In Search of a Prophetic Context: How the Social Sciences Can Help Shed Light on Prophetic Complaints against Injustice
A serious difficulty facing those who study the social-justice teachings of the Old Testament prophets is the ambiguity that surrounds their socio-historical context. Passages that condemn the landownership abuse of farmers in eighth-century Judah, such as Isaiah 5.8-10, reveal that land was taken and people suffered, but their authors neglect to explain the socio-economic variables that would have been apparent to their intended audience. Due to a lack of extra-biblical evidence addressing shifting landownership strategies in the eighth-century BCE, the field of biblical studies has been unable to solve this problem on its own. Research in the social sciences, however, offers the possibility of a deeper contextual understanding. Gerhard Lenski, Timothy Earle, and Allen Johnson have found that agrarian societies tend to experience a reoccurring pattern of forced land consolidation and heightened class division during times of rapid economic development. Considering that the archaeological record evidences such a period of growth throughout the ancient Near East during the eighth century BCE, comparisons can be drawn between modern and prophetic contexts. Using the landownership abuses that took place during Tunisia’s twentieth century CE economic development as a template, I argue that social scientific theories can help to shed light on the contextual questions that surround the prophetic complaints of the Old Testament.
Keywords: Bible, Old Testament, Prophetic Literature, Ancient Near East, Agriculture, Economic Justice, Economic Anthropology
Rev. Matthew J.M. Coomber
PhD Candidate, Department of Biblical Studies, The University of Sheffield