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Prophets as Performers

Ascent of the Prophet Elijah
The ascent of the prophet Elijah

The Hebrew prophets were dramatic speakers first and foremost. The prophets, as orators and performers, used communication techniques that gave life and vitality, and often a sense of urgency, to their messages. It is easy to imagine the prophet Amos commanding attention as he bellows, “The Lord roars from Zion” (Amos 1:2). No calm restraint in this address! Remnants of performance techniques can still be found embedded in the written form of the prophetic messages, and sensitivity to these techniques helps breathe renewed life into the interpretation of prophetic texts. Prophetic performance is vividly present in Amos 5-6, a sophisticated series of laments, oracles, and woes. Among the techniques present in these orations are imagined reality, tension construction, and resolution.

The prophetic performer asks the audience to imagine reality differently—to see through the prophet’s eyes. With practiced skill, the prophet draws his audience into the alternate world of his drama by weaving together the familiar and the unexpected, creating a series of reversals that open the audience to alternate social possibilities. A cheer of military victory becomes a dire warning (Amos 5:3). An invitation for the faithful to worship at the royal shrines of Bethel and Gilgal becomes a dire warning against normal life (Amos 5:4-5). In turn, religion (Amos 5:6, Amos 5:18-24), the judicial court (Amos 5:10, Amos 5:12-15), the political elite (Amos 6:1-3), and the marketplace (Amos 5:11, Amos 6:4-7) is each exposed as immoral and violent despite being bathed in a semblance of religious and social propriety (Amos 5:21-23). The resulting discord is intended to create audience tension in search of resolution, guided by the prophet’s designs.

Through his oration, the prophetic performer moves his audience past appearances, behind the everyday and familiar, to unveil the true nature of Israelite social constructs: a world of abuse, pain, and sorrow. The stunning direct address (Amos 5:7, Amos 5:11-14) woven into the dramatic speeches demands audience attention, as the audience suddenly becomes part of the performance, no longer mere spectators.

By the power of his words and the force of his delivery, the performer compels his audience to confront unpleasant truths about themselves, creating a sense of regret that is intended to propel the audience to action. As with any good theater, the prophetic performer does not leave his audience as he found them. Rather, the prophet leads his audience to imagine a world that could be, a world in which evil is hated and goodness is loved (Amos 5:15), where justice flows like water and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). The prophet presents, as a viable alternative, a potential and imagined universe, just as real as the actual, lived, but condemned social universe of the audience. If only the imagined reality of the performance, the world of prophetic theater, constructed jointly by the performer and the audience, can seep out of the realm of the dramatic and invigorate the world of the everyday, a new and bright future is in store (Amos 9:14-15).

  • Terry Giles

    Terry Giles teaches biblical studies as professor of theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.