Prophets in the Jewish bible

Prophets, in the Jewish Bible, a prophet (nabi, pl., nabi’im) is one who speaks on the behalf of God. (see Prophecy) Prophets appear to have originated as part of the Near Eastern phenomenon, such as in Mari where they were cultic functionaries who made known the unknown. Among these functionaries were the hozeh, seer, and ro’eh, seer, ish ha Elohim, the man of God. The distinction or relationship between these titles is unclear, 1 Samuel 9:9 simply affirms that he who is called a prophet now, was called a seer in former times.

This seems to indicate that the classical prophets, whose oracles were gathered together in the prophetic books, come from the background of cultic prophecy, and in some instances remained connected to the cult. Examples of this are Amos, Michaiah ben Imiah, and Isaiah all had visions of God connected with the altar.

All of these prophets showed signs of being possessed by God; they entered trances and spoke ecstatically on occasions; but classical prophets became distinct because their authenticity was judged by the content of their message, was it loyal to Yahweh, whether or not the external signs were present. The first attempts to distinguish between true and false prophets are seen in Deuteronomy 13 and 18.

The classical or literary prophets are those whose oracles are preserved in writing such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as well as the twelve Minor prophets. Like the pre-classical prophets, the classical prophets also claimed to speak in the name of God, «So saith the Lord…» but they tended to place more emphasis on the importance of ethical monotheism rather than the performance of the cult and foretelling the future.

As it was with the pre-classical prophets, some at least were subject to ecstatic seizures, Hosea 9:7, they performed symbolic acts, (Isaiah 20:2 ff), and they were intimately involved with the current affairs of the nation. Several of these classical prophets were called to their mission, Isaiah 6, and one at least, Jeremiah, expressed reluctance, see Jeremiah 1:6. He saw the life of a prophet as being frightening and lonely, «Why did I come forth from the womb to experience trouble and grief and waste my days in chagrim?» Jeremiah 20:13.

But, the call was irresistible, «If I say I will not mention him or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones and I am not able to hold it in.» Jeremiah 10:9.

The criterion of a true prophet, according to Deuteronomy 18:22, was whether his words came true; but in his role of intercessor, he could try to avert the doom which he pronounced. Thus Jeremiah unsuccessfully attempted to turn the anger of god, Jeremiah 18:20, as did Ezekiel, Ezekiel 9:8-10. The prophets constantly pleaded with Israel to repent, Amos 5:4. Then the later classical prophets were certain that humanity could not by its owns efforts return to God, and they looked forward to a time when God would initiate a «new covenant» when «I (God) will write my law upon their hearts…» and «I will remember their sin no more» Jeremiah 31:33-34. In that day the faithful remnant of Israel would live in peace and God’s glory would again be manifest through all the earth. (Isaiah 40:5) It was generally agreed that prophecy had ceased in the time of the second Temple: after the Exile, authority was transferred to the Temple and its priests interpreting the Torah (to ensure holy behavior and thus no repetition of the Exile; but who could control or countermand someone claiming direct authority from God, «thus saith the Lord. The rabbis taught that Moses was the greatest of the prophets (B. Yev. 49b) and that prophecy adds nothing new to the Jewish religion. (A prophet makes no innovations, B. Shab, 1044)

However, some Jewish thinker have vigorously held that prophecy is an inspiring model of progressive revelation and identify the prophets as the thinkers who transformed Judaism from a tribal superstition into a universal system of ethical monotheism. A.G.H.


Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 770-771