How to Recognize a Biblical Prophet by Corrine Carvalho

We live in a culture that is particularly hostile to prophetic claims. In fact, if I met someone at a dinner party who claimed that they heard voices and talked to God, I would be sure not to make them my Facebook friend. In the world of the Bible, a prophet was someone who was a spokesperson (or intermediary) for the divine realm. They did not predict the future—except insofar as what a god decrees usually happens—nor were they primarily social revolutionaries. Instead, the Bible claims that these men and women had a direct message from God that they were required to communicate to the community.

Prophecy was not unique to ancient Israel. It was common throughout the Fertile Crescent. In Mesopotamia, for instance, kings regularly consulted prophets when making decisions of national importance. The biblical texts hint at a variety of ways that prophets received oracles. Sometimes they heard a voice (Deut 18:15-19). Some saw visions (Ezek 1 and Amos 7) or had dreams (Dan 7). Others were possessed by spirits (1Sam 10:10-11, 1Kgs 22:19-23). Israelite priests could also cast sacred lots, called the Urim and Thummim, for decisions of national importance.

The majority of prophetic oracles sound like rants aimed at “sinners.” This is what the prophets used to sound like to me: “Blah, blah, blah, you’re bad! Blah, blah, blah, you’re all going to die!”

But a closer look at how prophets spoke and their narrative settings demonstrates that prophetic messages were directed at specific historical circumstances, such as war, famine, and cultural threats. The prophetic collections, however, usually do not explain the historical situation that prompted a given prophecy, and so this context is not always clear. The prophets might mention a particular king, but they presume that the audience knew what events happened during that king’s reign.

The prophetic collections have few rhetorical markers to signal the beginning or end of a particular oracle, and prophetic speeches—originally sometimes short poetic lines—were rarely set down in chronological order. This can give the impression that the prophet rambled on and on. In addition, most collections include oracles by later prophets who apparently channeled the spirit of the original prophet. The stories of Elijah’s spirit moving into Elisha (2Kgs 2) or the presumption that a medium could call up the spirit of the deceased Samuel (1Sam 28) show that Israelites felt a great prophet’s spirit could pass to or through a living prophet.

Prophetic rhetoric can make us feel uncomfortable. The prophets’ extreme statements, however, are really about trying to persuade an audience to change its behavior. Just as we may use hyperbole (“if you don’t change, you’ll ruin everything”), biblical prophets say and do things to get people to notice them.

This is an important element of ancient prophecy: a prophet is only a prophet if society deems him or her so. Many biblical texts attest to the fact that “false prophecy” was also an issue: not everyone who claimed to be a prophet was thought to be one by the community (Deut 18:21-22, 1Kgs 18:26-28, Jer 6:13, Jer 8:10). Jeremiah has a lot to say about true and false prophecy, especially regarding the contest with Hananiah (Jer 28:5-11).  But even before this judgment could be made, prophets had to be heard by a large audience. The prophets whose words were collected into books were the most influential prophets of their day. It is not surprising, then, that their rhetoric was innovative, distinct, and at times deliberately shocking.

Corrine Carvalho, "How to Recognize a Biblical Prophet", n.p. [cited 27 Jul 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/how-to-recognize-a-biblical-prophebasic-article

Contributors

Corrine Carvalho

Corrine Carvalho
Professor, St. Thomas University

Corrine Carvalho is professor in the Department of Theology at St. Thomas University, Minnesota. She is the author of Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament (Anselm Academic, 2010); Primer on Biblical Methods (Anselm Academic, 2009); and “Ezekiel” in Ezekiel, Daniel, coauthored with Paul Niskanen (Liturgical Press, 2012).

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The crescent-shaped region stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Its fertile land made agriculture easy, making it the location of many early human developments.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

(rhetorical) The art of persuasion in writing and speech.

Relating to persuasive speech or writing.

Deut 18:15-19

A New Prophet Like Moses
15The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.16This is what yo ... View more

Ezek 1

The Vision of the Chariot
1In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens ... View more

Amos 7

Locusts, Fire, and a Plumb Line
1This is what the Lord GOD showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter gr ... View more

Dan 7

Visions of the Four Beasts
1In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the ... View more

1Sam 10:10-11

10When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God possessed him, and he fell into a prophetic frenzy along with the ... View more

1Kgs 22:19-23

19Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right an ... View more

2Kgs 2

Elijah Ascends to Heaven
1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.2Elijah said t ... View more

1Sam 28

1In those days the Philistines gathered their forces for war, to fight against Israel. Achish said to David, “You know, of course, that you and your men are to ... View more

Deut 18:21-22

21You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?”22If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take ... View more

1Kgs 18:26-28

26So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no ... View more

Jer 6:13

13For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.

Jer 8:10

10Therefore I will give their wives to others
and their fields to conquerors,
because from the least to the greatest
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from pr ... View more

Jer 28:5-11

5Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord;6and the p ... View more

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