The Phenomenon of Prophecy
James L. Mays
Prophets and prophecy played a crucial role in Israel's experience of God. In the Book of Amos there is a remarkable statement about the role of prophecy in God's relation to Israel: “The Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” ( 3.7 ). God is viewed here as a sovereign who plans strategies to carry out the divine purpose in the world. The prophets are servants in the divine administration whose function is the promulgation of revelation. They are the agents who make known in the world what the Lord is going to do to maintain and advance the deity's sovereignty. The prophets made it possible for people to see their present situation and future prospects in light of God's purpose.
This high view of prophecy, incorporated by an editor in the Book of Amos, is the result of Israel's experience with the prophets. It is an assessment that looks back across centuries of history and takes certain figures in that past as norm and model of what a prophet was and did. This view led to the creation and inclusion of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor or shorter prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is also the view that shaped many of the portrayals of prophets found in the books of Samuel and Kings.
It is through these books of Scripture that prophets and prophecy have become recognized as a constituent element of Judaism and Christianity, but the prophets were known and experienced through written presentation only in the latter part of Israel's history. Before that they were figures who played an established, though varied, role in Israel's society. They spoke and acted in performing their role, and it was through what they said and did that they became part of Israel's experience of God.
The institution of prophecy had a long and complex history in Israel. It emerged as part of the culture that Israel shared with other peoples of its time and region. Early Israelite prophecy is known from the accounts in the books of 1–2 Samuel and 1 Kings. In the eighth century B.C.E. the “canonical prophets” began to appear, so called because their careers resulted in books bearing their names that are now part of the biblical canon.