A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

What is the role of a prophet?

It’s time for the results of the “What is the primary role of a prophet?” poll. . .
  • 49% of those voting choose “relay a message from God”
  • 41% choose “social critic”
  • 5% chose “interpret Scripture”
  • 5% chose “have a special relationship with God”

Poll participation was pretty low.  The total of votes was only 39.  Perhaps I’m not patient enough, but I’m interpreting this as indicating lack of interest in the question.  Time to move on.

As with the last poll, I suspect that the results of this one tell me more about my audience than about cultural views at large.  Given the enormous success of The Left Behind Series, the strength of premillenialism, and the language I hear everyday, it’s hard for me to infer from my poll results that no one really believes that prophets predicted the future.

I do hope my blog will reach a diversity of folks with a diversity of views. Contrasting points of view (expressed in a civil way) make for interesting conversation.  I’ll have to keep working on that.  Suggestions welcome.

As to the role of a prophet, my own answer to the question would be “none of the above.”  Influenced by numerous scholars and by my own reading, I understand prophets (at least the ones in ancient Israel) as characters in highly-crafted books.  I don’t doubt that there really were people in Israel/Judah who claimed to speak for the divine and that others turned to them for guidance.  Documents from other ancient cultures speak of diviners and others who mediated the word of the gods to humans; ancient Israel was likely no exception.  But when it comes to the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,  the description of prophets has been so shaped by a literary tradition that the what the prophets “really” were like becomes harder and harder to discern. So, I tend to shift the question from “what was the role of the prophet?” to “how does this book lead me to envision a prophet?”

The prophetic books present the prophets  as relaying messages from God to humans.  This impression is created by the superscriptions, those introduction remarks that instruct readers to understand what’s to come as divine speech mediated through a human, as well as by the phrase which punctuates the books:  “thus says the LORD.”

Prophets are also presented as challenging people’s behaviors, especially worship of gods other than the LORD (more on names of God later), as well as their attitudes.   Prophets announce pending punishment and/or salvation.  They insist that the LORD alone governs the world, implicitly and explicitly challenging current empires and rulers

Interestingly, most of the time they speak in poetry.  Most folks ignore that the prophetic language is poetic and read it as if it is straight instruction, but the formatting of most English Bibles makes the point that prophetic speech is more like Psalms than Leviticus.  It is full of imagery, metaphor, allusions. Like other poetry, its “point” is often made in exaggerated and sometimes indirect ways.

But some prophets get even more characterization:  Hosea as a family man, Ezekiel as a priest, Jeremiah as a tender heart, Habakkuk as a debater.

What fascinates me most about the prophetic books is how they have used a wide range of authorial techniques to create impressions of ancient characters in order to influence readers living in later times. They aren’t simple transcripts made on the spot but rather carefully-crafted portraits of prophets for later purposes.

I would love to know how and why prophetic books were created, about their authors and their first audiences.  I respect the scholars who try to reason out plausible historical reconstructions.  I enjoy trying out the different scenarios such scholarship presents, to imagine how a prophetic book would have sounded in one situation or another.  But I confess that I don’t have a lot of confidence in our ability to know for sure about that process.  So, without ignoring the historical questions, I do tend to gravitate to the literary and ideological questions of how the language works, what kind of mental picture does it create, who in the past and in the present is hurt or helped by such characterizations, etc.

Prophetic books fascinate me, as well as frustrate and sometimes anger me. That’s what makes the process of reading them so engaging.


3 Responses to What is the role of a prophet?

  • After I finished my masters at Perkins, I decided that I wanted to do a PhD on the role of prophet (sort of sideways) because it seemed to me that the church abandoned the prophetic role of cultural critique. Marginalized groups in U.S. culture filled in the resulting gap, and my interest was the prophetic lifestyle of the punk community. (Not to be confused with the popularized trappings of punk culture.)

    In the late 90s Ed and I hosted many punk bands as they were booked at Moontunes by our son. These, mostly young (and white), men (and few women) possessed an acute awareness of how political systems contributed to their marginalization. The prison industrial complex particularly impacted their lives, as well as the general disregard U.S. culture has for youth on the fringe.

    I concluded that while the church embraced young people in general, there seemed to be very little space for these young adults at the table. Intolerance dominated for the sight, sound and often smell of punks. The MTS program at Perkins allowed me just enough flexibility to focus my graduate work on the possibility that the church could learn from this community. (Thanks to Evelyn Parker, Abraham Smith, Hal Recinos, Theodore Walker, and of course Edwin David Aponte in particular.)

    I’s my assertion that the punk community not only provided the prophetic voice that the church abandoned. For the most part the church in the U.S. had taken (and continues to take) a safe political/cultural stance – especially during the Bush years. In addition, those who considered themselves members of the punk community also adopted a life-style that reflected their prophetic commitment.

    Many punks chose to become vegan because they protested speciesism. They participated in peaceful protest to the violence perpetrated by the government in the name of freedom at great person risk. They embraced oppressed people of all types, and practiced inclusion including all ages, sexuality, religion, and race. It especially interested me that punk concerts were often organized in order to include underage youth, even though it hurt the profitability of those events.

    Punks practiced hospitality to strangers, fed the poor, visited the prisoners, clothed the naked – even in a time where they received little of the same treatment by those with the same mandate.

    I know that not all who were part of that group were oppressed, nor did all practice such prophetic convictions. At the same time, congregations and individuals who congratulate themselves on their openness can possibly learn from the people on the edges.

    Anyhow, your conversation reminds me of those days (not so long ago) when I twisted every assignment in my MTS to focus on punk culture. (Including a project for African American Hermeneutics with Abraham Smith where I concentrated on the work of a black hardcore composer).

  • Dear Julia, thanks for this post and the Readers’ Poll on the primary role of a prophet. If I had answered it (in my own blog), I would have gone for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I think the way the prophetic books present prophets, their primary roles are a little more complex than just one category. Predicting the future is surely one of roles of the prophet but they were more interested in predicting the restoration of Israel after judgment. Your comments are helpful as I think reading the prophetic literature as poetic is essential for interpreting the prophets. Thanks again for the interesting blogpost.

  • Susanna Ticciati makes an argument for the role of prophet based on the word מוֹכִיח (mochiah) used in Job 9:33 – I wrote a little on it here. She has a good argument for including both God’s word to the people and Intercession on behalf of the people in the role.

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