Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis
A review of D.N. Premnath's, "Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis," by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.
D. N. Premnath, Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis. St. Louis: Chalice, 2003. x + 228 pp. Paperback, $29.99. ISBN 0-8272-0817-0.
This book has its roots in a doctoral thesis that was submitted by the author to the Graduate Theological Union in 1984. His studies were done under the tutelage of Norman Gottwald, Marvin Chaney, and Robert Coote, and the socioeconomic interests in Old Testament research of these scholars are reflected at every turn. Premnath has applied their ideas to the eighth century prophets in much more detail than they have done in their own publications.
The author offers a succinct statement of his purpose in the opening line of the Introduction:
The object of this study is to examine evidences of, and allusions to, the process of land accumulation (latifundialization) in the oracles that pertain to the eighth century B.C.E. in the books of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah, and to explore the significance of the prophetic message and vision in today’s context. (p. 1)
Premnath defines latifundialization as “the process of land accumulation in the hands of a few wealthy elite to the deprivation of the peasantry” (p. 1). The first chapter details its basic components and explains the changes in land tenure and labor and the shifts in consumption patterns that accompany the move from a subsistence agrarian economy to a centralized, export driven market one facilitated by this latifundialization. Premnath closes by listing ten aspects of this process, which he later will identify with material in the prophetic books in chapter four. These are: land accumulation, the growth of urban centers, militarization, the extraction of surplus, the extravagant lifestyle of the upper class, the expansion of trade and commerce, unjust market conditions, the indebtedness of the peasants, the oppressive role of creditors, and the complicity of the judicial system.
Chapter two presents a brief historical survey of the rise of the monarchy and the market economy. The last two chapters that follow are quite long and are the heart of the work. Chapter three appeals to anthropological and sociological theory, archaeological data, and a number of biblical texts to describe the economic conditions of the eighth century. Premnath’s goal is to substantiate his theoretical framework (“a working hypothesis”, p. 43) of a small elite in control of economic life with the support of the military establishment and the resulting nefarious impact on Israel’s and Judah’s peasants. The argument elaborates on six elements to provide a comprehensive picture of this socioeconomic and political context: the imperial expansion of both countries, regional specialization, demographic growth, regional trade relations, the extraction of surplus (by local and state agents), and the luxurious lifestyle of those in position to spend that surplus. Chapter four then exposits passages from the four eighth century prophetic books according to the ten categories of the second chapter. The exposition of these verses begins with a brief discussion of their authenticity in light of the critical consensus; the author tends to concentrate on those whose connection to the eighth century is generally assumed. On occasion his position requires a slight emendation of a line (e.g., 2 Chron. 26:10, his key text for regional specialization, pp. 56-8) and novel interpretations.
The final chapter of Eighth Century Prophets is brief and suggests possible implications of this study for today. These Premnath divides into two kinds. First, there are a series of lessons that he draws from the prophetic denunciation of injustice. Premnath points out that the question of who has access to economic viability (and why, and at whose expense) is always relevant and that the realities of poverty are inseparable from issues of justice. He also believes that his work demonstrates the importance of informed social analysis for understanding the biblical text and for shaping our own faith in the modern world. In the second part of the chapter, in a style very reminiscent of the perspective of Walter Brueggemann (who provides a blurb on the back cover), Premnath contends for the notion of a prophetic vision. This kind of vision, he says, is able to critique unjust circumstances in light of an appreciation of how things should be and can point society to a different kind of future.
There is much to commend this book. To begin with, one can imagine that for many readers this volume might serve as an initial guide to the social and economic concerns of the prophetic word. Premnath looks at a good number of biblical texts and has amassed a broad collection of data from a variety of sources and disciplines. In other words, his book is a helpful resource tool. In addition, books like this one perform the valuable service of underscoring the potential value of the prophet message for ethics today. Even though these moral demands of God are hard-hitting and pervasive, often they are ignored by the Christian church; the eighth century prophets are perceived simply as repositories of a few messianic predictions and are cited only during the Christmas and Easter seasons.
Eighth Century Prophets does exhibit a few weaknesses, however, and these bear mentioning. First, Premnath’s sources can be dated (In the bibliography there are relatively few published after the mid-1980s); perhaps this is due to the book being based on work done two decades ago. Second, at times—and this really is not surprising in a work of this kind—the interpretation of some texts can be a bit tenuous; one has the impression that the author is stretching the evidence to prove his theory. For example, at Amos 7:1 he wonders if the locusts do not refer to “the second tier of the ruling elite is coming to finish off what little is left for the common peasants” instead of literal insects (p. 134). The denunciations of Micah 3:1-4, 9-12 are said to concern land accumulation, although such a view in context appears limited and a bit forced (pp. 173-76).
More telling is the lack of nuance. Premnath states his case too baldly. The most obvious example of this is his emphasis on an urban-rural dichotomy (e.g., pp. 109-17). He pits quite starkly the ideology of the cities and the machinations of their elites against the life and views of the peasants. The socioeconomic context is described, too, with sweeping generalizations that give the impression that latifundialization was omnipresent and the primary target of the prophets. Other studies (see, e.g., John S. Holladay, Jr., “The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah: Political and Economic Centralization in the Iron IIA-B,” in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land, ed. T. E. Levy [London: Leicester University Press, 1998], pp. 368-98) paint a more balanced and realistic picture of Judah and Israel in that time period. They point out that (1) the rural and urban sectors were interrelated and interdependent to some measure; (2) geographic constraints and the political conflicts throughout the century (such as the central mountainous region) would have put some sort of limit on latifundialization; and (3) the peasant economy, with the control of agricultural surplus by local independent family units, would have continued in many areas even with the rise of some large estates and unjust situations. All of this is not to say that there was no oppression or corrupt government officials that the prophets denounced. Rather, the point is that societies are complex entities. A more careful reading of the prophets can surface more of the diversity and contradictions of the ancient world than Premnath admits. What is more, the hope in all of the eighth century prophets was for a renewed monarchy in Zion – i.e., an organized government with its temple in the capital city, not a return to a bygone idyllic patriarchal age!
Finally, one issue that Premnath does not highlight sufficiently, in the opinion of this reviewer, is the prophetic diatribe against the various kinds of cults and their theologies. Although he does allude to Gottwald’s stress on connecting religious symbols to social struggles for positive change (p. 183), he does not weave the fundamental point of the interrelationship of religion with socioeconomic and political constructs into his hypothesis of what the prophets were condemning. The book of Amos, for instance, hits at the link between the worship of Yahweh and the official sanctuary and ideology (7:9-17), even as it also censures the theology of some merchants that does not see the incongruence between attendance at rituals and fraudulent business practices (8:4-6). The cultic sites were the setting of the skewed official religion and of the misdirected religious ideas of the attendees. The entire religious world of Israel was unacceptable and was to be destroyed (3:14; 4:4-5; 5:4-6, 18-27; 9:1). One could mention as well the possible hints of non-Yahwistic practices in the book (2:7; 5:26; 8:14), all of which contributed to a distorted view of God and, hence, of the nation, its structures, and the daily life of its citizens. Ultimately, what the prophets and Yahweh himself will not tolerate is a false picture of God that would legitimize and perpetuate this perverse social construction of reality. To have pursued this kind of complexity in his reconstruction of eighth century realities would have made Premnath’s study more rich and thorough.
I recommend Eighth Century Prophets as a good starting point for trying to comprehend the prophetic socio-ethical commitments. Its wide brush strokes can set the background for a subsequent, more careful analysis.
M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Earl S. Kalland Chair of Old Testament