Making Prophecy Come True
Human Responsibility for the End of the World
James E. Brenneman
The Rhetorical Appropriation of Apocalyptic Literature
LosAngeles Times astrological reading suggested that "a physical checkup
is on tap" for me and that my dreamlife should be considered "colorfuland
prophetic." I am inclined to make the first prediction come true, thoughI
do not relish another proctology exam. As for my colorful and propheticdreamlife,
I recently dreamt that I was headed down a runway only to discoverthat I
had left my presentation notes for the Apocalypticism and MillennialismConference
in the men’s bathroom at Los Angeles airport. You can be surethat I
have fought like the dickens to keep that prediction from comingtrue.
I come tothis subject of prophetic eschatology and our role in the outcome of apocalyptic predictions quite personally. For a while in my early childhood, my father was a follower of a self-proclaimed prophet of the last days: William Branham, thought to be Elijah and John the Baptist reborn. Branham was a 1950s Pentecostal preacher from southern Indiana whose writings and sermons were recordedverbatim so as not to miss a single prediction about the "last days" inwhich we were living. My father never lived to see Branham’s predictionscome true.
My dad’s sister and family still follow a self-anointed feminine deity hailing from southern California who runs a magnificent "end-time" haven in the heartland of Iowa, complete with underground vaults for storing food and ammunition for the inevitable catastrophic climax foreshadowing the end of the ages. In spite of my expressed doubts, she did invite me to flee with them tothis haven once things started to unravel. I am keeping my options open.
The question for us is not whether we can all agree on what apocalyptic literature has to say, but how we can access it. What are its rhetorical powers of persuasion in the social arena? What forms of discourse provide its inner logic? Ifapocalyptic literature is to be judged on the basis of its persuasive advocacy,then any apocalyptic scenario can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Couldit be that it is our God-given destiny to make prophecy come true, eitherto our blessing or to our judgment? The question is not meant to be rhetorical.My central thesis here is that the only answer to this question must be,yes. As readers of Scripture, you and I are given the awesome, wonderful,holy, frightening obligation of making prophecy come true to our blessingor to our judgment.
The End of the World as Contingent upon Human Will
Both Isaiah 2:2-4 and Joel 3:9-17
use the Yahweh speech form to claim validation for their visions of theend.
Both speak for Yahweh. Other parallels are striking. In both accounts,Yahweh
appears on Mt. Zion. In Isaiah’s version, Yahweh appears as a divine
magnet, wooing the nations up the mountainside. In Joel, Yahweh descendsthe
mountain as divine warrior who slaughters the nations in the valley.Joel’s
battle in the valley of Jehosophat is reminiscent of end-time depictionsin
that other well-known apocalyptic battlefield, the Valley of Armageddon.The
statement in Joel 3:10a, "Beat your plowshares into swords and yourpruning
hooks into spears," is an explicit reversal of the phrase madefamous by Isaiah
2:4b: "Beat your swords into plowshares and your spearsinto pruning hooks."
It is adisservice to Isaiah and Joel as well as ethically irresponsible to attemptto harmonize their differences or to merge the two into one story, as ifboth are true in some grand scheme still unknown to us. Nor is it appropriateto mellow the harshness of their differences by positing a temporal gapbetween them, as if Joel’s bloody account prepares the world for Isaiah’speaceable vision. Using the explicit language of Isaiah, Joel rejects Isaiah’s peaceful version as ineffective for his own time. Joel’s politics precluded Isaiah’s. Each prophet believed his point of view and operated under theburden of being accused of uttering falsehoods by those not persuaded. Indeed, the ethic of personal responsibility undertaken by both prophetscannot be underestimated, even if that responsibility was sometimes shuffledinto the heavens with the claim that this was Yahweh’s word.
When itcomes to choosing to live by Isaiah 2:2-4 or Joel 3:9-12, today’s readers may hesitate to take the same risk Isaiah and Joel did in declaring their views publicly. Indeed, from the perspective of one reading, the othercan rightly be deemed false. In principle, Yahweh can return to Zion inaccordance with Joel’s reconstruction of events, as a violent and exclusiveGod, or Yahweh can return to Zion with Torah in hand and an invitationof inclusion to all nations to join Yahweh there as Isaiah envisions. Yahweh cannot do both, though Yahweh may do neither. In other words, Yahweh alone appears on the surface to be the final arbiter between Joel and Isaiahwith regard to their truthful predictions of the destiny of the world.As we have already noted, however, Yahweh may or may not know, but if heknows, he certainly isn’t telling us. Remember, Yahweh did say to Moses,"I shall hide my face from them. I shall see what their end will be" (Deut.32:20).
The moreauthoritative one claims these texts to be as "the Word of God," the moreserious becomes our reading. The problem simply and gravely moves froma literary one to a theological one. Can we so easily shift the moral blamefor the outcome of human destiny to God, arguing as some have that "wecannot do ethics for God?" But we are not so much doing ethics for Godas accepting God’s way of doing ethics, namely, rising as did our propheticforbears to argue for or against lesser and better ways of living our lives.This is not human hubris. It is merely recognizing the co-creative roleGod has given humans to construct a better world and honoring God’s invitationto do so.
We darenot simply avoid the subject altogether, fleeing from the questions ofdestiny that the apocalyptic literature goads us to address. Open-ended,never-quite-resolved questions of human destiny may be apocalyptic literature’sgreatest gift to us. The very omnipresence of apocalyptic readings throughouthistory suggests that the end has been misunderstood. Apocalyptic signshave always been with us. So too, as O’Leary suggests, the end is alwaysjust before us. If we were to gain a foothold in the future, might we notsee the end less as closure to time and history than as a normative standardby which our actions may be measured?
Shall weimagine with the prophet Joel and all subsequent readers persuaded by hisprophetic vision that the "last days" are provoked by the bloody motherof all battles in which Yahweh invites the proliferation of war machinesat the expense of the family farm? Or shall we imagine with Isaiah thatthe nations will voluntarily "flow up" to the mountain of Yahweh, enrollin the beit midrash, and sit under the tutelage of the Master Rabbias Yahweh exegetes Torah? Should the nations then submit their differencesto Yahweh for mediation, followed by a meltdown of their massive militaryweaponry into tools of agriculture? In the advent of a new millenium, darethe believers church shirk its moral obligation to defend Isaiah’s versionof the end as true and label Joel’s version as false? These questions deservea response.
Embracing the Peaceable Vision
Since actions follow imaginings,
what might be the practical consequence of making one or the other of these
two prophetic visions come true to our blessing or to our judgment? Whatif
in purely human ethical terms we trust our intuitive sense as to whichis
more in keeping with our image of who God is? Which version strikesus as
the better option? Which is more humane? Should we not marginalizeJoel 3:9-12—functionally
if not formally—and close the canon on its usein all future end-time
projections? Should we not accept it, along withother "texts of terror" (on
slavery and against women), as a witness tothe history of God’s people
without according it continuing moral forcein the present?
The artof persuasion as practiced in the historic believers churches grew outof the conviction that every person should be free to believe and disbelieveas warranted. The accusations of being false prophets (heretics) and thecommunal memory of martyrdom gave rise to a healthy suspicion of the marshalingof coercive measures to guarantee belief. In effect, they rejected Joel’sapocalyptic methodology in favor of Isaiah’s model of persuasion and voluntarysubmission to Yahweh’s rule. For their sake and ours, can we do less?
The worldas we know it and construct it need not end in a gruesome bloody pulp.On the contrary, the prophet Micah, silenced in the course of this discussion,can weigh in here with his own "revolutionary coda" to the plowshare tradition. In his version, Micah sees every nation arriving on Mt. Zion in the nameof its own God (4:5). Here, in almost postmodern terms, Micah sees multiplevisions of the peaceable kingdom of all peoples converging toward a truth.Like Israel of old, we too have the opportunity and high privilege to be"a light to the nations," to be advocates of a peaceful and humane visionfor our common destiny. In so doing, we will begin to make the end-of-the-worldprophecies of Micah and Isaiah come true to our blessing and so also forwhole world. Micah’s words remind us of the power of imaginative rhetoricto persuade. I pray that all who hear will be persuaded by his open invitation: