A LOT OF PEOPLE DON'T MOURN THE PASSING OF THE ERA of the prophets, but I do. Sure, these were coarse people, hard to love, rarely befriended, who preferred the harsh desert to the soft life of the city.
Prophets insisted they knew God's will better than you do and were here to tell you about it. They regularly challenged easy choices and comfortable lifestyles, and they didn't care who was insulted by their broad accusations. If you invited them to your dinner party, you'd best be prepared for an upsetting evening.
The prophets take up so much oxygen and energy in the story of salvation that we may think of them as having been around forever, continuous citizens of biblical history. As a matter of record, the prophets were just a blip on the screen, occupying the space between the eighth and fourth centuries before Christ. That was the era of the three "major prophets"--Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel--as well as the 12 "minor prophets," so called because their combined writings were small enough to fit on one scroll.
Hebrew prophets existed before that time, of course. Abraham was called a prophet in Genesis; and the three famous siblings of Exodus--Aaron, Miriam, and Moses--were likewise considered prophets in their day. Samuel, for whom two books are named, was known as a priest, judge, and prophet--clearly a man who wore many hats in his community. Cultic prophets operated in many religions, and court prophets worked their beats in most ancient kingdoms.
TWO OF THE MOST AMAZING EXAMPLES OF HEBREW PROPHETS lived outside of the classical era: Elijah and his protege, Elisha, haunted the wayward kings of Israel in the ninth century B.C. They were miracle workers, healing the sick, calling down fire and drought, multiplying food for the hungry, even raising the dead.
Few of the later prophets attempted such feats, sticking strictly to the task of classical prophecy, which was serving as the mouthpiece of God. Their message, invariably critical, was aimed directly at the authorities in both palace and temple. Kings, queens, and priests alike detested their disagreeable interference. These writing prophets, so named because they left their words behind for us to read, were rarely welcomed when they arrived and never missed after they were gone.
When I ask the average group of Catholics to name the prophets, Isaiah's name comes up first. Liturgically he has the most clout, being the premier prophet of Advent and getting plenty of play in Lent and Easter thanks to Handel's Messiah. Jonah, Jeremiah, and Hosea make the list next, and then the naming usually fakers.
Ezekiel, though "major," is simply a distant shadow in the line-up. A lot of his writing seems too weird for the lectionary and not comforting enough for personal prayer. Admittedly he got some good press around the time that the paperback/ movie phenomenon Chariots of the Gods (Berkeley Trade)--about the theory that Earth was visited by aliens in ancient times--was released; but apart from alien aficionados, Ezekiel is not a go-to prophet.
THIS YEAR, HOWEVER, EZEKIEL SHOWS UP AS THE PROPHET of Pentecost with his memorable vision of the vast plain of dry bones awaiting a word of life to draw them back to wholeness. We might call it an inspired choice. Inspiration, after all, means breathing in, and that's just what the dry bones of the prophecy get to do--they breathe in God's spirit and return to the land of the living. If some spiritual seekers of the 1970s looked to Ezekiel for verification of ancient UFO sightings, an earlier generation was more enthralled by the image of the dry bones as a metaphor for its own losses. The composers of African American spirituals heard in the story of "the head bone connected to the neck bone"--the neat reorganizing of a life torn apart, scattered, parched, and lifeless--God's own victory waiting in the wings.
"Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! …