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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Cultural Context of Biblical Prophecy

Prophecy in Israel is related to a background in the culture of the ancient Near East. The world in which Israel's history unfolded was thoroughly religious in the sense that belief in the reality of gods and spirits and demons was fundamental to the view of reality held by the nations and societies of the era. Corporate and individual human life was lived in an environment affected by the character and conduct, the actions and reactions of these other personal beings. It was important to be informed about what they had to do with what was happening to a person or a nation in the present, or would happen in the future. At times it was needful to communicate with them and seek to influence their purpose and power. The need was felt especially in times of crisis: sickness, conflict with others, economic distress, political upheavals, war.

In the nations who were Israel's neighbors, the need was met in a variety of ways. There were specialists who could divine the meaning of omens of different kinds, from accidental and astrological occurrences to patterns in the organs of sacrificial animals. There were persons who were able to communicate on behalf of a god through the help of trances, dreams, visions, or perhaps even rational reflection. Sometimes they spoke in response to inquiry, sometimes on their own initiative. Some of these persons had accepted, established roles in their society; others seem to have been marginal. Those about whom records have been preserved were mostly concerned with the organized worship of the god they represented, its performance and support, and with the decisions and destinies of leaders of their society. In Jer. 27.9 there is a list of the kinds of functionaries who informed the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon: prophets, diviners, women dreamers, soothsayers, and sorcerers.

In the popular religion of Israel, the situation was probably somewhat similar. But there is little information about the practices in the popular religion of the general population. There are only hints in the Old Testament story of what went on. Once King Saul, when the Lord did not answer by dreams or Urim (divination by lot) or prophet, sought the services of a medium who brought up the spirit of the dead Samuel for consultation (1 Sam. 28 ). The visit to the medium had to be secret because Saul himself had suppressed those who called up ghosts and spirits. The prohibition of some categories of divine-human communication became a feature of the religion of Israel; diviners, soothsayers, augurs, sorcerers, necromancers, and those who cast spells or traffic with ghosts and spirits are denounced in Israel's law as abominations that belong to the nations and not to those who worship the God of Israel (Deut. 18.9–14 ). The acceptable forms of mediation were dreams, Urim, and prophets (1 Sam. 28.6, 15 ). Of the three, prophets came to play the overwhelmingly major role in Israel's religion.

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