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Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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prophet, a person who serves as a channel of communication between the human and divine worlds. The biblical prophets played a crucial role in the development of Judaism and Christianity and influenced later Western thought by becoming the paradigm for identifying authentic divine messengers. Since their appearance in ancient Israel, the prophets have been understood in a number of different ways, both by scholars and by general readers of the Bible. Particularly in Christian tradition, the prophets have been regarded as predictors of the future, whose words pointed to the coming of Jesus and to the future course of world history. More generally, the prophets have been considered moral and ethical innovators, who brought Israelite religion to a higher level of development than it had previously achieved. In the twentieth century, many of the traditional understandings of the prophets have been questioned, and they have been variously portrayed as great preachers, as moral philosophers, as raving ecstatics, or merely as Israelite traditions.
The great variety of ways in which the ot prophets have been described suggests that they were multifaceted figures and that Israelite prophecy itself was a complex phenomenon. While it is possible to support any given picture of the prophets by appealing to the ot evidence, no single picture can incorporate all of the biblical data. Various types of prophets existed in Israel, and individual prophets also had unique characteristics they did not share with other prophets. However, once this diversity is recognized, it is possible to make some broad generalizations about the ot prophets and the roles that they played in Israelite religion and society.
Titles: The most common prophetic title used in the ot is nabiÕ, a word usually translated in the Septuagint (lxx) by the Greek word propheµteµs and in English versions by the general term prophet. The etymology of the title is uncertain, but it may mean one who calls or one who is called. Although this title was used throughout Israel in all historical periods, it did not have the same connotations for all ot writers. In the Deuteronomistic history and the literature influenced by it (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Hosea, Jeremiah), prophet is the preferred title for people who were considered legitimate links between the human and divine worlds, while other titles were used for figures who were not thought to be legitimate. In this literature prophets were accorded high status and played an authoritative role in Israels religious life (Deut. 18:9-22).
On the other hand, ot writings from Judah and Jerusalem (Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Chronicles) use the title prophet less frequently, and it often appears in negative contexts. In this literature the preferred designation for prophetic figures is visionary (Heb. h\ozeh), a title that refers to the distinctive means by which these individuals received their revelations. Visionaries seem to have been active primarily during the monarchical period (ca. 1004-586 b.c.), when some of them were members of the royal establishment in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 21:9; 25:5; 29:29; 2 Chron. 9:29; 12:15; 19:2; 29:25, 30).
In addition to the titles prophet and visionary, the ot mentions three other titles that were not in common use. In 1 Samuel 9, Samuel is called a seer (roÕeh), a title that was already archaic in the time of the ot writers (1 Sam. 9:9). A seer appears to have been a specialist in communicating with God through visions, dreams, or divination, a function that was later taken over either by prophets (Deut. 18:9-22) or by various diviners and priests. Although there are some late references to seers (2 Chron. 16:7, 10), it is likely that the seer disappeared from Israel early in the monarchical period. More frequently used is the title man of God, which appears particularly in the prophetic stories set in the time of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 10). A man of God may have originally been someone able to use divine power in miraculous ways, but it is likely that the title was eventually given to anyone who enjoyed a special relationship to God. During the same period, the writers of Kings speak of prophetic groups called sons of the prophets. These groups were clearly hierarchically structured prophetic guilds that flourished for a brief time in northern Israel (ca. 869-842 b.c.) and played an important role in the overthrow of the dynasty of Omri (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 10).
Origins and Development: For many years historians assumed that prophecy was a uniquely Israelite religious phenomenon that had no parallels elsewhere in the ancient Near East. However, during the past century several archaeological discoveries have shown this assumption to be false. The most important of these finds occurred at the Mesopotamian city of Mari, where excavators uncovered letters written in the eighteenth century b.c. Several of these texts describe the activities and messages of various types of oracle givers whose words and actions resemble those of the later ot prophets. Some of these early figures bear special titles, such as answerer, ecstatic, and speaker, although to date no Israelite prophetic title has come to light. Archaeologists have also discovered Assyrian texts from the ot period itself (ca. 680-627 b.c.) that contain collections of oracles from ecstatics, shouters, revealers, and votaries. From Palestine have come inscriptions mentioning various kinds of oracle givers, including the visionary, a title that is given to some of the ot prophets.
All of this extrabiblical evidence indicates that prophetic activity existed elsewhere in the ancient Near East both before and during the biblical period, and some scholars have therefore suggested that prophecy originated on the periphery of Mesopotamia, in Canaan, or even in Egypt, and then was borrowed by the Israelites. At the moment there is no way to prove or disprove this hypothesis, although it is important to note that there is no biblical evidence to indicate that Israel recognized prophecy as an import. In addition, anthropological studies of prophetic phenomena show that prophecy can arise spontaneously in any society where the necessary social and religious conditions are present. There is therefore no reason to assume that prophets could not have appeared in Israel without outside cultural influences.
Although the ot locates most prophetic activity during the period of the monarchy, some biblical traditions place the origins of prophecy at the very beginning of Israels history. Even if the references to the prophetic activities of Abraham and Moses are treated as retrojections from later times (Gen. 20:7; Num. 12; Deut. 18:9-22), the fact that Miriam, Deborah, and others are identified as prophets may indicate that prophecy had important religious and social functions in some early Israelite groups (Exod. 15:20-21; Judg. 4:4-10; 6:1-10). It is at least clear that in the period just before the rise of the monarchy (eleventh century b.c.) prophets were well established at some of Israels sanctuaries. Samuel played important religious and governmental roles at several Israelite cult centers and was involved in the creation of the new central government (1 Sam. 3-16). Thereafter, prophets were a regular part of Israels public life, both in Judah in the south and in Israel in the north. They related to the government and to the Temple in various ways, some supporting the royal establishment or working inside it and some standing outside and advocating radical change. Although prophetic attitudes changed during the monarchical period, it is difficult to detect major changes in the institution of prophecy itself. Those relatively late prophets who wrote books (e.g., Jeremiah) do not seem to have been markedly different from the earlier ones who did not (e.g., Elijah). There is no evidence to suggest that the growth of prophecy followed an evolutionary pattern.
Just as it is difficult to determine when prophecy began in Israel, so also it is difficult to identify the point at which prophecy ceased. Prophetic activity did continue after the Exile (sixth century b.c.), and prophets such as Zechariah and Haggai helped to shape the restored community in Jerusalem. However, after the Exile prophecy seems to have lost much of its influence, and prophets became much less visible. In spite of the later rabbinic claim that prophecy ceased in the early postexilic period (after Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi), it is likely that prophets had minor official duties in the worship practices of the Second Temple (1 Chron. 25). Outside of this officially sanctioned activity, prophecy seems to have continued only in peripheral groups that left no imprint on the ot record.
The prophets experiences with the divine world were essentially private
and were difficult to communicate even in the best of circumstances. It is therefore
not surprising that the prophets said little about their encounters with God
and concentrated instead on the visual or aural messages they received on these
occasions. Only a few of the prophets even described their initial calls
to prophesy (Amos 7:15; Isa. 6; Jer. 1:4-10; Ezek. 1-3), and still fewer spoke
in detail of the experience that gave rise to a particular oracle (1 Kings 19:9-18;
Nevertheless, enough clues have been preserved in the ot to suggest that Israelites thought of the prophetic experience as one that occurred when people were possessed by the spirit of God. The hand of the Lord fell upon them (1 Kings 18:46; 2 Kings 3:15; Jer. 15:17; Ezek. 1:3); the spirit of God rested on them (Num. 11:25-26) or clothed itself with them (Judg. 6:34). In this situation they were no longer in control of their own actions and words but were completely dominated by God. They felt compelled to speak the divine message that had been given to them (Amos 3:8; Jer. 20:9). Because of the feelings of helplessness and terror that accompanied possession by Gods spirit, many prophets viewed the experience negatively and tried unsuccessfully to avoid it (Jer. 1:6; 11:18-12:6; 15:15-21; Ezek. 2:1-3:15; cf. Jon. 1:1-10).
Behavior and Speech: During their possession experiences, the ot prophets seem to have exhibited characteristic patterns of behavior and speech which allowed them to be identified as prophets. The details of these patterns are unclear, and they may have varied somewhat according to the historical, geographical, and social settings of the prophets activities. However, the existence of characteristic prophetic behavior is suggested by the fact that the Hebrew verb to prophesy sometimes actually means to act like a prophet or to exhibit the behavior that is typical of prophets. Such behavior could be recognized by all Israelites, although some groups evaluated it positively while others did not. In some instances it was understood as a sign of divine legitimation and favor (Num. 11:11-29; 1 Sam. 10:1-13), while in other cases it was thought to be an indication of madness or of possession by an evil spirit (1 Sam. 18:10-11; 19:18-24; 1 Kings 18:26-29; Jer. 29:24-28).
Some of the ot prophets were probably ecstatics whose possession behavior was marked by psychological and physiological symptoms such as reduced sensitivity to outside stimuli, hallucinations or visions, loss of control over speech and actions, and a sense of being out of touch with reality. The intensity of these symptoms and the degree to which the prophets could control them probably varied, and it is unwise to generalize about the degree to which ecstasy influenced the prophets messages. Sometimes ecstasy was incapacitating and dangerous (1 Sam. 19:18-24; 1 Kings 18:26-29), but among the writing prophets, if ecstasy existed at all, it was accompanied by controlled actions and intelligible speech (Jer. 4:19; 23:9; Ezek. 1:1-3:15).
As part of their characteristic behavior, some prophets wore distinctive clothing or bore a special mark that identified them as a prophet or as a member of a prophetic guild (1 Kings 20:35-41; 2 Kings 1:8; Zech. 13:4). Others sometimes performed symbolic acts, either as dramatic reinforcement for an oracle (Hos. 1:4-9; Isa. 7:3; 8:1-4; 20:1-6; Jer. 19:1-15; 27:1-28:17) or as a way of actually bringing into existence the state of affairs being described in the oracle (2 Kings 13:14-19; Ezek. 4:1-8).
One of the clearest marks of prophetic behavior was the stereotypical way in which the prophets constructed their oracles. Oracles often began with an account of the commissioning of the prophetic messenger, an account that was followed by an accusation against an individual who had violated Israels covenant law. After the accusation, the prophets delivered an announcement of judgment directly to the accused. The announcement usually began with the messenger formula (thus says the Lord), which identified the sender of the message and gave the authority for the oracle of judgment (1 Sam. 2:27-36; 13:11-14; 15:10-31; 2 Sam. 12; 1 Kings 11:29-40; 13:1-3; 14:7-14; 17:1; 20:35-43; 21:17-22; 22:13-23; 2 Kings 1:3-4, 6; 20:14-19; 21:10-15; Jer. 20:1-6; 22:10-12, 13-19, 24-27; 28:12-16; 29:24-32; 36:29-30; 31:17). A variation on this speech pattern was used by prophets in Judah and Jerusalem, who sometimes began their oracles with the cry alas, followed by one or more participles describing the addressee and indicating the crime. This introduction was followed by an announcement of judgment (Amos 5:18-20; 6:1-7; Isa. 5:8-10, 11-14, 18-19, 20, 21, 22-24; 10:1-3; 28:1-4; 29:1-4, 15; 30;1-3; 31:1-4; Mic. 2:1-4).
Social Context and Functions: The ot prophets did not carry out their activities in isolation but were an integral part of their society. Because divine possession was not a continuous experience for any of the prophets, they played various social roles in addition to carrying out their prophetic activities. Prophets like Amos prophesied only occasionally and were normally involved in secular occupations (Amos 1:1; 7:14-15). Others, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were priests who were occasionally transformed into prophets (Jer. 1:1; Ezek. 1:3). While some prophets may have had full-time responsibilities in the Temple or the royal court, others carried out religious tasks that did not always involve prophecy (1 Chron. 25:1-8; 2 Chron. 20:1-23; 34:30).
In addition to being involved in normal community activities, the prophets also received from their societies support and legitimation. Anyone could claim to have received a message from God, but that person could become a prophet only when a group of people recognized the prophetic claim as genuine and accepted the prophets authority. Social support was sometimes provided by an organized group of disciples (Isa. 8:16), but usually the process was more informal (Jer. 26). Prophets who could not obtain at least a minimal amount of social support were unable to influence their societies and were in danger of being branded false prophets or lunatics. On the other hand, prophets who were considered authoritative by at least one group were usually tolerated by the rest of Israelite society. The prophets seem to have had unrestricted access to the king, the royal court, and the Temple and were not harassed unless their messages became too strident and threatening to the society (Jer. 26:1-24; 38:1-13). Normally prophets were not held responsible for their words or actions because they were under the direct control of God (Jer. 26:12-16).
All ot prophets shared the common task of delivering to individuals or groups the divine messages that they received during their prophetic experiences. However, the prophets had various social and religious functions depending on their social locations. Those prophets who were part of the royal court or who had regular roles in the Temple worship were usually concerned to preserve and strengthen the social structure. They were certainly capable of criticizing current institutions and advocating change, but they wanted to be sure that change took place in an orderly way. On the other hand, prophets who had no regular involvement with Israels powerful social institutions were more likely to advocate radical change, even at the expense of social stability.
Theology: The ot prophets were firmly rooted in history, and this fact has important implications for understanding their theology. Because the prophets were not all members of the same social or religious group, they inherited different historical and theological traditions. All of the prophets knew the basic facts of Israels history and shared the major elements of Israelite faith, but they understood these things in somewhat different ways and used different words to speak about them. In addition, the prophets spoke to specific groups of people and directed oracles to particular historical and social situations. The historical dimensions of prophecy make it difficult to talk about prophetic theology in general. Instead it is necessary to examine the theologies of individual prophets and to appreciate the unique shape that each of them gave to divine revelation. However, once the particularity of ot prophecy has been recognized, it is possibly to abstract some general theological beliefs that were held by all of the prophets.
All of the prophets held the fundamental belief that Israel had been elected by God and enjoyed a special relationship with God by virtue of that election. The mutual obligations involved in this relationship were spelled out in various covenants, particularly the covenant at Sinai (Exod. 19-Num. 10; Deuteronomy) and the covenant made with the house of David (2 Sam. 7). However, most of the prophets whose words have been preserved in the ot also agreed that the people of Israel and Judah had refused to fulfill their obligations and had rebelled against God. The prophets described this rebellion in various ways (cf. Isa. 1:2-6; Jer. 2:2-37; Ezek. 16), but they seem to have been concerned with all breaches in the divine-human relationship. Deviations in ethical behavior, social injustice, the worship of other gods, and religious abuses were all condemned equally because they were considered symptoms of Israels general religious illness (Isa. 1:9-17).
The prophets also agreed that Israels rebelliousness would be punished, although they did not always agree on the nature of the punishment or its severity (cf. Isa. 1:7-8; Jer. 7:1-15; 14:1-15:4; Amos 4:6-12). Some, such as Isaiah and Ezekiel, believed that God would punish Israel but would remain faithful to the promises that had been made to David; Israel would remain the elect people of God. Others, such as Jeremiah, at least considered the possibility that Gods punishment would terminate the divine-human relationship. Prophetic disagreements on this point became particularly sharp during the Exile, when the very existence of Israel was in question.
However, Gods final word through the prophets was one of hope and promise. No matter what the people did, God would remain faithful and would return the people to their land, where they would enter into a new relationship with God.
Early Christian Prophets: Prophecy played an important role in Christianity from the very beginning (Acts 2:14-21). The early church used ot prophecy to interpret the life and teachings of Jesus, who himself was recognized as a prophet (Matt. 13:57; 21:11; Luke 4:24; John 4:19; 9:17). After the resurrection, prophecy beame one of the gifts of the Spirit and at least in some congregations was a normal part of worship (1 Thess. 5:20; 1 Cor. 12:28-29; 14:26-32). However, prophecy soon became the province of a specialized office in the church, and prophets were ranked with apostles and teachers as church leaders (Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; James 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:10; Rev. 22:6-9). The presence of so many prophets caused major problems with false prophecy and made it necessary to devise tests to determine the validity of prophetic oracles (Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Acts 13:6; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 2:20; 19:20; 20:10). Difficulties in recognizing false prophets may have led church leaders to try to suppress prophecy altogether and probably hastened the disappearance of prophets from the Christian community.
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer