chapter
18 Pages

Introduction

The poetry of the biblical prophets is inseparable from the empires which determined the history of the ancient Near East and the fate of Israel and Judah from the late eighth century to the end of the sixth century BCE* – first Assyria, then Babylonia and finally Persia. Each empire had its own character and motives and stimulated a distinct wave of prophecy, led by Isaiah ben Amoz during the Assyrian heyday, by Jeremiah and Ezekiel at the time of Babylonian supremacy and by Second Isaiah (the anonymous poetry appended to the book of Isaiah) during the rise of Persian hegemony. While prophecy was not confined to Israel, the phenomenon of prophetic poetry as it developed in Israel was unique and without a real parallel elsewhere.1 It is one of the outstanding creative achievements in literary history and its impact on civilization is incalculable. It represents the triumph of the spiritual empire over the mortal empire; of the invisible God, king of the universe, over the human king of the civilized world; of losers over victors; of moral ideas over military force; and also, in a sense, of the creative imagination over historical facts. It is the only surviving body of poetry from the ancient Near East which, for the most part, belongs to a clearly defined historical period – though it aims in effect to extricate itself from history – 750-500 being the period marking the rise of the Assyrian empire until the restoration of the exiled Judeans to their land from Babylonia.