What Was a Prophet? by Herbert B. Huffmon

Communication between the human and the divine realms occurs in many ways. One primary channel in the biblical tradition is through the prophets, male or female, who are summoned by God to speak to their community, present and future, with that confident and thunderous introduction, “Thus says the Lord!” These same prophets may also intercede with God on behalf of the people, and may also speak their own words. In times of crisis the prophets speak of needed obedience to God and trust in God. They speak of disaster and judgment but also of survival and hope, addressing their own community and the world beyond. Being charged with communicating who God is and what God does (Amos 3:7), they challenge those in power and the people generally.

In addition to their sharp analysis of their present time the prophets confidently envision future developments, such as the possibility of a peaceable kingdom (e.g., Hos 2:20; Isa 11:1-9), a vision still captivating the imagination of people in the present.

The prophets primarily speak for God but they also speak their own words. Amos 3:7 explains: “The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” Whereas Jer 20:7 expresses anguish at the people’s rejection of the prophet’s word from God: “I have become a laughingstock all day long.”

As representatives of a charismatic tradition—having a direct connection with God, and privileged to “listen in” on God’s secret deliberations (note 1Kgs 22:17-23)—the Israelite prophets represent two contrasting directions. They are strongly rooted in the tradition of “I am the Lord your God, from the Land of Egypt,” emphasizing the Exodus tradition of liberation and the Mosaic covenant of exclusive loyalty to God. At the same time they are distinctly innovative, emphasizing that the God who brought out Israel from the land of Egypt also brought out the Philistines and the Arameans and had an interest in the people of Kush (Amos 9:7). Prophets in the times of the Judean exile in Babylonia and during the difficult time of reestablishment in the land, announced that the anticipated Messiah, God’s anointed one, was actually the Persian king, Cyrus, who would promote the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple (Isa 45:1; and see Isa 44:28). And in the same inclusive spirit it was a prophet who affirmed that foreigners who followed the Lord and eunuchs who were faithful to the covenant were welcome in God’s “house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isa 56:3-7), and it was a prophet who anticipated a continuing line of prophets (Joel 2:28-29)!

Above all, the prophets of ancient Israel challenge their world—and all those who still honor their words—to “observe what is right and do what is just” (Isa 56:1).

Herbert B. Huffmon, "What Was a Prophet?", n.p. [cited 13 Dec 2017]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/what-was-a-prophet

Contributors

Herbert B. Huffmon

Herbert B. Huffmon
Professor Emeritus, Drew University

Herbert B. Huffmon has taught about the Hebrew Bible for more than 50 years, principally at Johns Hopkins University and at Drew University, and has also served for many years as a part-time minister. He is a minister member of Newton Presbytery.

Ancient lower Mesopotamia, which for much of the second and first millenniums was the under the control of an empire centered in Babylon.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The ancient African nation just south of Egypt. They enjoyed particular military triumphs in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

Artwork composed of small pieces of material—glass, stone, pottery—arranged in patterns or depicting persons and scenes.

The act of relating a prophecy, or inspired message.

Amos 3:7

* Invalid citation format *

Hos 2:20

* Invalid citation format *

Isa 11:1-9

* Invalid citation format *

Amos 3:7

* Invalid citation format *

Jer 20:7

* Invalid citation format *

1Kgs 22:17-23

* Invalid citation format *

Amos 9:7

* Invalid citation format *

Isa 45:1

* Invalid citation format *

Isa 44:28

* Invalid citation format *

Isa 56:3-7

* Invalid citation format *

Joel 2:28-29

* Invalid citation format *

Isa 56:1

* Invalid citation format *

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.