How prophecy works: a study of the semantic field of נביא and a close reading of Jeremiah 1.4–19, 23.9–40 and 27.1–28.17
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Kelly, William Lawrence
There is a longstanding scholarly debate on the nature of prophecy in ancient Israel. Until now, no study has based itself on the semantics of the Hebrew lexeme nābîʾ (‘prophet’). In this investigation, I discuss the nature and function of prophecy in the corpus of the Hebrew book of Jeremiah. I analyse all occurrences of nābîʾ in Jeremiah and perform a close reading of three primary texts, Jeremiah 1.4–19, 23.9–40 and 27.1–28.17. The result is a detailed explanation of how prophecy works, and what it meant to call someone a nābîʾ in ancient Israel. Chapter one introduces the work and surveys the main trends in the research literature on prophecy. First I describe scholarly constructs and definitions of the phenomenon of prophecy. I then survey contemporary debates over the meaning of nābîʾ and the problem of ‘false’ prophecy. I also describe the methods, structure, corpus and aims of the investigation. In part one, I take all the occurrences of the lexeme nābîʾ in Jeremiah and analyse its relations to other words (syntagmatics and paradigmatics). For nābîʾ, the conceptual fields of communication and worship are significant. There is also a close semantic relation between nābîʾ and kōhēn (‘priest’). Part two analyses prophecy in the literary context of three key texts. Chapter three is a close reading of Jeremiah 1.4–19. Chapter four is a close reading of Jeremiah 23.9–40. Chapter five is a close reading of Jeremiah 27.1–28.17. In my analysis I situate these passages in the wider context of an ancient cultural worldview on divine communication. This brings to light the importance of legitimacy and authority as themes in prophecy. Chapter six concludes the work. I combine the results of the semantic analysis and close readings with conclusions for six main areas of study: (1) the function and nature of prophecy; (2) dreams and visions; (3) being sent; (4) prophets, priests and cult; (5) salvation and doom; and (6) legitimacy and authority. These conclusions explain the conceptual categories related to nābîʾ in the corpus. I then situate these findings in two current debates, one on the definition of nābîʾ and one on cultic prophecy. This thesis contributes to critical scholarship on prophecy in the ancient world, on the book of Jeremiah, and on prophets in ancient Israel. It is the first major study to analyse nābîʾ based on its semantic associations. It adds to a growing consensus which understands prophecy as a form of divination. Contrary to some trends in Jeremiah scholarship, this work demonstrates the importance of a close reading of the Masoretic (Hebrew) text. This study uses a method of a general nature which can be applied to other texts. Thus there are significant implications for further research on prophecy and prophetic literature.