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Prophets and prophecy

A (too brief) history of Old Testament prophecy

Moses is counted the first and greatest of the prophets because, as no other and none since in the history of Israel, he spoke with God and acted as intermediary between God and the people to bring them out of slavery and into the Promised Land. The story of Moses is conveyed in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy and Numbers, which are three of the five books of the Jewish Torah (see above).

Prophets on Barry Bandstra’s ‘Reading the Old Testament’ site gives a good introduction to the prophetic books. Bandstra distinguishes between the popular understanding of the words ‘prophet’ and ‘prophecy’ and their biblical meaning and he gives examples of people of our own time whose words and actions might qualify them to be regarded as prophetic.

Former prophets

Since the time of Moses others have been recognised as prophets –spokesmen for God and intermediaries with the people. Joshua, some of the Judges and Samuel are among these. They are briefly identified on the Jewish OHR site.

The stories of the former prophets are also referred to as the ‘deuteronomistic history’ because they reflect the concerns of the authors of the book of Deuteronomy who were anxious to show how the hand of God was at work in the unfolding history of the people of Israel. Another site which introduces the former prophets succinctly is Richard Martin’s The Narrow Gate.

Elijah and Elisha

A bridge between the ‘former prophets’ and the ‘classic’ prophets (those who have left a written tradition) are the figures of Elijah and his successor, Elisha.

Their stories are told in the book(s) of Kings. They take the role of the prophet beyond either the prophetic function associated with leadership, for example, Moses and Joshua, or the ‘king-maker’/advisory role of prophets such as Samuel and Nathan. Elijah and Elisha become public religious figures whose role is to challenge the nation and especially its political and religious leaders to fidelity to God and the ancient covenant.

A map outlining the extent of the activities of Elijah and Elisha helps to give an appreciation of their special role.

The latter or ‘classic’ prophets

The classic or ‘literary’ prophets are those prophets whose prophetic words and actions were recorded and written down: these prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets. Either they themselves or their followers wrote down and elaborated their prophetic oracles or actions and these writings were edited and incorporated into the Jewish Scriptures or Tanakh.

The prophets and their messages were crucial in recalling the people of Israel to fidelity to God. They shaped a religious understanding that calls human beings away from idolatry, violence and exploitation to love of God expressed through love and service of others, especially those in any kind of need. The fact that their rebukes and criticisms of Israel were accepted into the sacred scriptures of their people shows that, despite the treatment meted out to them in the course of their ministry, their message was recognised as God-given.