The Pentateuch or Torah ends with the death of Moses and a bold statement about Israel’s religious future: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live…” (Dt 30:19). With these words, the figure of Moses recedes, and the story of God and Israel moves into the conquest of Canaan, the rise of the monarchy, and the eventual destruction of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. These stories are contained in the historical books and the prophetic literature of the Old Testament.
The section of the historical books tells these stories in a chronological sequence. Since the books have multiple authors, the styles and sometimes the intentions of the authors differ. For example, the books of Joshua and Judges contain a strong theological interpretation of history. The events that happen are interpreted either as a blessing from God for Israel’s fidelity, or a curse and punishment for their infidelity. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings focus on the characters of Samuel, Saul, David, and King Solomon and the kings that follow them. Moral judgment about the characters of Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon is withheld, for the most part. The author lets the characters develop as living men, and the reader is left to meditate on each person’s decisions and actions. Later on, however, the author’s theological and moral opinion usually is expressed in a phrase like this: “And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all that were before him” (1 Kgs 16:30).
These books do relay true historical events, albeit with a theological interpretation of that same history. The authors examine the history of Israel and Judah with an eye to their adherence to the covenant and their worship of the one true God. Their covenant relationship with God ought to influence their day-to-day lives, from the greatest king to the lowliest peasant. It also influences how their history as a nation unfolds. This understanding of history tied to covenant fidelity explains why the Jewish division of the Old Testament places both the historical books and the prophetic literature under “prophets.” Both are looking at the events of history and trying to understand it in relation to God. They do this in different ways.
Unlike the historical books, the prophets do not record the events of the kingdoms in any particular order. Instead, they offer words of warning, admonition, consolation and oracles about the historical experience. One way of reading the prophets is to view them as a commentary on the historical books. The commentary is written from the perspective of God, since the prophet is God’s spokesman. It is not always clear when one is reading how the prophets fit chronologically in the history of Israel and Judah, but there are many resources available where that information can be found. There also are clues in the texts themselves. For example, at the beginning of many of the prophets’ books, there is an introduction like this:
“The words of Jeremiah … to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month” (Jer 1:1-3).
These verses are for the reader to know what the historical circumstances were for this particular prophet. Knowing that helps us understand what the oracles and warnings might be about. Since the prophetic books are written mostly in poetry and the different sections may not fit together in a connected schema, it can be easy to lose the meaning of their messages. The little historical notes help contextualize the words.
More than anything else, the prophets focus on Israel’s fidelity to God and to the covenant. They had promised to worship the one true God, and the prophets remind them over and over that there will be consequences if they do not keep their word. The prophets predict the destruction of cities and kingdoms, as well as the eventual exile of the people from their land. Other common themes include the care of the poor, widows and orphans. The exploitation of peoples is abhorrent in the sight of God.
The prophets also contain passages full of hope, where they look forward to the return of the exiles to the land and the renewal of the covenant. They also point to a future king, a Messiah, who will bring peace.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM is Director of Christian Formation in the Diocese of Knoxville.