Interpreting the Prophets

By James Luther Mays; Paul J. Achtemeier | Go to book overview

1
Early Israelite
Prophecy

ROBERT R. WILSON

The question about the nature of early Israelite prophecy is a riddle
whose solution may well lie in the recognition of different prophetic
traditions which have been incorporated into the Old Testaments
account of prophecy before Amos.

Prophets have always been surrounded by an aura of mystery. Because they are intermediaries between the human and divine worlds, prophets appear to their hearers as terrifying yet magnetic and fascinating figures. Throughout the history of Western civilization, wherever these divinely inspired individuals have appeared, attempts have been made to penetrate the mystery that surrounds them. The focus of many of these attempts has been the Old Testament prophets, who have traditionally functioned as models for the elucidation of other prophetic phenomena. Yet in spite of a long history of attempts to understand the ancient Israelite prophets, they have retained some of their mystery. There is still no scholarly consensus on the questions of the nature and social functions of Israelite prophecy, and each new generation tends to reinterpret the message of the prophets. This lack of scholarly consensus is particularly noticeable in the case of the early Israelite prophets, those individuals who prophesied before the time of Amos, the first of the writing prophets. If Israelite prophecy in general is still partially a mystery, then it is fair to say that early Israelite prophecy is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery.”

The reasons for the persistence of the riddle are not difficult to uncover. While it is possible to place most of the writing prophets in specific historical contexts and to paint a rough picture of their personal backgrounds and professional activities, the early prophets remain shadowy figures. Although they are crucial for understanding the later written prophetic tradition, the Old Testament is surprisingly vague about them. In some cases even their names have not been preserved (Num. 11:24f; Judg. 6:7-10; 1 Sam. 10:10-13; 19:18-24; 1 Kings 13; 18:4; 2 Kings 17:13; 21:10; 23:2). In other cases, prophets such as Ahijah (1 Kings 11:29-39; 14:4-16), Shemaiah

-1-

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