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    Biblical prophecy – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. How did the Biblical prophets arise?

    Elijah the Prophet – painting by Louis Hersent (1777-1862)

    A. The early prophets were little more than soothsayers and magic-workers who “divined” through frenzies and trances.

    Often they worked in groups – e.g. the group of 400 prophets of Baal whom Elijah defeated on Mount Carmel. They were generally anxious to prophesy what their employers, the kings, or public opinion wanted – e.g. the false prophets whom Ahad consulted about his chances of defeating Ramot-Gilead.

    But gradually there grew up, side by side with them, a number of outstanding, independent individuals who felt that they were directly inspired by God with the urge to proclaim His will. Thus Amos said, “The Lord God has spoken – who can but prophesy?”

    They did not make a living out of prophecy. Amos was “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees”. They denounced those who made a profit from prophecy; they cursed “prophets that make my people to err, that cry ‘peace’ when there is no peace” (Micah).

    Some prophets were kohanim, e.g. Samuel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but they were not afraid to criticise the priesthood.

    These were “literary” prophets – i.e. their message was recorded in writing. Others, e.g. Elijah, were probably just as great, but we know less of their messages than of their deeds.

    AS Peake says in his Commentary on the Bible that prophecy is “primarily oral. It is by direct speech to them that the prophet seeks to influence his people. But if the prophet is silenced, as Amos, if met with incredulity, as Isaiah, he might commit to writing what he was not permitted to utter, or record for future vindication the word at present scouted by incredulity” (page 45).

    The prophets’ task was not so much one of predicting and foretelling, but of preaching and forth-telling. The Hebrew word navi really means not “prophet” in the sense of someone who foretells the future, but “inspired speaker”.

    To some extent, though, there was an element of foretelling in their task, in the sense that a scientist can foretell consequences on the basis of known laws. Their foretelling therefore utilised logic, not magic.

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