The Latter Prophets

The literary prophets had a difficult and often unpopular mission.

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Excerpted from The Haftarah Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.

Later or Literary Prophets are those ascribed to 15 individuals who left us prophetic legacies identified by the name of a specific prophet. The three who bequeathed us extensive writings are often called the "Major Prophets" (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), while the other 12 are referred to either as "The Twelve" or the "Minor Prophets," because their surviving literary heritage is relatively small, in some cases only a few pages. However, some of the most often‑quoted orations stem from prophets like Hosea, Amos, and Micah, which makes it clear that the term "minor" refers to the quantity but not to the quality of their literary work […]Ezekiel

Who Were the Prophets? 

We tend to think of them primarily as people who foretold the future. Such foretelling was indeed an important part of their message, but they were not soothsayers or fortune-tellers. Their message was usually: "If you continue on your current paths and disregard God's ways, then disaster lies ahead. But," they would continue, "if you turn from your evil ways you will live and enjoy God's favor." They would describe both misfortune and good fortune in vivid and memorable imagery.

Thus the prophet usually predicts what should be and delivers this prediction with a sense of certainty. "This rule applies even to the vision of messianic redemption: It is what should be, but whether it will be depends, at least to some extent, on us" (see Yeshayahu Leibowitz, "No Guarantees," Jerusalem Report, August 11, 1994, p. 26).

What the prophets said was sometimes highly unpopular. For example, Jeremiah courted death and was jailed for announcing impending doom. At other times, when the people faced depression and despair, the prophet would give them hope by stressing that repentance was possible and that divine mercy was always available.

True prophets (there were false ones too) knew that they spoke as messengers of God. Possessed with divine fire, they were convinced that God's spirit guided their speech. The Bible usually called the prophet navi, a word probably related to the Akkadian nabu, having the meaning of calling out or proclaiming. The Greek translation (of the Bible--the Septuagint) rendered the term as prophetes, which described a spokesperson for God. The true prophet did not convey a personal opinion, but rather proclaimed a divinely initiated message.

"And after all is said and done ... just words. But in those words, the invisible God, the Creator, the great mystery, becomes audible. The prophet helps us to hear, helps us to see. But it is up to us to believe and to think." (Harry Rasky, introduction to his film "Prophecy")

Sheldon H. Blank, therefore, considered that the word navi originally meant "one who has been divinely called," and that in this sense the word was older than the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). Being called, the prophet spoke as a mouthpiece of God and announced, without further explanation, "Thus says God…"  In turn, the listeners understood that they were urged to lead a God‑pleasing life, though none of the prophets depicted this as an easy course to follow (Understanding the Prophets, p. 40).

Teachers, Not Philosophers

On the contrary, they painted reality with unvarnished colors. They spoke as teachers, not philosophers. Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way:

"Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, [the prophet] is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized and rave as if the whole world were a slum...Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation? The things that horrified the prophets are now daily occurrences all over the world…" (The Prophets, p. 3).

Because of this, the prophetic challenges remain relevant today. They apply to all human beings and to all societies, and with special urgency they address Jews, who are the inheritors of the Covenant, which demands devotion to God and Torah and carries its own rewards.

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.