Victor H. MATTHEWS. The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012. Pp 216, $24.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-4851-6. Reviewed by James ZEITZ, Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, Texas 48207

Victor Matthew’s skill in analyzing the social world and historical background of the prophets is no surprise considering his earlier works Manners and Customs in the Bible (1988) and, with Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels (1991).

In the Introduction he points to a key challenge in reading the prophets today: their “insider” perspective and original audience (difficult climate, hilly and rocky landscapes, political and economic forces outside their control)—quite different from today. A goal of this work for us “outsiders” is to familiarize us with this, to us foreign, world (the geography, economic and social forces of that particular time). In reviewing his presentations of prophetic books I will give examples of how successful he has been and show how this social-critical approach sometimes neglects other important aspects of the prophetic book

The first two chapters are introductory: first, a survey of the “historical geography” of the ancient Near East, so modern reader can understand references to places that were well-known to the original audience. My only problem here, as one familiar with the Bible, was that the maps lack enough detail to locate the place names mentioned in the text. 

A second introductory chapter, “Defining and Describing the Prophet,” is an excellent introduction: especially his six propositions for defining the prophet’s role in society and his summary of characteristics of prophecy: the prophet’s call, message, and ways of communicating this message (“prophetic vocabulary” using images, rhetoric, and symbolic actions or “enacted prophecies”). Prophetic words relate to the language of the royal court and juridical situations, as well as to other social aspects of life—including international cultural life.

The next section on the historical prophets starts with Moses: episodes from his life: his call, intercessory prayer, dialogue with God and public disputes, which are also a paradigm for all the prophets. The following chapters on the prophets who are active in Israel history: the early Monarchic prophets: Samuel, Nathan and Ahijah, then Elijah and Elisha, are really the Deuteronomistic History—which Matthews doesn’t mention. But to describe Elijah, for example, he uses “critical spatial theory” as a social approach to his contest on Carmel. These historical chapters could almost be used as an overall Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures.

Chapters 6-14 now introduce the major and minor prophetic books, starting with Amos, an “angry prophet” with a “harsh message” (he denounces social injustice and hypocrisy), then Hosea, who uses his marriage as a symbol of Yahweh’s covenant love. Here and throughout his commentaries, Matthew’s starts with the historical background, and comments on texts that illustrate the social context, and themes, rather than the structure of the narrative: nothing on the five visions in Amos 5-9, nothing on the “earthquake” that dates Amos and forms an “inclusion with the final vision. He describes Hosea’s marital experience (1-3) as a historical sequence, not structurally an ABA chiasm.

The same approach for the longer books: Isaiah of Jerusalem, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. He comments on just a few texts (and it would be useful for the reader to include more of these) to present important aspects of the prophet or of prophecy rather overviews of the book and its structure. For example, he devotes four pages to Isaiah’s juridical parable: the Song of the Vineyard (5: 1-7), giving useful information on eighth century agriculture (terracing to repair damage on slopes long ago harvested of their lumber), wine vats and grape harvesting, and the need to protect the enclosure from wild animals. This helps the modern reader understand the symbolic meaning of this parable that Isaiah then applies to his original audience: Israel as the vineyard of the Lord. However, the central section: Isaiah’s War Memorial (7-9): the prophet’s interaction with King Ahaz during the Syro-Ephraimite crisis is very brief and mainly a summary of the historical events, with little on the Immanuel prophecy and the relation of this section to Isaiah’s call in chapter 6.

Rather than analyzing the complicated structure and editing process involved in the Book of Jeremiah (explained by John Miller in Meet the Prophets), Matthews briefly and clearly summarizes the last days of Judah, then devotes much text to Jeremiah’s temple sermon (Jer.7; 26) to present Jeremiah’s (and other prophets’) political role, the symbolic importance (“spatial framework”) of the temple, and Jeremiah’s effective use of physical acts…and street theater” or enacted prophecies. On the other hand, Jeremiah’s laments: unique-in-prophetic literature, are only mentioned in connection with the enacted prophecy of his personal life as celibate. Jeremiah’s critique of the priesthood and the false prophet, Hananiah, are also examples of enacted prophecies.

The Book of Ezekiel is also presented topically rather than structurally (nothing on the  structural role of events before and after the message that the city has fallen; nothing on the seven dated events). Yet there is important information on Ezekiel’s call and theophany (“not overtly anthropomorphic… similar to wisdom literature”) and his theodicy, as a new and important interpretation of the exile and the covenant (the formula: “they shall know that I am the Lord” is used more than eighty times). This important contribution to theodicy is demonstrated in Ez. 8, the prophet’s vision of abuses going on in Jerusalem during the last years before the Exile, and in Ez. 16: a “more personal tack in his judgment oracles” where the metaphor of Jerusalem as an unwanted female infant left to die (“female infanticide was fairly common” at the time)…then adopted by and later married by Yahweh symbolizes Israel and Judah squandering what God had given and the reason they have been punished. The visions of restoration are also part of this theodicy: in rejecting the proverb, “The parents have eaten sour grapes…”and the legal principle of corporate identity, he is affirming that in the new world of the exile God’s “steadfast love” (hesed) is for all generations. The exile, as purification, is a reminder of this and an occasion to realize the true nature of Yahweh’s power and wisdom.

For the postexilic minor prophets, the historical survey continues: the return after Cyrus’ decree was gradual and incomplete (over one hundred years, “perhaps 15 percent of the exiled community returned”) Third Isaiah addresses rigid views of those who returned (regarding eunuchs and proselytes). Malachi’s six oracles “question-and-answer format”—similar to the Egyptian “Dispute over Suicide”—are about the failures of Judah and the priests to obey the stipulations of the covenant.

A final chapter on the Book of Daniel completes the historical survey, summarizing the problems of diaspora Judaism in the Hellenistic period and the solutions to these problems illustrated by the Tales of the Young Men in Daniel 1-6. The characteristics of apocalyptic literature are briefly presented along with a summary of the visions in Daniel 7-12. The book concludes with a glossary of terms that were in boldface type when they first occurred.

Overall this introduction to the prophets provides much helpful information for understanding the social, cultural, and religious world of the prophets. Pedagogically it is a new angle for studying the prophets: start by looking at the prophets’ world and function before looking at their message—at least as recorded by later editors (like the Deuteronomist Historian) who considered their words as what Yahweh was saying and their role in society as essential for preserving Israel as a Covenant community.