There’s a literary device in biblical Hebrew where the author nests a quote inside a quote inside a quote. I can’t remember in what passages I have seen it before, but I just came across another instance in Zechariah 1.1-6:
In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius,
the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, saying:
The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.
Therefore say to them,
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Return to me, says the Lord of hosts,
and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.
Do not be like your ancestors,
whom the former prophets proclaimed,
‘Thus says the Lord of hosts,
Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’
But they did not hear or heed me, says the Lord. Your ancestors, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your ancestors?
So they repented and said,
‘The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do.’
Biblical scholars Carol and Eric Meyers identify at least five internal quotations in this small passage, and as they point out, it presents a nightmare for translators into English, as we have limited ways to mark so many layers of nested speech. These dense layers of nested speech embed divine discourse in, with, and under human prophetic speech. This is not quite the same as dialogues recorded in scripture between a human being and God. Where divine-human dialogue plots speech in two directions (“at” each other), the prophetic device of nested speech plots both human and divine speech in the same “direction,” making it more difficult to untangle human and divine agency in the act. Like the play-within-a-play plot device of Shakespeare, the nested oracular speech of the Hebrew prophets blurs the lines of agency along the author’s working model of the chain of being. These nested oracles within oracles also complicate our understanding of how the revelation of God was given in history. What we receive as sacred text is not an historical documentation of an event, but a testimony of a testimony, or in extreme cases like this one, a testimony of a testimony of a testimony.
The Hebrew prophets continue to push me to question our modern methods of historiography, especially as we tell the narratives of the church of the recent past. Because of historical abuses of claiming God’s divine sanctioning of our actions, have we overreacted in our willingness to collapse church history into sociological categories? The witness of the Hebrew prophets encourages us to consider anew the messy possibility that God’s speech has been embedded within our broken proclamation of the gospel.