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Prophecy as a Method of Speaking about the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Southern Africa

Given the gravity of the situation in southern Africa as a result of the deadly disease of HIV/AIDS, the Christian church – as the heir to the promises of God in the Hebrew Bible and to the redemption wrought by Christ on the cross, and therefore as a people of hope – is challenged more than ever before to break the silence. This it should do not only by God-talk, but more specifically and importantly by doing what is expected of it. Let the church be the church! I agree with Charles Villa-Vicencio’s warning that true theology will need to take into account the needs of the people at the grassroots.

A theology which fails to address the most urgent questions asked by ordinary people... is not theology at all. It is little more than an academic exercise in uncovering archaic or dying religious beliefs and reified doctrines about God... It is a false theology.1

As the title of this paper implies, my focus will not be on the content of what HIV/AIDS is all about, but rather on how prophecy (particularly from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible) could be helpful as a method of speaking to issues such as poverty, gender, culture and age/youth in relation to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Who are the prophets?
The primary meaning of the Hebrew word nabi is “proclaimer”. According to Sawyer,2 therefore, “Prophets are first and foremost proclaimers.” They proclaimed what they believed was the will of God for the people. In that sense, they stood in between the people and God, a role akin to that of priests.

Indeed, in certain instances, the prophets, able to see only too clearly the danger that was about to befall the people due to their broken relationship with God, acted as priests in that they mediated on behalf of the people. Jurgensen’s observation is helpful: “In the presence of God, the prophet took the part of the people; in the presence of the people, the part of God. Their lives were lived between the two, interpreting God’s ways to their people, pleading with God to ease up and give the people one more time.”3

Prophets were God’s spokespeople. All the prophets of the ancient world claimed to speak with the authority of their God.4 In the case of Hebrew Bible prophets, the well-known introductory formula of the prophetic speech “Thus says YHWH” says it all. It can be assumed that it is Yahweh who uses Yahweh’s servants to deliver the message.

The prophets were not only the proclaimers; they also predicted what the future held for God’s people. So it can be argued that the prophets were those men (and women) who were conscious of God’s presence and promptings in their lives, men and women who could claim to have been in the council of YHWH. Though Jeremiah does not spell it out explicitly in the following lines, it is implicit that he, unlike the institutional prophets to whom prophecy was a profession and whose prophecies were almost always in line with the status quo, has been in the council of the Lord, hence the fact that he has a relevant message to the people:

For who has stood in the council of the Lord
so as to see and to hear his word?
Who has given heed to this word so as to proclaim it?
Look, the storm of the Lord!
Wrath has gone forth,
a whirling tempest;
it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
The anger of the Lord will not turn back
until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand it clearly.
I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.
But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed word to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their doings. (Jer. 23:18-22)

Even more significant for our present discussion, and already implicit in the preceding lines, is the fact that the Hebrew Bible prophets were entirely conversant with their contexts. Though they were believed to be endowed with supernatural powers, and to be people who could be used by God, they were as human as we are, and perhaps better than most of us who do not have a clue what is happening in our contexts. Not only were they conscious of the spiritual state of the nation (whether the people were still in a right relationship with their God), but they were also aware that if the latter was not right it would affect human beings’ dealings with each other. Conscious of the oppression (social, economic, religious) existing among the people of Israel, they went further and condemned it. This quality of the Hebrew Bible prophets to be actively conscious of the plight of the masses of the people of Israel and speak the mind of God against the oppressors, irrespective of who they were, caught the attention and interest of past and present liberation theologians and Bible scholars. It could be rightly argued that, had they lived in our era, they would probably not have been as silent as the Christian church is regarding the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

It is worth noting the distinction made by scholars between two different types of prophets: institutional prophets and independent prophets.5 A good example of these two types is found in 1 Kings 22:10-12. In this text, the kings of Israel and Judah sat on their thrones with all the prophets prophesying before them. With one voice they backed the word of Zedekiah that Yahweh would give Ramoth-gilead into the hands of Jehoshaphat. When Micaiah (an independent prophet) was asked to join the same chorus, having been informed that the prophets had in one accord spoken favourably to the king, he responded: “As the Lord lives, whatever the Lord says to me, that I will speak” (1 Kings 22:13-14). The independent prophets were more concerned with delivering God’s words to the people, irrespective of how painful or judgmental those words were. From their words, it is clear to the reader that they spoke even as God prompted. That is why they were at times ostracized by their own people. These are 8th-century prophets, like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah. This paper will focus more on this category of prophets for two reasons.

First, given the grave situation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in southern Africa, we cannot afford the luxury of prophets who find it difficult to challenge the status quo. The situation demands that we be frank. We are called to face the reality that factors such as gender, poverty, race, culture, age and youth powerlessness are significant in the spread of HIV/AIDS. We therefore need a church that will be context-oriented and will work like an independent prophet sent by God.

Secondly, if there is any era in which the Christian church will benefit from hearing the divine whisperings about our context, it is this one. We need people, godly people, who will take time to be with God. We need people who can speak with the authority of the Hebrew Bible prophets to confront some African cultural beliefs, such as that which promotes multiple partners for African men. For example, a northern Sotho proverb goes: Monna ke thaka, o a naba, literally, “a man is like a pumpkin plant, he spreads”. The tenor of this proverb is that a married man can have women partners other than his wife. Elsewhere I have said that “in the northern Sotho culture a married man’s sexuality can be shared with other women outside the family, but this does not apply to married women. A variety of proverbs bear witness to this.”6 Such cultures need to be confronted with the prophetic message, “Stop consigning women and the whole society to death by HIV/AIDS.”

We can thus summarize the definition and mission of the Hebrew Bible prophets as follows. They were men and women of God who were called in times of crisis to proclaim the will of Yahweh to the people of God so that the latter’s relationship to God and fellow human beings could be right. Their role was to call people to repentance to avoid a painful future.

The message of the prophets
Different themes emerge as part of the message of the prophets. In particular, social justice, the righteousness of God, the God of the prophets, the day of the Lord, the city of God, religion and righteousness, feature prominently. Here we should look at how the prophets addressed issues of social justice. Conspicuous among the demands of the Hebrew Bible prophets was justice. Micah contends that “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8) are the three virtues demanded by God from God’s people. In the same way, the prophet Amos condemns the ritualism that occurred at the expense of justice:

Take from me the noise of your songs;
To the melody of your harps I will not listen,
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an overflowing stream.

The list is unending. What is certain is that the God whom the prophets proclaimed identified with the plight of the marginalized such as widows, orphans, the poor and the needy. Because God had delivered Israel from oppression, God wanted the people to do likewise by taking care of those who are marginalized. However, that was not always the case. For example,

he expected justice (mishpat),
but saw bloodshed (mishpah);
righteousness (çedhaqah),
but heard a cry (çe‘aqah). (Isa. 5:7)
What is even more important for the present discussion is how the message was communicated to the people.

How did the Hebrew Bible prophets communicate the message
1. Proclamation
As already noted, proclamation was the key mode in which the word of the Lord came to the prophets (Isa. 1:2-20). For example, in Jeremiah 11:1-5 we read:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Hear the words of this covenant and speak to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be anyone who does not heed the words of this covenant, which I commanded your ancestors when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron-smelter, saying, Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God, that I may perform the oath that I swore to your ancestors, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day. Then I answered, “So be it, LORD.”

2. Dramatization
At times the prophets were commanded by Yahweh to deliver the message in a dramatic way, for example:
• Jeremiah was commanded to carry a yoke as a sign that the people of Judah were supposed to submit to the Babylonian yoke (Jer. 27), and to smash a potter’s earthenware jug as a sign of the destruction that was to befall Jerusalem (Jer. 19).
• Isaiah went about barefoot and naked, symbolizing the humiliating defeat of Egypt and Ethiopia (ch. 20); Ezekiel broke through the wall of his house, and took the baggage out of the house in the night to symbolize defeat and exile from his city (ch. 12) and so forth.
In addition prophets used rhetorical questions to appeal to common sense (Amos 3:3-8; Isa. 10:15, 29:15-16; Jer. 8:4). At other times, they used parables (Isa. 28:23-29; 2 Sam. 12:1-6).

3. An example
Let us prophesy in the following case: An unfaithful husband infected a committed God-loving Christian with HIV. Her name is Mmalehu, meaning the mother of death. She is not only the hearer of the word, but the doer thereof. For her, the Bible is the sole authority that guides her in a Christian way of life. Not so with her husband: the latter’s life is shaped by the cultural mentality of monna ke thaka. He is unable to restrict himself to one woman. As a result, he contracts the deadly virus from one of his multiple partners and infects his faithful and innocent wife.

Proclamation: In the name of Yahweh, a prophetic church should condemn patriarchal structures, which elevate men against other, equal human beings (though, as we will later see, the prophets of Israel supported patriarchy). It is in this male-dominated system that women’s bodies are regarded as property to be controlled by men. As someone who is committed to the plight of the marginalized, the prophet of God will condemn the patriarchal system and its guardians for the abuse done to the woman.

The words of the prophet are likely to bring healing (though with pain and tears) to the woman’s soul as the patriarchal sin is challenged. The prophet’s assurance that Yahweh remains the refuge for those who flee to Yahweh may bring healing to the broken self. As the Old Testament prophets are also miracle workers (particularly Elishah and Elijah), if it pleases God the woman will be healed. This prophecy may be presented by using dramatization, rhetorical questions and as a parable, as follows.

Dramatization: The prophet is commanded to carry a placard, with the picture of many houses in the (village) block in which the man lives. All other houses (as is the case in patriarchal cultures) are identified by the names of the men (fathers) in the house. This is, however, not the case with his house. Though he can clearly identify his house on the picture, his name is not there, an indication of his impending death.

There are rhetorical questions here: Can one sow sour grapes and hope to reap sweet ones? Can one add one plus one and get a number other than two? Can one play with fire and not be burned? One cannot destroy God’s temple and not bear the consequences.

And there is a parable, too. The prophet tells of a man who knew very well about a royal decree, that no man, no matter who he is, is allowed to set foot on another man’s field without the permission of the latter. The man, however, assuming that he was not seen by anybody, decided to set his foot (several times, for that matter) on another man’s field. What should be done to the transgressor? The victim answers, “As the Lord lives, the transgression of this man is so great that he can only be punished by death!” The prophet reminds him that he is the man!

Limitations of the prophetic method
We must be aware of the limitations of prophecy as a method of speaking to issues of HIV/AIDS.

First, one of the challenges for the user of prophecy is the patriarchal nature of the world which produced the texts. This is revealed in, amongst others, the observation that almost all the prophets in the Hebrew Bible are men. Though there are a few women prophets like Deborah and Huldah, as there are a few voices of women in the Bible, their voices do not come to us directly through the women, but reach us filtered through the male authors and narrators. In most cases these women are made to achieve male ends.

The bias of the prophets against women is vividly described by Renita Weems in her book Battered Love: Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. In the case of the prophet Hosea, for example, he is instructed to marry a whore. The prophets, to achieve national ends, to call Israelite men to make their ways right with Yahweh, therefore exploit women’s bodies and sexuality. Weems argues:

Perhaps more than any other material in the Bible, the portraits of women’s sexuality drawn by Israel’s prophets have contributed to the overall impression one gets from the Bible that women’s sexuality is deviant, evil and dangerous. This is so despite the fact that women, sex and marriage were hardly of interest to prophets’ overall messages, except as metaphors. At the centre of the prophets’ thinking was the political fate of the land, the history of the relationship between Israel and God, and an explanation of Israel’s demise as a nation.7

Secondly, the challenge facing the non-Israelites who want to embrace Israel’s prophetic canon is that the prophets were basically concerned with Israel and its relationship with Yahweh. The non-Israelites were not part of their agenda, though at times they could be used as instruments to punish Israel (cf. Nebuchanezzar, who was instrumental in the exile of Judah in the 6th century).

Thirdly, proclamation as a method of prophesying, if not handled cautiously, may reinforce the capacity of those of us who are quick to condemn, opening the wounds of the affected even further.

Fourthly, if we agree with the prophets’ claim that they stood in the council of Yahweh, that they spoke under the influence of God and that prophecy was a calling rather than a career, could we safely assume that everyone will be called to be a legitimate user of this method?

These and other important questions regarding the use of prophecy as a method to speak to the HIV/AIDS situation in southern Africa need more research.

Practical exercises for lecturers and students
• The following questions are for discussion in groups:
In a context in which God ranks at the bottom of people’s priorities, is there a possibility for the prophetic office to function as it did in Hebrew Bible times? Give reasons for your answer.

Could prophecy, as a method, be effective for speaking to the HIV/AIDS situation in Africa? Give reasons for your answer.

Between those who are HIV-positive and those who are not, who could do well as prophets today? Give reasons for your answer.
• Using the HIV/AIDS curriculum for theological programmes in Africa, design courses on:
– Reading Amos in the HIV/AIDS context.
– Reading Jeremiah in the HIV/AIDS context.
• Design a one-month preaching programme to help your church assume a prophetic stance on all the social issues that fuel HIV/AIDS.

1 Charles Villa-Vicencio, A Theology of Reconstruction, Cape Town, David Phillip, 1977, p.40.
2 J.F.A. Sawyer, Prophecy and the Biblical Prophets, New York, Oxford UP, 1993, p.1.
3 B. Jurgensen, The Prophets Speak Again: A Brief Introduction to Old Testament Prophecy, Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1977, p.24.
4 E.W. Heaton, The Old Testament Prophets, London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977, p.29.
5 Ibid., pp.32ff.
6 M. Masenya (Ngwana ’Mphahlele), “Polluting Your Ground? Woman as Pollutant in Yehud: A Reading from a Globalized Africa”, in M.T. Speckman and L.T. Kaufmann eds, Towards an Agenda for Contextual Theology: Essays in Honour of Albert Nolan, Pietermaritzburg, Cluster, 2001, pp.185-202.
7 R.J. Weems, Battered Love: Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, Minneapolis, Fortress, 1995, p.5.

Next chapter:
The prophetic method in the New Testament, by Musa W. Dube

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