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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050
Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.66 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2010




Prophetic witness in the Hebrew Bible: from prophetic word to prophetic books



Alphonso Groenewald

Department of Old Testament Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to




Although prophecy as a phenomenon is recognised as being common to Mari, Mesopotamia and other Near Eastern contexts, the huge process of collecting, editing and interpreting prophecy that took place as part of the formation of the Hebrew Bible (HB), is virtually without precedent in the rest of the Ancient Near East. The prophetic books in the HB are written texts. They claim to be, and were considered to be, the word of YHWH. Beginning with an overview of the prophets and prophetic literature, including an explication of the different terms used for 'prophet' in the HB, this article focused on the different images for the prophets as used in the biblical tradition and particularly on, (1) the prophet as individual against the establishment, (2) the prophet as a false prophet and (3) the prophet as a true servant of Yahweh. It seems that most of the traditions in the HB concerning the prophets are not descriptions of the actuality of prophecy, but, rather, they reflect later perceptions of prophecy in the development of the tradition. Although they are not entirely imagination, images of the prophets in the HB should not be taken as descriptions of prophecy in Judah and Israel. The characterisations of the prophets are ideological constructs of the later tradents of the texts projected onto Israel's and Judah's past.

Keywords: prophecy; prophetic images; prophetic literature; scholars of scripture; tradents




In Mari,1 Mesopotamia2 and the Ancient Near East,3 prophets played an important role at moments of national importance, such as political-military crises caused by the threat of an enemy, wars and internal power conflicts (De Jong 2007:342). Particularly in the midst of a struggle for the throne, a conspiracy or a coup de'état, prophecy functioned as a means of divine legitimisation of a throne pretender.

Similarly, prophets in Judah and Israel encouraged the king and people at time of national disaster and also delivered divine criticism. The critical prophetic voices served the following purposes: firstly, prophets reminded the addressee (often the king) of his duties and pointed out his shortcomings with regard to the gods. Many stories in the Hebrew Bible (HB) of encounters between prophets and kings echo this prophetic function. Secondly, since the well-being of the state was a prophetic concern, prophets harshly denounced persons they perceived to be enemies of the state.

In several cases the prophets announced the occurrence of a specific disaster, with the purpose of averting the disaster by undertaking the right action. Thus, in announcing a disaster, a prophet is not in opposition to the establishment, but serves the interest of the king and state by revealing otherwise hidden knowledge concerning a threat to the well-being of the state.



Biblical texts create worlds or meaning(s) and invite their readers to enter them. When readers enter such textual worlds, which are often strange and complex, they are confronted with the theological claims made by these texts. The prophetic books of the HB contain some of the most profound theological literature in both the Tanak - the Jewish version of the Bible - and the Old Testament (OT) - the first portion of the Christian Bible (Sweeney 2005:15).

When many people today hear the word 'prophet', they think of someone who predicts the future, perhaps through some kind of hocus-pocus (Redditt 2008:xiii). However, Jewish and Christian believers would not cast the prophets of the HB/OT in such a light because they rarely would accuse the biblical prophets of magic or trickery; some of them may even ascribe to belief that the biblical prophets had direct access to God, which allowed them to see what God would do in the future (Freedman 1997:57).4

Although some people would like to think of prophets as persons from all walks of life who suddenly find themselves possessed of divine spirits and compelled to speak on God's behalf, most prophets in the ancient world, including Israel, appeared to be well-trained professionals who had mastered a set of skills. These skills include oracular divination, poetic and musical expressions and ritual action. They normally functioned within the contexts of well-recognised institutions, such as temples and royal palaces (Jeremias 2003:1694-1695; Sweeney 2005:24).

Old Testament prophecy, on the other hand, does not really exist: it is neither a homogenous nor an isomorphic phenomenon (Weippert 1988:307). It went through different phases of development and its roots were in different sources. Diverse interest groups, as well as different societal groups and classes, were responsible for its formation. It is therefore essential for readers to grasp the literary character of the prophetic books in the HB in order to discern their respective understandings of the significance of Judah's and Israel's relationship with Yahweh and the events they portray. While predictions of the future often appear in the prophetic books, anticipating God's salvation or punishment, they do not exhaust the preaching of the prophets in the HB. Much of their recorded proclamations, indeed by far the majority, dealt with explanations of past and present events and exhortations for the people to live righteously, priests to teach properly and rulers and judges to administer justice fairly.

People who are called prophets appear in many books in the HB (Freedman 1997:59; Jeremias 2003:1694-1695; Kratz 2003:32; Redditt 2008:1). Samuel and his followers are called prophets and they play a significant, if not decisive, role in censuring the monarchy. Prophets remained an integral part of Israelite society as long as the monarchy survived - and even beyond, while there was still hope of restoring the kingship of the House of David. For the scribes of the biblical books, the characteristics and features of prophecy were seen in earlier heroes of faith and the role models in Israel's past experience. Therefore the patriarchs in general, and Abraham in particular, could be called prophets; in Genesis 20:7 the intercessory power and privilege of Abraham are described as prophetic. Moses' brother Aaron (Ex 7:1) is called a prophet, as well as the foreigner Balaam (Nm 22-24).

In Deuteronomy 34:10 Moses is depicted as the prophet par excellence (Huffmon 2000:63; Schmid 2006:303).5 Of all the leaders of Israel, he attained the highest level of intimacy with the deity and fulfilled most completely the role and responsibility of a prophet (Freedman 1997:59-60). Moses is set apart by the biblical writers/editors as being unique among the prophets; he is thus the standard by which all others are to be measured. The ultimate point of difference is that, while God spoke to prophets generally through visions, auditions, or dreams, he spoke face to face with Moses (Dt 34:10-12) or mouth to mouth (Ex 33:11) and not in a vision, dream or 'riddles' (Auld 1996:40). Whereas other prophets only sensed the presence of God, Moses saw his actual form and person (Nm 12:8; cf. Ex 33:9, 17-23; 34:5-8).

Prophetesses also appear in these books and include: Miriam, Moses' sister (Ex 15:20), Deborah (Jdg 4:4), the unnamed wife of the prophet Isaiah (Is 8:3), Huldah, who is consulted by the high Judean officials and who verified the validity of the recently discovered 'Book of the Law' for King Josiah (2 Ki 22:14; 2 Chr 34:22) and Noadiah, who is among those opposing the restoration projects of Nehemiah (Neh 6:14) (Ackerman 2002:48-49; Huffmon 2000:66). All of these people seem to be fulfilling roles that the later tradition associated with prophets/prophetesses. Yet another fifteen prophetic figures appear in 1 and 2 Samuel and, 1 and 2 Kings, not to mention the so-called 'Major and Minor prophets'.



No other religious specialist has such an abundance of material in the HB as the prophet (Grabbe 1995:82). Prophets and their alleged pronouncements were clearly important to the tradents of the HB. Within this body of traditions we encounter a variety of positive, negative and ambivalent viewpoints. Some prophets are clearly considered to be 'true prophets', while others are 'false prophets' (Kratz 2003:30-32; Schmid 2006:305-306).

Within the HB many figures are identified, in one way another, as prophets. The loanword 'prophet' is based upon the Septuagint's prophētēs, which is a translation of the Hebrew nābî'. The Greek word prophētēs primarily denotes someone speaking on behalf of God. The most frequently attested term in the HB is the nābî', an active form meaning 'the one who invokes (the gods)' (De Jong 2007:319; cf. Koch 1995:13; Koch 1997:477; Kratz 2003:30; Kratz 2006:343; Petersen 1997:24).

The terms ōzeh ('to see')6 and rō'eh ('to see')7 are usually translated as 'seer'. The term 'îš hā'ĕlōhîm means ('man of God') and finally qōsēm ('to divine, predict, decide') denotes a certain type of diviner, but it is difficult to be more precise. Often, the HB uses the lexical groups of, nābî', ōzeh, rō'eh and qōsēm interchangeably and in connection with each other. From a certain stage onwards these terms were used as synonyms. The term 'îš hā'ĕlōhîm ('man of God') is a somewhat different case: it is used exclusively for individual men and always positively. Although 'man of God' is used to introduce or address 'prophetic' figures several times in the HB, the usage is far from widespread (Auld 1996:28). The term is used most often of Elijah (five times) and Elisha (27 times) in Kings. Samuel, himself, is three times introduced as 'man of God' (1 Sm 9:7, 8, 10). Similarly, there are six references to Moses and three to David as 'man of God'.8

Although, over time, the term nābî' achieved primacy as the term for prophet, there were moments in the history of Israel when not all intermediaries were known as nĕbī'îm; these different terms thus point to situations in which not all intermediaries did the same thing and they point to periods when intermediaries simultaneously acted in diverse ways (Petersen 1997:24). Terminology, however, is not always the sole criterion by which prophets are defined (Grabbe 1995:82) and many prophetic figures are singled out by their social function and activities. One does not always have to be called, for example, a nābî' to be identified as a prophet. This difference in terminology could be the result of historical development, that is, some terms were favoured by some groups or in certain historical periods. Nevertheless, there is clearly an overlap in usage in the current text and the identification of a prophet depends more on certain particular characteristics, rather than just the terms which are used in the specific text.

On the other hand, most of the traditions concerning the prophets as we encounter them in the HB are not necessarily historical descriptions of the actuality of prophecy; they are a reflection of prophecy based on later perceptions (De Jong 2007:323).9 Although not complete fantasy, the images of the prophets in the HB should not be taken as an actual depiction of what prophecy really was or how it functioned in Judah and Israel. The following section will focus on the different images of the prophets we encounter in the HB, as well as the ideological background of these images.



Individual against establishment

In the prophetic books there are individuals who are portrayed as delivering prophecies of judgement against a hostile establishment. In a few cases, these figures are deliberately not referred to as prophets - in order to distinguish them from those prophets who were regarded as part of the religious establishment (De Jong 2007:324). However, according to the texts these figures were commissioned by Yahweh to prophesy. We find examples of this in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah and Zephaniah. For the context of this article it will suffice to refer to three of these examples.

Our first example is from the book of Amos (7:10-17) which tells the story of the confrontation between Amos and Amaziah the priest. In the short narrative of his encounter with Amaziah, Amos refutes the appellation 'prophet', but accepts the divine command to 'go, prophecy' (Am 7:14, 15). In this text Amos is accused of conspiracy against the state and, subsequently, Amaziah expels him from the land (Jeremias 1995:110). Amos then gives his famous reply:

I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, Yahweh took me from following the flock, and said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'.

(Am 7:14-15, NRSV)

The story wants us to believe that Amos is a farmer, commissioned by Yahweh to prophesy; he is thus not a career prophet (Jeremias10 2003:1696; Koch 1995:114; Weippert 1988:309-310).11 For if he had been a prophet, he would have been part of the establishment, which was on the brink of collapse because of its wickedness, a fact that Amos, being an outsider, had already announced (De Jong 2007:325; Koch 1995:123-124). Following the series of questions in Amos 3:3-8, the conclusion can be drawn that 'prophesying', after hearing Yahweh speak, is as much anyone's business as it is normal to be afraid after hearing a lion roar.

The words of the priest Amaziah indirectly make clear what was expected of prophets. They were often connected with the sanctuary, they shared in the royal supplies of the temple and they had to proclaim the well-being of the king.12 It was expected of them to encourage the people; they were thus public figures of importance. Amos, though, is commissioned by Yahweh to prophesy in opposition to the hostile, corrupt and godless establishment (Koch 1995:118-122).

The second example is Jeremiah 26. The second half of this book commences with a story that presents Jeremiah as the speaker of the authentic word of Yahweh, a role which is recognised and acknowledged by important social strata in the Judean community. In this chapter he openly proclaims a message of doom against the temple and the city (Carroll 1986:513). Over and above Jeremiah (26:12) we encounter two other individuals - Micah (26:18) and Uriah (26:20) - who are all commissioned by Yahweh to prophesy, but who are nevertheless not called nĕbī'îm ('prophets').13 They stand in opposition to a godless and hostile establishment to which the prophets belong as officials (Auld 1996:25; Fischer 2005:31-32, 35-37, 38-39; Otto 2007a:153).

The reaction of the priests, prophets and the people indicates that Jeremiah's cursing of the temple (Jr 26:6, 9, 12) or the city (Jr 26:6, 9, 11, 12, 20) warrants a punishment, namely the demand for the death penalty. This can only be explained on the basis that an ideology of the sacred site and city existed which made both the property of the deity (e.g. Ps 46; 48; Lm 4:12). So to speak against either was to blaspheme Yahweh of hosts, the god of Israel (Carroll 1986:516). In verses 12-15 Jeremiah speaks in his own defence (Keown et al. 1995:24). This speech contains a number of elements, (1) Jeremiah's claim of Yahweh's sending - a formal claim to the right to prophesy - as his warrant for what has been said (cf. Am 7:15), (2) a call to the adjustment of life, which renders the judgement a contingent one and raises the possibility of Yahweh's repentance, (3) a complete submission of the speaker to his judges' power and (4) a warning that a death sentence executed against him will bring innocent blood upon the city. It is indeed an impressive performance by a man facing death at the hands of a mob screaming for his blood and, even more dangerous, a court with the power to execute him (Carroll 1986:517; Lundbom 2004:292). The editors of the book of Jeremiah have penned the portrait of a very brave and humble man.

The third and final example comes from the Book of Ezekiel. In the story of his calling, which is dated to 592 BCE (Ezk 1:2), Ezekiel is depicted as a priest (Ezk 1:3); a fact which is not without significance for the association of temple clergy with written prophecy (Van der Toorn 2007:87).14 It may be noteworthy that Ezekiel is not directly accorded the title 'prophet' (nābî'), but he is depicted 29 times as a 'mortal' (ben - 'ādām) who is ordered by Yahweh to prophesy (Ezk 2:5; 33:33). This is particularly significant when Ezekiel prophesies against 'the prophets' (Ezk 13:1-16)15 and when he denounces the establishment, namely the officials, priests and prophets (Ezk 22:23-28) (cf. Greenberg 1997:466, 2005:98).16 The hope, though, is expressed that his people will know that a prophet is among them. If the frequency of usage is important, it may be significant to note that Ezekiel's words are introduced some 30 times by a reported command to 'prophesy' (Auld 1996:24).

A similar motif is thus at stake here: an individual, who is commissioned by Yahweh to prophesy (or rather, doom) is presented as a bearer of the divine word; however, the designation 'prophet' (nābî') is not used. This was done in order to distinguish this person from the 'other prophets' who are part of the immoral establishment (De Jong 2007:327).

These individuals are thus in opposition to a corrupt and evil establishment and are sharply distinguished from their opponents: the wicked establishment formed by the king, the officials, the priests and the prophets.

It is important to keep in mind that this portrayal of the image of Yahweh's real spokespersons, who prophesy doom against an immoral establishment, is a textual portrayal that was included in later layers during the different developmental stages of these books (Kratz 2003:41). Those who composed and redacted the prophetic texts had a special status and the texts they produced reflect a specific ideological purpose (Ben Zvi 2000:8; Davies 1996:58-59; Dixon 2009:164). The rich variety and nuances of prophetic ideology appear to be grounded securely in the social and historical circumstances of their particular background and the group interests with which they identify and for which they speak, as well as the group interests they oppose (Gottwald 1996:139-140). It is important to stress that the literati who shared this discourse and ideology, copying, storing, retrieving, reading and rereading these written texts, were the same literati who also redacted, edited and even composed them.

Fundamental to this statement is the fact that the portrayal of characters in the prophetic books cannot be taken as reliable depictions of historical figures belonging to a distinct type of prophet. This jump from literature to history would be too problematic (De Jong 2007:328). From these scrolls emerges the idea of a single institution of 'prophecy' and, in some of the less critical literature, even of our own day, this literary and ideological invention has been reverted to historical description: one thus speaks of 'the prophets' as if dealing with a historical institution (Davies 2000:65).

Of course, sometimes there appear sporadic associations between the time of the eponymous and the content of the book assigned to him: this may include the references to the Assyrians, Babylonians, Edomites, et cetera (Davies 2000:69). Although this will tempt the scholar to propose a connection between a named prophet and the words connected to him, such a suggestion is not really required. The assignation of a date to a prophet may as well be the result of an editorial assumption from the contents. In this instance, the connection between a prophetic scroll, an eponymous prophet and a historical context may arise as plausible within a literary editorial and compositional process as from a tradition linking a historical prophet with the book named after him. Once a collection is attached to a prophet with a given date, the aggregation of further material will match with the attributes of the existing material in the scroll.

Instead of taking the concept of the great prophet or the classical prophets as a point of departure, the relationship between the prophetic books and the so-called 'historical prophets' must first be explored. We have a series of books that share the feature of being presented as the words or visions of a particular prophetic figure after whom they are named. The books are not only hugely different from each other, but, in most cases, it is also clear that the content of the book in its entirety cannot be attributed to one hand, let alone to that of the figure mentioned in the heading (De Jong 2007:328). Even if at each book's foundation there stands a prophetic figure, a fact which cannot be taken for granted, the relation between 'prophet' and 'book' might still be different from case to case.

In such circumstances, the process of composing, redacting and editing of prophetic books, along with the use of written sources for these purposes, would have had much to do with the literati's self identification as animators of the prophets and Yahweh. Yahweh and the prophets of old become present in the text as the literati utter their words, which are also the words that they wrote, edited and copied (Ben Zvi 2000:14). The inspiration of the prophet and his interpretation in the prophetic texts is inseparable; the prophet thus interprets the prophet. In these texts the prophets thus become scholars of scripture ('Schriftgelehrten') and the scholars of scripture become prophets (Kratz 2003:48-49). In other words, the 'prophetic' figures are made to replicate the function of their literary creators.

In order to illustrate this point, we can refer to the book of Isaiah. From the analysis of prophetic material that can possibly be dated to the 8th century BCE (selected parts of Is 6-8; 28-32), we can deduce that the prophetic profile to emerge from this material is not that of a 'classical prophet', but rather of what one could call a Judean exponent of ancient Near Eastern prophecy (De Jong 2007:328; Kratz 2003:46).17 Apart from various traits, the prophet Isaiah shared many essential characteristics with the prophets from Mari, Mesopotamia and other Near Eastern contexts. It was only in the later development of the Isaianic tradition and the book of Isaiah that the prophet Isaiah came to be depicted as a figure prophesying the irrevocable doom of his society, thereby conforming to the image of the 'classical prophet'.18

The concept of 'free prophets' as a historical category underestimates the ideological purpose and character of the prophetic books. From a historical point of view it could thus be an oversimplification to conclude too easily that in late-monarchic Israel and Judah there were certain individuals who were prophesying disaster in Yahweh's name, but were nevertheless not called nĕbī'îm ('prophets'). One should ask whether perhaps in the later depiction of this period, when the downfall of the two states Israel and Judah had to be explained, certain individuals were depicted on a literary level as delivering prophecies of judgement against an antagonistic establishment (De Jong 2007:329). Perhaps these figures were intentionally not called nĕbī'îm in order to differentiate them from those nĕbī'îm who were part of the religious establishment?

The events of the early 6th century BCE - the destruction of Jerusalem, the violation of the temple, the end of the political state and the monarchy, and the exile of the elite members of the population - were an immense disaster.19 Some of the prophets, as we got to know them from various caricatural depictions,20 had told the king and people in the name of Yahweh that nothing would happen. The encouragement of the prophets during moments of crisis was rooted in the Zion theology and based on the conviction that Yahweh would protect Judah and Jerusalem, its king and temple.21 The events of the early 6th century were, so to speak, also a failure of prophecy (De Jong 2007:329). Even the prophets had not been able to prevent the collapse of the state and neither had its other protectors: the king, officials and the priests (Otto 2007b:264). As part of the theological reflection on the disastrous events, certain individuals were depicted as being commissioned by Yahweh to prophesy disaster (Kratz 2003:33). They are presented in contrast to an antagonistic and godless establishment, of which the prophets were part, and for this reason these figures were intentionally not called prophets.

Two opposing images in the Hebrew Bible

There appear to be two different attitudes towards 'the prophets' (hannĕbī'îm) in the biblical tradition. There is a very positive view that describes the prophets as 'servants of Yahweh', a phrase which clearly indicates redactional approval (Carroll 1996:41-42). According to this image, the prophets worked hard to convince the people to change their behaviour and conduct, they announced Yahweh's punishment over Judah and Israel and also functioned as mediators of the law. The second image portrays some of the prophets as liars, who, with their false messages of peace, deceived the people to believe that nothing will happen to them. These prophets are therefore responsible for the punishment of Judah and Jerusalem.

However, this sketched contrast is not between two different types of prophets, but between two different textual characterisations of the prophetic figure. These different characterisations of the prophets are thus ideological constructs of the later tradents of the texts (i.e. the scholars of scripture) projected onto Israel's and Judah's past - as is most of the literature of the HB (De Jong 2007:323; cf. Ben Zvi 2000:8; Dixon 2009:164). On the other hand, it can be said that neither of the two images of 'the prophets' was a complete invention: both derive from real prophetic activity. The prophetic function of encouraging the king and the people in threatening circumstances is behind the image of the prophets as 'false and deceptive smooth-talkers'. This image of the false prophet is a caricature of the prophetic function of guarding the safety and well-being of the king and the nation. The prophetic function to remind the addressees of their duties and the criticism of behaviour that poses a threat to the well-being of the state, is behind the image of the prophets as 'Yahweh's servants' warning the people. The latter is also a caricature. These two images will now be discussed in greater detail.

The image of prophets as false and deceptive smooth-talkers

Later theological reflection on the events of the early 6th century led to the development of the image of the prophets as false and deceptive smooth-talkers (De Jong 2007:330). These events, as mentioned above, implied the total failure of prophecy. Of course, it is possible that prophets had been wrong in the past. But, for the first time in the theological reflection of Judah, these prophetic mistakes led to the development of the image of 'the prophets' as generally untrustworthy (Carroll 1996:44). The prophets are dismissed as false, as misleaders of the society (e.g. Is 9:14-16; Jr 23:9-32; Mi 3:5-7), they are depicted as madmen (cf. 2 Ki 9:11; Jr 29:26; Hs 9:7), condemned as the source of godlessness in the society (Jr 23:15) and blamed for the fall of Jerusalem (Lm 2:14). These negative views are epitomised in Zechariah 13:2-5, where the declaration of any young person to be a prophet would be dealt with severely by his parents and all future claims to function as a prophet would cause shame.

A common feature of these texts is the open and, quite often, extreme hostility shown towards social institutions in pre-exilic Judah. The fact that such an image developed can only be explained from the theological reflection on the disastrous events at the beginning of the 6th century.22 According to the opinion of that time, the calamities that had befallen Judah were conceived as divinely contrived punishments (De Jong 2007:330; cf. Sweeney 2005:18). Indeed, these events were interpreted as a result of Yahweh's anger; he had punished his people because of their wickedness.23 As part of this interpretation, a caricature of the prophets was made to depict them as deceivers of the people. The theological reflection on these events found its expression in different ways. One variant was thus to blame the prophets who, as it was judged in retrospect, had encouraged kings and people and proclaimed the well-being of the state, despite the grave sins of the people. Instead of warning the people of the coming disaster, the prophets had falsely encouraged them and thus had caused the disaster to strike. This view of the prophet as a liar is also prominent in the book of Jeremiah. Here, the criticism of the prophets is put into the mouth of Jeremiah who initially is portrayed as not being a prophet himself.24 Accordingly, Jeremiah is portrayed as an individual who is commissioned by Yahweh to prophesy his doom over the king, the nation and, not least, over the other prophets.

The image of prophets as true servants of Yahweh

There is also a very positive view of the nĕbī'îm ('the prophets') where they are designated as the 'servants of Yahweh' (Auld 1996:24).25 The scholars of scripture hereby approve of these prophets as the revealers of the divine will; they are speakers of the word of Yahweh to Israel (cf. Am 3:726 and the stereotypical phrase, 'thus says Yahweh ...'). Such a positive attitude is epitomised by the story of Eldad and Medad in Numbers 11:24-30 (Carroll 1996:44). In this story, Moses approved of the spirit of prophecy and said: 'Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all Yahweh's people were prophets, and that Yahweh would put his spirit on them' (v. 29 - NRSV). It would be difficult to find a more positive evaluation of prophecy than such a statement attributed to the greatest prophet who had ever lived in Israel's memory (Dt 34:10-12; cf. 18:15, 18).

With the designation 'true servants of Yahweh', the prophets are presented as belonging to a past stage of the history of Israel and Judah, that is, until the end of Judah as a state. The passages that refer to the prophets in this way have different accents (De Jong 2007:331-332). Firstly, within the book of Jeremiah we find that, from the time of Moses until the end of the state of Judah in the 6th century, Yahweh has continuously sent the prophets as his servants to the people in order to urge the people to turn away from their evil ways, but the people nevertheless refused to listen to them. Secondly, the prophets are part of the narrative framework of 2 Kings: the end of the states of Israel and Judah is narrated by means of the typical pattern of 'prediction and fulfilment'. This book thus presents the prophets as predicting the harsh punishment Yahweh is going to bring over Judah and Israel (2 Ki 17:23; 21:10-14; 24:2; cf. Ezk 38:17). Thirdly, the prophets are sometimes described as mediators of Yahweh's law and, as such, are portrayed as the successors of Moses, mediator of the law par excellence (2 Ki 17:13).

Once again it can be emphasised that the image of the prophets as 'servants of Yahweh' is connected to the prophetic practice.

However, as in the case of the prophets as false prophets and liars, the image of the prophets as 'servants of Yahweh' is a one-dimensional picture aiming to explain the disasters that had befallen Israel and Judah. Because the people had persistently refused to listen to the prophets, who had urged them to refrain from their evil ways and to obey Yahweh, their sinful behaviour brought this divine punishment upon them. This image presents the prophets as something of the past, from Moses to Jeremiah, and it is therefore an exilic or post-exilic construct.

Connecting the two traditions

Although both of these traditions occur in the book of Jeremiah, they are nowhere really connected. In all probability these two traditions must have developed separately. Both of these images, namely that of the prophet as a deceiving liar and that of the prophet as Yahweh's true servant, give the impression that they refer to the prophets in general (De Jong 2007:332). Those prophets who are depicted as false prophets are thus to be blamed for the disaster and those prophets who are depicted as Yahweh's servants are excused for what had happened. In this context, the disaster was interpreted as the result of the constant rejection of the prophets who were sent by Yahweh.

The only text in the HB that, in one way or another, brings these two traditions together is Deuteronomy 18:9-22 (Lange 2002:311; Weippert 1988:316). This text redefines prophecy: it brings some order in the variety of prophetic images by putting the two images of the nĕbī'îm under a common denominator. Moses himself proclaims 'the word of Yahweh' and promises the raising of a nābî' like himself (Dt 18:15, 18). On the one hand, there will be a 'prophet like Moses', who is the true spokesperson of Yahweh (Dt 18:15-19) and, on the other hand, there will be a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods or who pretends to speak in Yahweh's name (Dt 18:20-22).27 Moses is thus the standard by which all other prophets are validated and their opponents condemned.

The dichotomy of cultic prophets who prophesy peace and true prophets who prophesy doom, is part of the biblical portrayal of the prophets, but does not necessarily reflect prophecy as a socio-historical phenomenon (De Jong 2007:333). In Judah and Israel, as in Mari, Mesopotamia and in the ancient Near East, the prophetic function included support of the king and people, announcements of the eradication of the nations' adversaries, criticism of the king or the political leaders, and political direction (cf. Kratz 2003:26). When a prophet declared a tragedy, they did not stand in conflict with the state, but functioned as a custodian of the well-being of the state. The tradition of the prophets as oppositional figures envisaging the irreversible collapse of society is an invention of later theological reflection. Such predictions make no sense without a system of divination, aiming at the well-being of state, king and people. These predictions thus only make sense when they are understood as a theological reflection on the past.



In this article I have outlined the fact that the portrayal of characters in the prophetic books cannot be taken as reliable depictions of historical figures belonging to a distinct type of prophet. From these scrolls emerges the idea of a single institution of 'prophecy'. Instead of taking the concepts of the 'great prophet' or the 'classical prophet' as a point of departure, the relationship between the prophetic books and the so-called 'historical prophets' must first be explored. The material that was being added with each new copying of a collection of 'words of Isaiah' or 'sayings of Jeremiah' was the voice of social and political philosophy. The tradents responsible for this process were reflecting on the interaction of social justice and political fortune. During this process the 'prophetic' figures were made to replicate the function of their literary creators.

The prophetic books of the HB indeed grapple with foundational theological questions of evil and righteousness (Sweeney 2005:15). These books attempt to come to grips with the problems posed by the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, as well as the prospects for the restoration of both in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. Of course, the very long history of the prophetic books - c. 500 years - indicates that such questions were not only limited to the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic restoration. Earlier invasions by the nations of Aram and Assyria, among others, the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722/1 BCE. and the prospects for restoration during the reign of King Josiah of Judah (640-609 BCE.) had already opened such questions for the people of Judah and Israel in their efforts to understand their relationship with their God, Yahweh, and their role in the world which Yahweh created. Is Yahweh indeed a righteous deity? What are Judah's and Israel's responsibilities in relation to Yahweh? What role do the nations play in Yahweh's plans for Judah/Israel and creation at large? These questions and others are addressed throughout the prophetic books and they are just as significant today for both Jews and Christians.



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Correspondence to:
Alphonso Groenewald
Postal address: Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria
Lynwood Road, Hatfield 0083, Pretoria
South Africa

Received: 07 June 2010
Accepted: 22 June 2010
Published: 08 Oct. 2010



This article is available at:
Note: This article was initially presented as a paper at the conference on 'Prophetic witness: An appropriate mode of public discourse in democratic societies?' that was held at the University of Pretoria on 26-27 October 2009.
1. Cf. Weippert (1988:294-297).
2. Cf. Weippert (1988:302-305).
3. Cf. Millard (2010:111) and Weippert (1988:297-302).
4. Schmid (1996:225-226) formulates this assumption as follows: 'Es handelt sich bei ihnen um geistbegabte, genialische Einzelpersonen, die den ihnen unmittelbar mitgeteilten, bisweilen auch aufgenötigten Gotteswillen unbedingt und kompromisslos gegenüber ihren Adressaten vertreten'.
5. cf. Numbers 12:6-8; Deuteronomy 18:15, 18.
6. The term ōzeh does not occur frequently. Many of its appearances are in technical prophetic contexts, often in close association with nābî'. Auld (1996:30-31) gives an outline of the usage of this term.
7. The title rō'eh is used very rarely in the HB: firstly, it is used of Samuel, first in 1 Samuel 9, from halfway through the story in which he was first called 'man of God', then in 1 Chronicles 9:22; 26:28; 29:29, secondly it is used of Hanani in 2 Chronicles 16:7, 10 and, thirdly, it is used in the plural and paired with hōzîm of 'seers' in Isaiah 30:10 (Auld 1996:30).
8. In reference to Moses these occur in: Deuteronomy 33:1; Joshua 14:6; 1 Chronicles 23:14; 2 Chronicles 30:16; Ezra 3:2 and Psalms 90:1. In reference to David: 2 Chronicles 8:14 and Nehemiah 12:24, 36.
9. In this regard Schmid (2006:304) infers as follows: 'Historisch gesehen bilden die "Propheten" eine recht vielgestaltige Größe. Es stimmt zwar, dass die langfristige Überlieferungsbildung aus ihnen mehr und mehr Zukunftsweissager gemacht hat, doch in dieser Eigenschaft sind die Propheten vor allem Schöpfungen ihrer Bücher'.
10. The dating of this text has always been a highly debated issue. With regard to the dating Jeremias (1995:106) infers as follows: 'Die ältere Forschung hatte den Text biographisch deuten wollen, und auch manche gegenwärtige Exegeten folgen dieser Tradition'. He continues: 'Zeitlich is der Untergang des Nordreichs 722/21 deutlich vorausgesetzt. Vermutlich liegt er sogar schon viele Jahrzehnte zurück, den auch die in V.9 schon vorausgesetzte Amazjaerzählung ist erst lange Zeit nach dem Fall Samarias formuliert worden' (1995:112).
11. Koch (1995:116-117) postulates as follows: 'Wäre er Nabi, gehörte er zum Kultpersonal, und Amazja würde ihn vielleicht einsperren, aber sicher nicht davonjagen. Amos jedoch, obwohl kein Amtsträger und Ekstatiker, heischt gleichen Respekt. Auch er hat wie jene die Auszeichnung erlebt, daß Jahwä sich ihm vernehmbar gemacht und ihn gesandt hat. Allerdings zeigen die hier wie sonst bei Amos sorgsam gesetzten poetischen Sätze und die Benutzung der bei den Nabis gebräuchlichen Gattung Prophezeiung, daß Amos eine Schulung durchgemacht hat. Er ist nicht stracks von seiner Wiese nach Bet-El gelaufen, um sich dort spontan zu äußern'.
12. Kratz (2003:26) infers as follows: 'Die Prophetie im Alten Orient war ein Mittel der Politik und Propaganda zur Erhaltung der herrschenden Ordnung. In aller Regel bezieht sich die göttliche Botschaft der Propheten auf den König und das Schicksal der Königshauses, nicht auf das ganze Volk. Vor allem in den neuassyrischen Prophetien dient sie der Legitimation der amtierenden Dynastie'. He continues: 'Den Erzählungen der Bücher Samuel und Könige kann man entnehmen, daß die Propheten in der vorexilischen Königszeit taten, was man von ihnen erwartete. Sie betätigen sich als Königsmacher und gaben der herrschenden Dynastie ihren Segen' (2003:33). Cf. Becker (1997:287) and Weippert (1988:304).
13. With regard to this redactional layer, which was added to the text at a later stage of development, Albertz (2001:251) infers: 'Den wahren Propheten Jeremia and Uria werden die falschen Propheten Hananja, Ahab und Zedekia in Jerusalem und Babylonien gegenübergestellt, was den JerD2-Redaktoren Gelegenheit gibt, auch ihre wahre Heilsprophetie im Gefolge Jeremias von den falschen Vertröstungen abzusetzen'. Cf. Lange (2002:311).
14. In this vision he sees a hand, stretched out to him, holding a written scroll; he is then ordered to take the scroll and eat it, in order that he may speak God's words (Ezk 2:8-3:4). It is an unusual calling narrative: the familiar motif of God touching the prophet's mouth (Is 6:67; Jr 1:9) is replaced by the consumption of a scroll written by God. This new motif - or the new visionary experience - would only occur at a time in which people like Ezekiel were familiar with the phenomenon of a written collection of prophetic oracles. He knew such oracles precisely because he was a priest.
15. Greenberg (1983:245-246) infers that when the verb tense is taken together with the differential sympathy toward the people and the anger toward their misleaders, the possibility that, in verses 2-9, we have a post-exilic version of a polemic against false prophecy gains weight.
16. Historically this oracle seems to presuppose the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Allen (1990:35) infers that with regard to authorship there is a strong scholarly consensus that its composition is to be credited to Ezekiel's 'school'. Firstly, there seems to be literary dependence on Zephaniah 3:3-4, 8. Secondly, there are also clear verbal comparisons with Ezekiel 13:1-16.
17. With regard to Isaiah, Becker (1997:287) concludes as follows: 'Im Lichte dieser Parallelen erweist sich die judäische Prophetie der vorexilischen Zeit als eine Spielart der altorientalischen Prophetie ... Seine Botschaft läßt - wenigstens im Prinzip - dieselben Vorstellungen von der religiösen Legitimation staatlich-religiöser Ordnung und der zugehörigen Gottesstadt erkennen, wie man sie sonst im Alten Orient vorfindet'.
18. In this regard Becker (1997:121) infers as follows: 'Von kaum zu unterschätzender Bedeutung für das Verständnis der jesajanischen Prophetie aber ist das theologische Profil des Grundbestandes: Weil sich der Verstockungsauftrag in 6, 9-11 ebenso als Nachtrag erwiesen hat wie der Bezug auf das unreine Volk von Juda in 6, 5aß, und weil ausgerechnet ein Wort gegen die beiden Staaten Aram und Israel zum ältesten Bestand der c.6-8 gehört, liegt der Schluß nahe, daß Jesaja (blickt man auf sein eigenes Volk) ein Heilsprophet gewesen ist. Tatsächlich sind die Unheils- und Gerichtsworte gegen Juda und Jerusalem (nicht nur innerhalb von c.6-8) ohne Ausnahme als nachjesajanisch - und wir meinen sogar als (früh-)nachexilisch - einzustufen'.
19. Albertz (2001:11) formulates the importance of this event as follows: 'Unter allen Epochen der Geschichte Israels stellt die Exilszeit den tiefsten Einschnitt und den folgenschwersten Umbruch dar, deren Bedeutung für die Folgezeit kaum zu überschätzen ist. Mit ihr geriet die Religion Israels in ihre schwerste Krise, aber in ihr wurde auch der Grundstein für ihre durchgreifendste Erneuerung gelegt'. He furthermore remarks: 'Keine Epoche der Geschichte Israels ist so reich an theologischen Erträgen wie die Exilszeit ... Es ist von bleibender Bedeutung, daß das Israel der Exilszeit seiner gescheiterten Geschichte nicht fortgelaufen ist, sondern umgekehrt die politische Katastrophe zum Anlaß nahm, seine Geschichte theologisch aufzuarbeiten' (2001:324-325).
20. Cf., for example, Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11; 14:13; 23:17; 27:9, 14, 16; 37:19.
21. Albertz (2001:117) formulates the failure of Zion theology as follows: 'Da die offizielle JHWH-Religion sich in vorexilischer Zeit stark geschichtlich definiert hatte, schienen ihr durch die geschichtliche Katastrophe sämtliche Grundlagen entzogen zu sein: Jerusalem, das sich JHWH zu seiner "Gottestadt" erkoren und dessen Uneinnehmbarkeit er garantiert hatte, lag in Trümmern, der jerusalemer Tempel, den JHWH sich als den einzigen legitimen Kultort erwählt hatte, war verwüstet, das davidische Königshaus, dem JHWH ewigen Bestand zugesagt hatte, war kläglich entmachtet, und das Land, das JHWH den Vätern nach der Befreiung aus Ägypten geschenkt hatte, war zum größten Teil verloren'. Cf., for example, Jeremiah 7:4: 'Do not trust in these deceptive words: "This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord"'.
22. Kratz (2003:33) infers as follows: 'Die im Alten Orient durchaus übliche prophetische Kritik am Königshaus ist hier unter den Händen der Redaktion in eine fundamentale Opposition umgeschlagen. Die Redaktion setzt das Ende der Monarchie in Israel und Juda voraus und fordert allein den Gehorsam gegen Gottes Wort. Irdisches Königtum und Gottesherrschaft treten in Konkurrenz, das Ideal ist die Theokratie'.
23. Albertz (2001:216) formulates this assumption as follows: 'Richtig ist, daß im Zentrum das Anliegen stand, die furchtbare Katastrophe als gerechtes Gericht JHWHs zu erweisen. Das DtrG is ein großes Sündenbekenntnis Israels und eine Rechtfertigung Gottes: Israel, nicht JHWH, hatte den staatlichen Untergang verschuldet, und JHWH hatte im Untergang seines Volkes nicht seinen Ohnmacht, sondern seine die Geschichte lenkende Macht und Gerechtigkeit erwiesen'.
24. Cf. the previous section of this article headed 'Individual against establishment'.
25. For example, 2 Kings 9:7; 17:23; 21:10; 24:2; Ezra 9:11; Jeremiah 7:25-26; 25:4; 26:5; 29:19; 35:15; 44:4; Daniel 9:6, 10; Amos 3:7; Zechariah 1:6.
26. With regard to this verse, Jeremias (1995:36) infers as follows: 'Diese Selbstrechfertigung des Amos haben spätere Überlieferer in der Zeit nach der Zerstörung Samarias und auch Jerusalems in einen zeitlos-gültigen Lehrsatz zu überführen versucht ...'
27. Lange (2002:311) infers as follows: 'Der dtr Redaktor abstrahiert dabei in schon von DtrP in das DtrG eingetragenes Prophetenbild und stellt es dem DtrG als programmatisches Interpretament voran. Das Erfüllungskriterium von Dtn 18, 22 ist somit retrospektiv orientiert und will die im DtrG genannten Propheten als wahre Propheten erweisen'.

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