by John Thomas Lowe
Origins and development of Hebrew prophecy
The Hebrew word for prophet is naviʾ, usually considered to be a loanword from Akkadian nabū, nabāʾum, “to proclaim, mention, call, summon.” Also occurring in Hebrew are ḥoze and roʾe, both meaning “seer,” and neviʾa, “prophetess.”
Though the origins of Israelite prophecy have been much discussed, the textual evidence gives no information upon which to build a reconstruction. When the Israelites settled in Canaan, they became acquainted with Canaanite forms of prophecy. The structure of the prophetic and priestly function was very much the same in Israel and Canaan. Traditionally, the Israelite seer is considered to have originated in Israel’s nomadic roots, and the naviʾ is considered to have originated in Canaan, though such judgments are virtually impossible to substantiate. In early Israelite history, the seer usually appears alone, but the naviʾ appears in the context of a prophetic circle. According to the First Book of Samuel, there was no difference between the two categories in that early time; the terms naviʾ and roʾe seem to be synonymous. In Amos, ḥoze and naviʾ are used for one and the same person. In Israel, prophets were connected with the sanctuaries. Among the Temple prophets officiating in liturgies were the Levitical guilds and singers. Other prophetic guilds are also mentioned. Members of those guilds generally prophesied for money or gifts and were associated with such sanctuaries as Gibeah, Samaria, Bethel, Gilgal, Jericho, Jerusalem, and Ramah. Jeremiah mentions that the chief priest of Jerusalem was the supervisor of both priests and prophets and that those prophets had rooms in the Temple buildings. In pre-Exilic Israel (before 587/586 BCE), prophetic guilds were a social group as important as the priests. Isaiah includes the naviʾ and the qosem (“diviner,” “soothsayer”) among the leaders of Israelite society. Divination in the pre-Exilic period was not considered to be foreign to Israelite religion.
In reconstructing the history of Israelite prophecy, the prophets Samuel, Gad, Nathan, and Elijah (11th–9th century BCE) have been viewed as representing a transitional stage from the so-called vulgar prophetism to the literary prophetism, which some scholars believed represented a more ethical and therefore a “higher” form of prophecy. The literary prophets also have been viewed as being antagonistic toward the cultus. Modern scholars recognized, however, that such an analysis is an oversimplification of an intricate problem. It is impossible to prove that the neviʾim did not emphasize ethics, simply because few of their utterances are recorded. What is more, none of the so-called “transitional” prophets was a reformer or was said to have inspired reforms. Samuel was not only a prophet but also a priest, seer, and ruler (“judge”) who lived at a sanctuary that was the location of a prophetic guild and furthermore was the leader of that naviʾ guild. In the cases of Nathan and Gad there are no indications that they represented some new development in prophecy. Nathan’s association with the priest Zadok, however, has led some scholars to suspect that Nathan was a Jebusite (an inhabitant of the Canaanite city of Jebus).
Elijah was a “prophet father” (or prophet master) and a prophet priest. Much of his prophetic career was directed against the Tyrian Baal cult, which had become popular in the northern kingdom (Israel) during the reign (mid-9th century BCE) of King Ahab and his Tyrian queen, Jezebel. Elijah’s struggle against that cult indicated a religio-political awareness, on his part, of the danger to Yahweh worship in Israel—namely, that Baal of Tyre might replace Yahweh as the main God of Israel.
The emergence of classical prophecy in Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) begins with Amos and Hosea (8th century BCE). What is new in classical prophecy is its hostile attitude toward Canaanite influences in religion and culture, combined with an old nationalistic conception of Yahweh and his people. The reaction of those classical prophets against Canaanite influences in the worship of Yahweh is a means by which scholars distinguish Israel’s classical prophets from other prophetic movements of their time. Essentially, the classical prophets wanted a renovation of the Yahweh cult, freeing it from all taint of worship of Baal and Asherah (Baal’s female counterpart). Though not all aspects of the Baal-Asherah cult were completely eradicated, ideas and rituals from that cult were rethought, evaluated, and purified according to those prophets’ concept of true Yahwism.
Included in such ideas was the view that Yahweh was a jealous God who, according to the theology of the psalms, was greater than any other god. Yahweh had chosen Israel to be his own people and, therefore, did not wish to share his people with any other god. When the prophets condemned cultic phenomena, such condemnation reflected a rejection of certain kinds of cult and sacrifice—namely, those sacrifices and festivals directed not exclusively to Yahweh but rather to other gods. The prophets likewise rejected liturgies incorrectly performed. The classical prophets did not reject all cults, per se; rather, they wanted a cultus ritually correct, dedicated solely to Yahweh, and productive of ethical conduct. Another important concept, accepted by the classical prophets, was that of Yahweh’s choice of Zion (Jerusalem) as his cult site. Thus, every cult site of the northern kingdom of Israel and all the sanctuaries and bamot (“high places”) were roundly condemned, whether in Israel or Judah.
Amos, whose oracles against the northern kingdom of Israel have been misunderstood as reflecting a negative attitude toward cultus per se, simply did not consider the royal cult of the northern kingdom at Bethel to be a legitimate Yahweh cult. Rather, like the prophet Hosea after him, Amos considered the Bethel cult to be Canaanite.
Prophets of the ancient Middle East generally interjected their opinions and advice into the political arena of their countries, but in that regard the classical Hebrew prophets were perhaps more advanced than other prophetic movements. They interpreted the will of God within the context of their particular interpretation of Israel’s history, and on the basis of that interpretation often arrived at a word of judgment. Important to that interpretation of history was the view that Israel was an apostate people—having rejected a faith once confessed—from the very earliest times, and the view that Yahweh’s acts on behalf of his chosen people had been answered by their worship of other gods. In that situation, the prophets preached doom and judgment, and even the complete destruction of Israel. The source of prophetic insight into those matters is the cultic background of liturgical judgment and salvation, wherein Yahweh judged and destroyed his enemies, and in so doing created the “ideal” future. What is totally unexpected is that the prophets would go so far as to include Israel itself as among Yahweh’s enemies, thus using those ideas against their own people. Usually, however, the prophets allowed some basis for hope in that a remnant would be left.
The future of that remnant (Israel) lay in the reign of an ideal king (as described in Isaiah), indicating that the prophets were not antiroyalists. Though they could and did oppose individual kings, the prophets could not make a separation between Yahweh and the reign of his chosen king or dynasty. Their messianic ideology, referring to the messiah, or anointed one, is based on old royal ideology, and the ideal king is not an eschatological figure (one who appears at the end of history). In that respect, the prophets were nationalistic. They believed that the ideal kingdom would be in the promised land, and its centre would be Jerusalem.
With the Exile of the Judaeans to Babylon of 586 BCE, prophecy entered a new era. The prophecies of what is called Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40–45), for instance, were aimed at preserving Yahwism in Babylonia. His vision of the future went beyond the pre-Exilic concept of a remnant and extended the concept into a paradisiacal future wherein Yahweh’s new creation would be a new Israel. That tone of optimism is continued in the prophetic activity (late 6th century BCE) of Haggai and Zechariah, prophets who announced that Yahweh would restore the kingdom and the messianic vision would come to pass. Prerequisite to that messianic age was the rebuilding of the Temple (which was viewed as heaven on earth). When, however, the Temple had been rebuilt and long years had passed with neither the kingdom being restored nor the messianic age initiated, Israelite prophecy declined.
There is a tendency in prophetic preaching to spiritualize those aspects of religion that remain unfulfilled; therein lie the roots of eschatology, which is concerned with the last times, and apocalyptic literature, which describes the intervention of God in history to the accompaniment of dramatic, cataclysmic events. Since the predictions of the classical prophets were not fulfilled in a messianic age within history, those visions were translated into a historical apocalypse, such as the Book of Daniel. Why prophecy died out in Israel is difficult to determine, but Zechariah offers as good an answer as any in saying that the prophets “in those days” told lies. Prophets did appear, but after Malachi none gained the status of the classical prophets. Another reason may be found in Ezra’s reform of the cult in the 5th century BCE, in which Yahwism was so firmly established that there was no longer any need for the old polemics against Canaanite religion.
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