The Prophetical Books as Theodicy

I’ve been reading through The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues edited by Steven L. McKenzie and M. Patrick Graham.  This is a most interesting read and helpful introduction to historical critical approaches to OT study, as the subtitle indicates.

A writer I always try to read, Marvin A. Sweeney, wrote the chapter entitled “The Later Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel,” wherein he describes some of the recent trends in the critical study of the prophets.  I found what he had to say regarding the role of the prophetical books in the Hebrew Bible to be fascinating:

The prophetic books are constitutive for understanding the theological outlook of both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament in that they stand at the intersection of past and future within the structure of each.  With their perspectives on the past, the prophetic books confront the reality of the exile of the Israelite and Judean nations from the land of Israel by presenting a theological explanation for the exile of the people and the loss of land, namely that Israel and Judah violated their covenant with YHWH in some way and thereby brought punishment upon themselves.  Likewise, the prophetic books confront the challenges of the future by positing a means by which the covenant with YHWH, and indeed Israel and Judah as a people, could continue despite the exile, viz., YHWH will act to restore the people to the land and reconstitute the covenant with them.  The major prophetic books thereby constitute a form of theodicy in that they take up the question of G-d’s [note: this is a convention used in some Jewish traditions] righteousness: Why did G-d allow or cause destruction and exile to come upon the people of Israel and Judah?  By arguing that the people of Israel and Judah violated their covenant with YHWH, they conclude that G-d is just in punishing the people for wrongdoing.  By arguing that G-d will ultimately restore the people to the land of Israel, they assert that G-d is just in maintaining the covenant. The prophetic books thereby create theological constructions of Israel’s and Judah’s past and future.  They choose not to assign responsibility for evil to G-d but to the people instead.

“The Latter Prophets,” in The Hebrew Bible Today, pgs. 70-71.  (Bold emphasis mine)

R. Andrew Compton