Ten Tidbits About Prophets and Prophecy in the Old Testament

Ten Tidbits About Prophets and Prophecy in the Old Testament January 29, 2011

1. The biblical, or so-called “canonical,” prophets–those whom we tend to consider the prophets–in many instances (e.g., Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea) are not called prophets (Hebrew nabi’) in the superscriptions to their books, or elsewhere, and indeed probably would have rejected this label for themselves. For instance, in a third person biographical narrative about Amos, he rejects the Bethel priest Amaziah’s suggestion that he is a nabi’ (See Amos 7:10-17; cf. Hosea 9:7; Micah 3). This is because…

2. …prophets were often professionals who performed a variety of functions in ancient Israel for pay (e.g., locating lost objects, cursing enemies, etc.).  Additionally, prophets were frequently found in conventicles or bands lead my a head master (cf. the Elijah and Elisha stories, as well as the Samuel narratives).  These groups are commonly referred to as the “sons of the prophets,” and the leader is their “father.”  Amos’ response to Amaziah notes, in contrast, that he has gainful employment as a “herdsman” and “a dresser of sycomore trees” (NRSV).  Moreover, he implies that he does not function as a prophet on account of membership in a prophetic guild, but declares that he received his message directly from YHWH who called him to prophesy.

3. Prophetic guilds often stood outside of the Establishment rather than in it.  Many Israelites probably considered them eccentric, if not downright crazy, on account of the ecstatic forms of prophecy frequently associated with these groups and their unique lifestyles (strange dress, simple diet, eschewing agricultural work, etc.).  Moreover, the members of such groups did not hold a priesthood office.  But neither, for that matter, did most of the canonical prophets.  Rather, the canonical prophets typically claim to have authority and a right to receive a hearing because they have been called as messengers by YHWH.  Further, the royally funded temple cult employed its own prophetic functionaries, but these cult prophets did not necessarily perform sacrifices or other priestly acts (although cf. 1 Kgs 18).  For this reason it is also possible that Amos might have rejected the title nabi’ because he was not a cult prophet.  His message, in contrast to that typically associated with the cult prophets, was condemnatory of the State rather than supportive.  Additionally, there are examples of court prophets, such as Nathan or Isaiah. There are some examples of priest-prophets in the Old Testament, however.  A notable example is Ezekiel.

4. The “canonical” prophets in the Hebrew-Aramaic Bible address what might be called the extended present.  They are concerned with matters current in their own time.  They did not predict the far-distant future, nor did they preach about the coming of Jesus Christ or his salvific role for all humanity. The so-called Messianic Psalms are about the present (idealized) reigning king of Israel and/or Judah.  Moreover, “prophetic eschatology” (if we may label it as such) does not concern the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, modern millennial notions, or a final judgment (indeed there is no developed concept of an afterlife in the Old Testament); rather, the prophets expect that YHWH will inaugurate a new historical era in which Israel’s enemies would be punished and Israel vindicated (“the day of YHWH”).  For an example, see here.

5. No pre-exilic prophet in the Old Testament wrote the book that is ascribed to him.  Prophets delivered their messages orally, and in the few instances where they are said to write or have someone write on their behalf, their messages are short and cryptic (with the notable exception of Jer 36; this passage, however, is a later, tendentious third person narrative probably intended to legitimate an early scroll containing oracles attributed to the prophet Jeremiah). Rather, the prophetic books are collections of disparate oracles assembled together over a long period of time, first orally and later in writing. The general superscriptions and rubrics in the prophetic books are later scribal additions. Further, many of the individual oracles in the books are not from the actual prophets to whom the books are attributed.  The final form of the prophetic books date to the Persian (post-exilic) period or later, and the books were continually edited, revised, and updated by the scribes who passed them down.  The notion that prophets were also history writers, as found in Chronicles, dates to the Persian or Hellenistic periods as well.  A few later (exilic or post-exilic) biblical-prophetic books, however, may have been composed first in writing, such as Zechariah or parts of Ezekiel.

6. Female prophets performed essentially the same roles as male prophets in ancient Israel (2 Kgs 22:11-20; see also Ex 15:20-21 and Num 12; Judges 4-5). Again, prophecy and priesthood were separate, and they did not necessarily, or even usually, coincide in one and the same individual.

7. Many of the canonical prophets (e.g., Amos and Micah) were interested in what we moderns might label international law, social justice, and human rights, as opposed to religious issues.  They condemned at times the Israelite and/or Judean States and their modernizing, exploitative political structures.  Other of the canonical prophets, at times, acted as counsellors in military affairs (e.g., Isaiah). Not infrequently the classical prophets condemn traditional Israelite religious practices, especially those associated with the State cult (Isa 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-24), and announce God’s judgment on the people and/or State.  The prophets thus often played a destabilizing rather than supportive role in society, and in this way were probably a minority voice at any given time in the history of Israel and Judah.

8. As evidenced by their extensive knowledge of international affairs, their sophisticated use of literary forms and rhetorical strategies, and their severe critiques of the monarchy and State system, it is apparent that many of the canonical prophets were among the higher socio-economic levels of Israelite and/or Judean society and might be labeled, as Joseph Blenkinsopp has suggested, as dissident intellectuals.  The romantic notion of the canonical prophets as poor uneducated rustics called from the fields to confront an evil king and a wicked nation is often simply incorrect.  In connection with this, it also might be noted that large sections of the prophetic books are written in poetry, not prose, in contrast to the impression given by the standard edition of the KJV.

9. The notion of predictive prophecy appears to first find expression in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-Kings).  The earliest editions of these texts date to just before the exile and were edited thereafter.  The Deuteronomists provided several criteria for distinguishing true prophets from false prophets in Deut 18:18-22, including the notion that a true prophet will predict events and they will come about.  However, despite this explicit criteria as well as the fact that the Deuteronmists edited many of the prophetic books, there are yet a number of examples where prophetic oracles that “predicted” events did not come true. See, for example, Amos’ apparently incorrect prediction that Jeroboam II’s life would come to a violent end (Amos 7:11). In other cases historically disproven oracles have received clear scribal additions and glosses to update them in light of further developments.

10. In connection with points 3 and 7, the prophets often stood in opposition to the priesthood and the scribal establishment associated with the temple. A perhaps shocking example of this uneasy tension occurs in Jer 8:8-9, in which Jeremiah condemns the scribes who claim to have the “L/law (torah) of YHWH” but whose “false pens” have produced a lie.  This is no doubt a reference to the Deuteronomists and their literary masterpiece: the Book of Deuteronomy!


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