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Review of How Prophecy Works

William L. Kelly, How Prophecy Works: A Study of the Semantic Field of נביא and a Close Reading of Jeremiah 1:4–19, 23:9–40 and 27:1–28:17. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 272. Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2020. Pp. 332. ISBN: 9783525540732. €80.



William L. Kelly is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond. The present volume is a slightly revised version of his 2017 dissertation completed under the supervision of Hans M. Barstad and submitted to the School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh (United Kingdom).


Despite the title, Kelly gives less attention to addressing “how prophecy works” than one might expect. Instead, the author attempts to provide a “fresh account of ‘what we talk about when we talk about prophets.’” In the opinion of the reviewer, both questions are needing fresh treatment, and Kelly is to be praised for his work. Indeed, his is a masterful piece of scholarship that will be built upon for a long time yet.


The book is divided into two parts, both addressing the use of the lexeme נביא in the book of Jeremiah. The choice of Jeremiah is understandable considering how much Jeremiah reveals about the nature and work of Judahite prophets. This lexical analysis is then used to make conclusions about the nature of biblical prophecy more generally. Given the vast amount of ANE (including biblical) literature, this is an reasonable methodology. Jeremiah scholars, especially, will be grateful for the extensive work that Kelly has done.


Part One is an exhaustive study of the usage and meaning of the nominal forms of נביא and verbal forms of נבא. The analysis extends to nearly 40 pages and has many helpful tables collating all relevant data. Interestingly, this analysis uncovers the strong lexical connection between נביא and כהן. Furthermore, this connection is centered on both the prophetic and priestly concern for the proper worship of YHWH.


This considerations are then verified and expanded in the three chapters of Part Two, in which Kelly turns his attention to offering a close reading of several of the key texts of Jeremiah. These texts directly relate to prophecy and prophets. The aim is to exegetically explain the way Jeremiah describes, understands, and explores the nature of prophecy. One cannot make definite conclusions about “what we talk about when we talk about prophets” through word study alone. Part Two, then fills this gap and strengthens the conclusions of Part One.


This books has many strengths and Kelly is to be commended. His work is thorough and well-researched. He addresses key texts without unnecessary distraction or becoming too broad in his focus. At the same time, Kelly remains attentive to the cultural and social context of Jeremiah and the ANE more broadly without losing sight of his primary concerns.


Like many lexical studies, the reader can sometimes feel lost in the weeds. But this is to be expected, and thorough research can hardly be considered a weakness.


Kelly succeeds in his effort to explain the nature of prophets and prophecy. The book fills a gap in recent research, and he provides an important contribution the research on the nature of prophecy as well as the cultic relationship between prophets and priests. Despite the genre, the introduction and conclusions of the book are easily accessible and could be well-suited a graduate level class on biblical prophetic literature or even an introductory class on Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Indeed, this reviewer intends to use Kelly’s introduction to teach the nature of prophecy in the ANE; after all, understanding HB/OT prophecy is predicated on know what we’re talking about when we talk about the prophets.


— Stephen D. Campbell

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