Saturday, February 09, 2013

Viewing the future

26 In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, because Tyre said concerning Jerusalem, ‘Aha, the gate of the peoples is broken; it has swung open to me. I shall be replenished, now that she is laid waste,’ 3 therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. 4 They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. 5 She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. And she shall become plunder for the nations, 6 and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord.

7 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, and with horsemen and a host of many soldiers. 8 He will kill with the sword your daughters on the mainland. He will set up a siege wall against you and throw up a mound against you, and raise a roof of shields against you. 9 He will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 His horses will be so many that their dust will cover you. Your walls will shake at the noise of the horsemen and wagons and chariots, when he enters your gates as men enter a city that has been breached. 11 With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will kill your people with the sword, and your mighty pillars will fall to the ground. 12 They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters. 13 And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock. You shall be a place for the spreading of nets. You shall never be rebuilt, for I am the Lord; I have spoken, declares the Lord God (Ezk 26:1-14).

Liberals regard this prophecy as a textbook case of failed prophecy. The prima facie problem is that, according to historical sources, Nebuchadnezzar never did what Ezekiel foretells.

In addition, Ezk 29:17-21 is often thought to be a defensive acknowledgement on Ezekiel’s part that the actual outcome fell short of the prediction.

Scholars have different ways of finessing the issue. In general, I think most of the proposed solutions have merit. After reviewing them, I’m going to offer my own solution, as well as some concluding thoughts. My own solution isn’t necessarily an alternative to the others, but a way of integrating and grounding other solutions within a broader framework.

i) Allen doesn’t think there’s a real problem:

It was to some extent a carping criticism: the siege was successful and Tyre did pass into Babylonian control. In a list of royal hostages at Nebuchadnezzar’s court, to be dated to about 570 BC, the king of Tyre has the initial place. About 564 BC, Baal, Ethbaal’s successor as king of Tyre, was replaced by a Babylonian High Commissioner. L. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (Word 1990), 109.

On this view, although Ezk 26 wasn’t literally fulfilled, it was effectively or substantially fulfilled. Tyre surrendered. Paid tribute. Became a vassal state.

This interpretation is interesting, in part, because Allen is not committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. In fact, he thinks Ezekiel mispredicted 40-48. Therefore, he’s not defending Ezekiel at this point due to a precommitment to Ezekiel’s inspiration. 

In addition, the coastal side of Tyre was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.

ii) Some scholars appeal to hyperbole, stock imagery, and mythopoetic imagery. And there’s certainly some truth to that appeal.

iii) Some scholars appeal to the conditional nature of prophecy. If, say, the king of Tyre sued for terms of peace to spare Tyre from further devastation, that would be consistent with Bible prophecy. Whether that general principle is the correct explanation in this particular case is harder to determine. It was a war of attribution. Both sides had ample incentive to cut their loses.

iv) According to another scholar:

Richard Bauckham expressed it like this:

Biblical prophecy always both addressed the prophet’s contemporaries about their own present and the future immediately impending for them and raised hopes which proved able to transcend their immediate relevance to the prophet’s contemporaries and to continue to direct later readers to God’s purpose for their future.153

In other words, a certain element of non-fulfilment is characteristic for biblical prophecy and is an indication that biblical prophecy usually expresses God’s larger plan as well as his purpose for a specific situation. Even a prophecy that has been fulfilled remains open for further fulfilment.154 This possibility of reinterpreting and reapplying prophecies is given because God’s purposes in history are consistent and his past acts can serve as models for the future.

For those who trust God, the partial fulfilment of the prediction is a pledge that the promise will come true.

Thomas Renz, “Proclaiming the Future: History And Theology in Prophecies Against Tyre,” TynB 51.1 (2000). 

I think that’s generally valid, although “reinterpretation” may not be the best category. The paradigmatic character of prophecy would account for the alternation between specifics and generalities in prophetic discourse. Specific enough to be recognizably fulfilled, but general enough to be fulfilled on more than one occasion.

v) Renz also says:

A prophetic prediction rests on the claim to have stood in the council of God rather than the claim to have travelled into the future.8 It is a claim of having insight into God’s plan rather than of having had a preview of the future. Yahweh revealed what he was going to do rather than simply what was going to happen. He is praised not for his passive foreknowledge of events, but his active intervention to bring about his purpose. The fulfilment of things previously announced is not so much a proof of Yahweh’s knowledge but of his sovereignty in historical events.

Up to a point, distinguishing between direct foresight and indirect foresight via insight into God’s plan is a potentially useful distinction. However, that’s not an antithetical relation. One could know the future by knowing God’s plan for the future. The distinction presumably involves the level of generality. Knowing God’s agenda is less specific than “seeing” the future. It’s the difference between ends and means.

vi) Renz also says:

Mickelsen rightly emphasised that prophecy is…not ‘simply history written beforehand’.151  Prophecy does not gives us a picture of events similar to a historian’s account.

I’m more dubious about that contention:

a) On the face of it, this begs the question. For there’s a sense in which prophecy is history written beforehand.

b) Moreover, this exaggerates the difference between prophetic discourse and historical discourse. Both prophets and historians can use the same literary or rhetorical conventions. History written after the fact can resemble history written before the fact.

c) Michelsen’s claim also runs the risk of special pleading. Couldn’t any false prophecy invoke the same distinction?

vii) Some scholars appeal to Alexander the Great’s subsequent conquest of Tyre, which literally approximates the depiction given in Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Having reviewed some scholarly harmonizations, I’ll say a few things on my own:

viii) There’s not simply a prima facie conflict between the oracle and the actual campaign. Rather, there’s a prima facie incongruity in terms of the oracle itself. We don’t have to compare the oracle to the outcome to see that, for that goes back to the wording of the oracle itself.

On the one hand, the oracle describes Tyre in terms of its actual insular setting:

12 Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters…14 I will make you a bare rock. You shall be a place for the spreading of nets.

So Ezekiel was aware of the fact that Tyre was an offshore city.

On the other hand, Ezekiel also describes the campaign in terms of siege warfare against a fortified city on the mainland.

But therein lies the incongruity. Normally, it wouldn’t be possible to deploy battering rams against an offshore city, for Tyre was surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. Battering rams don’t float.

Therefore, the fact that Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign didn’t literally correspond to Ezekiel’s description is not surprising or embarrassing, for that prima facie tension was initially present in the oracle. It’s not merely subsequent events which introduce the apparent discrepancy. How, exactly, the oracle was meant to be fulfilled was always enigmatic. It may well have been puzzling to Ezekiel.

But as a prophet, his duty was to report whatever God told him or showed him, even if he found that nonsensical. As it turns out, this was only counterintuitive looking ahead. With the benefit of hindsight, it all makes perfect sense. 

ix) Ezekiel was a seer. He saw what God showed him in visions. His oracles describe what he foresaw.

In his inspired imagination, he may well have seen a city under attack by battering rams and other accoutrements of siege warfare. Ezekiel isn’t wrong to write down what he saw.

The oracle is representational at two different levels. At one level it represents what he foresaw. A visual description of the images which God disclosed to him. At another level, it represents a future event or events.

Considered in isolation, images aren’t about any time or place in particular. Images aren’t inherently past, present, or future. Likewise, an image of a city could be an image of an actual city, or it could be an image of a generic city. Since we aren’t privy to Ezekiel’s psychological experience, we don’t know what he saw. All we have is the record of what he saw. 

As a result, prophetic images can sustain a one-to-many correspondence. The same image can stand for different times and places. The intended referent is ascriptive rather than intrinsic.

x) Alexander’s destruction of Tyre was totally unexpected, precisely because Alexander was able to adapt siege warfare to a fortified island. No one thought of doing that before. It was his tactical genius that made it possible. He had a wide causeway built, connecting Tyre to the mainland, which enabled Alexander to ramp up the battering rams against Tyre’s defensive walls.

How could anyone anticipate that eventuality? Short of inspiration, how could Ezekiel see that coming, centuries later? Viewed in retrospect, Ezekiel’s incongruous oracle, coupled with Alexander’s ingenuity, literally fulfills the prophecy in a completely unexpected way. A way that was naturally unforeseeable. Far from casting doubt on his inspired foresight, this is a confirmation made all the more remarkable by the natural barriers to its realization.

xi) Unbelievers dismiss Bible history by telling us that history is written by the winners. But if that’s the case, then why didn’t scribes and redactors edit out Ezekiel’s dissonant prophecy? If the Bible was written by the winners, why did the winners preserve “failed” prophecies in Scripture–especially when unbelievers assure us that Bible writers impersonate dead prophets and fabricate backdated prophecies. 

xii) Paradoxically, Ezekiel lived long enough to see his oracle evidently fall short, but not long enough to see it completely fulfilled. He had to live with apparent failure. With his credibility diminished rather than vindicated.

Christians sometimes envy the prophets. We live with God’s silence, whereas God spoke to them or appeared to them.

Yet God left Ezekiel hanging out to dry. And he’s not the only prophet who felt that way, viz. Elijah, Jeremiah. It’s very frustrating to be right, when you’re in no position to prove you are right. When events conspire against you. When you’re tempted to doubt your calling.

Ezekiel had to stay faithful in the face of apparent failure and public derision. When even the Lord seemed to let him down. Like so many ordinary Christians, Ezekiel had to await postmortem vindication.

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