Friday, January 8, 2010

Prophecy: An Historical Perspective

Alice C. Linsley

The phenomenon of prophets is very ancient. Prophecy and prophets were a feature of ancient Afro-Asiatic religion. Afro-Asiatic prophets resided near bodies of water or sacred springs. Prophecy is attested at shrines along the Nile, at Hama on the Orontes (8th century B.C.), and at Mari on the Euphrates (18th century B.C.) There were prophets in the flourishing Nubian (Sudanese) civilization before the time of the Pharaohs.

The rulers of Egypt had their prophets. Joseph was elevated in Egypt because of his prophetic interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. Dream interpretation was one of the prophet’s tasks. In Deuteronomy, the prophet is called "a dreamer of dreams" (Dt. 13:2).

Rulers relied on prophets for counsel, but often encountered them as adversaries. Abraham was recognized by Pharaoh as a prophet (Gen. 20:7) and despite of his attempt to deceive, was sent away richer. Queen Jezebel and her prophets were opposed by Elijah (1 Kings 18:19-40), the same prophet who had advised her husband, Ahab. King Zedekiah consulted the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 37) and also allowed his chiefs to put Jeremiah in a storage cistern where he sank into the mud (Jer. 38).

Prophets were connected to the Temple. Jeremiah tells us that a man of God, Ben-Johanan, resided in a room in the Temple. Anna [1], who prophesied concerning Jesus at his presentation in the Temple, lived in the Temple (Luke 2:36-38).

Before the Temple, it was customary for prophets to dwell at sacred places such as great trees, springs or wells. Deborah, “the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet” associated with a tamar (date nut palm) midway between two important shrines: “Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4-6). Likewise Abraham consulted a prophet (moreh) when he arrived in Canaan. This prophet was associated with a sacred oak between Ai and Bethel (Gen. 13). It was here that God appeared to Abraham in three Persons "in the heat of the day" [2] (Gen. 18).

We find evidence that there were confraternities such as the one that was in touch with Elijah (2 Kings 2:3-18; 4:38ff; 6:1ff and 9:1) and alluded to in Amos 7:14. These companies of prophets appear to have had a good following. They performed symbolic mimes under the influence of music (1 Sam. 10:5). It is significant that the prophetic messages recorded in the Bible are NOT associated with groups of prophets, but with individual prophets whose lives exemplified holiness. The prophet is someone to whom God’s holiness and desires are an immediate experience through which the present and the future come into clear focus.

The Prophet as Message
By definition, the Hebrew word nabi means one who is called or one who proclaims.[3] Often the prophets tell of a decisive moment in which they received a divine call. Amos gives this explanation: “The Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go and prophecy to my people Israel.” (Amos 7:15)

Jeremiah’s call is described by God: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I appointed you as prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:4-5). God sent him “to uproot and to knock down, to build up and to plant” (Jer. 1:10). Jeremiah obeyed the Lord and at great personal cost. He was tossed into a cistern and left to die, but God rescued him through the Cushite Ebed-Melech [4] and he took refuge in Egypt. Here we uncover the theme of God’s chosen taking refuge in Egypt, as did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Infant Son of God.

Jonah was called to proclaim repentance to the people of Nineveh and resisted, paying a price for attempting to elude his vocation. Jonah’s reluctance is part of the message. He is a kind of anti-prophet and yet he succeeds in bringing an entire city to repentance.

Hosea married a harlot to symbolize Israel’s infidelity to the Lord. Hosea’s entire life tells the story of God’s steadfast love to a faithless people.

The prophet's life is itself a symbol and a sign. Jeremiah was told not to marry or have children.  He was not to enter a house where there was mourning or feasting.  And when the people asked him about this, he was to tell them that Yahweh decreed total disaster upon them because in their stubbornness and wickedness they were worse than their ancestors who had followed other gods (Jer. 16).

The Prophet as Messenger
The work of the prophet entails communicating a message from God. The message comes through different means such as dreams, visions, hearing, and by internalization, which is likely the meaning of the phrase “The word of the Lord came to me.” The divine message sometimes comes unexpectedly and sometimes through experience of something as commonplace as the sight of two baskets of figs (Jer. 24).

The methods of conveying God’s message also vary greatly. These include telling stories and proverbs, exhortation, preaching, singing songs, walking long distances, sitting alone for long periods, smashing jugs (Jer. 13:14) and pottery (Jer. 19:10), satire, funeral lament and poetry. It has been observed that “most of the prophets were poets and their oracles were delivered and have been preserved in poetic form.” [5]

Afro-Asiatic rulers, priests and prophets are responsible for diffusion of the Afro-Asiatic religious life that took root around the water systems from west central Africa to the Indus River Valley. It is a religious life that shares eight distinctive features [6], all aspects of the biblical worldview. These features point to a God who desires communion with us through the blood of His Son and eternal Priest, Jesus Christ. All true prophets point to this Communion.


1. Anna was the daughter of Phanu’el, of the tribe of Asher (known for prophets). She was a widow who remained in the temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayers. Among the ancient Afro-Asiatics, widows attached themselves to shrines or temples once their husbands died. This still happens in Africa and in India (the eastern end of the ancient Afro-Asiatic Dominion). The Hindu scholar, Dr. Shubhash C. Sharma, explains: "Note that even though the widows living in such places (temples etc.) might number in several thousand they still represent an extremely small minority relative to millions of Indian widows..." Anna is the only widow known to have lived in the temple. Most chose to live with their families (as did Naomi and Oprah), but Anna (like Ruth) chose a different path.

2. Abraham was visited “in the heat of the day” by God in 3 Persons (Gen. 18:1). Compare this to the binary opposite of “in the cool of the day”, the time of God’s visitation to Adam and Eve in Paradise (Gen. 3:8).

3. Nabi is derived from the verb which sometimes means “to be beside oneself.” This stresses a secondary aspect of the prophet’s experience – ecstasy. I Samuel 19:24 is an example. Here we are told that Saul “stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets?” Ezekiel 3:12-15 is another example. Here we are told that the prophet Ezekiel was “taken away” by the Spirit to the river of Chebar, where he sat in an astonished state for seven days.

4. Jer. 38. The name Ebed-Melech is a title meaning the King’s slave. In Jer. 39, the Lord declares to Ebed-Melech through Jeremiah that his life will be spared “because you have put your trust in me.”

5. David Noel Freedman, Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1980), p. 18.

6. The eight features are:
  • A Deity associated with the number 3, a triune God. The number 3 is repeatedly found in connection to the most astonishing acts of God. Jonah was 3 days in the belly of the whale. Moses was hidden for 3 months (Ex. 2:2). Job's 3 friends struggled with the mystery of why the righteous suffer. Moses asked permission to go 3 days journey into the wilderness to worship. Abraham traveled 3 days to a mountain only God could reveal and upon which God provided His own sacrifice. The Covenant God made with Abraham involved cutting up 3 animals that were 3 years old. God in 3 Persons visited Abraham (Gen. 18). The 3 measures of flour made into cakes for those Visitors. The 3 gifts offered them: curds, milk and a calf. Abraham prayed 3 times for Sodom. Joseph had a dream of a vine with 3 branches (Gen 40:10-12). The “Son of Man” appeared with 3 men in the fiery furnace. Jesus rose on the third day. The Afro-Asiatics' name for the 3 God was "Baal Shalisha".
  • Veneration of the Sun as the Deity's emblem/chariot (against worship of the Moon which merely reflects light)
  • Expectation of Messiah/Anointed One, who like David (only greater), would be "Son of God"
  • A fixed binary order in creation which speaks of God's nature and helps seekers of God to know how they should order their lives. The binary distinctions help us to avoid heresy.
  • A hereditary office of priest and intermarrying priestly lines
  • Animal sacrifice at altars, many of which were associated with Horus, called "son of God"
  • Similar number symbolism
  • Prophets and a tradition whereby true and false prophets were discerned

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