The Prophetic Critique Of The Social And Economic Order -- By: John Keating Wiles

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 06:2 (Spring 1989)
Article: The Prophetic Critique Of The Social And Economic Order
Author: John Keating Wiles

The Prophetic Critique Of The Social And Economic Order

John Keating Wiles

Assistant Professor of Old Testament,
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

The title of this essay betrays a modern concept of what the prophets did: they critiqued their social system. This notion represents one of the lasting impacts of historical criticism on the views of people far beyond the circles of professionally trained interpreters of Old Testament literature. People who are not the least bit interested in critical study of Bible, even those who are consciously hostile to historical critical studies, often assume that to be “prophetic” is to be a critic of the status quo.1 The irony of this situation is that most modern interpreters would not argue that the prophets of Israel and Judah were only, or even primarily, social critics. Examination of the prophetic literature itself indicates that “the prophets functioned primarily to announce the future as the word of God.”2

This disparity between scholars’ assessment of the prophetic task and the modern concept of the prophets as social critics makes an analysis of the “prophetic critique of the social and economic order” somewhat problematic. Our sources portray the prophets as messengers sent from the God of Israel to the people of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem. The prophets’ criticisms of their contemporaries strike one as occasional rather than systematic. Their sayings and the narratives about them do not provide an ordered, systematic theory of social criticism. Granted that the prophets criticized much in their own society, what were the fundamental principles upon which they took their stand?

Of various proposals which concern themselves in some way with uncovering the presuppositions of the social criticism of the Israelite and Judean prophets,3 that of Klaus Koch is particularly penetrating.4 Following a discussion of the significance of “justice” and “righteousness” in the preaching of the eighth century prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah), he concludes that they criticized their contemporary scene for the failure to maintain what was constitutive for Israel’s social system: the freedom of peasant families in the context of fidelity to the historical guidance of the God of Israel. If God had acted in justice and righteousness to set Israel free and bring them into the land which they received as an “inheritance,” then it was God’s present will that Israelite peasant families live in freedom, each upon their plot of land, their “inheritance.”<...

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