IV. Isaiah (1)
VIII. Group work
Introduction to Prophets
In the Bible
1. The Hebrew Bible is composed of three major sections: the Law (or Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the other texts (Ketouvim). The Law (Torah) has five books that we now call as “Pentateuch”. The section on the Prophets takes most of the pages. The Jewish tradition distinguishes two subsections in the Prophets. There is the subsection on the “first prophets” and the subsection on the “last prophets”. The “first prophets” is what we now call as the “historical books” (from Joshua to 2Kings). The “last prophets” comprise what we now call as the books of the prophets. The remaining section is what we now call as the section on wisdom literature.
2. To go to a study of the “last prophets”—which is what our course is all about—we need to have an idea of the “first prophets” or the historical texts. The historical texts recall the history of the people of Israel from the installation in Canaan to the exile in Babylon. The books are considered “prophetic” by the Jewish tradition. The Jewish tradition believe that the texts were written by the known prophets. Also if we read closely the texts we can see that to a large extent they discuss prophets like Elijah and Elisha. Both of these prophets intervened in the lives of the people.
3. More importantly, however, is the fact that history itself teaches. God intervenes in history and interacts with the lives of people. So to look at history is to see it is prophetic ways. If we read the historical texts we can see how the people of Israel have been faithful and unfaithful to the Covenant with God. So the historical texts can be considered as prophetic evaluations of history. It is a history of God and people interacting.
4. Now, what about the “last prophets”. This section is what we, in our Christian tradition, consider as the section of texts written by the prophets themselves. Of course modern Bible science will qualify what “authorship” is in Biblical texts. What we can say is that the section on the “last prophets” can still be cut into two. Traditionally we would say that there is the cut-section on “major prophets” and the cut-section on the “minor prophets”.
5. The “major prophets” comprise the three big books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The “minor prophets” are the twelve books of the other prophets. Some of them are well-know—like the books of Hosea, Amos and Jonas. The other texts are not that well known. Open the table of contents of your Bible and you can see the list.
A bit of history—prophets in their originality
1. Take note of the geographical location of the Hebrew nation. It was in the region of the Near East. Egypt and the Mesopotamian regions surrounded Canaan. The Hebrew people wer very much part of the cultural climate of the region.
2. (See powerpoint/video). To begin with our historical interests, we can say that first there was the united Kingdom (when there was just one kingdom and not a split kingdom of north and south). The kingdom split into two. The northern kingdom of Israel fell; its capital fell to the hands of the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah continued and at one point it fell in the hands of the Babylonians. There were two deportations and second is now known as “the Exile” (to Babylon). Then when Babylon fell, the Persians took over and allowed the deported Jews to return to their land and reconstruct their institutions (including the Temple).
3. Our study will look into prophets during the split of the Kingdom and during the Babylonian times. A bit of the post-exilic prophets may be part of our study (depending on what time allows us).
4. Usually people say that prophets are those who “predict” the future. Biblically this is not accurately applicable to the prophets of the Old Testament. The early Christians re-read the ancient Jewish scriptures and situated Christ in the line of that re-reading. The early Christians noticed a unity in the texts and they felt that God had a project that already started with what were recorded in the ancient texts. Keep in mind that this was a Christian reading of history. So the early Christians expressed the continuity of the Bible leading to Christ. They saw that the presence of Jesus Christ was in the accomplishment of what was written in scriptures. The early Christians saw Jesus as someone announced by the prophets. Note then how the idea of “prophet” as some who predicts the future emerged. It was a Christian reading of scriptures and making the link to Christ. What the prophets said must have “predicted” the coming of Christ. Eventually it became common idea that a prophet “predicts the future”. But this was not exactly the case with the prophets. In the Bible and in the case of the Old Testament the prophet is not a “prediction maker”.
5. The word “prophet” is a Greek word. The original Hebrew word was “na’bi” or “nabî'”. The word “nabî'” is associated with the verb “to call” or “to name”. So a “nabî'” can be someone who calls and names. A nabî' can also be someone who is called and named (by God). Other nations neighboring the people Israel had their prophets who also made proclamations.
6. Note then that the function of doing prophecy was not only in Israel. The neighboring countries also had their own prophets. It was common in the Near-East region to have individuals and groups speaking on behalf of the divinities. There are records of prophetic functions in Egypt and in the area of Mesopotamia. Persons were asked, mostly by kings, to interpret the mind of a god and see what that god can say about the protection and security of nations.
7. The people of Israel were very much part of the region so they too had prophets. We see this in David who was accompanied by a prophet named Gad (see 1Sam22/5 and 23/2 and 23/6-12).
8. Early evidences show that prophets were usually found in groups. There were assemblies of men who were considered prophets. (See Nm11/24-30; see Am2/11. See 1Sam10/6-13). They were at times given names, like “sons of prophets” (see 1Kg20/35; 2Kg2/3ff etc.) Samuel himself was associated with a group (see 1Sam19/20ff.) Elijah and Elisha were associated with groups (see 2Kg3/15).
9. In a way prophets were “specialists” in a specific job of interpreting God’s will. They were attached to sanctuaries and courts of kings (see 2Sam7/1 12/1 24/11; 1Kg1/8 22/6ff. 2Kg3/11 Neh6/7 etc. See also Am.7/10). Part of their work was to go into ecstasy and trances, at times even appearing like mad men (see 1Sam10/6; 2Kg9/11, etc). We, as modern people, might be uneasy with this but ecstasy was not unusual in the ancient times.
10. Ok so we say that there was a common tradition in that region. Scholars will note that the society and culture of the people of Israel shared common features with other Near East nations. But then there was something unique and original that emerged in the prophetic function within Israel. Over time the prophets among the people of Israel took a distance from the styles of prophecy of the Near East.
11. What was new? Well, prophets of Israel spoke from the point of view of God and the institution of the Covenant. Prophets of Israel were critical of the people even to the point of judging them. Prophets became something like the “social conscience” of the people. They sensed the consequences of people’s behavior. Somehow the people’s infidelity to the Covenant had repercussions in social life. Prophets tried to deepen people’s faith in God even if it meant speaking in harsh terms. Prophets reacted to specific moments of their societies. They were persons of their social times.
12. This new feature was already taking shape in the ancient times of Samuel, Nathan and Elijah, for example. They already showed emphasis on Covenant and social justice. Note also how they were not so much characterized by divination and other action-supplements. They were directly interested in what God really wanted. The case of Elijah is interesting. Remember how he condemned Ahab. That was a strong act. If Elijah was a presence in the King’s court he had the guts to act against the King (see 1Kg21/17-24). Jezebel was not happy with him and wanted him killed. So he escaped. Up the mountain he received a gentle breeze and in that breeze was the presence of God (see 1Kg194ff). The gentle breeze was symbolic of something entirely different—so uncommon in the Near East. God came to Elijah in a very pure way…without the fire and earthquake, without the magic and the divination and all that. God was a gentle presence. That was very new in the Near East and it only happened in the midst of the people of Israel.
13. Amos was another example. He saw himself differently—unlike the usual prophets of the region. He saw that he was really called by God (see Am7/15) without the need for magic and divination.
14. Now we can use a term: “classical prophets”. These were the prophets whose names were titles in the prophetic books. They were also prophets before the exile to Babylon (including Ezekiel). All of them emphasized being called by the Lord God. They were ministering in very individual and personal ways. They felt that the Lord God called them to minister to the nation in their own personal styles, temperaments, personalities. They were not following a “specialist’s” function. Each was original in his own way.
15. Of course they were all devoted to the Lord God and were deeply concerned with the Covenant. The prophets had the sense of the Lord God in the present. The prophet was vigilant about the Covenant that the Lord God made with the people and how the people had to stay faithful to that Covenant. In the present moment the prophet raised questions about this fidelity—because most of the time the people were not faithful. The prophet felt called by the Lord God to remind the people about the Covenant and the disappointment of the Lord God towards infidelity. The prophet was a “spokesperson” of God to the people. Prophets criticize social life and how it was lived in each present moment.
16. Of course they were members of their societies—so they too lived according to the traditions. But the way each one ministered in prophecy was so personal and original. Each ministered in his own way and each had a deep confidence in ministering according to the will of the Lord God.
17. Yes, they were prophets. But they saw their being prophets in a broader way. They saw themselves as “servants of the Lord God” (see Is20/3; Am3/7; Jer7/25; Jer 24/4). They saw themselves as “messengers of the Lord God” (see Is44/26; Hag1/13; Mal3/1). They were “shepherds” (see Jer17/6; Zech11/4). They were “guardians” (see Is62/6; Hab2/1). They were “watchmen” (see Am.3/4; Is56/10; Jer6/17; Ez3/17). Etc. They saw themselves really called by the Lord God. They were not just “professional prophets”. They were responding to a call—a vocation to “speak on behalf of God”. They were also teachers, in a way. They instructed the people about the will of God.
18. Prophets were mostly members of the King’s table. Well, at least they were familiar with the courts of Kings, they were not absent from the affairs inside the court. Scholars would notice how some were even “advisors” to Kings. But then not all prophets serving the King were independent thinkers. Some were advising the king “to please” the king. Now, the “classical prophets” had an independent mind. They were more interested in what God had to say. So their messages could hurt the king. Their messages were blunt and strongly worded, always reminding everyone including the king to take God and the covenant seriously. The prophets denounced infidelity to the covenant and would tell people to return to fidelity. Prophets were consulted to find out what God might have to say in particular situations. They spoke truthfully and not just please the king. In a way prophets were “political critics” too.
The post-exilic prophets
1. After the Babylonian exile the people of Judah were allowed by the Persian King, Cyrus, to return to their land. There were prophets also who emerged. They were just like the “classical prophets”. They too were operating according to God’s will. They too were interested in the fidelity to the Covenant.
2. But the times were new and the social conditions were different. There was no more threat from foreign empires wanting to destroy their land. The post-exilic prophets looked back to the classical prophets and applied to ideas of the “classical prophets” to the new conditions. The post-exilic prophets had a more unified view of social life. They were more optimistic. Of course they still had critical points to say to the people. But they showed more signs of hope. They were so concerned with the Temple and its re-construction. They were focused on the Law and cultic life. The nation was to be renewed so the traditional institutional practices had to be conserved. The nation needed to hold on to something more stable and enduring—and that was precisely found in the preservation of religious practices.
1. We can think of the prophets of the Old Testament. In the texts of these prophets they mention false prophecy. Take the example of Jer23/9-40. So we might wonder as to who is the true one and who is the false one?
2. A prophet was someone convinced that he was presenting “the word of God”. This presupposed a spiritual experience. Amos himself recognized that he was called by the Lord God (see Am 7/15). Isaiah said that he really encountered the Lord God God (see Is 6/1-17) and that the Lord God really said something to him; then Isaiah himself replied (see Is 6/8-9a). The prophet was then “inhabited” by the message of the Lord God. The Lord God’s message was “in the prophet”. The prophet was part of society and history and so the message took root in the social-historical realities. When the prophet spoke he linked himself with the social realities around him. We might say that thie linkage had three dimensions.
3. One was a denouncing link. The prophet denounced the corrupt in unfaithful lives of the people (including the Kings). The second was a link of teaching. The prophet taught the people about life with the Lord God and the prophet explained how their infidelity and injustice created their unfortunate conditions. To forget the Covenant and to live in injustice made the people live in misery. Third, the prophet linked with the hope of people to be free from their own misery. The message of the prophet contained words of hope—telling people that the Lord God never intended to abandon them.
4. The prophets were badly perceived. People and Kings generally did not like them. Hence, as we will see with Jeremiah, for example, a lot of opposition went against prophets. (Let us not forget the struggles of John the Baptist and Jesus in the New Testament.)
5. Yet, in spite of the resistance and opposition of people, the messages of the prophets echoed in their hearts. Some even became disciples of the prophets. The disciples continued the ministry of the prophets.
6. Now, how are we to distinguish the “true” from the “false”. Let us just keep in mind that prophets dared put to question the mind-set of people. What people took for granted the prophets questioned. Prophets did not do this just for the heck of it. They did it to call for conversion. In other words, prophets wanted to bring people back to their Covenant with the Lord God and to end living in injustice. They denounced and taught the way back to the Lord God. They kept the flames of hope alive, assuring the people about the fidelity of the Lord God to the Covenant and to the people. The Lord God always wanted that the people live in happiness—“blooming”. The prophet was then someone who took seriously the awakening of people’s hearts and the awakening of the desire to conform with the Lord God. Prophets called for a radical conversion. The absence of this constitutes what is “false”.
7. From a Biblical—Old Testament—point of view, there is no notion of a “false prophet”. The Septuagint translation tried to insert the category of a “false” prophet with the term “pseudo-prophets”. But, again, we repeat, the original Old Testament view had no definite category for “false prophets”. This is interesting because it tells us that all who ministered as prophets were prophets. It is also interesting because we are then to really discern.
8. There were individual prophets who may not have been in the line of the Lord God and they did not do this intentionally. They were not exactly out to dupe people. They still felt that they were doing their job as prophets and they were serious in what they were doing. But then something uneasy could be found in them. They were not very clear about their message and in their message they were injecting their own views and ideas—views and ideas that never came from the Lord God. They were serious in their prophecy but they did not check to see if their ministry came from the Lord God. They spoke and assumed they were giving a message from the Lord God.
9. Notice how discernment is needed here. Imagine facing someone speaking “on behalf of God”. From where is the message of that person coming? Does the person “totter”, as Isaiah noticed (see Is.28/7)?
10. Now, what made some prophets stay out of the line of the Lord God? In the Jewish tradition a prophet is authentic if truly inspired by the Lord God (see Dt.13/26) and not “self-inspired”. Instances of prophets who did not take this line can be seen in prophets connected to the courts of the Kings. They messages were designed according to what they perceived as approved by the Kings. They spoke to say what the King wanted to hear. They were more interested in the approval of the Kings than in the approval of the Lord God. Note then the situation of certain individuals. They were caught up with their self-interests. To be in the Kings’ court meant…well, money and security. They may have been serious in their work and without doubt they may have been sincere in their concern for the King and people…but they were “not so free”. They were not so free from their fears, their worries about security…about themselves.
11. They too were locked inside the same conditions as everybody else; they did not dare “go out of the box” and see what the Lord God really wanted. They measured their prophecy according to the life-style of the people and not according to the Lord God. So they were so focused on what people wanted to hear.
12. It is worth noting that the absence of the category of “false prophet” in the Old Testament makes us reflect deeper. It can be difficult too to say who was true and who is not. People were critical of Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, because these two were not saying what people wanted to hear.
13. How about today? Who are prophetic today?
Prophets among the Chosen People of God
1. We imagine the prediction of prophets as a kind of reading of the map. When we read a map we see ahead where places are. But prophets were not like this. When they looked at time they were also like everybody else in that period. How did people see time? Time was s series of moments in which events were marked by the will of the Lord God. Somehow God was behind many of the events in history; God was intervening. Prophets understood time this way too. Prophets looked at their current events and discerned the directions that God would take in leading. Prophets felt they were called by the Lord God; they felt that they had a strong intimacy with God. So they sensed how God felt and how God would respond to the ways of society. They sensed how God would intervene in history.
2. Basic in the desire of the Lord God was the salvation of all nations. The Hebrew people had a ro9le in this. In the very early times the Israelites thought that they were the exclusive people chosen by the Lord God. They thought that God was concerned only with the Israelite people. But later they had to realize that their role was to bring the salvation of God to all nations. They were in the service of all.
3. To be chosen therefore meant serious responsibilities (see Am.3/9-12). The people had to be “light” to the other nations. But people had the strong temptation to “take it easy”. Being chosen by God they felt that they can “take it easy”, relax, do whatever they wanted. The prophets had to remind the people that their election was not a privilege. Also the people of Israel did not self-elect. They were elected by God, chosen by God. It was God who did the choosing. That meant that if people went astray from their election, God had the right to punish them (see Am.3/2).
4. Let us be more precise about this election. Within the election was the Covenant. God chose the Hebrew people and concluded a Covenant with them. The Lord God was to be the God of Israel and the people were to be God’s people. Now, if the people were to live according to the Covenant, that meant that they had to lead a certain moral way of living. Moral life was founded on the Covenant. (Remember what we said in our class in Moral Theology. God was a liberating God, taking the people out of the slavery in Egypt. The Covenant was made and the agreement was that the people will not return to slavery. Moral life, therefore, had to be free from all forms of slavery.) Morality had to be liberating and not enslaving.
5. It was therefore necessary that social life had to be morally good. If the people were in Covenant with God then they had to live good lives without injustice. But the people did not respect the Covenant and they did not obey the agreement to stay good. Within society was a lot of injustice and idolatry. That made God frustrated. He had to do some punishment.
6. In the mind set of the prophets God was able to punish the people (and punish them severely). In that punishment was the risk to erase the whole nation. But no, God did not do that; God did not delete everyone. So we read among the prophetic works the notion of the “remnant”. In spite of the severe punishment of God there will remain a group—a “restored” group that will realize the plans of God. So the prophets had high hopes on this “remnant”. The day will come when the Lord God will win against the wicked and the unjust and this victory will be carried by the “remnant” group.
7. Notice then that the prophets had to awaken people to their election and Covenant with the Lord God; they had to awaken people to the sense of a moral life in society. While there was constant violation among the people there were prophets who emerged. They served as “conscience” of society.
8. Poverty, injustice, the exploitation of the poor, these were unbearable for the prophets. Prophets saw that poverty was a result of a social way of living. Evil and wickedness in society created poverty. Prophets directed their rage against this.
9. Among the prophets there was a heavy emphasis given on moral living. By living morally good one worshiped the Lord God. What was the use of making religious rituals and sacrifices if moral life was marked by injustice? We can note that among the prophets there was a strong criticism against many religious practices devoid of morality.
10. Prophets were not exactly moral theologians nor were they moralists. They were simply prophets, persons who felt called by God to bring a message to the people. Prophets denounced injustice. They denounced the causes of poverty. That was their main conduct. In a way they did not look very practical people. They were spending time denouncing but they did not really have any concrete political-social programs. In fact the leaders were to look for concrete ways to live properly. Later in the history of the people of Israel, the priests became leaders. Unfortunately, many of them did not lead properly. We can see prophets criticizing them too.
1. The people of Israel had a name for priest: Kohen. It is said to have root meaning “to be firm”. The priest was someone who stood firmly in front of the Lord God to serve the Lord God. Priests, in Israel, were mainly men. There were no priestesses there.
2. Priests had roles to play in society and the roles may have evolved over time. In very ancient times when the Hebrews were nomadic, the head of the family or clan offered sacrifices and blessed children (see Gen 48/15-16). A Father of a family was then somewhat a “priest”. But the function was not a specialization. It was just the practice that the head offered sacrifices and blessed children.
3. Moses was considered a mediator between God and the people. Through him the Covenant with the Lord God was concluded with the use of animal sacrifice (see Ex24/8). So in a way he was “priest”. But that too was not a specialization.
4. When the Hebrews settled in Canaan slowly there were persons engaged in a specialized function of managing sanctuaries and other places of worship. Heads of families still could do sacrifice offerings but with the presence of cult sanctuaries certain persons began to take a more “official function”. The Israelites were borrowing some religious practices from the locals of Canaan, and that included the worship of deity in cult places.
5. Then came the period of the monarchies. The Kings were central persons in society and they were important for the unity and cohesion of the nations. In a way the Kings were responsible for taking care of the major cult sites such as the Temple in Jerusalem. King David was recorded as having offered sacrifices and he was blessing the people in the name of the Lord God (see 2Sam 6/18). But he was not a priest.
6. In the Jerusalem Temple the King named the High Priest who was to be in charge of the other priests. During the time of the split of the kingdom between the North and the South there were priests of the Temple in Jerusalem and there were priests (Levites) associated with the cult sanctuaries.
7. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom there was a move to centralize all religious cult in Jerusalem and the Temple. The other sanctuaries were prohibited and all sacrifices were to be done in the central place, the Temple. Priests in the Temple began to have a more special function.
8. Priests may have been in charge of cult practices. But they were also meant to teach the people about the faith. They were to guide the people to the application of the Laws stipulated in the Covenant with the Lord God. The prophets severely criticized priests for the fact that priests did not really do their work.
9. Consult the following to have an idea of priests and their functions.
1. During Biblical times learning to write was not something everyone knew. In fact a very few—very very few—could write. In fact those who knew how to read did not necessarily know how to write. This may be very strange for us today.
2. To write was a specialist’s work—and the specialist was called a “scribe”. In the Old Testament scribes were hired as “secretaries” to military heads and kings. At times prophets had scribes helping them. Scribes were not just persons who knew how to read and write. Because they were “literate” they were also hired for many other things. Not only were they secretaries to officials and kings they were also in charge of connecting with politics both within the society of the Jews and outside. So they were also “international” figures. Today we might have the “foreign affairs secretary” of a country, or a “secretary of state”. During the monarchy period a scribe was not a nobody. A scribe was a man of influence.
3. To be a scribe would also mean to be a specialist in the knowledge of the Torah. Hence a scribe would also be considered “master of the Law”. In the ancient testament therefore the scribes was “multi-tasking”—as secretary, as theologian, as lawyer, as teacher, etc. The scribe was not an ordinary person.
4. Very early evidences show that scribes were originally priests. But later most scribes were “lay” people. We can think of the time of Esdras—a priest and a scribe (Esd 7/6-12; see Ne 8/1). He played an important role of re-organizing the Jewish society a little bit during the return from the Babylonian exile. The exiled Jews were familiar with the practice of praying and studying in synagogues. So Esdras was trying to maintain that practice in the return to Judah. Notice then the authority of such a role.
5. We can see scribes mentioned in the list of officers of King David and Solomon (see 2 S 8/17; 20/25; 1Kg 4/3). When Hezekiah was king around the year 700BCE, there was a man named Shebna who was an ambassador to the king of Assyria (see 2Kg18/18 and following). During the time of Joash (around the 8th century) scribes were in charge of gathering materials for re-constructing the Temple (see 2Kg12/11). When Josiah was King there was a scribe named Shaphan who was also part of the charge of Temple reconstruction, this was sometime in the year 600’s. It was this scribe who may have discovered hidden scrolls in the Temple—scrolls that will be later part of the book of Deuteronomy (see 2Kg22/8-12). Towards the end of Judah scribes played important roles. Jeremiah mentioned them saying how they were mixed in political turmoil (see Jr 36/12.20; 37/15.20; etc.).
6. Let us not look at scribes negatively all the time. Jeremiah, for example, may have been critical against some scribes but he had a scribe beside him too: Baruch. It was Baruch who wanted the prophecies of Jeremiah written and sent to king Jehoiachim. The king burned the text. Baruch wrote a second text. (There was no computer at that time, so just think of the work Baruch had to do.) Thanks to this second text we have chapter 36 of Jeremiah. Baruch was a scribe (Jer 36/26)!
7. After the exile there was no more royalty—no more king. Priests were leading the society. The Jewish religion became more and more focused on written texts. It became more and more important to understand the Torah and see how the Torah applied to life. Scribes were a bit of “replacement” of prophets because they took over the spiritual guidance of the people. Meanwhile the priests were in-charge of the cult in the Temple. Later on, in the time of Jesus, we read about scribes associated often with Pharisees. But that is for another course.
8. Scribes were prestigious persons. People consulted them for enlightenment in faith and legal matters. (see Si 39/1-15). Even if priests were in-charge of Temple practices scribes had roles in the central government of the Sanhedrin—the central “council”.
9. Ok, so scribes were important in the life of faith. But there was a tendency for some of them to become narrow minded. Their concern to protect the Torah led them to participate in adding more and more prescriptions in faith practices. Scribes had a role in adding burdens to the already complicated religious practices.