The Phenomenon of prophecy
The phenomenon of prophecy was widespread in the ancient Near East, and many important themes and genres familiar from biblical prophecy have parallels there. Moreover, many more prophets were active in ancient Israel and Judah than those whose work is represented in the prophetic books of the Bible, and their activities were more varied than these writings suggest. The books of Samuel and Kings provide important additional information. Since our sources are limited, it is difficult to reconstruct the history of prophecy. Some of the features are clear, however. The prophet was essentially an intermediary between God and the people, and one of the major functions was that of messenger. Often, prophets introduced their communications with a version of the formula typically used by messengers, “Thus says the LORD.” But prophets might also bring inquiries from the people to God or make intercession on behalf of the people. In contrast to priesthood, which was exclusively male, both women and men could be prophets. Women prophets included Deborah (Judg 4.4 ), Huldah (2 Kings 22.14 ), and Noadiah (Neh 6.10 ); see also Joel 2.28 . Additional aspects of the prophetic role are suggested by the various terms used to identify them. In addition to “prophet” (Heb nabi’, perhaps meaning “one who is called”), a prophet could be called a seer (Heb ro'eh, e.g. 1 Sam 9.9; and hozeh, e.g., Am 7.12 ), and a holy man (Heb 'ish ha'elohim, literally “man of God”; e.g., 2 Kings 1.9 ).
The history of prophecy in ancient Israel can be traced for more than a thousand years, from the premonarchical period to the turn of the era. As one would expect, over such a long time the nature and function of prophecy altered in response to changing historical, social, and religious circumstances. Four periods define the major epochs of prophecy: the early monarchical period (eleventh through ninth centuries), the Assyrian crisis (eighth century), the Babylonian crisis (late seventh through early‐sixth centuries), and the postexilic restoration (mid‐sixth through mid‐fifth centuries).
The extant evidence suggests that in the earliest period prophets may have been local or itinerant holy men and women who were revered for their special religious powers and who might be consulted for a variety of private inquiries, from locating lost property (1 Sam 9.1–10 ) to learning whether a sick child would live or die (1 Kings 14.1–18 ). Some lived in prophetic communities that cultivated ecstatic forms of religious experience (1 Sam 19.18–24; 2 Kings 6.1–7 ). Prophets also had the public function of declaring God's will concerning whether the people should go to war (Judg 4.4–10 ). The emergence of monarchy in ancient Israel may have changed aspects of the prophets’ role. Prophets appear as king‐makers and king‐breakers, as they announce that God has designated an individual to become king or has rejected a reigning king (1 Sam 10.1; 15.23; 1 Kings 11.29–39; 14.1–18 ). Though prophets continued their role in advising about matters of war ( 1 Kings 22 ), they also served as critics of the king in religious and social affairs. The consolidation of royal power and the foreign religious practices introduced through royal marriages often threatened older tribal institutions and values. The conflict between Elijah, the prophet, and Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen, illustrates these tensions between prophet and king (1 Kings 18–21 ).
Prophecy appears to have undergone a dramatic change during the eighth century, although this impression may be affected by the change in the nature of the sources of information. From the eighth century onward, collections of prophetic oracles are preserved; yet, with the exceptions of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, few extended narratives about prophets exist. It does appear that in this period prophets began to function less as private counselors and critics of kings and more as public figures who influenced opinion through their pronouncements in the Temple courts and in other public places. Prophets of the eighth century (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah) interpreted international affairs, critiqued complacent religious practices, and condemned the abuses of social justice that accompanied the increasing urbanization and centralization of state power characteristic of the eighth century. The prophetic careers of Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah took place in the shadow of the expansionist Assyrian empire, which eventually put an end to the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 and subjected the Southern Kingdom of Judah to the status of a vassal. The prophets interpreted these events, however, in terms of the judgment of the LORD, not simply as the success of the powerful Assyrians. This perspective allowed Isaiah, for example, to anticipate the ultimate downfall of Assyria because of its overweening arrogance.
The third major period of prophecy occurred during the Babylonian crisis. The prophet Nahum celebrated the defeat of Assyria (612–609 BCE), but when Babylon succeeded Assyria as the dominant empire the excitement he expressed soon turned to confusion, as expressed in Hab 1–2 . Jeremiah's prophetic career spanned the time from the decline of Assyria through the Babylonian overlordship of Judah, to the revolt and destruction of Judah in 586 and the exile of a significant portion of its population. Although it is difficult to correlate many of his poetic oracles with specific events in this period, the narratives about Jeremiah give a vivid picture of a nation and its leadership deeply conflicted about what political course to follow and the religious significance of the choices that were forced upon it. Even the prophetic community was bitterly divided and gave contradictory advice to the king concerning the will of the LORD (Jer 26–29; 36–44 ). Overlapping the career of Jeremiah, the prophet Ezekiel (active 593–ca. 571 BCE) was among the Judeans exiled to Babylon after the revolt of 597 BCE, a decade before the final revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel's prophetic work was, first, to persuade the exiled Judeans of the inevitability of Jerusalem's destruction, and, following the fall of the city, to begin to articulate the theological grounds for conceiving a possible future, including a return of the exiles and a rebuilding of the destroyed Temple. In contrast to the prophets who preceded him, Ezekiel drew strongly on priestly traditions for his categories of thought, forms of speech, and evocative symbols.
The defeat of the Babylonian empire by the Persian king Cyrus altered political conditions dramatically. Although Judah did not regain its independence but became a part of the Persian empire, Cyrus and his successors authorized the rebuilding of the Temple and of Jerusalem, allowing members of the exiled community in Babylon who so desired to return to Judah. Thus the prophetic task during this period largely concerned issues of the restoration of the community and its institutions in a context significantly different from that which prevailed during the Israelite and Judean monarchy. The anonymous prophet whose work is found in Isa 40–55 (often called “Second Isaiah”) addressed the Babylonian exiles just at the time that Cyrus was engaged in the conquest of Babylon. Second Isaiah's message to the exilic community was that unfolding events represented God's action in history. He thus interpreted the significance of Cyrus as God's “anointed” who would rebuild Jerusalem, and he encouraged the exiles to return to Jerusalem. The process of rebuilding the Temple (520–515 BCE) provides the context for the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Zechariah in particular suggests this was a time of expectation that perhaps the monarchy might be restored, an event that did not occur. Issues concerning reorganization of the Judean community and tensions regarding economic justice, institutional corruption, and the boundaries of the community are variously reflected in Zechariah, Isa 56–66 , and Malachi, prophets who were active in roughly the period 525–475 BCE.
Although prophets in all periods might speak of the dramatic intervention of God in historical events and the consequent transformation of the conditions of life, this type of language seems to have become more common and more vivid in the postexilic prophets (e.g., Isa 56–66 , Zechariah, Malachi, Joel, and postexilic additions to earlier prophetic books, such as Isa 24–27 ). Some of the passages anticipate a war or other cataclysmic event of cosmic proportions that will precede a time of deliverance, peace, and virtual re‐creation of the world. Such imagery and the expectations it expresses suggest to some scholars that apocalyptic literature, with its focus on the details of the end time as revealed by a heavenly messenger, was an outgrowth of the phenomenon of prophecy.
The book of Daniel, the only book in the Hebrew Bible that could be called an apocalypse, illustrates the complexity of the matter. Although Christian tradition groups Daniel with the prophetic books, Jewish tradition places it in the Writings (as noted above). The first part of the book consists of a cycle of narratives in which Daniel and his friends are portrayed as sages trained in the technical skills of Babylonian scribal wisdom. Like Joseph, Daniel is able to interpret dreams sent by God. He is not presented as a prophet. In the latter part of the book, however, Daniel is the recipient of visions that disclose the future. These vision reports do bear significant similarities to those found in Ezekiel and especially in Zechariah, though their almost allegorical style is quite different. Similarly, although general claims about God's foreknowledge of historical events can be found in Second Isaiah, Daniel's representation of history as predetermined both with respect to its epochal structure and its specific events is strikingly different from the representation of history by the prophets. A clue to the relationship of apocalyptic writing to prophecy may be found in Dan 9 , where Daniel is presented as studying the book of Jeremiah and receiving an angelic interpretation of its significance. As suggested by the presentation of Daniel as a technically trained sage, the authors of apocalyptic books were perhaps themselves learned scribes who studied and appropriated aspects of the prophetic tradition and combined them with other influences in their attempts to understand the nature of the cosmos and the course of history.