Posted by: religionthink | August 14, 2006

The Role of the Prophets The traditional definiti…

The Role of the Prophets


The traditional definition of a prophet, as we know it, is one who has the ability to predict the future. This modern belief distorts our view in what the prophet’s role was and the meaning of his job in the Old Testament. The prophets of the Old Testament, although there was a apocalyptic strain that appeared after Israel lost her independence, prophets only told which was predictable based on events that were taking place. We should not always look for unknown predictions of Christ in the text, for when we do this we tend to miss some very important truths buried within these writings. Many, because of their failure to study early Israeli history fail to see the definition and role of the prophet. Below we will discuss the biblical definition of a prophet and we shall look at some examples on how it was established and how the office changed over time.

The biblical answer is one who is called by Yahweh to deliver a message, a person who has heard the proceedings of the Divine Council and is told to tell the people. Three example of this occurring is in I Kings 22:18-24. Below we read the following:

The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?” Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.’ “How?’ the Lord asked him. He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then the Lord said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.” Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the Lord pass from me to speak to you?”

A fine example of the Divine Council is found in Psalms 82. Here Yahweh is chastising the gods, or as better known the “Sons of Men”, for taking advantage of the people. He threatens the gods with mortality if they don’t change their pattern of behavior. Below we read:

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? (Selah) Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

And lastly, we find an example within the text of Jeremiah 23:13-19:

In the prophets of Samaria I saw a disgusting thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a more shocking thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah. Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets: “I am going to make them eat wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink; for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land.” Thus says the Lord of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise the word of the Lord, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.” For who has stood in the council of the Lord so as to see and to hear his word? Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it? Look, the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked.

During the early Israeli period the prophets or the “pre classical” oracles did different jobs as time past and the jobs accumulated to that office. None of these prophets we will mention ever forgot, but added to the functions of their predecessors. The three examples that we will look at are the roles of Deborah, Samuel, and Elijah. Elijah will accumulate the roles of his predecessors along with the new.

Deborah comes to us in Judges, chapters 4 and 5. Here we have a holy war poem, possibly one of the oldest, that tell us of her role. From the text we learn that Deborah’s role was declaring holy war.

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’ ” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. (Jdg 4:1-9 NRSV)

Samuel’s role was not only to declare Holy War but to anoint Kings and act as a balance to the new office of kingship. Samuel engages in free criticism of the king, which resulted in a power struggle between the two offices. In Samuel 10:1-9, we find Samuel anointing Saul as king.

Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage: When you depart from me today you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; they will say to you, “The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has stopped worrying about them and is worrying about you, saying: What shall I do about my son?’ Then you shall go on from there further and come to the oak of Tabor; three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three kids, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. They will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from them. After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, at the place where the Philistine garrison is; there, as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you. And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.” As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs were fulfilled that day. (1Sa 10:1-9 NRSV)

Later in Samuel 15:14-18, we read of Samuel openly criticizing King Saul:

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of cattle that I hear?” Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the cattle, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed.” Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” He replied, “Speak.” Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, “Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ (1Sa 15:14-18 NRSV)

Lastly, we will see that Elijah combines all the prophetic functions. In 1 Kings 18:40 he declares holy war, 1 Kings 19:15-16 he anoints a king, and in 1 Kings 18:17-18 he criticizes the King.

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. (1Ki 18:17-18 NRSV)

Now that we have discussed the role of the early prophets, in the next essay, we will look at the forms of prophetic speech that is used to help us better understand the material. Some examples of this will be from later prophets, like Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea. We will also see how the role of the prophet changed after Israel was no longer a free nation.

Robert Oden, The Old Testament: An Introduction [sixteen lectures on eight audiocassettes] (Springfield, VA 22150: SuperStar Teachers/The Teaching Company, second edition, 1995), Lecture 11: “Prophesy In Israel and the Ancient Near East”

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