The Prophecy Was Given to Them
Some arose from the social elite; others from the poorest strata of society. They included renowned leaders, as well as those perceived as underdogs. Some served as military strategists and others focused on correcting social injustices. They would console, grieve or rage according to the dictates of the biblical zeitgeist, and with the drop of the curtains they disappeared into the shadows of history.
We must distinguish between different kinds of prophets and different types of prophecies,” says Dr. YiscaZimran, of BIU’s Zalman Shamir Bible Department, and an expert on the subject. “All prophets are represented as emissaries of the Lord and all convey a divine analysis of events, but each had their own way and their own objective.” Dr. Zimran notes that some earlier prophets would routinely predict the future. For example, Saul sought out Samuel, known as the “seer,” to assist him by using his special powers in return for payment,to find his father’s donkeys. Also in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 13 and 18), there are similar references to this prophetic role. Despite that, the future predicted by these prophets is viewed as having been revealed to them by God and not attributed to the prophets having special powers.
Another type, notes Dr. Zimran, is the “prophetic leader” (a term coined by Prof. Benjamin Oppenheimer of Tel Aviv U). The best example of this is Moses, the leader of the nation, who was involved in wars, was the messenger of God’s word to the people, their advocate for relaying the nation’s complaints and requests to God,their guide and mentor. The multiplicity of roles is typical of pre-monarchy prophets; during the monarchy period the leadership roles were divided between the king and the prophets.
The “classic” prophets, those most recognized by the title of “prophet,” were active since the eighth century BCE, when the kingdoms of Israel and Judea existed side by side and until the return to Zion in the early fifth century BCE. Those include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the “Twelve Minor Prophets” including, for example, Jonah, Micha and Malachi. They verbally conveyed prophecies to the nation and the king as well.
“These prophets didn’t predict exact events in the near future, and they did not bear the burden of leading the people, they did not engage in wondrous acts or in proving their power,” emphasizes Dr.Zimran. “Their prophecies mostly dealt with rebukes, divine punishment, or consolation, and were aimed at keeping the king and nation on the correct path. The ‘classic’ prophets also focused on social issues and demanded of the people to establish a just society treating all members of the nation equally,and conducting justice for all. Isaiah emphasizes to the people that rightingsocial wrongs is more important than serving in God’s Temple: ‘Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the orphan; plead the case of the widow.' )Isaiah 1:16-17) These prophets also took part in strategic debates regarding going out to war and regional politics.”
Some of the prophets acted in ways that left a lasting impression beyond their own generation which still resound today. Elijah scolds king Ahab, who took for himself the vineyard of Naboth, the Jezreelite, after his wife, Jezebel, caused his death - “Shall You Both Murder and Inherit?” This phrase is vastly familiar among modern readers, who were born millennia after Elijah and Ahab stood in Naboth’s vineyard. The cries of Jeremiah, who predicted the destruction of the holy Temple and was thrown into a pit, still echo in our minds. So do the demands of Micha from the eighth century BCE: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” still guide our way today. “The prophet’s actions are meant to leave a mark on the audience,” says Zimran. “The feelings that these ancient prophecies arouse in contemporary times prove that the prophets fulfilled their duties.”
Gaining an Understanding of their Time
The “classic” prophets were involved in daily life and reacted to the events of their time. Consequently, reading through their prophecies isn’t just a theological or poetic exercise, but contributes to the understanding of life in their time. From their words we can learn about key events, the mood and perceptions of that time. Zimran explains: “The books of prophets provide us with many details on the events of the period and the different opinions people had concerning them. A good example is the Syro-Ephraimite War (734 BCE), in which the armies of Aram (Syria) and the Kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) lay siege to the Kingdom of Judea, in order to forceit to join the rebellion against Assyria. In the Book of Isaiah (chapters 7-8), the war is depicted through the eyes of the prophet, asking King Ahaz to ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid.’ From that we learn of Ahaz’s stance regarding this war (‘So the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind’), and the views of the kings of Aram and Israel regarding the tactical actions taken during this war.
“Despite the large number of prophets found in every important juncture of the bible,” says Dr. Zimran, “when it comes to researching the phenomenon of prophecy, there is more hidden than revealed. We still don’t know how the prophets received these prophecies. How they conveyed them to the people. What is the ratio between what they said and what was preserved in their books? What is the significance of the prophecies that were not fulfilled and how the true prophets were distinguished from the false ones? What caused the change in the different work patterns of the prophets? Why did prophecy vanish in the mid-fifth century CE?”
These questions, says Zimran, are what is fascinating about the field: “The different issues arising from the books of prophets, the interesting world revealed in these texts and the consequences of the debate on wider-scale biblical issues, preserve the relevance of these texts, and inspire our thoughts and curiosity even today.”