Prophets in the Bible were not primarily foretellers. Simply read through the book of Amos at one sitting and you will hear how little Amos is concerned to predict. Most of his "words" are addressed to criticizing present wrongdoing. Injustice, oppression, and rich, even luxurious, worship while the poor starve, are the issues he speaks about most. Where he looks to the future most often it is to warn: if you act like this God's punishment will come. On the punishment itself his descriptions vary, from seeming to envisage invasion (3:11; 4:10; 5:3; 6:7-14 etc.) through earthquake (8:8) and drought (4:7-8) to God's personal intervention (4:13).
Already in the second century BC the prophetic books had begun to become classical and canonical. In the celebration of heroes of the faith in Ecclesiasticus we find listed in order Isaiah (Sir 48:22-25), Jeremiah (49:6-7), Ezekiel (49:8-9) and the twelve Minor Prophets (49:10). Copies of Isaiah (with text very close indeed to the MT) and commentaries on several biblical prophetic books - Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk - were in use in Qumran before the time of Jesus, as was the phrase "the law and the prophets".
Prophets were by no means unique to Israel. The people of Ebla (north Syria) in the 23rd Century already used the term nabi' and several official letters from the 18th century royal archive of Mari on the Euphrates convey prophetic messages to the ruler, who was away from the city. The behavior of the prophets of Mari was similar to that of Israel's prophets. Once after blaming King Zimri-lim for not being faithful in consulting the deity the prophet promises
"Then I will make the sheikhs of the Jaminites wriggle in a fish basket and will place them before you."
(Mari text quoted in Koch, 10.)
Both the bold promise on behalf of the god, and the vivid picture language, are like the messages we find in the prophets of the Bible.
Israel's Historical Traditions tell us of the importance of prophets to her political life. Remember the story of the institution of the monarchy and the rise to power of Saul, where Samuel plays a major role in the decisions and actions. Samuel was also at the forefront in the appointment of David (1 Sam 8-12; 15-16). Gad is described as "David's seer" (in 2 Sam 24:11 cf. 1 Crone 21:19). However it is Nathan's relationship to his king which illustrates best the prophet's role: on building the temple (2 Sam 7); the Bathsheba affair (2 Sam 12) and during Adonijah's rebellion when David was old, Nathan's advice and criticism sway the king. Nathan is active too in the moves to anoint Solomon, while his father still lives (1 Kings 1).
These early prophets were consulted about the future. They were thus in conflict with other less personal ways of predicting, such as omens, necromancy and astrology (Dt 18:9-22; cf. 1 Sam 28:3-25, esp. 6). However they were by no means simply fortune tellers. They were powerful to bless or curse, as the story of the Moabite prophet Baalam illustrates (Num 22ff.).
The prophets whose names are attached to books in the Bible: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah and the like, stand apparently isolated. However, this may well reflect the scarcity of stories about them rather than suggesting that they were individualists. Even Jeremiah, who sometimes stresses his own isolation (e.g. Jer 20:10) had friends and supporters in Jerusalem e.g. the sons of Shaphan (Jer 26:24; 36:10, 25) and Baruch (Jer 36:4).
Certainly prophets were often found in groups in Israel. They lived together (2 Kings 4.38; 6.1ff.) and shared in activities which encouraged the ecstasy which most sought as a way of being more receptive to the word of God, cf. e.g. 1 Sam 10. Members of these groups were known as "sons of the prophets", a phrase which does not mean that the office of prophet was hereditary!
Popular views of the Bible prophets see them as "religious" figures. This is wrong in two ways. Firstly it suggests a separation of religion and the rest of life which is modern and Western In Ancient Israel there was not a distinct private religious sphere. Secondly it suggests that they spoke about "religious" issues. They did, but they spoke more about what we call politics.
Even prophets who had a strong burden to correct false religious practice, like Hosea, addressed political issues strongly too (cf. Hos 5:11 with 5:13; 9:1 with 9:3).
The common word for prophet in Hebrew is nabi' and the LXX usually renders it by the Greek word prophetes which is also used for prophets in the NT. Both are commonly rendered "prophet" in English translations. Two other Hebrew words are associated with prophetic figures: חֹזֶה hozeh and רֹאֶה ro'eh both mean "someone who sees" and can be literally rendered "seer". However ro'eh was already an old fashioned word when 1 Sam 9:9 was written.
The words nabi' and hozeh are close synonyms, in Am 7:12 Amaziah calls Amos "hozeh", but suggests that he "prophesy" in Judah (verb naba' נבא from same root as nabi' נָבִיא), while in Ez 13:9 the noun verb hazah has "prophet" as its subject and in Is 29:10 nabi' & hozeh are in parallel. However see below for a discussion of their different usage in North and South.
There may be an interesting difference in usage between hozeh and nabi' in North and South. In texts associated with the Deuteronomic movement (Dt; Jos-2 Kgs; Hosea; Jeremiah) nabi' is the preferred term for these respected people. Texts associated with more purely Judean traditions (Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Chronicles) use "prophet" less, and often in negative ways (e.g. of "false prophets"). The title hozeh, or at least the notion that their revelation was received by visions is preferred here. (Wilson) Certainly there is an interesting difference in the frequency of use for nabi' and the verb hazah (of which hozeh is a participle) between the prophetic books:
|nabi' per 10,000 words:||books:|
|< 1||Isaiah, Ezekiel|
|11 - 30||Amos, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Malachi|
|> 30||Jeremiah, Hosea, Haggai|
|hozeh||used only in:|
|Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah, Habakkuk, Zechariah|
(This table was prepared using figures from Andersen & Forbes.)
For usage of nabi' the books most closely associated with the Jerusalem establishment show the lowest figures, while Jeremiah and Hosea show the highest figures (with the little book of Haggai's 5 uses of the word placing it there too). While the reverse is the case for hazah, which is altogether unused in the prophets except the books listed.
The thorniest issue, among many difficult issues, which confronts the reader of the (Latter) Prophets is their reputation for predicting future events. Because they attracted this reputation very early, also because they sometimes did foretell, and not least since the early Christians used them in their apologetics it is difficult for us to "stand back" from this idea and look afresh at what they were doing and trying to do. However we need such an uncluttered view, for the prophetic books are difficult enough to read without coming to them with a preconceived mold into which they must fit.
In the section "Prophecy in Israel" we noticed the important role of the Hebrew prophets to the political life of ancient Israel. However, they were also consulted about the future.
In trying to determine how important prediction was to the prophets, the case of Zimri's coup (1 Kgs 16:8ff.) is instructive.
Following the standard pattern for such coups (1 Kgs 15:29 and cf. 2 Kgs 10:7) Zimri kills off not only the ex-king but all his male family and his friends as well (1 Kgs 16:11f.). It would have been foolish to leave a center for plotting against him. This is naturally seen as the fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken against him by the prophet (v.12). For Jehu did foretell, but not of the style "next week a plane will crash in New York killing 103 passengers" but rather of the kind "because you do this it follows as consequence that the LORD will reject you, and when kings in Israel are rejected they and their families die." (vv.2ff.)
Notice the essential element of Jehu's message points out the fault and declares Adonai's judgment upon it rather than the exact nature, or timing of the punishment. This is more like Amos than Nostradamus, i.e. openly clear about the essential theological message but vague on the detailed predictions.
In the Bible not all prophets are solitary individuals. A number of times groups of prophets who "prophesy" together are mentioned. The group (לבח) mentioned in 1 Sam 10 use musical instruments and act sufficiently strangely that people notice when Saul joins them in "prophesying". The group in 1 Sam 19:20 has "Samuel at their head" and Elijah and Elisha were also associated with groups (2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22 and especially 6:1ff.). The members of these groups were known as "sons of prophets" (בְנֵי־נְבִאִים) and they sometimes acted singly (1 Kgs 20:35ff.).
The reference in 2 Kgs 6:1 to a building where the sons of prophets sat or lived "before" Elisha may suggest that these groups received some form of training, or at least spiritual leadership from such figures. The stories in 1 Kgs 20 & 22 suggest that these guilds of prophets were consulted for (or offered) God's opinion on public events.
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