We live in a culture that is particularly hostile to prophetic claims. In fact, if I met someone at a dinner party who claimed that they heard voices and talked to God, I would be sure not to make them my Facebook friend. In the world of the Bible, a prophet was someone who was a spokesperson (or intermediary) for the divine realm. They did not predict the future—except insofar as what a god decrees usually happens—nor were they primarily social revolutionaries. Instead, the Bible claims that these men and women had a direct message from God that they were required to communicate to the community.
Prophecy was not unique to ancient Israel. It was common throughout the Fertile Crescent. In Mesopotamia, for instance, kings regularly consulted prophets when making decisions of national importance. The biblical texts hint at a variety of ways that prophets received oracles. Sometimes they heard a voice (
The majority of prophetic oracles sound like rants aimed at “sinners.” This is what the prophets used to sound like to me: “Blah, blah, blah, you’re bad! Blah, blah, blah, you’re all going to die!”
But a closer look at how prophets spoke and their narrative settings demonstrates that prophetic messages were directed at specific historical circumstances, such as war, famine, and cultural threats. The prophetic collections, however, usually do not explain the historical situation that prompted a given prophecy, and so this context is not always clear. The prophets might mention a particular king, but they presume that the audience knew what events happened during that king’s reign.
The prophetic collections have few rhetorical markers to signal the beginning or end of a particular oracle, and prophetic speeches—originally sometimes short poetic lines—were rarely set down in chronological order. This can give the impression that the prophet rambled on and on. In addition, most collections include oracles by later prophets who apparently channeled the spirit of the original prophet. The stories of Elijah’s spirit moving into Elisha (
Prophetic rhetoric can make us feel uncomfortable. The prophets’ extreme statements, however, are really about trying to persuade an audience to change its behavior. Just as we may use hyperbole (“if you don’t change, you’ll ruin everything”), biblical prophets say and do things to get people to notice them.
This is an important element of ancient prophecy: a prophet is only a prophet if society deems him or her so. Many biblical texts attest to the fact that “false prophecy” was also an issue: not everyone who claimed to be a prophet was thought to be one by the community (
- Carvalho, Corrine L. Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament. 2nd edition. Winona, Minn.: Anselm Academic, 2010.
- Cook, Joan E. Hear O Heavens and Listen O Earth: An Introduction to the Prophets. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2006.
- Sweeney, Marvin. The Prophetic Literature. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.
- Matthews, Victor H. Social World of the Hebrew Prophets. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001.