Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)
Chapter 16 - Prophecy and the Earliest Prophets
DURING the eighth century, utterances of a class of men known as "prophets" were recorded in Israel and Judah. The Hebrew prophetic movement appears to have begun during the early years of the occupancy of Canaan and may owe something to the Canaanites and other people, among whom "inspired" persons engaged in activities similar to those recorded of the Hebrew prophets.1 From Mari, an ancient Babylonian caravan city, has come the account of a "man of (the god) Dagon" who, when seized by the deity, delivered oracles to the king. His statements were authenticated with the claim "the god Dagon sent me." Other Mesopotamian texts refer to baru (priests)2 studying such omens as the configurations in animal entrails, patterns in bird flights, or designs created by oil on water to secure messages.3 An eleventh century papyrus from Egypt relates the adventures of Wen-Amon, an Egyptian official sent to the Phoenician port-city of Byblos. During his stay, a boy from the town of Dor was possessed by the god, but no oracles were uttered. The account implies that some form of cataleptic seizure was involved.4 Frenzied actions on the part of the prophets of Ba'al and Asherah are reported in the Bible (I Kings 18:19; Jer. 2:1; 23:3).
THE NATURE OF PROPHECY
Divine possession is recorded in the Bible: Gideon is said to have been clothed" with God's spirit Judg. 6:34); Yahweh's spirit came suddenly upon Saul, transforming him (I Sam. 10:6 ff.) and provoking great fury in him (I Sam. 11:6); ecstatic frenzy is also recorded of Saul (I Sam. 19:18-24), but whether or not Saul's actions can be considered typical of the prophets is debatable. On the other hand, apparently some prophetic behavior was so extreme that a prophet could be classified as a madman (cf. II Kings 9:11; Jer. 29:26).
It is not impossible that Hebrew tribes had their own "inspired" seers before they came into Canaan. Arab tribal religion uses such persons, who appear to be counterparts to those found in pre-Islamic ancient Near Eastern and biblical sources. Seers or kahins give divinations obtained through trances, dreams, and ecstatic experiences and at times the oracles are spoken in rhythmic prose. Dervishes, experiencing religious ecstasy induced by convulsive dancing or drugs or music or special exercises or some combination of these, are able to interpret dreams, disclose the future, and "see" events occurring in distant places.5 Despite the fact that the evidence is of recent date and that persons among whom the studies have been made are adherents of Islam which began in the seventh century A.D., the actions described in ancient Near Eastern sources and in the Old Testament are so nearly parallel6 that it is not unreasonable to suggest that these groups have retained and kept alive very ancient patterns. On this basis, it might be said that Hebrew tribes on entering Canaan might have included those who obtained oracles and practiced divination and clairvoyance and that Hebrew prophecy could best be understood as indigenous rather than acquired or adopted. That the prophetic movement underwent change and development will be clear from the evidence to be presented.
Three biblical terms designate a prophet: ro'eh, hozeh and nabi. The earliest is ro'eh or "seer." Samuel is called a ro'eh (I Sam. 9:9), and an editorial note explains that the ro'eh was later called a "prophet," or nabi. Samuel's role in this particular account is that of a clairvoyant, but Samuel performed also as a priest and participated in Hebrew politics. The term ro'eh is used of Zadok, a priest in David's time (II Sam. 15:27), and it is possible that some priests were clairvoyant. The word ro'eh contains no hint of ecstatic behavior but suggests that divine disclosure came through some form of trance. If as some have suggested, signs and omens were employed, then the ro'eh is best understood as a counterpart of the Babylonian baru.
Hozeh, which also means "seer," is derived from the root hazah, "to see." In II Sam. 24:11 we are told that the prophet Gad, who is called David's hozeh, obtained messages from Yahweh but no hint is given about how the message came. In II Kings 17:13 the term hozeh is used with "prophet" to designate those by whom Yahweh had warned his people. The prophet Amos is called a hozeh, perhaps in derision (Amos 7:12). Isa. 29:10 refers to covering seers' heads so they could not obtain messages. Studies of the words hozeh and ro'eh have failed to demonstrate any marked difference in meaning, and most English translations render both by "seer."
The distinctive word for prophet in Hebrew is nabi (plural, nebhiim or nebiim), derived from the Akkadian root nabu which is not found in Hebrew and which means "to call...... to speak," "to proclaim," "to name." The prophet is, therefore, "a speaker" or "a spokesman" or one who "calls out" or "proclaims." If the passive form is adopted, he is "one who is called" by the deity. The LXX term is prophetes, derived from pro meaning "for" or "in behalf of" and phemi "to speak."7 Aaron is appointed nabi to Moses and the context makes it clear that Aaron is to be the spokesman (Exod. 7:1), or as Exod. 4:16 indicates, "the mouthpiece" when Moses acts as a god. Similarly, the nabi was a spokesman for God, uttering as oracles given divine words. The term nabi is also used for non-Yahweh prophets and so-called "false-prophets."
A fourth term, "a man of God" ( 'ish 'elohim) or "the man of God" ( 'ish ha-'elohim), is used to designate holy or inspired persons. Samuel is labeled "man of God" (I Sam. 9:6-10) and so is Shemaiah who warned Rehoboam against attacking Israel (I Kings 12:22-24). Both Elijah (I Kings 17:18-24; II Kings 1:10-13) and Elisha (II Kings 4:7, 9) are given the title. The Chronicler, perhaps to pay distinct respect to the inspired leaders of the past who play an important role in his interpretation of history, titled Moses (I Chron. 23:14; II Chron. 30:16, cf. Ezra 3:2) and David (II Chron. 8:14, cf. Neh. 12:24, 36) men of God, along with certain inspired persons (cf. II Chron. 11:2; 25:7 f.).
It would seem that the Hebrew writers did not employ the terms in such a manner that clear distinctions can be drawn between men of God, seers and prophets. All were, perhaps, in a sense, men of God as they were believed to be inspired of God. Prophets "saw" visions to obtain oracles, and so did seers. Differences in status or means of acquiring oracles are not clearly set forth (note the parallelism in Isa. 29:10; 30:10). The eighth century prophets and their successors in the seventh and sixth centuries are set apart because their oracles have been preserved and we are enabled to study their words. It is probable that other oracles of equal significance may have been uttered by other inspired persons. For these reasons, no attempt will be made to develop any distinctions among these categories.
Often the prophet seems to stand alone and apart from the rest of society, but there is evidence to indicate that he may also have been part of a school or guild. Samuel is said to have been head of a group of prophets (I Sam. 19:20), Elijah had a disciple, Elisha, and a school of prophets (II Kings 2); Isaiah had disciples or pupils (Isa. 8:16),8 and Jeremiah had a personal scribe, Baruch. It is clear that strong, dynamic, charismatic personalities tended to draw about them those who hoped to share the charisma or who hoped to learn methods and techniques of prophecy. The chief personality or leader was called "father" (cf. I Sam. 10:12; II Kings 2:12; 6:21; 13:14) which in this context simply means "head man" or "master" (II Kings 2:3 ff.; 6:5). The disciples were called "sons of the prophet" (cf. II Kings 2:3; 6:1), not implying physical descent but rather the embodiment of the spirit of "the father."
The relationship between prophet and priest and prophet and cultus is not clear. At one time it was customary to find in Hebrew religion a tension between prophet and priest or cult.9 At present it is more common to find scholars suggesting that prophets may have been a part of the cultus, associated with priests in cultic ritual. As we shall see, anti-cultic pronouncements of the eighth century prophets appear to give support to the first hypothesis, but there is a considerable amount of evidence to lend credence to the second. The prophets encountered by Saul were from the shrine at Gibeath-elohim, "the hill of the gods" (I Sam. 10:5). The prophet Samuel was trained by the priest Eli and performed as a priest. As we shall see, Ezekiel, the prophet, had priestly interests. Isaiah received his summons to prophesy within the temple precincts. Aubrey Johnson has proposed that prophets and priests worked side by side in Yahweh shrines and in the Jerusalem temple, and he concludes that when the prophets criticized, they stood within the cultus seeking to correct abuses.10
The role of the prophets as set forth in the prophetic writings is to proclaim Yahweh's word or, as the term nabi implies, to act as Yahweh's spokesmen. During the past half century, prophetic utterances have been subjected to form critical analysis, and it has been demonstrated that oracular forms stem from cultic, legal, heraldic and other sociocultural sources. Some utterances, such as those of Amos, may be associated with festal occasions like the New Year observance. Judgment pronouncements reflect forms used in law court statements or in proclamations by a royal messenger. Some salvation oracles employ patterns used in lamentation rituals or in minstrelsy. The results of form critical studies should not be used to anchor the prophets in any of the groups from which they borrowed their literary forms, but rather to demonstrate the versatility of the spokesmen for God who were capable of employing many well-known literary patterns to communicate their message.
It is often pointed out that prophets demonstrate extensive knowledge of Hebrew traditions. This is true, but the prophets are not confined by past history. Woven through the prophetic works are references to major themes of the salvation history of the nation: election or choice of the people by God, the Exodus or the saving-preservation of the people, the covenant bonds, the occupation of Canaan with divine help, and the Davidic line with its messianic-kingship overtones. But, as we shall see, the prophets also turned away from traditions: Amos reversed the popular concept of "Yahweh's day" and Jeremiah proposed a new covenant to replace the old.
The prophets also challenged current practices. Cultic ritual, with its emphasis upon what a man does in ritual, is played down, and moral themes, concerned with what a man is in human associations, are emphasized.11
Thus, the prophets should not be universally categorized as anti-cultic preachers, as upholders of past traditions, as predictors of the future or as moralists. They are best recognized as charismatic personalities, men under the compulsion of an experience that causes them to utter, despite opposition, challenge, mockery and imprisonment, the words they believed to be Yahweh's words given to them, words representing Yahweh's will, Yahweh's intentions, Yahweh's purposes, and Yahweh's action. Their concern was with their own immediate present. If the understanding and interpretation of that immediate present demanded recollections from the past or indications of what the future might hold, then past and future were utilized. If the best and most meaningful presentation called for dramatic enactment, utilizing legal or mourning or folksong modes of utterance, then these forms were used. To resist the demands of God or to flee from their assigned role was impossible. One could only respond to what Yahweh required and suffer the consequences in the conviction that Yahweh would prove the utterance to be true.
How Yahweh's word came is not known. Rites of incubation, in which the individual slept in a holy place and received a message in dreams or visions, were practiced in the Near East. When Daniel (or Dan'el) in the Ugaritic story of Aqht desired a son, he spent seven days and nights in the sanctuary until he received a revelation.12 Incubation rites were not unknown to the Hebrews,13 but there is no clear evidence that prophetic messages were received through this technique. Nevertheless visions were experienced, for Isaiah's prophetic summons came in a vision in the temple area, and visionary patterns appear in the prophecies of Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others.14
Free association rites are known to have been utilized by seers. The whole mind and personality of the seer is focused upon a single item, or problem; all else is blanked out in what might best be described as a trance state. A train of thought is begun leading to an answer to the problem or to an oracle. There is, as we shall see, some indication that the prophets may have utilized some form of this technique, acquiring oracles from concentration on a pot of boiling water (Jer. 1:13 f.) or on a man testing a wall (Amos 7:7 f.).
Some prophetic oracles reflect personal experiences either social or introspective. Some of Hosea's proclamations grew out of his unfortunate marriage and some of Jeremiah's out of vilification by his countrymen. On the other hand, certain of Jeremiah's and Isaiah's experiences were personal and inward, suggesting that they developed out of inward listening or concentration that produced mental images, mental communication culminating in what might be termed an "ineffable experience" (cf. Jer. 20:7-9).15
Perhaps it is best to generalize and describe prophetic experiences as many and varied. Lack of detailed information in the Bible prevents, in the light of present knowledge, real precision in analysis.
THE EARLIEST PROPHETS
Ideally, prophecy is traced in Hebrew tradition to key figures of the past. Abraham (Gen. 20:7), Aaron (Exod. 7:1), and Moses (Deut. 34:10) are called "prophets" and Miriam (Exod. 15:20) and Deborah (Judg. 4:4) are prophetesses.16 These designations mark the respect and veneration of later generations and reflect the tendency to characterize national heroes as inspired persons. Apart from Aaron little information is given of the prophetic roles of these people: Abraham interceded for Abimelech, and Moses spoke intimately with Yahweh (becoming for the Deuteronomist the symbol of the ideal prophet who was to come, Deut. 18:18), Miriam sang a victory song, and Deborah "judged" and gave advice.
Actually, the earliest information about the prophetic movement is found in the early source in Samuel, in parts of Judges, and in J and E. It is possible that some persons who are not described as nebhiim but who reflect prophetic activities may rightfully belong among the prophets. For example, Balaam (Num. 22-24), a non-Hebrew spokesman for Yahweh, utters oracles obtained in visions under the influence of Yahweh's spirit.17
Samuel, trained as a priest by Eli, officiated at sacrificial rites (I Sam. 7:9), judged Israel (7:15), performed as a seer (9:1-12) and had an itinerant ministry (9:12; 10:8). Whether Samuel could be said to precede an era of specialization or whether Samuel was called a nabi in his own day can be debated. There is no doubt that his dynamic social, political and religious influence prefigures later prophetic interests. He sent Saul to the prophetic group at Gibeath-elohim where music was used, possibly to inspire ecstatic responses (see I Sam. 10:5, 10), and Samuel headed a group that provoked extreme reactions in Saul (I Sam. 19:23 ff.).
During the reign of David, two prophets were active in the life of the court: Nathan and Gad.18 Nathan's challenge to David in the parable of the ewe lamb represents coherent thought without any aspects of ecstatic behavior (II Sam. 12). He confronts the monarch as Yahweh's spokesman and with divine power, for he is able to lift the death penalty that David had unwittingly invoked upon himself and transfer it to the unborn child. During the palace uprising he cooperated with Zadok the priest in bringing Solomon to the throne. The Chronicler refers to the "Book of Nathan" (II Chron. 9:29). Gad's activities are reported only twice in David's career (I Sam. 22:3ff.; II Sam. 24). The Chronicler mentions "The Chronicles of Gad, the seer" (I Chron. 29:29), but what these may have contained cannot be known. It is quite clear that these men played no small role in the royal court and enjoyed positions of some status.
At the time of the division of the kingdom, the dramatic action of Ahijah the prophet may have been partially responsible for Jeroboam's revolt (I Kings 11:29-39). Much later, the prophet, now blind and disenchanted with Jeroboam's lack of enthusiasm for Yahwism, opposed the king, pronouncing imminent death for Jeroboam's ailing son and predicting the forthcoming doom of Jeroboam's house. During this same period Rehoboam refrained from attacking Israel on the advice of the prophet Shemaiah (I Kings 12:21-24). An embellishment of Shemaiah's role is given in II Chron. 12:5 ff. and reference is made to a book which the prophet is supposed to have written (12:15). Later, Baasha of Israel is condemned and the end of his line predicted by the prophet Jehu in terms very much like those used by Ahijah to Jeroboam's wife (I Kings 16:1 ff.).
It becomes clear that the courts of the Hebrew kings employed prophets to secure guidance and advice from Yahweh. It is also plain that prophets such as Ahijah (and perhaps Jehu), not intimately connected with the court, were consulted at moments of critical importance. There can be little doubt that, from Samuel's time through the beginning years of the divided kingdom, Yahweh's prophets were instrumental in keeping ethical and religious responsibilities before the king, proclaiming both the will of Yahweh and the judgment of Yahweh when violations occurred.
ISRAELITE STRUCTURE FROM HAZOR. Two rows of standing pillars from the time of Ahab were unearthed in the excavation at Hazor. The pillars supported the roof of what was probably a large public building. Hazor had been the Canaanite city where a coalition of forces opposing the invading Hebrews under Joshua met defeat (Josh. 11:1-15; 12:19). Later Solomon fortified the city, and when the kingdom was divided Hazor came under Israelite control. In the time of Ahab it was a thriving city but in the eighth century it was captured by Tiglath Pileser III.
As the kingdom of Israel moved more and more toward Canaanite religion, prophets emulating Ahijah's dramatic approach stood against king and cult to present Yahweh's claims. As Jehu promised, Baasha's dynasty soon ended and out of the confusion that followed, Omri emerged as victor and monarch. During the reign of his son Ahab, prophets of Yahweh again became involved in national politics. One was an unknown prophet who promised Ahab victory over the Syrians of Damascus (Read I Kings 20). The account reveals the current belief of both Syrians and Hebrews that the battles involved national deities (cf. vss. 23 ff.). A second prophetic figure reinforced the promise of success. A third predicted Ahab's fate because the Syrian monarch was spared. A strange note in this last story suggests that prophets were not recognized when their eyes were bandaged or covered. Whether or not some mark or symbol was worn on the forehead or whether the trance state was revealed in the eyes cannot be known (Read I Kings 22). Of a fourth prophet, Micaiah, Ahab rather petulantly complained, "I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, only evil." With the help of Jehoshaphat of Judah, Ahab determined to take back Ramoth-gilead, then in the possession of Syria. Four hundred yes-men prophets told the king what he yearned to hear: that he would conquer.19 One, Zedekiah, donned horned headgear and dramatized the manner in which the Syrians would be pushed about. Micaiah, after a mocking mimicry of the 400, foretold doom and held to his prediction despite physical abuse by Zedekiah and imprisonment with a bread and water diet. What happened to him when his prophecy was fulfilled is not told, for Ahab, despite elaborate precautions, was killed.
Read I Kings 17-19; 21; II Kings 1-2
It is probable that the rituals were part of the New Year festival. The Canaanite New Year began in the fall with the sowing of grain and the ritual resurrection of Ba'al and the coming of the autumnal rains.23 It is possible that Elijah's ritual may have represented in part the Hebrew cultic ritual for the New Year which also began in the fall and was marked with the coming of rain. The contest itself dramatically demonstrated the impossibility of simultaneously retaining Yahweh as a national deity and Ba'al as the fertilizing or life-sustaining god, the activator of the land and therefore its rightful owner.24 Elijah's point was that Yahweh was Israel's god, responsible for all aspects of national well-being, including the bringing of fertilizing rain, and was, therefore, owner of the land. Arguments concerning the fire from heaven (which was apparently lightning), suggestions that Elijah may have poured naphtha rather than water on the altar, or allegations that someone assisted Elijah and secretly lit the fire are fruitless and completely miss the thrust of the account. The story symbolizes a power struggle, a point clearly made by Elijah: "If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Ba'al, then follow him" (I Kings 18:21). For Elijah there was no choice: his name, which meant "Yahweh is my God," testified to his commitment. The validity of his belief was demonstrated in the rain contest which discredited the prophets and priests of Ba'al and Asherah. Elijah struck when he had the advantage and a blood purge followed, provoking Jezebel to a threat of reprisal.
In many ways Elijah is made to appear as a second Moses. He fled to the wilderness to escape the monarch's wrath, and in the desert God protected him. At Horeb, the holy mountain for Israel, he encountered Yahweh. Violent natural phenomena were often interpreted as manifestations of the deity, particularly in the southern tradition, J, but for Elijah, Yahweh was in none of these. In intimate person-to-person, voice-to-voice relationships, following or coming out of an eerie quietness,25 Yahweh spoke to Elijah. Elijah was commissioned to anoint two Yahweh followers for their roles as defenders of the faith: Jehu, who was to become king, and Elisha, who was to succeed Elijah; and one non-Hebrew: Hazael, king of Syria. The anointing of Elisha appears to have been accomplished when the prophet's mantle fell upon the young disciple. Jehu and Hazael were said to have each been anointed secretly by Elisha following Elijah's death.
Elijah had other encounters with Israel's royal family. Ahab's greed, stimulated and encouraged by the ruthless Jezebel, resulted in the false accusation and death of Naboth, whose vineyard Ahab coveted.26 Like Nathan in David's time, Elijah confronted Ahab with his crime and pronounced the sentence of doom marking the end of Ahab's line. Ahab's subsequent humiliation of himself led Elijah, like Nathan, to recall the curse of Yahweh and transfer it to the son, Ahaziah.
When Ahaziah suffered the crippling fall that ultimately caused his death, he sent messengers to inquire of Ba'al-zebub, the healing god of flies at Ekron, to ask if he would recover.27 The messengers were intercepted by the champion of Yahwism, and Elijah demonstrated that there was no need to go to Philistia for oracles, for life and healing were with Yahweh.
According to tradition, Elijah did not die but was miraculously transported to heaven in a chariot of fire.28 The sole witness to this event was Elisha, his disciple and successor, and it is probably through Elisha and the prophetic society that he inherited that the stories of Elijah were preserved.29 The impact of Elijah's legendary career was to touch later generations for whom he became a messianic figure, the forerunner of the Day of Yahweh (Malachi 4:5) or the one who was to calm the wrath of God and to be instrumental in the restoration of the tribes of Jacob (Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, ch. 48) or the messianic herald (Luke 1: 17).30
Read II Kings 2-9; 13
References to his role in ninth century history are few. He fulfilled Elijah's commission to Hazael (8:7-15) and Jehu (9:1-6). His clairvoyant powers enabled him to envision the hardship Hazael would bring to Israel. In the Moabite campaign when Jehoram of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah determined to recover control of Moab, Elisha was consulted (3:4-27). It is possible that his associations with Naaman the leper (ch. 5), with the Aramaeans (6:8-23) and with Hazael (8:7-15) reflect the unusual status of this prophet and suggest a recognition of his clairvoyant and prophetic powers in both Israel and Syria.
For the next century there are no references to prophetic activity in either Israel or Judah. Israel felt the pressure of the Aramaeans and the growing power of Assyria. Judah lost territory to Edom. Tension developed into war between the once united kingdoms. Relatively speaking, from the best evidence available, the century appears to have been marked by prosperity. When prophetic activity is next recorded, it is in the collected utterances of the prophets themselves-the so-called "writing prophets"-an older term used by those who believed that the prophets wrote the books that bear their names. It is now apparent that behind the prophetic writings as we now have them are older, smaller, independent units of material, consisting of autobiographical narratives, biographical prose often containing authentic sayings, and collections of utterances or oracles. At times autobiographical and biographical materials are parallel, presenting the same information with varying details or emphases. In addition, prophetic writings have been expanded by later hands and incorporate materials from different periods, some of which can be readily recognized and, at times, dated and some which form the basis of scholarly debate as to genuineness.
Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968, 1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
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