Rethinking Prophecy

Isaiah Weeping Over Jerusalem

What defines a prophet? Is it a moral compulsion to uphold justice? Here, the Prophet Isaiah weeps over Jerusalem in a sixteenth-century woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger. Credit: The New York Public Library/Art Resource, NY.

The Hebrew Bible is a prophetic document. It contains the words of a rare breed of people who appeared in a small corner of the ancient Near East 3,000 years ago and transformed history. Or, if you will, it is a divine message articulated by those highly unusual individuals over a period of some 1,000 years, beginning with Moses, whose historicity is shrouded in the mist of antiquity, running through someone like Jeremiah whose historicity is fairly well established, and ending with Malachi, who is probably a composite figure rather than a specific individual.

What is typical about the prophetic message is that it is loud and clear and unequivocal. Talmudic scholar Saadia Gaon compares it to the blasts of the shofar. The prophet Micah summarizes it in one sentence: “What does Adonai your God ask of you, but to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with Adonai your God?” And yet, despite the fact that those prophets transformed history by bequeathing us words that have defined the morality of human civilization, we know very little about them. Bible scholars have labored long and hard in their quest for the meaning of prophecy, and yet many questions remain unanswered. As for the general public, here for the most part there seems to be a general confusion. Most people cannot tell an Isaiah from a Jeremiah or an Amos from a Hosea.

None of this should surprise us, because a careful reading of the Hebrew Scriptures shows that people in biblical times were also confused about the meaning of prophecy. The first mention in the Bible of the word “prophet” refers to Avraham avinu, Abraham our Patriarch (Gen. 20:1-7). Traditional commentators, such as Rashi and the Rashbam, do not take this to mean an actual prophet, but rather someone with unusual mental gifts, or someone who converses with God and receives God’s favor. In Jewish tradition Moses is considered the first prophet, or the Father of the Prophets. Yet Islam and Christianity greatly expand the list of prophets, beginning with Adam. In the Bible we find God speaking to common people, such as Samson’s mother, yet this does not automatically make her a prophet.

What Defines a Prophet?

While the “job description” of the biblical priest, or the scribe, or the Levite is quite clear-cut, that of the prophet remains unclear throughout the entire biblical period. In the time of Jeremiah, quite late in the prophecy period, we have false prophets, quasi-false prophets, and true prophets. Jeremiah himself during his entire prophetic career of some forty years is always doubted and scorned by the people, and barely escapes execution for sedition. This is typical of nearly all the prophets, who are rejected in their lifetime and only recognized by later generations. While the prophets have provided us with enduring guidelines for “what is good, and what Adonai your God expects of you,” they have also left us with many unanswered questions.

What is very clear in surveying the progression of prophecy from Moses to Malachi, is that over the centuries the nature of prophecy underwent profound changes, and once the era of biblical prophecy ended, the role played by the prophets was assumed by new kinds of teachers and prophet-like personalities, in and out of Judaism, who have been influencing human progress (as well as human setbacks) to this day.

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