town has been Jewish “on and off” since the time of Amos.

On the same trip in which I saw Tekoa, I also heard Palestinian Christians invoke the prophets as sympathetic to their own cause. At the Sabeel center, Naim Ateek identified Jonah as the key to Palestinian theology: the book’s insistence on God’s care for all people, he argued, was a past and present challenge to narrow nationalism. At the Diyar Center, Mitri Raheb found support for his own analysis of the land’s stalemates in the prophets. Just as Jeremiah lamented, “they say ‘peace!,’ ‘peace!,’ when there is no peace” (6:14), he claimed, so too in the Holy Land there are too many peace processes and not enough peace; just as Amos said that religious rituals are no substitute for justice (5:21-24), so too Raheb claims that his land knows too much religion and not enough spirituality.

The ideological weight of prophetic books, it seems, is not just the concern of academics. But academics can offer careful analysis about how and why the prophets are being used the way they are. What assumptions allow someone to move directly from the ending of Amos to specific land claims? Does the rest of the book complicate that understanding? Is Jonah truly an anti-nationalist manifesto? What is the ideological import of this tale of a reluctant prophet?

Ideological approaches to the prophets (and the rest of the Bible) may not be as sexy as historical Jesus research, and they do matter. And, as long as the Bible is used in political and social debates, biblical scholars have the responsibility to call attention to how it is being used.

WebPages mentioned:



Tekoa settlement


Arutz Sheva


The Great Shofar


Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.