Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review
Matthews' concise introductory volume on ancient Israelite prophets and prophecy appears as part of the 101 Questions and Answers series from Paulist Press. Readers of Matthews' earlier Social World of the Hebrew Prophets will be familiar with much of the content here. The present volume comprises eleven chapters that use Israelite history as the organizing framework. Chapters include: Introductory Questions (including a section on prophets in the Pentateuch); Early Monarchy Period; Late Monarchy Period (covering Amos and Hosea); Isaiah; Micah; Minor Prophets of the Seventh Century; Jeremiah; Ezekiel; Postexilic Prophets—Sixth Century BCE; Postexilic Prophets—Fifth Century to Third Century BCE; and Final Thoughts. Within each chapter, Matthews poses anywhere from two to sixteen questions. The issues Matthews handles in the book are, for the most part, the kinds of basic introductory questions one might expect to be dealt with in undergraduate courses or Bible study groups: Why do some people refer to three different Isaiahs? or Why do written prophets suddenly appear in the mid-eighth century? The answers to each question are restricted to one paragraph (which can occasionally make for a very lengthy paragraph; e.g. pp. 71-73). His responses are informative and helpful, especially for new readers of these biblical books. He orients readers to this biblical material by offering standard, non-idiosyncratic, readings of the relevant texts. For Matthews, the prophets are primarily defined in relationship to the covenant.
As in Matthews' other writing on prophecy, he gives close attention to the social world of the prophets. For example, he speaks to Micah's rural perspective and Isaiah's priestly influences. To take another example, in addressing why Josiah consults Huldah after the discovery of the famous scroll, Matthews highlights her connections with the royal bureaucracy and the impact of that connection on the scene. His eye for elucidating the social world within which the prophets operate makes this an especially useful volume.
Matthews also does a nice job of situating the prophets against the larger ancient Near Eastern historical backdrop. Although he does not have space to cross-reference other ANE texts at great length, he does refer to them when possible. In particular, he includes a chart containing a nice comparison of Second Isaiah and the Cyrus Cylinder (p. 123).
The brevity of his answers is both the book's strength and weakness. It forces Matthews to be succinct, but it also limits discussion in some cases. The constraints of the format allow almost no mention of scholarly debates about various critical issues. This is not his goal, of course, but it would have been nice to see Matthews acknowledge to the reader that such debates exist.
As readers of Matthews' other books on prophets and prophecy will know, he generally takes a maximalist historical view. This is true throughout the present volume, but is expressed most clearly in the chart covering ancient Israel's history found on pp. 13-16, which begins with an ancestral period dated ca. 1850-1500 BCE. One suspects Matthews' maximalist historical perspective would be the issue with which most scholars would quibble, but given that they are not the book's target audience, this will probably prove to be a moot point to most readers of the book.
The book's format is very reader-friendly. In addition to the question-and-answer format, the book contains six charts and four gray boxes in which Matthews' handles special topics. The book concludes with a rather extensive bibliography that beginning students will find helpful. All of these features enhance the book's pedagogical value.
I noted the following misspellings in the book: p. 26, prophecies for prophesies; p. 32, truth for true; p. 40, prophets for prophet's; pp. 91, 115 (2x), prophecy for prophesy; p. 150, you for your.
In short, I whole-heartedly recommend this book to lay Bible study groups. Additionally, it might be used as a helpful supplementary text in undergraduate courses on Israelite prophets, or even in a general introduction to the Hebrew Bible course.