UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

“Let us go to the seer” : oracle giving, scribal culture, and the invention of Hebrew scripture Schroeder, Ryan D.


Ancient Israelite prophecy has long been regarded as a spontaneous phenomenon, with individual prophets called by the deity to deliver oracles to unsuspecting audiences. This understanding of prophecy stands at odds, however, with recent scholarship that treats prophecy as a form of divination. Taking the view that divination involves the active pursuit of suprahuman information, I re-examine the supposed spontaneity of prophecy. I show how the study of prophecy has been shaped by an unfounded dichotomy between “religion” and “magic” with the result that scholars associated the spontaneous oracles of the classical prophets with a highly evolved Israelite “religion” and connected oracular consultation to the “magical” mindset of primitive, pagan peoples (chapter 2). In re-describing oracle giving as a divinatory practice, I take a comparative approach and examine evidence for oracle giving across ancient West Asia, especially from the Old Babylonian kingdom of Mari (chapter 3) and the Neo-Assyrian capital of Nineveh (chapter 4). I then turn to the biblical evidence for oracle giving in ancient Israel (chapter 5). I conclude that deliberate consultation was integral to the practice of oracle giving in ancient Israel, as well as in the broader East Mediterranean and West Asian world. At the same time, the distinction between spontaneous and elicited oracles is not an invention of modern scholars; it has its origins already in the scribes who produced the Hebrew Bible. Thus, I also seek to show how and why biblical representations of revelation depart from the traditional (i.e., oral and consultative) practice of oracle giving (chapter 6). Following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE, Hebrew scribes idealized, amplified, and wrote new oracles that were thought to originate with the god of Israel. In the process, they (re)framed literary works as oracular in origin; created a repository of written, suprahuman information; and positioned themselves as essential and exclusive brokers of divination-derived knowledge for their people. Their creation of oracular writings gave rise, in turn, to a new form of mantic inquiry as Jewish and Christian readers continued to consult the ancient prophets via scripture.

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