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Spring 2006 · Vol. 35 No. 1 · pp. 44–58 

The Function of Imprecation in Israel’s Eighth-Century Prophets

Pierre Gilbert

The call to conversion is at the very heart of the prophetic discourse in the Old Testament. It is impossible to read the prophets without being struck by their insistent call to return to Yahweh. For them, it is clearly a matter of life and death. The notion of conversion in the prophetic literature, however, is a very complex matter and should ideally be examined from various angles. I do not pretend, within the constraints of this article, to be in a position to do justice to the various facets of this issue. I will therefore limit my investigation to a specific dimension of this question: the oracles of judgment.

Free will, this wonderful attribute that bestows infinite value on humanity and most fundamentally defines the image of God in men and women, also enables them to welcome or to reject God’s invitation.

In the prophetic literature, the proclamation of God’s judgment is at the very center of the invitation to turn to God. This tends to be generally true for the prophetic corpus as a whole, but is particularly applicable to the eighth-century prophets: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. Given the predominant character of the imprecatory motif in these books, I will present a comparative study of the use of the curse motif in the eighth-century prophets and in the literature of the ancient Near East. 1 This study will not only clarify the role of an all-important literary device. It will also provide the basic building blocks for a better understanding of the concept of conversion in the prophetic literature.

In recent years, exegetes have given relatively little attention to the imprecatory motif. While the topic has been the object of a number of studies since 1960, they have, for the most part, been lodged within the framework of form criticism and tend therefore to focus on narrower literary matters. 2 Furthermore, little attention has been given to the overall use of the motif and its underlying theology. This is somewhat surprising, particularly when we consider its importance in ancient Near Eastern cultures and its potential to improve our understanding of the prophetic discourse.

The objective of this study is to ascertain the function of the imprecatory motif in the eighth-century prophets and to identify its major theological elements.

There are a number of questions that motivate this study. First, even if the announcement of judgment characterizes much of the prophetic discourse, the reality is that oracles of salvation are not absent from the prophetic books. In fact, in some cases, the prophets juxtapose an oracle of salvation to an oracle of doom without clearly articulating the transition from one to the other, i.e., without explaining how or why their discourse shifts abruptly from one mode to the other. 3

Second, some texts indicate that God’s judgments are intended to elicit a spiritual reformation that will incite the Israelites to return to God. 4 In such cases, the authors introduce a pedagogical function into the curse motif. But, if that is really the case, how do we explain the presence of oracles that explicitly announce the complete and utter destruction of the people of God? Is it possible to identify the theological presuppositions that allow the prophets to adopt such a seemingly paradoxical approach?

Third, the prophets use highly diversified language in their formulation of the oracles of judgment. This literary creativity, however, is not limited to the imprecatory formula. It is also present in the other parts of the broader literary framework in which the curse proper is attested. Whether we are examining the preambles, the accusations, or the curses proper, the prophets use but few stereotypical formulas. This raises an important question. If the prophets are speaking out of the context of the rupture of the covenant, why is the expression bĕrît (“covenant”) so rarely attested, and why do the prophets not make use of a standard corpus of curses that the biblical tradition associates with the Sinai covenant (see Lev. 26; Deut. 27-28)?

I will seek to answer these questions by first examining the usage of the imprecatory motif in the ancient Near East. The purpose is to articulate the overall backdrop in which the motif occurs and to provide a clear point of comparison. I will then examine how the curse motif is used in the prophetic literature and to what extent it differs from its counterpart in the ancient Near East.

THE IMPRECATORY MOTIF IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST

Definition

The imprecatory motif refers to what is most often alluded to as a curse or an announcement of destruction. In its most generic sense, the curse is defined as words used to wish evil on someone or, in its narrower acceptation, a condemnation pronounced by God.

Usage of the Imprecatory Motif in the Ancient Near East

A survey of the research done since 1960 leaves the incorrect impression that the imprecatory motif is a phenomenon that is exclusively used in Hittite and Assyrian treaties. 5 The use of the curse motif in the ancient Near East is actually much more widely attested. The inscriptions and the texts that I have examined originate from the Syrian, Hittite, and Mesopotamian regions and date, for the most part, from the second half of the third millennium to the seventh century B.C. Moreover, far from being limited to international treaties, 6 the imprecatory motif is attested in funerary and votive inscriptions, international treaties, kudurru stones (used to indicate the boundaries of a field), law codes, oaths, myths, epic stories, legends, hymns, and prayers, as well as in a number of historical and prophetic texts. 7

Typology

In the ancient Near East, the imprecatory motif falls into two categories: the unconditional, which constitutes the majority of uses, and the conditional curse. To each one of them is associated a specific function. The conditional curse is linked to explicit prohibitions. Its primary role is to warn against committing certain actions. Most often, the prohibitions admonish against disturbing in any way the object of the inscription. The conditional character of the curse is usually indicated by the presence of the conjunction “if” which signals the conditions to respect. The protasis is followed by a proposition stating the consequences of the transgression, i.e., the curse itself. We also find conditional curses in the form of a simple pronouncement. In these cases, the conditional character of the curse is suggested by the immediate context rather than by the form. The unconditional curse is expressed as a solemn declaration framed as a response to a transgression. Its sole function is to announce the destruction of the violator.

The use of one form or the other is contingent on the literary context or, more generally, the literary genre that characterizes the inscription or the text. The conditional curse is customarily found in funerary and votive inscriptions, kudurru stones, law codes, international treaties, and oaths of loyalty. The unconditional imprecation is mostly attested in myths, epic stories, legends, hymns, and prayers. I have listed below a few examples of these two types of curses. The first two texts represent conditional curses, whereas the last one represents an example of an unconditional curse.

The following text is taken from an Assyrian votive inscription and dates from the reign of Erishum I (nineteenth century B.C.):

If the temple should become dilapidated and a king of status should wish to rebuild it, he must not disturb the clay cone which I drove in(to the wall, if necessary), he will restore it to its place. He who would mash beer in the house of the twin beer vats may Ashur, Adad, and Bel, my god, destroy his seed. 8

The next curse is taken from a treaty between Assurnirari V of Assyria and Matti’ilu from Arpad, and dates from the eighth century B.C.:

If Mati’ilu sins against this treaty with Ashurnirari, king of Assyria, may Mati’ilu become a prostitute, his soldiers women, may they receive [a gift] in the square of their cities (i.e., publicly) like any prostitute, may one country . . . them to the next; may Mati’ilu’s (seed) be that of a mule, his wives barren, may Ishtar, the goddess of men, the lady of women, take away their “bow,” cause their men, the lady of women, take away their “bow,” cause their [steri]lity, . . . may they say, “Woe, we have sinned against the treaty with Ashurnirari, king of Assyria.” 9

This text represents an example of an unconditional curse taken from an Assyrian myth, dating from the end of the second millennium B.C., and entitled: “Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World.” In this text, Ereshkigal, the guardian of the nether world pronounces a curse against Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, in response to her intrusion into her domain:

As soon as Ishtar had descended to the Land of no Return,
Ereshkigal saw her and burst out at her presence.
Ishtar, unreflecting, flew at her.
Ereshkigal opened her mouth to speak,
Saying (these) words to Namtar, her vizier:
“Go, Namtar, lock [her] up [in] my [palace]!
Release against her, [against] Ishtar, the sixty mis[eries]:
Misery of the eyes [against] her [eyes],
Misery of the sides ag[ainst] her [sides],
Misery of the heart ag[ainst her heart],
Misery of the feet ag[ainst] her [feet],
Misery of the head ag[ainst her head]—
Against every part of her, against [her whole body]!” 10

SOME OBSERVATIONS

There are a number of observations we can make relative to the use of the curse in the ancient Near East.

Literary Context

The ancient Near East curse is framed within a precise literary context. It is consistently used within a framework that clearly enunciates the conditions under which the curse will be implemented. This principle equally applies to the conditional and the unconditional curse. The inscriptions and the texts in which the imprecation is found indicate the conditions that must be respected in order to avoid the curse. Whereas the prohibitions normally precede the conditional curses, the unconditional imprecation responds to the violation of a prohibition. In either case, the very legitimacy of the curse depends on the explicit and justified character of the prohibitions.

I have discovered only two exceptions to this rule. In the first case, the curse is mitigated, whereas in the second case, it is simply suspended. The first curse is found in the Myth of Atrahasis, where the human race manages to survive in spite of the edict of destruction pronounced by the god Enlil. 11 The second is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where an unjustified curse is pronounced against the prostitute who had originally initiated Enkidu to human society. Shamash questions the legitimacy of the curse, which is eventually transformed into a blessing. 12

If the legitimacy principle is so fundamental, it is due to the fact that the use of the curse presupposes the notion of contract. For example, when it comes to the international treaty, we have a formal and explicit agreement. In regards to the use of the curse in the other literary genres, we are essentially in the presence of an informal contract where one of the parties is assimilated to the author of the text and the other to the reader, who must choose whether to respect or not the injunctions specified in the inscription. This is important first because it clarifies why the texts are so insistent on making the prohibitions as explicit as they are. Second, it helps explain why witchcraft is widely condemned in the ancient Near East. 13 Curses uttered in the context of witchcraft do not respond to explicit prohibitions, and the victims are completely ignorant of the procedure undertaken against them. 14

Function

In the texts and inscriptions of the ancient Near East, the imprecatory motif has two distinct functions. The conditional curse is intended to act as a warning, whereas the unconditional curse announces the destruction of the transgressor. In both cases, the actualization of the curse implies the complete and utter destruction of the violator. There is no hint of any other function associated to the curse motif. We find no reference, for example, to some kind of pedagogical function. There is no evidence to suggest that the curse might have played a corrective/redemptive role. This should not, however, come as a surprise, for to insert a mitigating element in the use of the curse would significantly dilute its dissuasive function.

THE IMPRECATORY MOTIF IN THE PROPHETIC LITERATURE

Definition

The terminology generally adopted to denote the curse in the Old Testament can sometimes lead to confusion. What is in essence an imprecation is often described by form critics as a sentence, a threat, or an oracle of judgment. In the context of this investigation, I have chosen to broaden the usual form critical parameters and to work with a generic definition of the curse motif. I define as imprecation any statement linked to an announcement of destruction. This approach is preferable to a narrow form critical method for two reasons: (1) ideas and concepts are not necessarily linked to specific forms; and (2) a generic approach more accurately reflects the ancient Near Eastern use of the curse motif.

Corpus

The adoption of a conceptual rather than a form critical approach does, however, increase significantly the number of potential texts to investigate. This is, in fact, one of the major challenges of this study. For instance, among the texts that can be dated from the eighth century B.C., curses can be detected in at least sixty-four pericopes. Since it would have been impossible to deal with such an extensive corpus, I have chosen to organize these pericopes according to theme and then selected a representative sampling for further investigation.

It is possible to group the imprecations and the texts in which they appear in three major categories: (1) the cosmic sphere where the object of the curse is linked to the physical context of human existence (land, harvest, famine, disease, drought, etc.); (2) the international sphere where destruction takes place through war; and (3) the cultic sphere where the curses explicitly express divine wrath and the withdrawal of God’s presence.

For the purposes of this study, I have analyzed the following texts: 15

Cosmic Sphere: Hosea 2:4-17; 4:1-3; Amos 4:4-12

International Sphere: Hosea 8:1-14; 11:1-6; Amos 2:6-16; 3:9-12; Micah 1:2-7; 3:9-12

Cultic Sphere: Micah 3:1-4; 3:5-8; Hosea 4:4-10; Isaiah 1:10-20

The analysis of these thirteen pericopes has provided the basic data used to articulate a theology of the curse usage in the prophetic literature.

THE ELEMENTS OF THE IMPRECATORY MOTIF

Form and Object

Whereas the conditional form is predominant in the texts and inscriptions of the ancient Near East, in the prophetic literature of the eighth century, the unconditional curse prevails. In fact, from strictly a form critical perspective, Isaiah 1:20 represents the only example of a conditional curse: “but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” 16

Just as in the ancient Near East, the imprecatory typology in the prophetic literature can be reduced to the cosmic, international, and cultic spheres.

Literary Genre

In the ancient Near East, the use of the imprecatory motif is contingent on the literary genre to which it is associated. The same thing is true in the prophetic literature. The predominance of the unconditional curse in the prophets is entirely due to the character of the prophetic oracle, which is usually located after the transgression.

Frame of Reference

As in the ancient Near East, the curse motif is embedded within a very precise theoretical framework. There is nothing random or arbitrary about its use. The curse strikes only those who have violated clear injunctions. In their oracles of judgment, the prophets consistently provide an explicit rationale for the condemnation they proclaim. 17

Function

In regards to the function of the curse, this study has uncovered an intriguing fact. The prophetic oracles attribute to the unconditional curse a function that does not appear in the ancient Near Eastern texts. Whereas the unconditional curse invariably announces the utter destruction of the violator in the ancient Near East, the prophets insert in the unconditional curse a rhetorical and pedagogical perspective. Three oracles particularly highlight this new construct: Hosea 2:4-17, Isaiah 1:10-20, and Amos 4:4-12.

In Hosea 2:4-17 and Isaiah 1:10-20, the explicit objective of the judgment is not the irrevocable destruction of the people, but its reestablishment.

On that day, says the LORD, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. (Hos. 2:16-17)

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isa. 1:15-17)

In spite of the fact that these texts presuppose a past transgression, they are nevertheless located before the full implementation of the judgment and express therefore a rhetorical function. The intention of these texts is to convince the audience of the gravity and the urgency of the situation in order to provoke a radical change of attitude and behavior.

This rhetorical perspective also contributes to explain the thematic diversity as well as the literary creativity we observe in the prophetic writings. Scholars have long been intrigued by the near-absence of what we could qualify as “pure” forms or stereotyped expressions in the prophetic literature. The presence of a rhetorical imperative best accounts for this situation. If the prophets seek to avoid traditional formulas, it is because of their all-consuming concern to connect with their audience and to communicate effectively.

Furthermore, what is clearly a rhetorical expression within the framework of the imprecatory discourse becomes a pedagogical motif in the context of the actualization of the curse. The concrete manifestation of the curse in history constitutes the pedagogical support of the discourse. The prophets evoke the threat of destruction in order to persuade the people to return to Yahweh, but the judgment experienced by the people is interpreted in the perspective of an event permitted by God to incite them to return to him. It is this particular perspective that Amos 4:4-12 more specially highlights through the repetition of the expression: “yet you did not return to me, says the LORD” (vv. 6, 8-11).

This observation is very important in terms of grasping the specificity of the curse motif in Israel. Whereas the destruction of the violator is the only objective of the curse in the ancient Near East, in the prophets, the unconditional curse expresses a radically different agenda: rhetorical before the actualization of the judgment, and pedagogical after its actualization.

The introduction of the rhetorical/pedagogical function in the unconditional curse represents a fundamental modification of the use of the curse in the ancient world. Such a development, however, is not the result of some random conceptual evolution. It signals the presence of a theological presupposition of such significance that it imposed a new orientation on a common literary device. I identify the theological imperative behind this transformation of the curse motif with the determining agenda of the Sinai covenant: the creation and the preservation of a distinct people belonging to Yahweh. The prophetic texts underline in various ways the critical importance of this theme.

The prophets use a number of different expressions to emphasize the notion of people: “Israel” (Amos 2:6; 3:14; 4:12; Hos. 8:3, 6, 8, 14; 11:1; Mic. 3:8), “children of Israel” (Amos 2:11; 3:12; 4:5; Hos. 4:1), “house of Israel” (Mic. 1:5; 3:9), “Ephraim” (Hos. 8:9, 11; 11:3), “Jacob” (Mic. 1:5; 3:8), “house of Jacob” (Amos 3:13; Mic. 3:1,9), “Judah” (Hos. 8:14), “house of Judah” (Mic. 1:5), “Jerusalem” (Mic. 1:5; 3:10, 12), “Samaria” (Mic. 1:5, 6; Amos 3:12; Hos. 8:5, 6), “Bethel” (Amos 3:14), “house of Yahweh” (Hos. 8:1), “Zion” (Mic. 3:10, 12), “my people” (Hos. 4:6, 8, 9), “inhabitants” (Hos. 4:3), “inhabitants of the land” (Hos. 4:1), and “people of Gomorrah” (Isa. 1:10).

The prophetic books regularly allude to traditions that evoke the creation of the people of Israel, most particularly the Exodus. In Hosea 11:1 and Amos 2:10, Yahweh calls to mind the act that gave birth to the people of Israel:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

Also I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite.

In Hosea 8:1, the prophet specifically alludes to the creation of the covenant and to its injunctions:

Set the trumpet to your lips! One like a vulture is over the house of the LORD, because they have broken my covenant, and transgressed my law.

In Hosea 2:14-15, the author alludes to the future promise of restoration by evoking the deliverance from Egypt:

Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.

In some cases, the Exodus tradition is turned on its head and becomes the very expression of a curse, the “anti-Exodus.” The prophet Hosea announces that the beneficial effects of the Exodus will be canceled, even reversed. The people will return to slavery in a foreign country just as it was in the period of Egyptian enslavement (Hos. 8:13):

Though they offer choice sacrifices, though they eat flesh, the LORD does not accept them. Now he will remember their iniquity, and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt.

In Amos 4:10, the author states that the plague, a curse closely associated with God’s judgment upon Egypt, will now strike Israel:

I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt.

The fundamental importance of this theme is also emphasized by the role it plays within Israelite cultic theology. Whereas the cult ideology gravitates around the elements of nature in the ancient Near East (the heavens, the earth, the waters), 18 in Israel, the sacrificial system is framed within a covenant relationship that centers on the creation of a people rather than the celebration of the cosmos. 19

CONCLUSION

This comparative study of the curse motif has enabled us to interpret more adequately the apparent contradiction between the announcement of destruction and the announcement of salvation in the eighth-century prophets. In spite of the unconditional and seemingly absolute character of the judgment oracles, the prophets’ first and most fundamental agenda is the salvation of Israel. The survival of the people, however, does require a radical conversion, and the prophets make use of every possible means at their disposal to impel the people to move in that direction. In this perspective, the imprecatory motif represents a deliberative rhetorical device whose objective is to persuade the people to return to Yahweh. Whereas the proclamation of future judgments aims at dissuasion, a pedagogical function is attributed to past national disasters (see Amos 4:4-12).

It is important, however, to note that the majority of the oracles of judgment do exploit a categorical language that leaves open the possibility of a point of nonreturn. There is thus good reason to believe that is more than persuasive discourse. If, in spite of the judgments and the prophets’ repeated warnings, the people fail to return to Yahweh, the possibility exists that Israel will be destroyed. What are we to make of this apparent paradox?

I believe the paradox is not only apparent but also real. It is most likely derived from two traditions that remain in an uneasy state of equilibrium throughout the Old Testament. On the one hand, we have the announcement of judgment required by the Sinai covenant and, on the other hand, the unconditional promise made to the patriarchs that God would create a people. In fact, it does appear that the back and forth between the curse and the proclamation of salvation represents a movement between two poles that oppose each other and signal a profound cognitive dissonance created by the social upheavals of the eighth century. This tension or bipolar movement explains in great part the paradoxical juxtaposition of the oracles of judgment and the oracles of salvation. 20

The attribution of a deliberative/persuasive function to the curse formula also explains why there is not a stereotyped corpus of imprecations or accusation formulas in the oracles of judgment. If form critical scholars are unable to identify in these oracles a single form and locus of inspiration, it is fundamentally because the articulation of these oracles is not simply dictated by theological concerns, but is fundamentally oriented by considerations that arise out of the need to communicate effectively. The prophets introduce a high degree of literary creativity into their discourse in order to capture the attention of the target audience and to underline the gravity of the situation that derives from the rupture of the covenant.

Moreover, the creative literary character of the prophetic discourse is probably linked to the deterioration, or what I also call the “rhetorical corrosion” of the covenantal traditional formulas in the collective consciousness of the Israelite people. The literary variations attested in the oracles of judgment are introduced because the formulas that the tradition associates with the Sinai covenant appear to have lost, rhetorically speaking, their capacity to communicate effectively the fundamental requirements of the Law. The prophets compensate for this “rhetorical corrosion” by introducing a high degree of literary creativity in expressing the reality of the situation that now prevails between God and his people.

In summary, what this study highlights is the notion of a God whose actions are essentially oriented by a redemptive agenda; the salvation of Israel, and by extension, of humanity, is at the very heart of his project. But in spite of God’s intense desire to enter into a relationship with human beings, God does not impose his presence on anyone. While God uses every available means to incite men and women to turn to him, his insistent call remains an open invitation. Free will, this wonderful attribute that bestows infinite value on humanity and most fundamentally defines the image of God in men and women, also enables them to welcome or to reject God’s invitation.

Even if this unpredictable yet determining attribute constantly frustrates the redemptive action of God, God nevertheless persists against all odds in calling all men and women to embrace him. It is essentially to this great truth that the prophets give witness in attributing to the imprecatory motif a pedagogical function which constitutes an axiological transformation of its usage in the ancient Near Eastern world.

NOTES

  1. For a more detailed treatment of this question, the reader is invited to consult the author’s doctoral thesis, Le motif imprécatoire chez les prophètes bibliques du 8e siècle A.C. à la lumière du Proche-Orient ancien (Université de Montréal, 1993).
  2. S. Gevirtz, “West-Semitic Curses and the Problem of the Origins of Hebrew Law,” Vetus Testamentum 11 (1961): 137-58; F. C. Fensham, “Malediction and Benediction in Ancient Near Eastern Vassal-Treaties and the Old Testament,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 74 (1962): 1-91; “Common Trends in Curses of the Near Eastern Treaties and Kudurru-Inscriptions Compared with Maledictions of Amos and Isaiah,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 75 (1963): 155-75; “Salt as a Curse in the Old Testament and Ancient Near East,” Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962): 48-50; “Clauses of Protection in Hittite Vassal-Treaties and the Old Testament,” Vetus Testamentum 13 (1963): 133-43; E. Gerstenberger, “The Woe-Oracles of the Prophets,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962): 249-63; H. L. Ginsberg, “ ‘Roots Below and Fruit Above’ and Related Matters,” in Hebrew and Semitic Studies Presented to G. R. Driver, ed. by D. W. Thomas and W. D. McHardy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 59-71; D. R. Hillers, Treaty-Curses and the Old Testament Prophets (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1964); J. G. Williams, “The Alas-Oracles of the Eighth-Century Prophets,” Hebrew Union College Annual 38 (1967): 75-91; W. Schottroff, Der altisraelitische Fluchspruch, Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 30 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1969); W. Janzen, Mourning Cry and Woe Oracle, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 125 (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1972); K. M. Queen Sutherland, The Futility Curse in the Old Testament (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1982); R. J. Clifford, “The Use of Hôy in the Prophets,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1982): 458-64; H. Seebass, “Garizim und Ebal als Symbole von Segen und Fluch,” Biblica 63 (1982): 22-31; D. R. Hillers, “Hôy and the Hôy-Oracles: A Neglected Syntactic Aspect,” in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth, ed. C. L. Meyers and M. O’Connor (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983), 185-88; D. G. Schley, “Yahweh Will Cause You to Return to Egypt in Ships,” Vetus Testamentum 35 (1985): 369-72.
  3. See for example Hos. 2:1-15; 2:16-25; Amos 9:7-10; 9:11-15.
  4. See for instance Amos 4:4-12.
  5. See note 2 above.
  6. See especially D. R. Hillers, Treaty-Curses; J. Harvey, Le plaidoyer prophétique contre Israël après la rupture de l’alliance (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1967).
  7. For a more detailed description of the literary genres and a complete listing of the ancient Near Eastern texts in which the imprecatory motif is attested, see P. Gilbert, Le motif imprécatoire, 25-71.
  8. A. K. Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1972-1976), 1:11-13.
  9. James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 533.
  10. J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 108.
  11. P. Gilbert, Le motif imprécatoire, 527-64.
  12. See James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 86-87.
  13. See, for example, law #2 from the Code of Hammurabi: If one citizen charges another with witchcraft, but has no evidence, then the defendant is tried by ordeal in a river. If the defendant drowns, the plaintiff inherits the defendant’s household. If the defendant survives, then the sentence is death for the plaintiff, and the defendant confiscates the plaintiff’s household (Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, 2d ed. [New York: Paulist, 1997 (1991)], 102).
  14. For a more detailed treatment of magic in the ancient Near East, see Hittite texts: D. Engelhard, Hittite Magical Practices: An Analysis (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1970); Sumerian texts: P. Michalowski, “On Some Early Sumerian Magical Texts,” Orientalia 54 (1985): 216-25; E. Reiner, _urpu: A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations, Archiv für Orientforschung 11 (Osnabrück: Biblio, 1970); Assyrian and Babylonian texts: G. Contenau, La magie chez les Assyriens et les Babyloniens (Paris: Payot, 1947); R. Largement, “La magie suméro-akkadienne,” Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible, vol. 5 (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1957), cols. 706-21.
  15. For a detailed analysis of these texts, see P. Gilbert, Le motif imprécatoire, 134-398.
  16. All biblical translations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
  17. The prophetic accusations essentially gravitate around the people’s unfaithfulness to the Sinai covenant, which is expressed by cultic and moral transgressions, idolatry, and the rejection of the Law (see Hos. 2:4, 7, 10; 4:1-3; 8:1b, 3-4b, 5-6, 11-12; 11:2b; Amos 2:7-8, 12; 3:9; 4:4; Mic. 1:5, 7; Isa. 1:15; etc.).
  18. The fertility cult plays a central role in the Near Eastern religions. For more information, see J. Bottéro, La religion babylonienne (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1952); J. Contenau, La divination chez les Assyriens et les Babyloniens (Paris: Payot, 1940); E. Dhorme, Les religions de Babylonie et d’Assyrie, 2d ed. (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1949).
  19. Roland de Vaux, Les institutions de l’Ancien Testament, 4th ed., vol. 2 (Paris: Cerf, 1982), 343-44. For more information about the cult in Israel, see R. de Vaux, Les sacrifices de l’Ancien Testament (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1964); R. Rendtorff, Studien zur Geschichte des Opfers im alten Israel, Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 24 (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1967).
  20. This bipolar movement is attested in the following texts: Hos. 1:9 and 2:25; 2:1-15 and 2:16-25; 3:1-5 and 4:1-5; 11:1-7 and 11:8-11; 13:9-14:1 and 14:2-9; Amos 5:1-3 and 5:4-7; 9:7-10 and 9:11-15; Isa. 2:1-5 and 2:6-22; 7:10-17 and 7:18-25. In Micah, this tension is expressed through the very structure of the book. Chapters 1-3 allude to the threat of judgment, whereas chapters 4-7 highlight the promise of restoration (see on the latter, Isa. 9:1-6; 10:20-23; 11:1-16).
Pierre Gilbert is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at Canadian Mennonite University and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Pierre and Allen Guenther share a passion for the Old Testament prophets, were colleagues at MBBS in Fresno, California, from 1996-1999, and cotaught a course on preaching the prophets.

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