AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


HOME | Oracular Poetry (A) | Biographical Prose (B) | Autobiographical Prose (C) | Stages in Compilation.

The prophetical books of the Old Testament present us with a phenomenon that is unique, not only in ancient times, but also in the whole range of world literature. They are to be dated almost entirely between the middle of the eighth and the middle of the fourth centuries BC. This period of four hundred years was one of the most important in the history of human thought, and it saw the rise of several of the most significant religious movements made by man.

It is enough to mention the names of Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster (according to some scholars), and the Greek philosophers, from the early Ionians down to Aristotle, to illustrate the extent of the spiritual upheaval throughout the world, and the influence that this age has had upon later thinking.
[It should be remarked that Zoroaster's date is very uncertain, & there is a strong body of opinion in favour of c.1000BC. Cp. E. Bevan in CAH iv.207.]

These four centuries also witnessed epoch-making changes in the realm of world politics. Amos, the earliest of the canonical prophets, was probably at work in the year to which tradition ascribes the foundation of Rome. Greece had hardly attained to a national self-consciousness; Amos was probably born before the first Olympiad. The Persians were but a tribe of wild mountain shepherds, and, the hegemony of civilization was contested between Mesopotamia, now represented by Assyria, and Egypt. Of these two the latter had reached her political and military zenith some seven centuries earlier, and was now drawing near to disaster and eclipse, while the former was approaching the highest point she ever reached in her career of attempted world conquest. By the time the prophetic age closed Rome 'was showing signs of being the strongest power in Italy, Greece had passed her peak of high achievement, and was merging, politically, into the kingdom of Macedon, soon to attain world-dominion under Alexander. There may even be references to him in some of the latest prophetic utterances. Assyria and Egypt had both fallen before the brilliant Chaldaean dynasty of Babylon, and Babylon herself had given place to Persia. And even this last great empire, shaken by the disastrous European wars of the fifth century, was rapidly sinking into the decay which led to her complete overthrow and the introduction of the new Greek culture into the nearer East.

In this age of ferment in the world of politics, thought and religion, among the saints, philosophers, statesmen and warriors who shine, so brightly on the pages of its history, there is no class of men whose influence has been greater or more durable than that of the prophets of Israel. They offered the world a solution of one of man's greatest problems, the correlation of religion and ethics. It might be possible to criticize both their theology and their moral standards as being imperfect, and few would deny that advance has been made in both directions since their time. Yet the fact remains that, but for them, as far as our records of humanity can teach us, the two lines of human development would have remained apart, and the gulf between them would have steadily widened.

It is not, however, with, these larger aspects of the prophets' utterances that we have now to deal, but with the literary form in which their words have come down to us. It will be at once obvious that we cannot treat problems presented by these documents on the lines followed in dealing with the Law and the historical books. There we were concerned, for the most part, with compilations that were the result of the slow growth of generations, or even of centuries. And there is not a single passage (apart from one or two poetical pieces, and possibly a few of Samuel's utterances) that we can assign to an author whose name we know. Here, in the prophetic literature, we have before us the work of definite individuals. Each book bears a name, and in every case but one it purports to contain primarily a record of the message uttered by the man whose name it bears. It should, therefore, be the expression of a distinct personality, and the stress in the criticism of the prophets has always been laid on the attempt to determine the amount of the material that can safely be ascribed to each prophet. Too often this consideration has been, allowed to obscure all others and the attempt has been made to distinguish the original (or "genuine") portions of the several documents from later accretions, without reference to the form that the work now takes. The dominant factors in forming opinions have been matters of style, general outlook and theology, all of which leave room for a broad margin of error due to subjectivity. It is only within comparatively recent years that students have sought more objective criteria in the study of the forms that the literature takes. Many of the older conclusions have been only the more firmly established, and the way has been prepared for still further advance in understanding the history of these books.

In our Hebrew Bibles, the prophets - or more strictly the "latter Prophets" - are comprised in four "rolls". One each for Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and the fourth consists of the work of the "Twelve", commonly called in English the "Minor Prophets". These are, in the Hebrew order, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
[The English versions follow the Hebrew; the order in the Septuagint is slightly different, & the "Twelve" are placed before Isaiah.)

Apparently the intention was, in the first instance, to arrange the books in chronological sequence, and, though the dates of several are doubtful or disputed, the modern critic will probably maintain that they are, for the most part, at least, correctly grouped.

When we come to read the books themselves, we can hardly avoid being struck by the apparent want of logical sequence within most of them. Exceptions may be claimed, perhaps, for Haggai and parts of Zechariah and Isaiah, but it is practically impossible to read any of the other books as a continuous whole. We are repeatedly confronted with sudden changes of subject, with marked differences in style, and it is difficult in some cases to find anything like a serious logical arrangement. We have, rather, the impression that each is a compilation, whose separate parts have been put together either haphazard or on principles that are not always obvious to the modern reader. Sometimes a special kind of grouping is clear; several of the books, for instance, contain little collections of utterances concerning foreign nations. But, allowing for all this, the prophetic literature in the main presents us with a striking lack of continuity.

This is still more obvious when we turn to the Hebrew text. Here we notice at once that in several of the books we have both prose and poetry; nor is each type collected by itself; the two are usually interwoven, a section of prose standing between two poetic groups.

Prose alone is found in Jonah and Haggai, and poetry alone (except for occasional sentences) in Joel, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah and Malachi; both occur (in varying proportions) in the other books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos and Zechariah. [The Psalm in ch.ii is not to be regarded as a part of the original book.]


The impression of patchwork that we have noticed is deepened in most of the books when we study the poetic sections rather more closely. From time to time (more often in some books than in others) we have the solemn proclamation,

"Thus saith the Lord",

a phrase which stands naturally at the head of an independent utterance. In other places we find the phrase

"saith the Lord",

which is, apparently, a kind of signature, authenticating the divine origin of what immediately precedes.
[There is little resemblance between these two phrases in Hebrew; the second means literally "The oracle of the Lord.")

This would be in place only at the end of a pronouncement of the divine message. There are occasionally poems of some length, e.g. the great taunt-song over the fall of a tyrant in Isa.xiv, and the psalms at the beginning of Nahum and the end of Habakkuk. Most of the poetry, if not all of it, in Ezekiel is of this kind. But usually within a poetic group the subject changes with bewildering speed and we seldom find half a dozen consecutive verses with no break in the sense. Sometimes a superficial reading gives an impression of continuity, which is dissipated on closer study. A good instance is to be found in Isa.i, where verses 9 and 10 both have the names of Sodom and Gomorrah, but verse 10 naturally forms a new beginning, and the subject of what follows is quite different from that of the preceding verses.

Finally, we note frequent changes in the metre; (See pp.139 ff.) to cite Isa.i again, we find that the opening verses 2 : 3 are in 3 : 3 (2 : 2 : 2), while that which follows is mainly 2 : 2, with an occasional 3 : 2. The conclusion from these facts is almost irresistible. We have in each poetic section of the prophetic books (apart from the few longer poems already mentioned) a collection of short utterances, which may originally have had little to do with one another, and whose juxtaposition is to be attributed, not necessarily to the prophet himself, but to a collector. This does not exclude the possibility that a prophet may have been his own collector, and have been to some extent responsible for the present form of collections. But, as we shall see later, there is usually some evidence that suggests that they assumed the shape in which we now find them at a time considerably later than that of the man whose words they enshrine.

The habits and methods of these collectors have not yet received the full study that they deserve, but some features of their work are already clear. As we look over any collection, we notice that it begins with little poems that are complete and well preserved. Further, it is comparatively seldom that the earlier passages in a collection awaken doubts as to authorship. If there is any existing utterance by Isaiah, it may safely be found in the first twenty or so verses of ch.i. No one has ever seriously doubted Jeremiah's authorship of ch.iii.19ff, or of ch.xx.7ff; each passage stands at the head of a poetic collection. But as we get nearer to the end of a collection, we often find that the material grows much more "scrappy". Sometimes we may have individual sentences, which have no relation to their context; sometimes an utterance is clearly unfinished, sometimes it looks as though it had lost its opening words. Indications suggesting a later age begin to appear.

For example, in we have a "collection" which opens with passages in prose, and most of the poetical pieces in chs.ix, x awaken little suspicion. On the other hand, ch.xi begins with a phrase that seems to imply that the house of David has been overthrown, though not finally destroyed, and we think, not of Ahaz or Hezekiah, but of Zerubbabel.
[The word rendered "stem" means properly the stump left in the ground after a tree has been cut down.]

Occasionally we find the same passage occurring in slightly different forms in more than one place. The most familiar instance is the appearance of nearly identical language in Isa.ii.2-4 and Mic.iv.1-4. Here it is also to be noted that in Micah the section has an extra verse, at the end of which, stands one of those formulae, which attest the divine origin of the message- "For the mouth of the Lord of Hosts hath spoken it." The conclusion is irresistible; two different compilers have found this wonderful utterance and each has used it to place, not this time at the end, but at the head of his collection. One of the two had it in a complete form, while the other had a mutilated copy that lacked the last sentence. Again, Jeremiah contains several passages found elsewhere, among which we may especially notice a parallel within the book itself, l.41-43 is almost The main difference is that the latter passage is addressed to Zion, the former, merely by the alteration or the name, to Babylon. Again, we note that in the little poem is carried on down to verse 26, and we are led to feel that the collector who introduced it into ch.I had only a mutilated form in front of him.

Sometimes we suspect that the recurrence of a word or phrase has induced the collector to place two passages side by side. A good instance may be seen in a passage already referred to, Isa.i, where verses 9 and 10 both mention Sodom and Gomorrah. But this (apart from the metre) is the only link between the two, since verses 4-9 are a cry of suffering over the distress of Judah; and though the fact of her sin is not ignored, the main theme is the desolation of the land. Verses 10ff., on the other hand, are a denunciation of the cultus and a demand for social justice, with no reference whatever to the punishment which the country is enduring. Grouping according to subject is very common; the passages in Hosea, which describe religion in terms of the marriage relation, all stand near the beginning of the book, though not all in the same collection. This tendency is most obvious where patriotic collectors have put together utterances that deal with foreign nations. Thus, in Jer.xlvi we have a little collection of poems that refer to Egypt, of which the first two are found in verses 3-6 and 7ff, respectively. Jer.x1viii has Moab for its subject, and two, at least, of the pieces are found also in a similar collection in Isa.xv.f. One book - that which bears the name of Obadiah - consists almost entirely of such pieces; all directed against Edom, and, again, two of these are to be found in Jer.xlix.7ff.

Nahum consists (apart from the opening psalm) of passages describing the fall of Nineveh. Sometimes the separate collections, each dealing with one nation, are combined into longer booklets; we have such "collections of collections" in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Amos. In the case of Jeremiah one whole group, comprising l, li, is concerned with the overthrow of Babylon, and must date from a time long after the death of Jeremiah himself.

Another striking tendency of the collectors remains to be noticed. This is their fondness for a happy ending. Few people like to close on a note of gloom, and ancient Israel was particularly sensitive on this matter. In later days the feeling was so strong that there were certain books - Isaiah among them - in which the closing verse was so sad that another was always read after it. So any collection of prophetic utterances will have at the end, if possible, a passage containing a promise of a brighter day. The instance of Isa.xi has already been noted, and a pair of happy little psalms in ch., with which this particular collection concludes, follows it. Hosea and Amos both end on a note of hopefulness, and in the latter book, at any rate, the compiler has finished with a passage which almost certainly comes from a later time, when the " tabernacle of David " had fallen, i.e. his dynasty was no longer on the throne. It might be that a collector could find a passage which was certainly due to the prophet whose words formed his main interest, but failing that, he would do his best to provide what he needed from some other source, or even, possibly, add something of his own.

We thus reach certain general conclusions, subject to slight modifications in individual instances, as to the way in which the poetical sections of the prophetic books reached the form in which we now find them. We have the original utterances of the prophet, given in short, telling, often passionate, lyrics, remembered and written down separately. Small collections of these were made, and the collectors continued to add from time to time passages that came into their hands from one source or another. They were not particular as to the completeness of what they found, nor were they greatly concerned as to authorship, especially in the later stages of the process. The growth of the collections continued over a long period, perhaps over some centuries.

Several of the prophetic books never pass beyond this stage; Joel, Obadiah, Zephaniah and Malachi consist each of a single collection of this kind. (Joel may be regarded rather as a little group of small "collections." In any case the pieces in it come from more than one hand, possibly from more than one period, see below, pp.357 f. ]

In Micah we seem to have a combination of two, or possibly three, collections, while in Nahum and Habakkuk a psalm has been added to the true prophetic material, in the one case at the beginning, in the other at the end. The remaining books all include a certain amount of prose, and to this element in their structure we now turn.


A superficial study of the prose sections found in the prophetic books shows us that it falls readily into two main types. In the first class, we have narratives about the prophet's experiences, written in the third person, and quite frankly the work of a "biographer". It is true that we cannot speak strictly of biography in this connexion, since there seems to have been no attempt so to arrange the material as to give a picture of the life of the man concerned. In all probability we have here again collections, this time of popular stories, such as would be told about the great heroes of Israel, including, not only the canonical prophets, but also many of their predecessors. Occasionally we have reason to suspect that imagination has played a part in their construction; some of the Elisha stories would serve as illustrations. In other cases, however - and Jeremiah is the outstanding instance - we have good grounds for believing that the narratives are a strictly reliable account by an eyewitness of the events described.

Collections of this kind were available for the use of the compilers of the books of Samuel and Kings, especially the latter, and we have one instance in which narratives used in an historical book were also included in a prophetic book - that of Isaiah. [Jer.lii represents the reverse process. It does not mention Jeremiah and is a kind of appendix taken from an historical book.]

One complete book, that of Jonah, is a prose description of events in the prophet's life, and this type of writing is found also in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea. [The Psalm in ch.ii is not an original part of the book.] 

One of its characteristic features is that it contains very little of the actual message delivered by the prophet. We are told simply, e.g. that Jonah preached to Nineveh, but we have no record of the words he used. Sometimes we have passages in which the messages are given at length, but in these cases there is generally ground for suspicion that they belonged originally to another type, and have been slightly modified to appear in the third person.  [This seems to be the best explanation of the form now assumed by Jer.vii and the whole of Haggai.]


In the second class of prose passages we have material, written in the first person, describing actual experiences of the prophet. Where a prophet gives us an account of his initial call, it is in this form, and pieces of this type usually describe the actual message that a prophet delivered. Many of them recount visions received and conversations carried on between the prophet and his God while he was in the ecstatic state. Several of these are described for us in Jeremiah and Amos, while the original work of Zechariah belongs almost entirely to this form. As has just been remarked, there are one or two instances (e.g. the opening verses of Jer.vii and the book of Haggai) that, in style and content, attach themselves to this type, though they now appear in the third person. We may conjecture that these passages have been modified from an original first person. Sometimes we have parallels, one in each of the two prose forms. Thus it seems clear that Jer.vii.1-20 and Jer.xxvi refer to the same occasion, and it may be maintained that Hosea i (third person) and Hosea iii (first person) arc parallel accounts of the same event as seen from two different points of view. There is, in Zech.xi.4-17, one curious, isolated passage of this type, to which the name of no prophet is attached; and it is found also in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (practically the whole book), Hosea and Amos. The probability of its occurrence in Haggai has already been noted.

Such evidence as is available suggests that where this type occurs it may be ascribed to the prophet himself, unless there are strong reasons to the contrary. We may suspect that where it contains his message, as it so often does, the original words were heard and uttered in the poetic form usual in prophetic oracles. But when the prophet himself wrote them down, or superintended their transcription, it seems that he turned them into prose. There are those who hold that every genuine message was what a prophet heard Yahweh say while in the ecstatic condition, and that he repeated it in poetic form to the bystanders when he recovered his normal state. Such utterances would be remembered and handed from one to another in their original form. It was only when the prophet himself had them written down, when the keenness of his memory was growing dull, that he gave the substance in prose.

There is at least one instance in which we have the same little oracle in the two forms and this helps us to understand the way in which this last type of prose may have been produced.
[Jer.x.10-12; verse 10 is in poetic form, while verse 11 & 12 simply repeat the substance of the brief lyric with additions & circumlocutions.]

Our first glance, then, at the prophetic books has shown us three main types of material:

A. Oracular poetry.  
B. Biographical prose i.e. prose in the third person.
C. Autobiographical prose i.e. prose in the first person.

We meet occasionally with passages that do not come under any of these heads, particularly in the form of longer and more artificial poems, and from time to time we suspect that there have been considerable modifications of the original. But these three will always be found to serve as giving us a general outline of the material. We have now to consider the way in which it was used to form the books as we have them today.


We have already seen that the basis of much of our prophetic books is to be found in a number of comparatively small collections of poetic material (type A). It is this, which forms the first stage, and with it we may class collections belonging to one or other of the two prose types, especially to B. A number of our books (including, as far as form goes, Ezekiel) got no farther, and are still "simple". These include most of the "Twelve" - Joel, Obadiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi, while Jonah, Nahum and Habakkuk include each a psalm in addition to the strictly prophetic material. Each of these includes only one type, though further examination may show that attaching two or more collections to one another has formed some of them. The other books - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos and Zechariah - we may call composite, since they include more than one type. Nor did simply taking all the material of one type and placing it together, before or after all the material of another type produce them. In these books the types are interwoven with one another, and usually in a way that makes it clear that the work was done deliberately, and in accordance with some definite plan. Here we have another stage, distinct from that of the collector, which we may call that of the compiler.

The methods of these compilers deserve careful study, and, since they differed somewhat in the case of different books, they must be left for discussion under the head of each individual prophet. But, in general, we may remark that a compiler seldom broke up a collection of oracular poetry. That he kept mainly intact (there are exceptions, especially in Isaiah), and used selections from one or other of the prose types he found to his hand to introduce or to close the collection. This is especially noticeable in cases where (as happens particularly often in the book of Jeremiah) the prose sections were dated.

One more step must be noted. Several oracular collections were anonymous, and it is a most interesting fact that we are ignorant of the very names of some of the men who have told us most about God. Yet their words were included, since men recognized the divine origin of the message enshrined therein. Their exact position was determined by various considerations; one of the longest of these collections was placed immediately after the book of Isaiah.

Three others, very different in style and tone, yet all bearing at their head the word massa, "burden" or "oracle", were appended to the book of Zechariah in its original form (Zech.i-viii). [Vis. Zech.ix-xi; -xiv; Malachi. The word massa seems to have been used both for a collection of oracles (cp. Isa.xv.1; xvii.1; xix.1; xxi.1, 11, 13; x.1; xi.1; xxx.6; Nah.i.1; Hab.i.1; etc.) as well as for a single oracle, provided it dealt with a different subject.]

The last of these had a name given to it from its own text, and was called "Malachi" = "my messenger" (Mal.iii.i). This secured its independence, but the others came to be simply attached to the books that preceded them.

So to this day we include one of the larger anonymous collections in the book of Isaiah (Isa.xl-lxvi), while two of them now form part of the book of Zechariah (Zech.ix-xi, -xiv), and perhaps other phenomena of the prophetic books are to be explained in the same way. [There are almost certainly two collections included here, but they had probably been united into a single book before they were placed after Isa.xxxix.]

With this brief general introduction we can proceed to the individual prophetic books.