The word of the LORD that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel; Joel 1:1
Came to – Have you received a “word from the Lord”? Have you been offered some personal instruction from God given to you by someone else? That seems to be the modus operandi of the prophets. Time and again we read, “the word of the LORD came to” such and such a man. Is that the same process we find today when someone politely tells us that God has given them a word for us? Where did this epistemological method come from? When did men begin to believe that God delivered messages to them for others’ benefit (or condemnation)?
If we look at the Hebrew text associated with God’s revelation to the prophets, we don’t find anything that resembles message delivery. The verb is hayah, to become, to be, to happen. There is no attempt to explain how this happened. All we know is that somehow it did.
But by the time we get to the first century BC, things have changed. The Essenes, a separatist community still practicing during the time of Yeshua, developed the beginnings of our contemporary Christian view of “a word from the Lord” delivery. According to the Essenes, “The way of saving knowledge which puts the individual in the realm of the spirit of truth is only open in the community, where in charismatic fashion the Torah, the Torah and the prophets are interpreted in respect of the divine mysteries of history and a perfect fulfillment of the divine commandments, and are thus disclosed in their deeper meaning. . . . Divine revelation is needed, even if one is to be able to know the mysteries of the divine revelation in scripture. . . . [Divine revelation] gives man knowledge of his absolute nothingness and complete sinfulness, leads him to repentance and thus makes him willing to separate himself now, at the end of time, from the massa perditionis of apostate Israel and the nations of the world, and enter the holy remnant of the community of the ‘children of light’ which incorporates the people of God. . . . In this way the community becomes the ‘eschatological community of salvation’, which has only an external, loose connection with the national association of the people; in other words, it becomes a ‘church.’”
In the Essene community, one must be the recipient of divine revelation before one can understand Scripture correctly. This is brought about not only by God’s direct action but by the precondition that one accept the rule and authority of the community. All revelation occurs within the community since the world is lost and unrepentant. Inside the community, believers discover the true meaning of events, both now and in the future.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, you should not be surprised. Hengel correctly notices that this is the beginning of what we call “church.” Epistemologically, it implies that we cannot know the truth until we are converted and unless we are members of the community. This epistemological position still holds sway over scores of denominations. It shapes our reading of the Bible by requiring us to conform to the paradigm of the group in order to understand God’s word. And, of course, it means that God’s word is directly revealed and explained only within the group.
Perhaps it isn’t much comfort to know that this view of how we understand Scripture has such a long history, but it is at least informative. It helps us see why there are such strong adherents to doctrinal exclusivity. But it also calls into question our tendency to believe that God reveals Himself only to the “faithful.” We may never know how God was manifest in the mind and voice of Amos or Hosea or Joel. But we can certainly acknowledge that these men weren’t part of the “group think” that we so often find in our worship communities. Maybe that “word of the Lord” for you isn’t quite as theologically sound as it sounds. J
Topical Index: epistemology, Essenes, word of the Lord, Joel 1:1
 Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, pp. 222-223.