Identifying Prophetic Literature

How can identifying the different kinds of literature that appear in the prophetic books help us interpret them more responsibly?


Identifying the genre is extremely helpful to us in interpreting the Prophets. There’s an important verse in the book of Exodus 33:11 that says, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Another important reference is in Numbers 12:6-8, which says that the Lord spoke to Moses “mouth to mouth,” but to the prophets God spoke in visions, dreams, and riddles. These two references help us understand that Moses’ writings contain direct revelations from God that do not include riddles, visions, or dreams. They do not have rhetorical devices like imagery, symbols, or metaphors as we would expect to find in prophetic books. In the Prophets, God more frequently speaks through dreams, visions, and riddles. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews also says that God spoke by the prophets in many ways. So, when we come to the writings of the prophets, we would expect and anticipate finding rhetorical devices like imagery, metaphors, and symbols, because of the nature of divine revelation through the prophets, which involves, as I said, dreams, riddles, and visions… Let me give an example, or some examples, for this. In Ezekiel 17, Ezekiel speaks a parable or a story of the two eagles and the vine. This is an example of a riddle or allegory through which the Lord speaks to the people. We also see symbolic actions that the prophets performed to send a message to the people. For example, in Isaiah 20, the Lord asked Isaiah to walk naked and barefoot for three years. The Lord asked Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 27 and 28, to put a yoke on his neck as a symbol of putting the people under the yoke of the exile. In Ezekiel 4, the Lord asked Ezekiel to lie on his left side for 390 days and on his right side for 40 days. Such symbolic actions, proverbs, and stories, which are found in the Prophets, help us understand the genre. We can anticipate finding more symbols and poetry in the Prophets. So identifying the genre helps us understand the best approach to interpret prophetic texts.

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