The Role of the Prophets

For General Guided Readings in Old Testament, I have to write a 7-10 page paper on the role of the prophets in the pre-monarchic, monarchic, exilic, and post-exilic eras of Israel.  I’ve read 7 books for it so far, and still have 4 essays to go, but now’s as good of a time as any to gather my thoughts:

The Prophet’s role in Israel has included many tasks, and shifts fairly dramatically throughout salvation history.  It has two attributes, however, that remain constant: the role as God’s voice or representative, and a concern for justice.

The first prophet, the prototypical prophet, is Moses (though it could be argued that Adam, Noah, or Abraham held this position to some extent or another).  Moses held the role of oracle (speaking for God), miracle-worker, intercessor, leader, and judge (both saving and judiciary).  While his activities had significant cultic connotation and involvement, he was not a priest.  And though he functioned as judge over the people (a role he eventually delegated to others), he is most known as the Law-giver: for Israel, the Law of Moses sets the standard for justice in society.  Having delivered the Law to Israel, he not only judged disputes by the Law (and appointed others as judges) but also proclaimed God’s judgment on those who broke the covenant.  It should be pointed out that Moses did not execute God’s judgment, though that was surely within his prerogative; either the people carried out the judgment (e.g. stoning Achan) or else God carried it out Himself (e.g. the earth swallowing rebellious Israelites).  Moses directed (or led) Israel through the desert, though he himself followed the pillar of fire by night or the pillar of cloud by day.  In all of his judiciary and leadership roles, Moses stood as God’s representative.  Moses interceded for the people with God, begging mercy when they rebelled and delivering God’s messages to the people.  He performed many miracles, but it is always understood that he did so at God’s behest.  Once, Moses performed a miracle in a way other than that which God prescribed, even putting himself in God’s place in a fit of anger; this suggests that God had given Moses the power to perform miracles, and that Moses directed that power by his own will.   This will be important later.

Though Moses was God’s mouthpiece in Israel, God also made provision for a time when there would not be a prophet to directly relay God’s messages: the priestly function of interpreting the Urim and Thummim, a type of divination.  Interestingly enough, this is barely mentioned again in the Old Testament.

Contemporary to Moses was his sister, Miriam, who is called a prophetess (though it is clear that she is subordinate to Moses).  She seemed to have a leadership role in the camp, and sang a song of God’s victory, but also led a rebellion against Moses.  She did not outlive him.

After Moses there was a series of leaders who were not prophets.  Joshua was a political and military leader who also performed a covenant renewal ceremony, but though the book bearing his name is the first in the “Former Prophets” section of the Bible, he is not called a prophet.  He does not deliver oracles, perform miracles, or judge the people, and his cultic actions are limited to renewing the covenant and urging the people to follow God.

After Joshua, Israel was led by a series of Judges.  Some of these Judges “judged” Israel in the sense of settling disputes and providing political leadership, while others were raised up periodically to save Israel from subjugation by neighbouring nations through military uprisings.  Of all of the Judges, only Deborah is called a prophet(ess); she held court, which suggests that she judged disputes, and her title as prophetess suggests that she was also an oracle.  Her story is also one of military victory, though that role she shares with Barak and Jael.

The last of the Judges was Samuel, who was also a prophet like no other after him.  He was a Levite, a Nazirite, a Judge (political leader), a Prophet (oracle), and he performed many cultic functions, though he also was not a priest.  Deuteronomy tells that a prophet will arise “like Moses”; Christians always interpret this prophet to be Christ, but there is a sense in this verse that this will happen from time to time – that is, the role of Prophet will continue in Israel, to guide them.  In a sense, Samuel is the last prophet “like Moses” because he is the last to carry all of the roles that Moses did.  Everything changed when Samuel anointed the first kings of Israel: from then on, Kings held the functions of political rule, upholding the law, and dealing out judgment.

Monarchic prophets still spoke for God, but they no longer held the most central role in the nation.  Kings were not only the political leaders, but they themselves were often expected to carry out certain prophetic roles such as inquiring of God.  David is called a prophet in later writings, though not in the Old Testament (correct me if I’m wrong).  Prophets in this period still performed oracular functions, inquired of God what the King was to do, and even calling the kings to account when they failed to follow God’s instructions.  Though Israel had a king, God still ruled.  When kings disobeyed, prophets would announce God’s judgment (removing Saul, killing David’s firstborn and bringing trouble to his family, bringing a plague on Israel because of David’s census, tearing ten tribes from Rehoboam, ending the line of Jeroboam, etc. etc.).

It is interesting that in the southern kingdom the prophets were usually members of the court, advising the king and chronicling events, while in the northern kingdom the prophets were often outsiders and enemies of the kings.  These northern prophets are sometimes called militaristic prophets, perhaps epitomized in Elijah.  Elijah was a miracle-working, oracular prophet who called royalty to account for their sin and fought against idolatry, putting the prophets of Baal to death.  He was also the first (and last) to pass his prophetic office on to a successor, Elisha.

Although at first glance Elisha seems to continue in Elijah’s ministry, even duplicating several of the narratives, one interesting book (Elisha and the End of Prophetism) points out that the Elisha narratives are a sort of spoof on the Elijah narratives.  Though Elisha’s task was clear, given by God before Elisha himself was even called, Elisha failed to perform any of those tasks; he did not kill off the prophets of Baal, he did not kill off Ahab’s line, and he did not call the people back to Yahweh.  His miracles are often comical, sometimes frivolous, and occasionally even evil.  His companions, the “sons of the prophets”, are buffoons: they accidentally poison their own food; they lose an axehead while chopping wood next to the water; it seems that many of Elisha’s miracles are simply fixing their silly mistakes.  He calls bears to kill youths who make fun of him.  He performs his miracles “according to the word of Elisha” rather than “according to the word of Yahweh.”  It appears that, like Moses, Elisha has divine power bestowed to him, to use according to his own will; rarely does his will align with Yahweh’s, however, and the tasks that God gives him to do are only accomplished indirectly.  What Elisha did do, however, was use political intrigue to bring about regime changes in Samaria and Damascus, ultimately resulting in much bloodshed and atrocities.  Elisha represented exactly what a prophet was not to do, and after him the role of prophets was never the same.  The writer of this book suggests that it was because Elisha showed that the function of prophets was no longer to be powerful leaders or miracle-workers, but was to be limited to their oracular function.  It is clear that prophets had lost much of their roles already: even the good prophets in this period, who were concerned about Israel’s idolatry, did not mention the social injustice that came about at the hand of the kings.  Other writers say that prophetism changed at this point because the militant prophets, seeing the atrocities of Jehu, realized that they could no longer bring about political or social change by violence.

Another change at this point was the method of oracle: Micaiah ben Imlah, shortly after Elisha, was the first prophet recorded to have visions rather than simply relay words.  After him came the last of the monarchic prophets, Amos and Jonah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, who shift us into the “classical prophets”, or “writing prophets”.  Some of these prophets, such as Isaiah, maintain the role of court prophet, advising kings and inquiring of the LORD on their behalf; others are outsiders, like the northern prophets, who face nothing but opposition.  They are no longer miracle-workers, instead pronouncing God’s coming judgment on the entire nation (not just to the kings), often through dramatic performances, parables and enacted parables, and even the written word.  They are concerned less about personal sin than the previous prophets, and much more about social justice; injustice is a problem in society, perpetuated not only by the government but also by the priesthood and the people themselves.  Idolatry and injustice are railed against equally, and connected vividly.  This continues through the exilic and post-exilic prophets.

With the exilic prophets, visions become a norm.  With the increase in visual experiences, the writing involves much more imagery; eventually, in the post-exilic prophets, we transition into apocalyptic.  Apocalyptic, like the written prophecies before it, serves as a social commentary and call to justice and righteousness, giving hope to the righteous and fear to the unjust.  The prophets continue to call people to Yahweh, equating justice with worship, but they never take on ruling or miracle-working roles again, until in Christ we see Prophet, Priest and King all in one.

I said at the beginning that the prophets, the representatives of God, are always concerned with justice.  This fell off a little bit at a few points, as even the prophets were not always righteous or obedient: no mention is made, for example, of all of the social injustice that came during Solomon’s reign, as he taxed the people hard and conscripted them to forced labour.  Solomon, I would argue, is a parody of a king in the same way that Elisha is a parody of a prophet.  But I want to underscore the focus on justice for the prophets once again: when the prophets ruled, they enforced justice in God’s name; when the prophets did not rule, they spoke truth to power and demanded justice, in God’s name.

It’s struck me as I’ve prepared for this paper that prophecy did not end with Malachi: it continued in John the Baptist, and obviously in Jesus Christ, and continues to this day as an office of the Church.  Some even argue that this office to some extent applies to all believers.  Is it a role that we still carry out?  Do we in the Church speak truth to power?  Bonhoeffer argues that it is the mandate of the Church to remind the other mandates (government, family, work, culture) of their role – that is, it is the job of the Church to remind the government to uphold justice.  Do we?  Or have we left it for the artist, the poet, the activist and the sociologist?

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