THE PROPHETS CAN only be understood if you understand that their context is an ideological “totalism” that intends to contain all thinkable, imaginable, doable social possibilities. That totalism always wants to monopolize imagination and technology so that there seem to be no serious alternatives.
In the ancient world of the Bible, that totalism is represented and embodied by the monarchy of Solomon in the Jerusalem temple. The king was surrounded by priests in the temple and by scribes who did the fine print to legitimate everything. And that totalism was completely intolerant of any alternative thinking.
We are able, in the Old Testament, to identify many of the features of Solomon’s totalism. First of all, it was an economy of extraction that regularly transferred wealth from subsistence farmers to the elite in Jerusalem, who lived off the surplus, and the device and strategy for that extraction was an exploitative tax system.
That totalism also needs a strong military. Solomon was an arms dealer. Partly, Solomon’s military was for show, and partly it was for intimidation. The totalism also had to exercise enormous economic opulence to impress people with wealth, so that Solomon’s temple is essentially an exhibit of Solomon’s much, much gold. The temple, and the priests who operated the temple, fashioned a series of purity laws to determine who the purer people and the impurer people were, to determine who had access and who was excluded from the goodies.
The three-chambered temple of King Solomon is a lot like a commercial airline. There was the outer court for women and gentiles. There was the inner court for guys in suits. And there was the holy of holies where only the high priests could go. And that’s a lot like the tourist cabin and the first-class cabin and the cockpit where only the high priests can go. Everything is delineated by rank, and therefore by opportunities that come with it. And this whole enterprise of extraction and exhibit and grandiose commoditization was all blessed by a very anemic God, whose only function was to bless the regime. So that under Solomon, you get a chosen king, a chosen city, and a chosen land, to the exclusion of all those who were not chosen.
What you can see in the biblical record is that this totalism was completely impatient with and intolerant of any alternative thinking. It was prepared to crush any alternative thinking, which was represented by the prophets.
What you get is the expulsion of the prophets, or the killing of the prophets, because they challenge the totalism that was legitimated by this anemic God.
Eruptions of Poetry
IN THE WAY the history of the Old Testament works, for 400 years you get a recital of the kings of the family of Solomon, and these are the point persons for the extraction system. But when you read along in First and Second Kings, what you see periodically are eruptions of poetry. These are the prophets who come from nowhere. They regularly unsettle the kings, and they come to occupy space in the historical recital. You can see first of all that those prophets are without a pedigree. They don’t have any credentials that legitimate what they want to say. Second, they come from nowhere. They are people who do not accept the truth of the totalism, and the way they articulate their coming from elsewhere is that they either say, “Thus says the Lord,” or they say “The word of the Lord came to me,” and “the Lord” becomes a kind of a signal that this is a word that will not fit or accommodate the totalism.
The prophets, moreover, were deeply grounded in the old covenantal traditions and the wisdom traditions, so they knew that there were structures and limits inherent to the way of creation that could not be violated with impunity. They have a very vigorous notion of the governance of God. But along with that sense of tradition, they have an acute sense of social reality.