Prophecy in Ancient Israel

Revelations from God

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The following article is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

Prophecy in the Biblical Sense

The authority of the traditions of the Bible in Judaism is founded upon the concept of prophecy. The Bible describes various people as having received direct revelations from God. The revelation to Moses is seen by later tradition as prophecy par excellence.

In the accounts of the patriarchs, we encounter God in rela­tion to man, communicating directly with him. This is not prophecy in the strict sense, however, since the phenomenon of prophecy, in the biblical view, involves the prophet's having been charged with a messageto communicate. It is only with Moses, in the Book of Exodus, that we encounter aprophet who is sent to the people to deliver the word of God.

In other words, prophecy has a social dimension. It is not simply a personal religious experience. God sends Moses to deliver His word to the people. Yet Moses' prophecy differed from that of the other prophets. First, he is described by the Bible as communicating directly with God, whereas the other prophets see God in a dream or trance. Second, he combines in his person the roles of priest, king, and lawgiver (if we may adopt the Hellenistic characterization) alongside that of prophet.

The History of Prophecy in Ancient Israel

The Bible allows us to trace the history of prophecy in ancient Israel. Not counting Moses, the earliest prophets described in the Bible were seers, charismatic figures who prophesied in a trance, usually induced by the use of music and dance. Often they banded together in guilds and were called "the sons of the prophets."

The guilds were based on the master‑disciple relationship and were intended to pass on a tradition of prophecy. There is no definite evidence that prophets of this kind were in any way involved in the moral and religious ferment of the times. They may have been foretellers of the future.

By the time of the first monarchs, Saul, David, and Solomon, the role of the prophet had begun to change. It seems to have taken on some of the charismatic qualities associated with the judges in the period immediately after the conquest, and simultaneously the kings inherited the political and military aspects of the judge's role. In the early days of the monarchy, the prophet appears as a religious model in the king's entourage, deeply involved in the life of the royal court but able, at same time, to castigate the ruler by means of pointed parables.         

Other prophets, of lesser importance, may have been attached to the major cultic sites, according to some scholars. By the time of Elijah and Elisha, prophets were found in both the northern and southern kingdoms and were often in conflict with the kings. They had clearly taken on their well‑known role as critics of the Israelite society of the day, but had not yet developed into literary figures.

By the ninth century B.C.E., in both Judah and Israel, the minor prophets (so‑called because of the size of their literary output) were delivering scathing attacks on the two major transgressions of the time, syncretistic worship and the social ills besetting the country. These two issues would occupy the prophets for years to come. They demanded the extirpation of even minimal participation in idolatrous worship, and called for the amelioration of the injustices being perpetrated against the poor, unlanded classes, insisting loudly and clearly that the discharge of cultic duties was of no significance if it was not accompanied by a life of true moral and ethical principles.

Prophetic Literature

The earliest of the twelve minor prophets, whose numbers included such men as Amos and Hosea (eighth century B.C.E.), were the first to leave us written documents of prophetic discourse. They delivered their words in public and apparently recorded them in writing either for their own use or to circulate them more widely.

As the end of the monarchy drew near, and a complex admixture of political and religious issues presented itself, new horizons loomed for the prophets. Isaiah (c. 740-c.700 B.C.E.), Jeremiah (c. 627-c.585), and Ezekiel (593-571) confronted new political realities as well as the growing Mesopotamian influence on Israelite worship. The prophecies of these men are infused with the history of the time in which they lived, for all three of them were intimately involved in the affairs of the day and determined to bring to the people of Israel the messages they believed they had received directly from the God of Israel.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought to culmination the literary development of prophecy. These three great prophets composed poetry and prose that rank among the most beautiful achievements of Hebrew literature. The profundity, beauty, and lengths of the prophecies attributed to them rendered these men major figures in the eyes of later tradition.

As Judaism developed, the books of the prophets shaped many other aspects of the tradition, most especially the concept of the messianic era, which was rooted in the world of the prophets. Later on, Jewish mysticism took its cue from the prophetic visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel. Prophetic morality and its intimate connections with the ritual life of Judaism also had an enduring effect.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.