EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Peter J. Gentry, Donald L. Williams Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, talks with Towers editor Andrew J.W. Smith about this new book, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets.
AJWS: How does one go about finding a genre for the prophets? How do you build a framework for interpreting them?
PG: The prophets, you could argue, are not a specific genre because they use every communication trick in the book to get their message across, including acting. Jeremiah hides his underwear in the rock, Isaiah goes naked and barefoot, Ezekiel cuts off his hair and throws it out the window. But part of prophetic literature in particular is what we would call apocalyptic literature, which uses highly colored metaphors and symbols to describe future events. Some people have not figured out that this is a way of speaking among the prophets. It really comes out of their belief in the doctrine of creation because that’s the central teaching in the Old Testament, that there is one God who created everything. So when your whole world is going to be turned upside down, they talk about it like an anti-creation event. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will be turned to blood. So this apocalyptic language comes out of their belief in the creator God and their understanding of creation.
AJWS: What is a covenant?
PG: A covenant is a serious and permanent commitment to a relationship that is characterized by loyalty, love, faith, trust, and obedience. Family relationships are considered covenantal relationships. A lot of covenant language in the Bible uses family language. When God makes a covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, he says, “I will be a father to you, and you will be like my son.” So there’s going to be a relationship of faith. You’re going to have to believe what I say. You’re going to have to obey what I say. I’m looking for complete devotedness and loyalty and faithfulness in this relationship. And of course children are supposed to serve their parents. So an obedient son and a servant king is really the idea that is carried through each one of the Adamic figures as we show in Kingdom Through Covenant.
AJWS: How does prophecy as we often think of it — foretelling the future — function throughout the Scriptures?
PG: I would summarize the covenant relationship very simply by saying being completely devoted to the Lord as the only true God, to treat others in a genuinely human way, and to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. So as Jesus said, love God and love your neighbor as yourselves. So that’s a summary of the covenant. So one of the problems is the Israelites are not completely devoted to Yahweh as the only true God. They’re farmers, they’re shepherds, and they’re hedging their bets with Baal at the same time that they’re going to the temple in Jerusalem. They’re putting their eggs in a number of baskets, and they’re not putting their total devotion, their total loyalty, and their total trust in Yahweh. So you’ve got a problem: how do you prove Yahweh is the only true God and Baal is a false god? There is only one true test of deity. That is the being who is God is someone who not only knows but determines and controls the future. If we think about it, this is the one thing in spite of all the greatness of our human technology that we cannot do. If you look, the weather channel is the most-watched channel in America, which shows that we want to know what’s going to happen. And nobody does know for sure what’s going to happen. So prediction of the future becomes part of the prophets’ message to prove two things: first of all, if a prophet makes a prediction and it comes true, then you know according to Deuteronomy 18 that he’s a true prophet. Then when he makes a prediction that occurs beyond the hearer’s lifetime, you believe that because he is now tested as a true prophet by his own contemporaries. So they make predictions of the future to prove first of all that they are genuine, authorized agents. Then they make predictions that demonstrate that Yahweh is the only one who not only knows but controls the future and determines it.
AJWS: How can we rightly identify something as a messianic prophecy?
PG: Well, I show in the book that there are basically three different ways in which the prophets talk about the future. Number one, you could actually simply make a prose statement. Here is what is going to happen without any figures of speech, just straight prediction. And I think there are examples of that although liberal scholarship does not accept them, the prediction of Cyrus the Great as coming to deliver them from Babylon. You can use what’s called typology, and that is very simple. Because God is in control of history and because he is consistent in his character, there will be patterns in events. So certain things in the past are actually patterns or foreshadow events that will happen in the future. Another way you can describe the future is using types. In the Old Testament, God’s great act of deliverance in the past is the Exodus, so the prophets talk about how after the time of judgment God will rescue them, he will deliver them, he will save them — and people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel use language from the Exodus to describe the coming salvation. And the other way they do this is by very colorful metaphors and symbols in what we call apocalyptic language, and it’s very easy to understand. So we shouldn’t be surprised by the different methods that are used to describe the future, because if God is predicting something that’s 700 years in advance or 2000 years in advance, a literal description is not going to be useful.
AJWS: Take students who are reading through the Bible in a year: they get through Genesis and Exodus just fine. They work their way through Leviticus and Deuteronomy and do their best. Then they do the Psalms. Then they get to the prophets, they get to Isaiah and Jeremiah and then they start to slow down because there’s all this complicated material in there. There’s oracles about foreign nations and all these other things going on, and so their reading plan falls apart. What are some reasons that happens?
PG: The idea of repetition, of course, is basic to all Hebrew literature, so they’re going to see this in Genesis. Even in prose you’ll have large sections that involve repetition. Hebrew literature also uses pairs of words, which you can’t get the idea from each word individually, but together they communicate something, so with poetry and with word pairs you get the minimum version of the left speaker and the right speaker. So they’re going to have a lot of experience, they’re going to see this throughout. In Exodus 14 you have a prose version of the crossing of the Red Sea, in Exodus 15 you have the poetry version. Judges 4 is the battle with Sisera described in prose. Chapter 5 is the battle described in poetry. You see other things like long sections that deal with the foreign nations. Those are really connected to the covenant in Deuteronomy, in particular to Deuteronomy 32 because Moses already knows that the people do not have a faithful heart. He says their heart is not circumcised, and it’s just a way of saying, you’re not completely devoted to the covenant. God wants them to realize that he’s not just the tribal deity, but he’s the creator-God of the whole world. He governs all the nations, and his plan through Abraham is to bring blessing to all the nations through Israel. So God is bringing Israel back to himself so Israel can bring a blessing to all these other nations. Israel as a nation never really grasped the purpose of why God had called them and given them special blessing in Abraham. The blessing to Abraham was not for themselves but to be the instrument of blessing and salvation for the whole world. So that’s why you have these kinds of sections.
AJWS: How do we recognize the Bible does go into great detail about this and does have truth that can be applied to our lives while also being open-handed about it?
PG: Well, that’s why I wrote the book. I’ll be honest, most of my writing over the last 40 years has been extremely technical, so I tried to write something that was as popular as possible. I’m hoping this will help people know how to read these texts for themselves. I can teach people what I think the Bible is saying, but I’m more interested in them actually learning to read the text for themselves and coming to the right conclusions.