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Biblical prophets continue to call out to us today. Learn about Old Testament prophets, starting with the family of Moses, whose writings and predictions reflected their respective cultures, and about the end of biblical prophecy in the New Testament.


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Those Unpredictable Prophets of God

by Virginia Smith

Biblical prophets are often thought of in terms of their predictions (a penchant which may or may not be entirely defensible), but they themselves were an extremely diverse and unpredictable lot. There were major prophets and minor prophets, writing prophets and non-writing prophets, and that's just the beginning. In this issue, an attempt will be made to sort them out and introduce them anew as you may never have encountered them.

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Early Manifestations of Prophecy

Prophecy has a long and varied presence in Israelite history, but it should be noted at the outset that comparable figures appeared in a host of other cultures around the world as well. Shamans and sages, mystics and magi were found in both primitive and developed societies. Their role, while similar in some ways, was not identical everywhere. One trait they all shared in one fashion or another was their supposed connection with the divine. The Hebrew term distinguishing prophets from the rank and file was nabi, although the derivation of the word is as yet unknown. Perhaps it is appropriate that Israel's designation for these remarkable characters remains clouded, for biblical prophets were in many respects entirely different, not only from their counterparts elsewhere, but from one another.

The honor of being formally dubbed prophets may fall to the family of Moses. When Moses protests that he is ill equipped to plead his people's case before the pharaoh "since I am a poor speaker," God replies that "Aaron your brother shall act as your prophet" (see Ex 6:30-7:1). This earliest of references gets it exactly right. A prophet is not primarily a foreteller of the future, but rather, a spokesman. Here, the man who will become the first high priest speaks for his brother. In most biblical prophetic utterances, the nabi speaks for God.

The prophetic gift is not gender restricted. Moses' and Aaron's sister is similarly endowed. Following their deliverance from the pursuing Egyptians at the Reed (Red) Sea, "The prophetess Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand while all the women went out after her with tambourines dancing" (Ex 15:20).

Later, when Joshua entreats Moses to stop two young men from prophesying in the camp, "Moses answers him, 'Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!'" (Nm 11:29). Again, the proper function of a biblical prophet is underscored in the words "the Lord might bestow his spirit on them." Prophets speak, not for themselves or for personal fame or gain, but for God. This task will prove particularly onerous for some.

But the most mysterious prophetic declaration from the Mosaic period is found near the end of Moses' life when he tells the Israelites, "A prophet like me will the Lord your God raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen" (Dt 18:15). Speculation as to the identity of this enigmatic individual would continue down the centuries, ending at last at the feet of Jesus upon the occasion of the multiplication of loaves. "When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, 'This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world'" (Jn 6:14).

Among the prophets introduced early in the Bible are the bands of cultic diviners who roamed the countryside. It would appear that they were looked at askance by many because of their tendency to work themselves into an ecstatic state. Nonetheless, they were acknowledged to be communing with God. Saul, newly anointed as Israel's first king, briefly joined their ranks (see 1 Sm 10:9-13), giving rise to a certain suspicion of his credibility not unlike political accusations today.

Writing and Non-Writing Prophets

Although it's common to associate biblical prophets with their writings, some of the most familiar never jotted down a line so far as we know. Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha and others left no literary record. The distinction between literary and non-literary prophets is, however, less defined than might be expected because the books bearing proper names are often later compilations of the supposed author's thought rather than formal compositions directly from his hand. Further, more than one individual may have availed himself of a particular prophetic name, i.e., Isaiah. More will be said about that a little farther along. First, let's take a quick look at the most prominent prophets who left no formal written legacy.

Samuel is one of those bridge figures who stood with one foot at the end of one era and the other at the commencement of another. He is generally regarded as the last of the judges, those saviors who for about 200 years figuratively rode to the rescue of the various Israelite tribes struggling to settle into sedentary life in the land of Canaan. It was to Samuel that the tribal leaders came, requesting a king who would, they thought, defend them against their stronger neighbors. To Samuel, a monarchy was a bad idea since God was supposed to be the only ruler of the Chosen People and also because royal reign usually turned out to be a royal pain (see 1 Sm 8). But the people were adamant, and Samuel anointed Saul first king of Israel. From that time on, prophets were frequently associated with sovereigns either at the express will of the king or in spite of it, many gaining their renown in the role of court prophets.

Nathan is remembered as the quintessential model of the prophet in the role of God's intermediary with his earthly counterpart, for Nathan's considerable influence was found in the court of the great King David. It was through Nathan that the historic promise came, assuring that someone of David's lineage would always occupy Israel's throne. Here, as in virtually all other prophetic declarations in Scripture, it is essential to bear in mind that biblical prophets spoke not for themselves, but for God. Countless utterances begin, "The Lord of hosts has this to say..." or "Thus says the Lord...."

To court prophets often fell the singularly unpleasant, not to mention dangerous, duty of upbraiding the king, calling him to task for sins of commission or omission. Absolute monarchs were referred to as absolute for a reason. They answered to no one except, supposedly, God. They could, and often did, dispatch their challengers with dispatch. When David's lust for Bathsheba brings about Uriah's untimely death, it is Nathan who forcefully accuses David of great sin (See 2 Sm 11-12). It says something of David's humility that Nathan lived to tell the tale.

Elijah's experiences with royalty weren't quite so positive. Following the secession of the ten northern tribes, Elijah had the unpromising responsibility of keeping King Ahab (and his charming wife, Jezebel) on track. His tale of woe is chronicled in 1 Kgs 17—21 and 2 Kgs 1—2. So thankless was his task that he hightailed it into the desert in fear of his life (see 1 Kgs 19). In the end, Elijah departed this planet via "a flaming chariot and flaming horses" (2 Kgs 2:11a). Because of this mysterious exit, a legend grew that Elijah would return to announce the coming of the Messiah (see Mt 17:1-12). Before being whisked away, Elijah made Elisha his successor.

Major and Minor Prophets

The writing prophets are arranged biblically according to the extent of their body of work. The lengthy tomes attributed to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel generally comprise the major prophets. Daniel, which in the strict sense is not a prophetic book at all, seeks a home without much success among either the major or minor writers. The Books of Baruch and Lamentations attach themselves to Jeremiah, Baruch because he was Jeremiah's scribe and Lamentations because, although its authorship is uncertain, it is widely ascribed to Baruch. The remaining dozen books that fall under the prophetic umbrella are then lumped together as the minor prophets—not that their messages are of less import; the books are simply shorter.

Although all of Scripture's prophetic texts bear a proper name, it would be unwise to assume that in every case that person is the sole authority. As mentioned earlier, the notion of authorship in ancient literature had quite different implications than we would ascribe to it today. A person's expressed or written thought might be consigned to a formal manuscript only years after the prophet's death.

Even more puzzling to modern readers is the custom of writing in pseudonymous fashion. This involved either adding to a book already issued by another author or attaching another name to one's own work. This practice, scandalous today, was widespread in the biblical era and found often in Scripture.

Within the Book of Isaiah lie the writings of three separate authors: the initial source, chapters 1—39; the second or Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40—55; and the third or Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56—66. The book's seminal writings date from the eighth Century b.c.e., the biblical golden age of prophecy that also included Hosea, Amos and Micah. Prophetic voices were raised to fever pitch as Jeremiah, Obadiah, Nahun, Habakkuk, Zephaniah and others tried in vain to bring God's people back to their covenant, thus averting the desolation of bondage and bereavement. The  restoration of Judah following the Babylonian exile also gave rise to a number of prophetic voices, among them Joel, Haggai and Zechariah.

Persistent Prophetic Premises

The messages of the prophets in their respective centuries were unquestionably intended for the people of their own time and place. Some spoke to the united kingdom under David and Solomon; some, to the northern or southern portions of the divided nation. It would never have crossed their minds that their words would find meaning in the 1st century c.e., much less the 21st. It is only to be expected, then, that each prophet's communiqué from God would bear a heavy geographical and historical imprint. Still, there are themes that seem to resound in some fashion in nearly all prophetic statements, and some will be surprised to find that these have far less to do with futuristic prognostications than with the conditions each prophet found himself faced with, challenged by and obliged to address.

Two topics in particular occupied an inordinate amount of space in prophetic writings: the failure of the people to live up to their covenant responsibilities as the Chosen People of God and their disappointing deficiencies in their dealings with one another. Micah summed it up well, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mi 6:8). Forecasts of future misfortunes stemmed less from a seer's talent for prefiguring impending events than the entirely pragmatic skill of putting two and two together and arriving at the inevitable four. "If you close your ears and refuse to listen...if you are steadfastly unwilling to change...if you will not admit you're traveling an iniquitous path...Then this is what inescapably lies ahead for you." Then and now, humans dislike intensely being told they are wrong and must change their ways. A good number of prophets suffered everything from shunning to imprisonment to exile to death itself as a result of their warnings. Jeremiah, who suffered more than most in a futile attempt to save his people from exile, finally decided to throw in the towel but found that he could not. "If I say, 'I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,' then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (Jer 20:9).

Prophetic Voices Today

Formally, the age of prophecy ended for Christians with Jesus. Apocalyptic visionaries such as  John of the Book of Revelation would continue, but biblical prophecy in the strict sense came to a close. How would it be possible to surpass in authority a voice that not only spoke for God, but was himself divine? Jesus labeled John the Baptizer a prophet (Mt 11:9) and himself as well (Mt 13:57; Mk 6:4; Lk 4:24). The prophetic role was assigned to Jesus, both by those who revered him (see Mt 14:5 and 21:11, 26, 46; Mk 6:15; Jn 4:19; 9:17) and those who sought to silence him (see Mt 26:68; Mk 14:65; Lk 22:64; Jn 7:52).  The long line of sages and seers in both testaments continue to call out to us today, and their messages remain in many ways as timely, as challenging and as unpredictable as when first they were pronounced all those centuries ago. Are we listening?

Virginia Smith, co-creator of Scripture from Scratch and a frequent contributor, is the author of God for Grownups and Life Is Changed, Not Ended (Thomas More/Ave Maria Press).

Next: Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation (by Bill Huebsch))

Praying With Scriptures
Listening to the biblical prophets and to the prophetic voices in contemporary society requires great openness, a humble willingness to recognize and acknowledge where we have gone wrong, and a staunch determination to change. Pray unceasingly for those noble graces and the strength to act on them in your personal and public life.
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