Prophecy in Ancient Israel

Revelations from God

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Lawrence H. Schiffman

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