Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), Pp. xi + 205. Cloth. ISBN: 1565634179. $ 24.95.

Victor H. Matthews has written a valuable new textbook on the Hebrew prophets. It is accessible in writing style, straightforwardly presented, and comprehensive in scope. The volume covers each significant prophet of the Hebrew Bible, outlining each figure's particular socio-historical context and basic prophetic message--a significant accomplishment. I recommend it for college-level biblical-studies courses, such as Introductions to the Hebrew Bible and to the Prophets of Israel.

Matthews offers his own understandings of familiar prophetic texts, but he is rarely idiosyncratic and never polemical. His concern is to provide orientation and guidance to new readers of the prophets, not to engage in scholarly debate. He does view the prophets as sentries of established covenantal convictions, not as innovators of a new religious perspective. Although I believe this position to be on target, other scholars will contest its validity.

In pursuing a social-world approach, Matthews attends primarily to the social and economic forces dominating the Hebrew prophets' general milieu. He also aims to clarify the manners and customs to which the prophets refer as well as other key socio-rhetorical features of their speech. He further emphasizes the overall geopolitics in which the prophets functioned, devoting the book's initial chapter to historical geography.

A focal strength of the book is its repeated cross-referencing of ancient Near Eastern texts and finds. For example, quoting Assyrian campaign rhetoric illustrates the Assyrian's bloodthirsty tactics, which horrified the prophets. Again, citing the Sumerian "Laments for Ur" illuminates various prophetic images of judgment, such as that in Jeremiah 16:5-9. Or again, the Hebrew "Yavne Yam Letter" and the Egyptian "Farmer and the Courts in Egypt" attest to the type of social abuses that the oracles of Amos condemn.

Knowledgeable readers will discern between the lines of Matthews' book a keen familiarity with recent advances in the social-scientific interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. To cite one example, the author highlights new scholarly insights about ancient perceptions of space (critical spatiality). He points out the significance for prophets of such places as threshing floors, city gates, the royal court, the high ground facing a city, and the entrance to the temple's courtyards.

Multiple features of the volume enhance its pedagogical value. The book's goals and procedure are outlined at the start, and the book proceeds lucidly and steadily to achieve its objectives. Specialized terms that may be new to students--such as "city-state," "Divine Assembly," and "Septuagint"--are defined in a six-page glossary at the end of the book. The first occurrence of these terms in each chapter is bold-faced. Gray summary boxes appear over twenty times in the volume, highlighting special topics raised in studying prophetism. A seven-page bibliography points readers to reference and background volumes and to several select commentaries on each of the Bible's prophetic books.

Perhaps the most obvious hermeneutical issue for debate raised by this volume is the question of the order in which to present the biblical prophets. Matthews determines to examine Israel's prophets "chronologically," but does not flag the complications. To consider the "man of God" of 1 Kings 13 alongside the prophets of the early monarchy, as Matthews does, is problematic in terms of a historical-critical "chronology." This text reflects a later Deuteronomistic understanding of the nature of prophecy. Later in the book, Matthews makes the opposite move of overriding the Bible's internal "chronology," and treating Jonah and Trito-Isaiah as postexilic prophecy.

Some dimensions of the relationship between prophets and their society receive scant attention in Matthews' book. I missed more attention to the question of the specific social provenance (Heimat) of the individual prophets. Isaiah is properly identified as a temple priest and Hosea as a Levite, but the societal niche of the other Hebrew prophets is left under-explored along with the nature of their forebears, support networks, and coalition partners. With regard to these social dimensions of prophetism, Matthew's volume does not supplant standard, graduate-level texts such as Robert R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) and Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983).

Although the book is appropriate for undergraduate teaching, it probably collapses more distinctions than desirable for use at the seminary and graduate level. Did prophets as various as Hosea, Isaiah, and Ezekiel all have in mind a unitary vision of "the covenant"? Is Amos' prophetic critique of northern religious centers really of a piece with the Deuteronomists' complaints about the "sins of Jeroboam"? Instead of envisioning a general prophetic movement, would it not be more accurate to imagine the prophets bearing dissimilar, often competing, streams of biblical tradition?

Stephen L. Cook
Virginia Theological Seminary