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.