Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Rodney R. Hutton, Fortress Introduction to the Prophets (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).  Pp. ix + 115.  Paper, US$16.00.  ISBN 0-8006-3670-8.

            In this brief volume Rodney Hutton introduces the reader to biblical prophecy and surveys ‘preexilic’ prophetic books.  The work targets those studying the prophets for the first time or clergy who must “slug their way” through these texts due to the lectionary (viii), rather than advanced students or scholars. 

            The first chapter begins with five questions which explore: whether prophetic literature witnesses to actual ancient Israelite prophecy; the relationship of classical prophecy to its preclassical predecessor; the origins/antecedents of Israelite prophecy; the social location of prophets; and the relation of prophetic books to other biblical books.  These questions (which Hutton admits are ultimately “insoluble” [5]) facilitate an introduction to the major critical issues in the study of the prophets and help orientate the reader. 

            The second chapter begins with a brief discussion of the origins of Israelite prophecy, with reference to analogous phenomena in the ancient Near East (particularly Mari) and highlights the variety found in ancient Israel (based largely on prophetic portrayals in the Deuteronomistic History).  While surveying possibilities, Hutton admits that prophecy’s exact origins elude historians (14). 

            Hutton’s study then proceeds chronologically through the ‘preexilic’ prophetic corpus.  The length of discussion per prophet varies with Amos, Hosea and Micah each roughly receiving their own chapters, First Isaiah meriting two chapters, Zephaniah, Nahum and Habbakuk discussed under the umbrella of “interim” prophets in one chapter and Jeremiah receiving by far the lengthiest treatment.  These chapters discuss historical and critical matters with helpful (though necessarily limited) summaries of the messages of each prophetic book.  Most of the views espoused are fairly standard, though the author’s idiosyncratic views on some issues come through on occasion.

            Two pages of the concluding chapter look ahead to the exilic and postexilic prophets, with very limited comments highlighting developments in Israelite theology after the exile.  Hutton suggests that preexilic theology was based on the idea of covenant as a contract with mutual obligations, but that postexilic prophecy stressed covenant as God’s eternal commitment to his people (108).  He concludes that postexilic prophecy was a different form of literature than the preexilic variety and notes its evolution into “Apocalyptic” (109), though he fails to explain the latter adequately for the novice reader.

            Hutton’s volume is a welcome contribution to the world of introductions to Israelite prophetic books.  It provides a well written overview of their messages with sensitivity to the historical context of each prophet. His innovative descriptions of ancient culture using contemporary idioms (Baal as “sugar daddy” [97]) make his work an enjoyable read which will appeal to beginner students.  Hutton avoids excessive scholarly jargon but successfully whets the appetite of the reader for further study through his insightful analysis and creative theological appropriation of prophetic messages for contemporary audiences.

            Since his focus is on those approaching study of the prophets for the first time, Hutton does not include notes to engage secondary literature, which prevents the reader from following the trail to more detailed arguments or alternative viewpoints.  While at the conclusion of the volume a helpful bibliography is given, endnotes or bibliographies at the end of each chapter would have greater benefit for the beginner student.

            Another shortcoming is the inordinate amount of attention paid to Jeremiah.  While clearly meriting more attention than some of the shorter prophetic books, allotting half of the book to Jeremiah seems unwarranted.  Even in chapters on other prophets, the focus often turns to Jeremiah.  For example, in a chapter on Isaiah he highlights the problem Isaiah’s message of trust became for Jeremiah (44) and in the chapter on Micah he devotes nearly two pages to the connection of Micah with Jeremiah (46-47).  It appears Hutton may focus on Jeremiah as a representative type of prophet but in light of the variety found in Israelite prophecy such an approach seems unhelpful.  As an introduction to the prophets the reader would have been better served with some of these pages devoted to exilic or postexilic prophets. 

            The greatest weakness of the volume is indeed its failure to cover the entire prophetic corpus. One suspects that the disproportional focus on preexilic prophecy may due to Hutton’s (unexpressed) affinities with Wellhausen’s view that true prophetic activity ceased with the end of the monarchy.  This may be seen in Hutton’s equation of “Priestly tradition” with postexilic prophecy (108) and would explain his assertion that prophecy’s “major social function” was connected to the royal court (15).  The latter view is not self evident.  If based on evidence from Mari it is undermined by the fact our knowledge of Mari is based solely on the royal archives; if based on the Hebrew Bible it fails to fairly represent even the ‘preexilic’ prophets.

            While Fortress Introduction to the Prophets would be useful for a course on preexilic prophets it would be inadequate for other purposes.  Still for Hutton’s target audience it will be a helpful guide, even if it would require supplementation in order to adequately introduce the entire prophetic corpus.

Paul Evans
Wycliffe College