Seth L. Sanders
Why Prophecy Became a Biblical Genre. First Isaiah as an Instance of Ancient Near Eastern Text-Building
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Scholars now tend to see all ancient Near Eastern prophecy as a subtype of divination, with the main differences being side effects of scribal culture, for example, of how Judean scribes transformed Hebrew prophecy into a literary phenomenon. But while ventriloquizing divine speakers is a widespread phenomenon of religious language, it did not always count as the same type of knowledge or make the same kind of claims to truth, and Israelite and Mesopotamian prophecy in fact drew on significantly different genres and practices. While Mesopotamian prophecy was already a complex genre with literary features when we first encounter it, from a Mesopotamian scholarly viewpoint it remained the spontaneous utterances of untrained amateurs. Rather than part of the learned skill of divination, prophecy was instead a unique type of omen. By contrast, the Hebrew prophetic genre of rîb (cosmic lawsuit) bears striking generic resemblances to Mesopotamian exorcism as well as to divination (unlike Mesopotamian prophecy itself!). Rather than seeing Hebrew prophecy as a secondary and scribal literary development from an earlier and more primal spoken original, exemplified by Mesopotamian prophecy, this paper argues that the two sorts of prophecy were configured very differently within two very different systems of knowledge and political communication. The result helps explain why prophecy remained marginal to scholarly knowledge in Mesopotamia but became central to it in Judea: Prophecy became a dominant genre in Hebrew because Hebrew prophets claimed knowledge differently than in Mesopotamia.