Sunday, October 23, 2005

Prophetic Nature

'Don't worry about the vase.'
'What vase...?' Neo turns and brushes a vase, sending it to the floor with a loud crash as it shatters.
'How did you know...?
'Ohh, what's really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything?'

There is a discussion of prophecy in the latest Harry Potter book. In particular, a prophecy was made concerning Harry and Voldemort and their enmity. Headmaster Dumbledore states that Voldemort's hearing of the prophecy was what began to make it come true. If Voldemort hadn't heard it, he says, Voldemort wouldn't have gone after Harry's family, wouldn't have transferred power to Harry, wouldn't have locked them together in destiny. If prophecy made is not prophecy heard, it cannot become prophecy fulfilled. This is the argument made in the book.

Fascinating, I thought. First, a definition of prophecy foremost linked to prediction and soothsaying as most popular definitions are, but beyond that a definition that considers that it needs to be heard in order to be carried out. Self-fulfilling, we could say.

I couldn't help myself. I started to apply this definition to those deemed prophets in the Old Testament. First, are they primarily about prediction and soothsaying? The argument could be made and has been made, first considering the immediate fate of the people of Israel and Judah carted off to exile for their unfaithfulness. There are plenty of predictions made about that. And then there are those, beginning with the New Testament writers, who read back predictions about Jesus, oracles made about what he would do and what he has yet to do. As we come closer to Advent, we prepare to hear some of these again.

And yet there are other oracles as well. There are oracles that deal with matters apart from some future happening, oracles concerning the here and now; what God thinks about the here and now. They are oracles concerning the widow and the orphan, the people's unwillingness to turn from idols, the political climate of the day (and let's be honest: the Bible is as political a text as much as it is a theological text). They were oracles to turn from present unrighteousness, sometimes to prevent future calamity and sometimes because God in that moment was disapproving. People needed to be reminded of the past and cajoled about the present just as much if not more than they needed to be warned about the future. The prophet's role was much bigger than predicting the future only.

So where's that leave the second part of the definition used by Dumbledore and also used in The Matrix, quoted above? Did the people react to the prophets' message in such a way to fulfill it? Of that perhaps we are less sure, at least in the way that Neo or Voldemort do in their respective stories. The pieces of the message that are more predictive in nature are fulfilled because the people don't listen. 'You are being unfaithful,' the prophet exclaims. 'Who are you to say what faithfulness is,' the people shoot back. It wasn't because the message was heeded that the kingdoms fell; it was because it was ignored. Present wrongdoings go unfixed and they continue on their own path to destiny in Babylon.

What is it about words of warning that cause us to react the way we do? Terror alert levels change, language of WMDs are used and the course of our lives change. A woman is told by all her friends that a man is absolute scum and that somehow makes her want to date him more. Two paths are laid out before someone, one of which carries more risk and also more reward. Will that path always be chosen? Prophecy in some sense involves our reaction. A prophet does not serve his or her purpose if no one is there to listen.

Ultimately, I find that the purpose of Biblical prophecy and the definition above dovetail. Prophecies in the Old Testament were meant to change history's course, not declare it. Little good it usually did (does), though.