Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The (MASSA) as a Type of Prophetic Book

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The (MASSA) as a Type of Prophetic Book

Article excerpt

(ProQuest Information and Learning: Foreign text omitted.)

In the Hebrew Scriptures the term ... (massa) can designate not only individual prophecies but also sections of prophetic books and prophetic books in their entirety. This is potentially significant in view of current attempts to read prophetic books synchronically and holistically, in contrast to the conventional historical-critical method of separating the text into original prophetic speeches and subsequent redactional additions. If a book or a section of a book is labeled a ... in its superscription, this could tell us something about how to read it as a whole, provided that we know what this term means. This article will argue that ... is a genre of prophetic literature and will attempt to show that this definition can provide a key for reading the prophetic books.

I. Unsuccessful Attempts to Define ... Etymologically

The word ... has generally been translated as "oracle" in most recent English versions of the Bible (RSV, NRSV, NEB, NAB, NIV, etc.). Other translations, however, resort to more neutral terms such as "pronouncement" or "proclamation," etc. (e.g., JPSV and TEV). This difference reflects the impasse that has been reached in attempts to define the term etymologically.

The word ... is a noun derived from the root ..., which basically means "carry" or "lift up." In thirty-three of the noun's sixty-five occurrences the derivation is fairly clear. In most of these cases it refers to something that is literally carried or lifted, and in a few other cases to something that is figuratively weighty or burdensome.1 In twenty-seven other occurrences, however, the same word designates speech or writing that somehow pertains to prophets,2 and in at least sixteen of these occurrences a specific textual passage is identified as a ...3 The traditional translation as "oracle" depends more on this contextual association with prophecy than on any other lexicographical evidence. To specify what ... means in prophetic contexts scholars have attempted to extend the clearly defined part of the semantic field into the area that is less clearly defined. Some have thus proposed that the well-established sense of the word, referring to something that is literally or figuratively burdensome, be extended to refer to a prophecy that is also a "burden" in the sense that its message is hard to bear. According to this theory, a ... would be a prophecy of doom.4 The problem is that some of the prophecies to which the term ... is applied do not readily fit this description with respect to their content.5

Taking an alternative but similarly etymological approach, other scholars have proposed that the prophetic use of the word is related to the idiomatic phrase ..., "to lift [one's] voice." A ... is thus what results from "lifting [one's] voice," hence its translation as "pronouncement" or "proclamation," etc.6 This understanding of the etymology is perhaps more plausible on its face, but it does not really help to clarify the particularly prophetic connotations of the word. It only tells us, rather colorlessly, that the prophecy in question was uttered. If the term ... does indeed refer to what results from "lifting [one's] voice," then it should be applicable to utterances of many kinds, not just prophetic ones.7 The main problem with this theory is its failure to explain why the term-understood in this way-seems limited mainly to prophecies.

We are thus left with two alternative proposals, neither of which is entirely persuasive. In proposing these two etymologies, modern scholars have essentially reiterated the same conclusions that our ancient and medieval forebears reached without the aid of modern comparative Semitic philology. Short of some new archaeological discovery that provides us with a lexicographical breakthrough, we have gone about as far as etymology can take us. Richard Weis has tried an approach not based on etymology, analyzing the form and function of the prophetic speeches and writings to which the term . …

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