Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Do You See What I See? for Isaiah and His Ilk, Prophecy Includes More Than Just an Uncanny Ability to Predict the Future

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Do You See What I See? for Isaiah and His Ilk, Prophecy Includes More Than Just an Uncanny Ability to Predict the Future

Article excerpt

It's easy to imagine that the coolest thing about being a prophet would be to know things in advance of their happening. Or not. The problem with clairvoyance, as every sci-fi fan knows, is that the gift of foreknowledge generally pairs with the terror of not being able to prevent what's coming. There's also the Cassandra effect, named for the Greek heroine gifted with future sight but cursed with being viewed as crazy by everyone around her. Most prophets are deemed crazy in their own generation. If you can see tomorrow today, and you value the respect of your nearsighted peers, it is probably best to keep the vision to yourself.

For biblical prophets who held allegiance to God above every other value, the scorn of one's neighbors was all part of the job. Most prophets were not only derided in the local community but also denounced by religious leaders and censored by monarchs. The ire of a king or queen led to the early death of many seers. But not Isaiah. He was the rare prophet who enjoyed a long career, serving four kings and surviving all of them. It's been debated whether or not a fifth one finally did Isaiah in, but no biblical evidence confirms this.

Why was Isaiah's prophetic career so successful? That too is debatable, since his kings seldom took his advice even though they willingly heard him out. Isaiah's acceptance at court implies a certain respect for his ideas or his reputation. Unlike outlying prophets who moved around a lot, like Elisha; or were forced to live in the wilderness, like Elijah; or crossed the border to speak their piece, like Amos, Isaiah lodged in downtown Jerusalem.

He was married to a prophetess and had at least two sons with her. Scholars speculate from his writing style that he was from the upper-middle class, well educated, and familiar with Near Eastern literature beyond Israel. Isaiah had good connections in the court and may have been a court-appointed prophet himself. By every measure, Isaiah was inside the system.

In Isaiah's generation, the eighth century B.C., Hebrew prophecy itself was undergoing some changes. Up until this point, prophets had held positions of formal leadership within their communities, doubling as judges, like Deborah, or serving as both priest and judge, like Samuel. In earlier times, prophecy was considered part and parcel of a tribal leader's job description--both Abraham and Moses were viewed as prophets because of their mediating roles between God and the people.

Then came the ninth-century wonder-workers, Elijah and his protege Elisha. These fellows didn't just talk to God, or for God, as amazing as those privileges may seem. They pulled off the sort of miraculous events that hadn't been seen since Moses parted the waters. Along with delivering oracles, the wonder-workers healed people, manipulated the weather, multiplied resources, and raised the dead! Elijah and Elisha upped the ante for what one might expect from one of God's prophets.

In the eighth century, what was left for a prophet to do? Amos launched a new era when he delivered his contribution not merely in person, but also in writing. This shift jump-started classical prophecy, producing three major and 12 minor books in all. The eighth-century writing prophets, including Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, may not have imagined their pronouncements would one day be sacred scripture. But the fact that they, or their students, committed them to writing does imply these oracles were understood to be more than throwaway words.

Today we approach the Hebrew prophets as if they were fortune-tellers, poring over their pas sages with the conviction that these men were spiritual time travelers who knew what God had in mind for the future of their country and even the future of humanity long before it happened. …

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