Prophecy in Ancient Israel

Revelations from God

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The following article is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

Prophecy in the Biblical Sense

The authority of the traditions of the Bible in Judaism is founded upon the concept of prophecy. The Bible describes various people as having received direct revelations from God. The revelation to Moses is seen by later tradition as prophecy par excellence.

In the accounts of the patriarchs, we encounter God in rela­tion to man, communicating directly with him. This is not prophecy in the strict sense, however, since the phenomenon of prophecy, in the biblical view, involves the prophet's having been charged with a messageto communicate. It is only with Moses, in the Book of Exodus, that we encounter aprophet who is sent to the people to deliver the word of God.

In other words, prophecy has a social dimension. It is not simply a personal religious experience. God sends Moses to deliver His word to the people. Yet Moses' prophecy differed from that of the other prophets. First, he is described by the Bible as communicating directly with God, whereas the other prophets see God in a dream or trance. Second, he combines in his person the roles of priest, king, and lawgiver (if we may adopt the Hellenistic characterization) alongside that of prophet.

The History of Prophecy in Ancient Israel

The Bible allows us to trace the history of prophecy in ancient Israel. Not counting Moses, the earliest prophets described in the Bible were seers, charismatic figures who prophesied in a trance, usually induced by the use of music and dance. Often they banded together in guilds and were called "the sons of the prophets."

The guilds were based on the master‑disciple relationship and were intended to pass on a tradition of prophecy. There is no definite evidence that prophets of this kind were in any way involved in the moral and religious ferment of the times. They may have been foretellers of the future.

By the time of the first monarchs, Saul, David, and Solomon, the role of the prophet had begun to change. It seems to have taken on some of the charismatic qualities associated with the judges in the period immediately after the conquest, and simultaneously the kings inherited the political and military aspects of the judge's role. In the early days of the monarchy, the prophet appears as a religious model in the king's entourage, deeply involved in the life of the royal court but able, at same time, to castigate the ruler by means of pointed parables.         

Other prophets, of lesser importance, may have been attached to the major cultic sites, according to some scholars. By the time of Elijah and Elisha, prophets were found in both the northern and southern kingdoms and were often in conflict with the kings. They had clearly taken on their well‑known role as critics of the Israelite society of the day, but had not yet developed into literary figures.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.