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Prophets and Prophecy in the Book of Kings

Kelly J. Murphy
Emory University

Project/Course: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (as a means to introduce a specific method of interpretation, such as feminist approaches to the biblical texts); or as the first class in a course such as Women and the Bible Intended Audience: Undergraduates
Syllabus Section: "The Book of Kings" or "Introduction to Prophecy in Ancient Israel"


Objectives:


  1. 1. To offer students a brief overview of the book of Kings and the expressions of prophecy found therein, emphasizing the following points:
    • Prophecy/prophets in ancient Israel share features and characteristics with their ancient Near Eastern counterparts;
    • Prophecy/prophets in ancient Israel are marked most notably by diversity;
    • Prophets were not overtly interested in foretelling, but rather in criticizing; and
    • Prophecy in ancient Israel is often associated with the monarchy.
  2. 2. To provide students with an opportunity to engage critically with the biblical texts in order to develop their skills in textual comprehension and analysis

Outline of Lesson Plan:


  1. 1. Pre-Class Readings and Assignment
  2. 2. Class Session
    • a. "When I say 'prophet,' you think ____?"
    • b. Background Lecture on the Book of Kings
    • c. Introduction to Prophets/Prophecy
    • d. Prophets & Prophecy in the Book of Kings: A Journey into the Text
    • e. Conclusions
  3. 3. Additional Exercises
  4. 4. Further References

Pre-class Preparation:


  • Prior to the class session, instructors might assign a selection of the following relevant OBSO essays that present the necessary background material for students. The background material is of two kinds: articles that provide information on the book of Kings in general and articles that introduce students to prophecy and prophets in both ancient Israel and its larger cultural context.
  • In addition to the selected OBSO readings, students should also read 1 Kings and 2 Kings in one sitting, paying special attention to 1 Kings 12-2 Kings 25 and the various prophets featured in those chapters.
  • Encourage students to search/explore the related links on OBSO to learn more about specific topics/issues/figures that interest them or about which they have questions.

Background Readings on the Book of Kings:



Background Readings on Prophets/Prophecy:



Optional Pre-Class Assignment:


  • Ask students to watch the cartoon version of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax on-line before class (~25 minutes) and to write up a brief summary of the story as depicted in the film (See Additional Exercise #5 below).

Class Session:

The following material is presented as a possible outline for a lecture, interspersed with various in-class activities. Relevant OBSO links are included so that instructors can flesh out their lectures as needed per their specific needs.

1. Opening Exercise: "When I say prophet, you think ____?"

Begin class with the following exercise. Ask students what comes to mind when they hear the words "prophecy" and "prophet." Have them write their answers down (if students have something written in front of them they are more likely to respond to questions orally). Ask students to read their answers aloud (or gather their responses and read them aloud). Record answers on the board.

Responses to both words will likely range. "Prophets" may include biblical figures like Moses, Jeremiah, and Jesus or contemporary figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Definitions of "prophecy" will likely focus on predicting the future. Ask students to keep these ideas in mind (and keep their answers on the board to return to later).

2. The Book of Kings: A Short Introduction

This class session will primarily focus on the prophets and prophecies found in the book of Kings. As such, it is helpful to outline the story told in the book of Kings and its genre, compositional history, and place in the larger field of biblical studies.

The Story:

The books now divided into 1 Kings and 2 Kings were originally part of one work that told the story of ancient Israel from the death of King David until the release of the exiled King Jehoiachin from prison in Babylon (ca. 970 BCE to 561/60 BCE). Together the two books tell the tale of Israel's history, detailing how the destruction of the two kingdoms is a just punishment from the deity for the sins of the people.

Outline:


  1. I. 1 Kings 1—11 relates the end of David's reign and the reign of his son Solomon.
  2. II. 1 Kings 12—22 tells the story of the division of united Israel into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, with the history of the two kingdoms until the death of King Ahab and King Ahazaiah's accession to the throne, including:
  3. III. Additionally, 1 Kings 17—22 outlines the stories about of Elijah and various other Prophets from Ahab/Asa to Ahaziah/Jehoshaphat, including:
    • 1. Elijah and the drought (17);
    • 2. Elijah on Mount Carmel (18);
    • 3. Elijah's flight to Horeb (19);
    • 4. An unnamed prophet condemns Ahab for sparing Ben-hadad (20);
    • 5. Elijah condemns Ahab for seizing Naboth's vineyard (21);
    • 6. Micaiah prophesies Ahab's death and its fulfillment (22:1–40)
  4. IV. 2 Kings 1–8 continues the stories of Elijah and Elisha during the reigns of Ahaziah and Joram (1:18:15), including:
    • 1. Elijah in the Reign of Ahaziah (1);
    • 2. Elijah's ascent and Elisha's inauguration (2:1–18);
    • 3. Elisha in the Reign of Joram (2:198:15);
    • 4. Elisha's initial miraculous signs (2:19–25);
    • 5. Elisha during the campaign against Moab (3);
    • 6. Elisha's ministry to needy ones in Israel (4);
    • 7. Elisha and Naaman (5);
    • 8. Elisha's deliverance of one of the prophets (6:1–7);
    • 9. Elisha's deliverance of Joram from Aramean raiders (6:87:20);
    • 10. Restoration of the Shunammite woman's land (8:1–6);
    • 11. Elisha prophesies Hazael's oppression of Israel (8:7–15)
  5. V. 2 Kings 8:1617:41 tells the story of Israel and Judah from Joram/Jehoram to the exile of Israel, including:
  6. VI. 2 Kings 18–24 tells the story of Judah from Hezekiah to the Babylonian Exile, including:

(For more, see 1 and 2 Kings: Reading the Books; The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the maps of The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Additionally, the Biblical Rulers Timeline provides an excellent visual aid.)

The Genre and Composition of the Book of Kings:

Biblical scholars regularly discuss the book of Kings as belonging to the Historical Books (see Introduction to the Historical Books). In Judaism, Kings belongs to the Former Prophets (so readers should not be surprised to think "prophets" when thinking of the story found in the book of Kings!). The label "historical," however, contradicts the fact that determining the intended genre of the book of Kings is no easy task. Like the books of Joshua-Samuel before it, the book of Kings sound, at times, like a history book. However, it is a mistake to think of Kings as telling the events of the monarchic period exactly as "they really happened." The narrative found in Kings, though likely containing some historical elements, is thus more moralizing than objective history—not all historical events are recounted and those that are included serve to teach a specific theological lesson: Yahweh, the god of Israel, actively works in history. Kings is thus firmly rooted in the ongoing debates on history and historicity in biblical studies. (For more, see The Historical Books and Historicity.)

Thus, it is better to think of Kings not as a history book proper, but rather as a theological essay shaped by certain religious and ideological beliefs. For the writers of Kings, the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the subsequent fall of the Southern Kingdom (again, see The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah) occurred as a result of the erroneous actions and policies of their kings. For the writers of the book of Kings, the deity worked throughout history in visible ways, making his will known regarding specific issues via his prophets, and punished transgressors if they did not follow the warnings of these same prophets (for more, see 1 Kings-Introduction).

The theological and ideological lens that most scholars believe the writers of Kings ascribed to is related to the question of the so-called Deuteronomistic History (for more, see 1 and 2 Kings [especially the section on "Authorship"] and The Former Prophets and the Deuteronomistic History). The "Deuteronomistic History" (or DH) is the scholarly name frequently given to the books stretching from Deuteronomy—Kings. According to proponents of this theory (which originated with a biblical scholar named Martin Noth), the writer of the books of Deuteronomy-Kings (the Deuteronomist or "Dtr"), using sources at his disposal, composed a history of ancient Israel that began with Moses' speech in Deuteronomy and stretched through the exile. The original theory of the Deuteronomistic History maintained that the work—completed sometime around 550 BCE—outlined the unfolding of the theological principle proclaimed originally by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy: only through loyalty to Yahweh would Israel continue to occupy the holy land. The story found in the book of Kings tells of the repeated failure of Israel's monarchs to remain loyal to Yahweh—and the resulting exilic punishment. In Kings, prophets play an important role in the unfolding drama, repeatedly warning the errant kings of their wrongdoing. (For more, see The Growth of the Old Testament.)

3. Introduction to Prophets/Prophecy:

Defining the Terms:

In order to understand the pivotal role that prophets play in the book of Kings, it is helpful for students to grasp fully the terms "prophecy" and "prophets." Return students to the opening exercise "When I Say Prophet, You Think ____?" Remind them of the variety of responses, including the assumption that "prophets" and "prophecy" both have something to do with predicting the future. Assure them that this is a natural response! After all, the main dictionary definition of the English verb "prophesy" is "to foretell or predict." Similarly, the primary definition of the noun "prophecy" is "the foretelling or prediction of what is to come." However, if students keep reading in most English language dictionaries, they will discover that dictionaries also define "prophet" not as someone who foretells the future but as "a person who speaks for God." (Sidenote: This can be a good lesson on the importance of doing a thorough reading!)

Redirecting students to the original languages of the biblical texts—Greek and Hebrew—will help them to understand what prophets and prophecy meant in the biblical world (for more, see Prophets):

  1. 1. The Greek root of the word "prophet," prophetes comes from two words, pro, meaning "before" and phetes, meaning "speaker." In ancient Greece, a prophet was a person who spoke for another, usually a god, and interpreted the god's will. In other words, a prophet was someone who "spoke forth" for someone else. (For more, see The Genre and Intent of Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible.)
  2. 2. In the Hebrew Bible, there are a number of terms used for the people that are often called "prophets" more broadly. These include:
    • a. The title "prophet" (Hebrew nābî')—A term that eventually becomes a catchall for the other terms, but normally refers to one who speaks for the deity;
    • b. "Diviner/Seer" (Hebrew rō'eh)—A term used especially with the figure of Samuel, who communicates with the unseen world to communicate information to those who seek his consul (see 1 Samuel 9:6);
    • c. "Visionary/Seer" (Hebrew ḥōzeh)—A term used to describe individuals who experience and report visions, such as the prophet Amos (see Amos 7:12)
    • d. "Man of God" (Hebrew ʾîš hā ʾĕlōhîm)—A term used to describe both Elijah and Elisha, both "holy men" who possess special powers and often personifies the deity (see 1 Kings 17)

In short, there is no one word used for the different prophets found in the Hebrew Bible—nor is there one comprehensive, all-encompassing definition for the ways that prophets behave in the Hebrew Bible (as will become increasingly clear in the exercises that follow below). In general, prophets were individuals thought to be the recipients—through visions, dreams, and audition—of divine messages that they then passed on to others through a variety of platforms—including trance, speech, and actions. As the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words for "prophet" illustrate, the genre of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible was not primarily interested in predicting the future—despite how we might sometimes use the terms "prophet" and "prophecy" in contemporary English. Instead, prophets addressed social, political, and religious circumstances in ancient Israel—as we will see in the following.

Yet before we can understand prophets and prophetic activity in ancient Israel, it is important to note that the phenomenon of prophecy was not confined to Israel, as the Hebrew Bible itself attests. This should come as no surprise to careful readers of the biblical text. Point students to the following examples:

  • The Hebrew Bible itself tells us that there were a number of ways that ancient Israelites communicated with the divine world—even if they were not all approved of! (See Jeremiah 27:9).
  • The Hebrew Bible itself tells us that there were prophets for other deities. (See Deuteronomy 13:1-2 and the stories about the Canaanite deity Baal and his prophets in 1 Kings 18.)

Prophets & Prophecy in the Ancient Near East:

As the aforementioned biblical texts indicate, the phenomenon of prophecy was widespread in the ancient Near East, and many of the stories of prophets and prophecy in the Hebrew Bible share similarities with texts from the various ancient Near Eastern cultures that surrounded ancient Israel. (For more, see The Cultural Context of Biblical Prophecy; The Phenomenon of Prophecy; Prophecy-The Literature of the Ancient Near East.)

In order to help students see the larger cultural context of which prophets and prophecy were a part, several ANE texts are helpful to explore. These texts illustrate the prevalence of prophecy in the larger cultural context of the ancient Near Eastern world while also demonstrating the similarities between these texts and the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Instructors can have students read about the following 3 inscriptions on OBSO in addition to providing students with copies of the inscriptions and fragments.

  1. 1. Mari Tablets: The first ANE example is from Mari, a city on the Upper Euphrates River, where archaeologists discovered an archive of tablets dating to before the 18th century BCE. Included in this archive were a series of clay tablets containing a range of prophecies by both male and female prophets, who delivered their messages in a variety of ways—including trance (as in 1 Samuel 19:18–24). In these texts, the prophets regularly addressed the reigning king on matters like warfare and battle. In the Zimri-Lim prophecy students can see how these Mari prophets used the phrase "Thus spoke Annunitum [the deity]" before delivering their message—a phrase that sounds much like the phrase "Thus spoke the LORD" scattered throughout the biblical texts and frequently uttered by biblical prophets. (For more, see "Mari Texts" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East.)
  2. 2. Zakkur Inscription: The second inscription is from the 8th century BCE, discovered on a stele dedicated by King Zakkur of Hamath. The Aramaic inscription on the monument celebrates Zakkur's triumph over King Ben-Hadad of Syria (for biblical references, see 1 Kings 15; 1 Kings 20; 2 Kings 6; 2 Kings 8; 2 Kings 13). The monument records how Zakkur appealed to the Syro-Palestinian deity Baal-Shamayn (for more, see Baal), who subsequently promised deliverance through prophets—namely, "seers" and "messengers" through whom the deity spoke. The text is especially relevant for discussions of prophets and prophecy in the book of Kings because it associates the inscription with Israel's war against the Arameans (see 2 Kings 8–14). Additionally, the inscription sheds light on the religion of the area in the 8th century BCE, with direct parallels to stories from the Hebrew Bible—including seeking a deity's answer through seers and messengers and assurances of deliverance to divinely elected monarch.
  3. 3. Deir 'Alla Inscriptions: Discovered by archeologists in what was part of ancient Ammon, these fragmentary inscriptions also date to the 8th century BCE. One of the inscriptions relates the prophecies of Balaam (apparently the same Balaam known to biblical readers from Numbers 22), who is described as a "seer of the gods." The text describes how Balaam received a prophecy from the gods, who spoke to him at night, and who told of their displeasure with the events transpiring on the earth. Although the text is fragmentary, what remains indicates that Balaam fasted and wept before telling his vision to his people. As in many biblical stories of prophecy, the Deir 'Alla inscription depicts a prophet who communicates divine displeasure to his people. (For an image, see Picture of Deir'Alla Inscription.)

Questions for Discussion:


  1. 1. What titles are used for these various prophets?
  2. 2. How do these prophets receive messages from the gods?
  3. 3. How do the prophets relate these messages to their peoples/kings?
  4. 4. What kind of messages do these prophets relate?
  5. 5. How would you characterize "prophets" and "prophecy" in these ANE texts? How would you best define the terms?

In sum, the above examples illustrate that prophets/prophecy existed outside of ancient Israel and acted in ways similar to what we read in the biblical texts:

  • As in the biblical texts, prophets in the ANE texts communicate with deities to kings and peoples in a number of ways—including through word, visions, and trance.
  • As in the biblical texts, prophets in the ANE texts communicate their messages in a variety of ways, including both speech and actions.
  • As in the biblical texts, similar phrases appear, such as "Thus spoke Annunitum" (from the Zimri-Lim text at Mari) and "Thus says Yahweh" (found throughout the Hebrew Bible). In other words, the prophets (Israelite or other!) are primarily concerned with conveying the message of a deity.
  • As in the biblical texts, prophecies in the ANE texts are often recorded about times of crisis or war, and are frequently connected with the royal courts.
  • However, one notable difference is the kinds of literature produced in the various ANE contexts versus that found in the Hebrew Bible. While some of the stories found in the book of Kings bear resemblances to the ANE stories about prophets, there are no comparable ANE collections like what readers find in prophetic books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc. These prophetic—and often poetic—collections appear to be unique to ancient Israel. And, out of all of the prophets who appear in Kings, only Isaiah and Jonah are present in the Latter Prophets!

Prophets and Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible:

After giving students the necessary background to understand the parallels between ANE prophecy and the prophecy in the biblical world, it is possible to move into a more thorough discussion of prophets and prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. The key points to emphasize here are continuity and diversity. Similar to the ANE texts featuring prophets, in which students saw a diverse number of kinds of prophets who performed various roles in their respective societies, there are a number of different kinds of prophets and kinds of prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible. A few biblical texts help exemplify this point:

  1. Deuteronomy 18: Illustrates how the biblical text, while prohibiting some categories of divine-human communication such as diviners, soothsayers, augurs, sorcerers, necromancers, and those who cast spells or traffic with ghosts and spirits thus also admits to the existence of this diversity in ancient Israel! This text indicates that these practices were all foreign, but other texts indicate otherwise. (See the relevant commentary in NOAB.)
  2. 1 Samuel 28: This text explains how Saul consults the spirit world. Additionally, acceptable forms of divine-human mediation were dreams, Urim, and prophets. Of the three, prophets came to play the overwhelmingly major role in ancient Israel's religion—as is already evident in the book of Kings. (See the relevant commentary in NOAB.)
  3. 1 Samuel 9: As demonstrated above, the title "prophet" refers to a role in Israel's society that was by no means uniform—persons recognized as prophets performed in quite different ways and were known by a number of different titles. The words recorded in 1 Samuel 9:9 help explain the interchangeable nature of these various titles: "Formerly in Israel, anyone who went to inquire of God would say, 'Come, let us go to the seer'; for the one who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer." While the verse indicates that the word "seer" had gone out of use, ask students to reflect on what this passage tells us about the terms "seer" and "prophet" in ancient Israel. (See the relevant commentary in NOAB.)

Yet while there is no one singular term for prophet in the Hebrew Bible, it is nevertheless appropriate to think of all of the individuals mentioned above as intermediaries—individuals who spoke for the deity and communicated those messages to others. Rather than messages about the future, the prophets in the Hebrew Bible were more interested in addressing the present (while sometimes referring to the past). When the prophets did talk about the future, usually the immediate future was their primary concern and their pronouncements about the future were not so much predictions as warnings and threats; the prophetic message was a "turn or burn" message ("This is what will happen to you if you do not change your ways!") For the most part, prophets in the Hebrew Bible were critics of their societies, condemning religious and social practices and institutions of their times and calling for reform and change. (For more, see Forthtelling, Not Foretelling and The Genre and Intent of Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible).

Possible Mid-Class Exercise: Viewing and/or Discussion of The Lorax (see Additional Exercise #5 below).

The book of Kings provides an excellent starting point for both the contrasting behavior and multiplicity of activities attributed to prophets in the Hebrew Bible—as well as their role as critics rather than fortunetellers. Though the stories contain some elements of miracle-working (especially in the legendary stories of Elijah and Elisha), mostly they illustrate that a prophet in ancient Israel was an agent for and defender of Yahweh, opposing religious apostasy and the behavior of errant monarchs.

4. Prophets in the Book of Kings: A Journey Into the Text

Preliminary Remarks: In the story told in the book of Kings—part of the "former prophets" in the Jewish canon—we find, not surprisingly, a number of stories about prophets in the unfolding narrative. Woven throughout the tale of Israel's history, stretching from the death of King David to the coronation of King Solomon and continuing until the destruction of Israel, are interlaced numerous stories about various prophets. These figures include:

As the book of Kings relates the histories of Judah and Israel up until the Babylonian exile, the theological concerns of the book of Deuteronomy pervade the book: Yahweh is Israel's only god (Deuteronomy 6:4) and Yahweh is only to be worshipped in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12)—kings who forget this bring disaster upon Israel! Throughout this larger narrative arc, prophets play a pivotal role, entreating kings to "turn" lest they "burn"!

As a way to get the students to interact directly with texts found in the book of Kings and the stories of the prophets/types of prophecy found therein, split the class into groups and have them read the stories listed below and answer the questions that follow. (The stories selected are not exhaustive, but offer a nice cross-section of prophets in Kings.) If students have access to OBSO, they can search the site and its resources for help answering the questions. Then bring the groups back together and have students present their findings to the larger class. General questions for a follow-up discussion are included below

Group # 1: Assign the second group 1 Kings 11. Have the students read the passage together and then reflect on the following questions.

  1. 1. Summarize the story found in 1 Kings 11 (especially vv. 29-39). What happens in this story? Who are the main characters?
  2. 2. 1 Kings 3:3 records that Solomon loved the LORD, but we also learn that he loved the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1; 9:16, 24) and many other women, "clinging" to them (vv. 1–2). In the book of Deuteronomy, "loving" and "clinging" are both verbs used to discuss human loyalty to the deity (Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12, 20; 11:1, 22; 13:4). This same God forbids intermarriage with foreign women (cf. Deuteronomy 7:3–4). What might the use of this language from the book of Deuteronomy imply here in the story of Solomon?
  3. 3. Verses 29-39 introduce a prophet named Ahijah and a pattern repeated throughout Kings: the deity sends a prophet to announce in advance a change in the ruling dynasty, giving divine sanction to the change and the new monarch. What does this tell us about prophetic authority in ancient Israel? What does it tell us about their role vis-à-vis kings and kingship?
  4. 4. According to the narrator, Ahijah's message encourages Jeroboam's actions—namely, his defiance of Solomon on behalf of the northern tribes of Israel, which leads to the split of the united monarchy. What does this indicate about the deity's initial support of Jeroboam?
  5. 5. Why is the punishment for Solomon's apostasy delayed? Who raises up Solomon's enemies?
  6. 6. A symbolic action report is one form of prophetic activity in which a prophetic behavior is designed to convey a message. In 1 Kings 11:29, Ahijah acts out a symbolic action. What does he do? What is the intended message?
  7. 7. What brings about the downfall of Solomon's kingdom?
  8. 8. Do we see this prophet speak with/communicate with the deity? (Hint: The phrase "Thus says the LORD" is frequently found in prophetic literature, both in the book of Kings and in the larger biblical canon.)
  9. 9. Is the phrase "Thus says the LORD" similar to any phrases from the ANE prophecies discussed earlier in class? What might this indicate about the relationship between ANE prophecy and biblical prophecy?

Group #2: Assign the first group 1 Kings 18. Have the students read the passage together, answer the following questions, and be prepared to report their findings to the larger class.

  1. 1. Summarize the story found in 1 Kings 18. What happens in this story? Who are the main characters?
  2. 2. What might this story tell us about ancient Israelite religious practices during the period of the divided monarchy? What god(s) are the Israelites worshipping?
  3. 3. The drought mentioned in 1 Kings 18 is originally introduced in 1 Kings 17, immediately following the text's depiction of King Ahab as a Baal worshipper (cf. 1 Kings 16:29–34). Baal, the Canaanite deity that Ahab worships, is a god of fertility and rain. What role does drought play in this particular chapter? Who ends the drought and how? What does this prove?
  4. 4. Does Elijah work alone or with other prophets in 1 Kings 18? Do the prophets of Baal work alone or as a group?
  5. 5. How do the prophets of Baal communicate with their deity? How does Elijah communicate with Yahweh?
  6. 6. What does Ahab call Elijah in 1 Kings 18:17? What might this indicate about the relationship between Ahab and Elijah? Between kings and prophets?
  7. 7. What is the relationship between vv. 1–40 and vv. 41-46?
  8. 8. Are there any ethical differences in the portrayals of Yahweh and Baal in 1 Kings 18?
  9. 9. What happens to the prophets of Baal at the end of the story? Does the ending of the story fit with your ideas about how prophets should act?

Group #3: Assign the second group 1 Kings 21. Have the students read the passage together and then reflect on the following questions.

  1. 1. Summarize the story found in 1 Kings 21. What happens in this story? Who are the main characters?
  2. 2. Why does Naboth refuse to give King Ahab his vineyard? What does Naboth's answer tell us about Israelite conception of land possession in the monarchic period? (See Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 5:21.)
  3. 3. How does the narrator portray Jezebel in this story? How does she go about getting the vineyard for Ahab? What might this tell us about the narrator's feelings about foreign queens/wives?
  4. 4. The deity instructs Elijah to begin his speech against King Ahab with "Thus says the LORD" (1 Kings 21:19), a phrase frequently found in prophetic literature (both in the book of Kings and in the larger biblical canon). Is this phrase similar to any phrases from the ANE prophecies discussed earlier in class? What might this indicate about the relationship between ANE prophecy and biblical prophecy?
  5. 5. What does Ahab call Elijah in v. 20? What might this indicate about the relationship between prophets and kings in the divided monarchy?
  6. 6. What is Ahab and Jezebel's punishment for their actions in 1 Kings 21? How does Ahab react to learning about his fate? What is the deity's response?
  7. 7. Is the story in 1 Kings 21 based primarily around theological concerns or social justice issues?

Group #4: Assign the second group 1 Kings 22. Have the students read the passage together and then answer the following questions.

  1. 1. Summarize the story found in 1 Kings 22. What happens in this story? Who are the main characters?
  2. 2. In this story, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are cooperating against a common enemy: the kingdom of Aram. The kings of Judah and Israel agree to go to war against Aram—but first Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, asks the king of Israel to inquire "the word of the Lord" (1 Kings 22:5). In order to do this, who does the king of Israel consult?
  3. 3. How many prophets does the king assemble? What might this indicate about how prophets sometimes worked in ancient Israel?
  4. 4. What appears to be the function of the prophets vis-à-vis the ensuing war campaign?
  5. 5. A symbolic action report is one form of prophetic activity in which a prophetic behavior is designed to convey a message. In 1 Kings 22:11, Zedekiah son of Chenaanah acts out a symbolic action. What does he do? What is the intended message?
  6. 6. Why does the king dislike Micaiah? What do the messenger's words to Micaiah indicate about what the prophet often tells the king?
  7. 7. How does Micaiah know what he knows—through vision or word? Why are the other prophets lying to the kings?
  8. 8. How does Micaiah say that the king will know whether he speaks the truth or not? What does this indicate about how true prophets were distinguished from false ones? (See Deuteronomy 13:1–5; 18:20–22.)
  9. 9. What might this passage indicate about the relationship between prophets and monarchy?

Group #5: Assign the second group 2 Kings 2. Have the students read the passage together and then reflect on the following questions.

  1. 1. Summarize the story found in 2 Kings 2. What happens in this story? Who are the main characters?
  2. 2. What is the relationship between vv. 1-18, vv. 19-22, and vv. 23-25? Is there a common thread between these verses or do they appear to be largely unrelated?
  3. 3. How does Elijah pass his power to Elisha? What happens to Elijah?
  4. 4. With what other characters does Elisha interact with in this passage? Who are the "company of the prophets"?
  5. 5. What happens in vv. 19-22? How does Elisha make this miracle happen?
  6. 6. What does Elisha do to the boys who mock him? What might this narrative indicate about ancient Israelite ideas concerning the power of holiness?
  7. 7. How does Elisha communicate with the deity in order to get the things he wants to happen to happen—or does he?
  8. 8. Is there a clear-cut moral message in these prophetic legends and stories?

Group #6: Assign the fifth group 2 Kings 9. Have the students read the passage together and then reflect on the following questions.

  1. 1. Summarize the story found in 2 Kings 9. What happens in this story? Who are the main characters? Are there any themes or key words used throughout the passage?
  2. 2. What does the phrase "company of prophets" indicate about how Elisha worked? With whom he worked?
  3. 3. The phrase "Thus says the LORD" occurs frequently in prophetic literature (both in the book of Kings and in the larger biblical canon). Is this phrase similar to any phrases from the ANE prophecies discussed earlier in class? What might this indicate about the relationship between ANE prophecy and biblical prophecy?
  4. 4. In v. 3, Elisha tells the young prophet that he is to anoint Jehu king over Israel. What does this indicate about the political influence of prophets vis-à-vis kings and monarchy in ancient Israel? (For more on this, see 1 Samuel 10:1 and 1 Kings 11:31; 19:6.)
  5. 5. In vv. 7–10, the young prophet explains what should happen to the house of Ahab and Jezebel. According to the prophet's words, who is responsible for the end of the Omri dynasty?
  6. 6. What does Jehu call the young prophet in v. 11? What might this indicate about how prophets were viewed in ancient Israel?
  7. 7. Despite Jehu's description of the young prophet in v.11, when he tells the others what the young prophet said, they immediately accept that he is now king over Israel in vv. 12-13. What might this indicate about the power and status of prophets?

Group #7: Assign the second group 2 Kings 22. Have the students read the passage together and then reflect on the following questions.

  1. 1. Summarize the story found in 2 Kings 22. What happens in this story? Who are the main characters?
  2. 2. What do we know about Josiah? Is he a good or a bad king? Why?
  3. 3. Does the narrator take any overt notice of Huldah's gender? What might this indicate about the status of female prophets in ancient Israel?
  4. 4. The phrase "Thus says the LORD" (vv. 15-16) is a phrase frequently found in prophetic literature (both in the book of Kings and in the larger biblical canon). Is this phrase similar to any phrases from the ANE prophecies discussed earlier in class? What might this indicate about the relationship between ANE prophecy and biblical prophecy?
  5. 5. What does the phrase "Thus says the LORD" indicate about the means through which Huldah received her divine message?
  6. 6. Why does Josiah tear his clothes in v. 11?
  7. 7. What do the words confirm? (Hint: look at 21:10–15 and the story of the unnamed prophets there!)
  8. 8. Huldah's words of judgment center on a written document, something unique to her amongst prophets thus far in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars believe that the scroll Hiliah discovered now forms part of our book of Deuteronomy. What makes King Josiah enact the words of the written document they found? (Hint: look at 2 Kgs 22:13). What does this indicate about the importance of prophets?
  9. 9. According to the narrator, why will Josiah be spared the disaster that is coming?

General Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. Compare and contrast the stories of Elijah and Elisha. How are these two prophets similar? What makes them different? What makes them similar or different from the other prophets we see in the book of Kings?
  2. 2. Do you think the stories about the various prophets are unrelated fragments? Might they have originally comprised a single composition? Do they share any common elements?
  3. 3. What is the theological function of these different stories about prophets and prophecy?
  4. 4. What do these stories tell readers about the social setting of the various prophets of Yahweh in ancient Israel? Do they appear regularly to advise kings? Do we ever see them working with ordinary people?
  5. 5. What kind of things did the kings ask prophets for advice? How is this similar to other ANE prophecies? What other kinds of issues did prophets address with the kings?
  6. 6. What are the different ways that we see the deity communicate with the various prophets?
  7. 7. What is the test to determine whether a prophet is a true prophet or a false prophet? Where do we see this in the biblical text?
  8. 8. How would you define a "prophet" in ancient Israel? How would you define "prophecy"?

5. Conclusions

As one reads the story of Israel in the book of Kings it becomes apparent how many different ways prophets and prophecy operated in ancient Israel. As you read through this list, ask students to identify the relevant biblical stories/passages from the book of Kings:

  • Some prophets live in holy places, others in ordinary homes and villages, and some lived in the royal court;
  • Some prophets belonged to communal groups, while others appear as loners;
  • Sometimes Israelites sought out the prophets, while other times the prophets brought revelations from Yahweh for persons who had not consulted them;
  • Some prophets practiced prophecy in the forms of groups, while other prophets spoke alone;
  • Some prophets are men, while some are women;
  • Some are respected, some feared, and others mocked;
  • Some of the stories are intrinsically concerned with ethics, morals, and orthodoxy while others are amoral—sometimes the prophets do things that seem strange or even wrong to us as contemporary readers; and
  • Prophets in ancient Israel were often involved in decisions to go to war and in making (and unmaking!) kings, in addition to offering oracles of judgment.

In sum, prophets in Kings:

  • are sometimes concerned with the future—but more often, they are concerned with tackling the religious and social situations of their immediate setting;
  • are diverse: there is more than one kind of prophet and prophecy is a multiform phenomenon
  • set the stage for what is to come—the history of prophecy will continue down into the exile and beyond, although the phenomenon of prophecy in ancient Israel will peter out after the end of the monarchy. However, as long as Israel has a monarchy—in other words, had kings who ruled them—there needed to be a way for Yahweh to talk to the kings—and prophets seem to be the primary means.

Additional Exercises:


  1. 1. Invite students to watch the following clip on the story of Elisha and the She-Bears (2 Kings 2:23–24): If Religions Were Real. (WARNING: The video uses some objectionable language, features violence [as, of course, does the biblical text!], and treats the biblical story somewhat lightly.) After viewing the video, enjoin students with the following questions:
    • As this video clip illustrates, stories from the biblical texts—like those about prophets—can be surprising. How does this story deviate from what we might expect from prophetic behavior? Or does it?
    • How does the retelling in the video stray from the biblical text? What does it include? Exclude? Add?
    • What (if any) message does this story send? In the video? In the biblical text?
    • The video clip begins with the caption "If Religions Were Real"—a somewhat erroneous title, since the Bible is not a religion, and since religions are in fact real! Why do you think the makers of the video included that? What might be a better title for the video?
  2. 2. The story of Huldah in 2 Kings 22 can be surprising to contemporary readers, who are often accustomed to thinking that women could not hold positions of authority in ancient Israel. Yet Huldah speaks in the name of Yahweh, with the same authority as any other prophet in the book of Kings. Ask students to read the stories of Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 4–5) and Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), each of whom also plays an important role in formative moments in Israel's history, and then reflect on the following questions:
    • In what ways are Huldah, Miriam, Deborah, and Noadiah similar? What title do all three women share?
    • What might these stories tell us about the role that women could play in leadership positions in ancient Israel?
    • Some scholars argue that women like Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah were the exception in ancient Israel, rather than the norm. How do you respond?
  3. 3. Have students compare and contrast different representations of the prophet Elijah in art and literature (or the prophet Elisha!). Possibilities include Anna Kamienska's poem "The Weariness of the Prophet Elijah"; Peter Paul Ruben's painting The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water; Washington Allston's Elijah in the Desert, etc. For a good website and source of various paintings, see http://www.biblical-art.com.

    Divide groups into 3-4, and assign them one of the representations, asking them to identify what biblical text it portrays and how the representations adhere to or deviate from the biblical text. Have students present their group work to the entire class at the end, and then facilitate a discussion based on the following questions:
    • What stories about Elijah are depicted? Why do you think the artists chose these stories? Are any stories about Elijah notably absent?
    • How do the different representations depict the prophet Elijah? What do they include? What do they exclude? Do they change any factors?
    • Which image do the students think is the best "illustration" of Elijah?
    • What makes it "the best" (e.g., exact representation? the emotions invoked? other factors?)
  4. 4. Compare and contrast two similar stories about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 8.
    • What happens in each story? How are they similar? How are they different?
    • How are the prophets portrayed in each tale? How would you characterize Elijah? Elisha? God?
    • What does each narrative tell us about issues of biblical hospitality and patronage?
  5. 5. Watch and discuss the cartoon version of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. Based on a children's book published in 1971, The Lorax tells a story through the voice of the Once-ler, the now repentant but originally villainous narrator of the tale. In the story, the Once-ler happens upon a place filled with Truffula Trees, Swomee-Swans, Brown Bar-ba- loots, and Humming-Fishes. The Once-ler sees economic gain in this bounty, and chops down the trees to produce mass-market "Thneeds" ("It's a shirt! It's a sock! It's a glove! It's a hat!"). As the trees and other natural elements disappear, the character of the Lorax begins to speak for the trees, "for the trees have no tongues." The Lorax warns the Once-ler of his actions, who takes no heed. Eventually the Lorax leaves, too, leaving only a message engraved on a rock: "Unless." Luckily, the Once-ler saved one Truffula Tree seed, and the fate of the world rests in the hand of a child who cares for the seed. After watching the cartoon (either before or during class), facilitate the following discussion:
    • What do you think Dr. Seuss' purpose was in writing the story? To entertain, inform, or persuade? How does he achieve that purpose? Cite specific reasons and examples from film to support your viewpoint.
    • How is the figure of the Lorax similar to figures like Elijah and Elisha in ancient Israel?
    • Is the Lorax a prophet? How is his message received?
    • How is the Lorax's final word "Unless" similar to the "turn or burn" message of the biblical prophets?
    • Is The Lorax a hopeful story? Are the prophetic stories in the book of Kings hopeful?
  6. 6. Invite students to reflect on the life and career of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a prophet in light of what they now know about the role and function of prophets in biblical Israel.
    • In what ways was Martin Luther King, Jr. like a biblical prophet?
    • What kind of critiques—religious and social—did Martin Luther King, Jr. offer?
    • When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the future, how did he do so? (Ask students to think of his "I Have a Dream" speech. What did he think would happen to the United States if society was not reformed? How was his message similar to prophetic messages in the biblical texts?
    • How was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s message received in various contexts? Do you see any parallels between this and the way that the messages of prophets were received in ancient Israel?
  7. 7. Lead a discussion on contemporary actions or people that students would describe as "prophetic." Can the students provide specific examples?
  8. 8. Prophecy does not end with the book of Kings! For future reference or further research, direct students to the following OBSO essays:

Further Reference:


  • Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy, edited by Ehud Ben Zvi and M.H. Floyd.
  • A History of Prophecy in Israel by Joseph Blenkinsopp.
  • Prophecy in its Ancient Near Eastern Context by Martin Nissinen.
  • The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction by David L. Petersen.
  • Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel by R.R. Wilson.
  • Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study, edited by Bill T. Arnold.
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