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The Prophecy Was Not A Unique Phenomenon to Israel.

The Prophecy Was Not A Unique Phenomenon to Israel.

Various scholars have contested the uniqueness of prophecy to Israel. There are two schools of thought; one side of the divide contests that prophecy is unique to Israel while the other, citing evidence from the ANE, argue that prophecy existed in the Ancient Near East (ANE) societies before the nationhood of Israel. This group of scholars therefore view prophecy as a borrowed phenomenon. While this paper does not dispute the fact that prophecy was not unique in Israel, that is, it existed in the ANE communities surrounding and pre-dating Israel; it does contest the view that Israel borrowed prophecy from these nations.

 The paper will further contest that prophecy in Israel was unique in many respects despite sharing some similarities and co-existing with these communities. The naivety of Israel and the similarities between prophetism in both ANE and Israel does not in any way suggest one community borrowed from the other, and Israel for that matter. There are significant differences between the two strands of prophetic activities; prophetic activities Israel and uniquely Yahwistic and monotheistic

To start with, we will attempt to define prophecy. It is worthy pointing out that the Bible does not define prophecy as it takes it for granted that it is a well-known phenomenon. Etymologically, a prophet was known as a nabi which means a divine messenger. According to Routledge (2008:209-210), “the usual word for ‘prophet’ in the OT is nabi. This is probably linked with the verb ‘to call’. It can be invariably noticed that from OT perspective that a prophet was one who had a clear sense of God’s call.

The significance of such a call cannot be over-emphasised; “it validated the prophet’s ministry and gave authority to his message” (:210). A simpler definition is given by Scott (1968:2) who defines a prophet as “one who speaks on behalf of someone else”. If we do not mention Goldingay’s (2003) view of prophets as dual servants, we would have misrepresented the nature of the servanthood of the prophet, both to the Yahweh and the king. “Prophets are Yhwh’s aides and Yhwh’s servants. Often they are also servants of the human king. As servants of two masters, they stand in an unenviable position” (:685).

Overall, the characteristic features of prophecy included the following. Firstly, it generally involved a calling by a deity (God in Israel’s case) hence, unlike priesthood which fell into corruption, this office was non-hereditary. Scott (1968:95) is emphatic in spelling out the importance of call (and rightly so) when he says: “the assurance of having a divine call and commission was a primary element in prophetic consciousness”. It emboldened the proclamation of the messenger.

Further, the prophetic message had both elements of forth-telling or foretelling by nature. Commenting on this, Motyer (2001:10) suggest that “foretelling was part of their forthtelling. They were inspired to proclaim the truth about God, recalling his past revelation of himself in word and deed, and appealing for obedience in the light of the predicted future”. 

Thus foretelling was done in the context of forthtelling and never in isolation. As shall be shown below, such basic characteristics of prophecy cannot be exclusively claimed to be the domain of Israel but were prevalent in ANE communities and religions that pre-dated Israel as a nation. This as has been suggested above, does not however mean that Israel borrowed this phenomenon from ANE.

In addition, the naivety of Israel as a nation is one factor that is used to argue that prophecy was not unique to Israel and that because of that it is a borrowed phenomenon. It is argued that in the 1,000 years before Israel became a nation there were prophetic activities that were prevalent. Such prophetic activities did not come to an end with the creation of the nation of Israel.

 As noted above such activities continued side-by-side with those of Israel. The bible also, by citing examples of non-Israelite prophets like Balak, does attest to the existence of prophetism outside the physical and spiritual boundaries of Israel. This is therefore used to argue that prophetism in Israel was not unique to Israel as it existed side by side with prophetism outside its boundaries.

We will now turn to explore evidence of the existence of prophetism in ANE communities. One must admit that such existence of prophetia activities in ANE is undisputed. Such attestation is by documents from Mari in the 18th century (Kaltner & Stulman 2004). 

These examples include the Legend of Wen-Ammon, the Stele of Zakhi and the Legend of Zimri- lim. The legend of Wen-Ammon talks of ecstatic delivery of a message by a youth who was messenger of a deity in 1100BC at Babylos (Scott 1968). This is also attested to by Anderson (1966:191) who talks of “the god seized one of [the] youths and he possessed”. This is ecstasy which was synonymous with early Hebrew prophecy.

The Stele of Zhaki relates a story of a “prophet” who spoke on behalf of a deity called Hadad. This prophet called the king to obey this deity in order for the king to prosper. Failure to obey would result in dethronement of the king. This legend talks about ANE prophets “associated with royal court or the ruling class (much as in Israel’s later history)” (Alexander & Baker 2003:663). 

Such kind of prophecy is very prevalent in Israel. The argument advanced in view of this evidence is that Abraham (the father of Israel) was called out of a culture and a context. Israel is not founded in a vacuum. Naturally, people would therefore expect Abraham to carry over some things that were from their previous setting with him and hence, prophecy in Israel largely borrowed from ANE where Abraham came from.

Having explored the evidence above, it is noteworthy to mention at this juncture that there were several similarities between ANE prophecy and that of Israel. Some of these similarities as stated by Alexander & Baker (2003) and other scholars included the media used in communicating the message from a deity (orally or written); there was existence of both male and female prophets, ecstatic activity accompanying prophetism (e.g. request for music to be played and Saul prophesying ecstatically naked). As a matter of fact, Anderson (1966:191) contends that “the Hebrew word translated as ‘prophesy’… means to prophesy ecstatically”. Hence similarities with ANE prophetism.

Further, the Stele of Zhaki would draw many similarities with prophecy in Israel. Kings were always reminded that their positions were through God’s gracious provision and their obedience would ensure their wellbeing and that of their people. God would build them dynasties and kingdoms that will survive both internal and external threats. However, much should not be made of these similarities (Anderson 1966:663) as they do not prove much.

We will now turn to view the evidence presented by scholars who claim prophecy was unique to Israel therefore not a borrowed phenomenon. This paper, as already stated above, attests to the existence of prophecy in ANE (and therefore, prophecy not being unique to Israel).

 It however doesn’t attest to the claim that prophecy was borrowed from ANE. The evidence supplied above does not warranty such an attestation as this will also be shown in the exploration of the uniqueness of Israelite prophecy. Israel had its unique brand of Yahwistic-centred and monotheistic prophecy.

There are various theories that have been coined to support the view. These include the following: the unique phenomenon theory, chronological theory, covenant specific theory, evolutionary theory, and political origins theory, among others. This paper will go along with the chronological theory as accounting for the rise of prophecy in Israel. Other theories are not rivals of this theory but help to complement it in many ways as will be shown below.

The scholars who vouch for the chronological theory contend that prophecy rose simultaneously with the rise of the nation of Israel. While there is contestation as to when the Israel became a nation, this paper would agree with scholarly thinking that equates the calling and separation of Abram to the rise of the nation of Israel. As such, Abraham becomes the first prophet and Moses and others followed in line as great prophets (cf Gen 20v7, Num. 18v5).

As already noted above, other theories vouching for the uniqueness of prophecy in Israel do complement and do not rival this theory. For instance, the political origins theory associates the rise of prophecy with the rise of the Monarchy.
 It political origins theory associates the rise of prophecy with the Monarchy. it ho were hopelessly polytheistic. equates the callis the contestation of this paper that this theory does not account for the genesis of prophecy in Israel but simply states that at this stage of the (chronological) history of Israel, the office obtained a more public theocratic background for its activity in the newly-established kingdom.

 After its introduction, the monarch quickly turned oppressive, with such oppression expressed in the neglect of the poor, widows and the fatherless in most cases. Thus prophecy to play the role of a ‘watchdog’ over the monarch. 

Thus “the key role of Israel’s prophets after the monarchy was to call the nation back to the ways of God, by challenging political and spiritual leaders… they out against immorality and social injustice… particularly the oppression and exploitation of the weak by the strong” (Routledge 2008:215). 

 The prophets therefore attended to the “internal sickness of Israel” ((Bright 1980:259). It is noteworthy that these prophets carried so much authority that the kings feared them and at some instances kings were dethroned by them. It will be unfair to paint all Israel’s prophets with one brush as some of them spoke a message because “it is the message the king wants to hear (1 Kings 22).” (Goldingay 2003:685-686).

It will be unfair to concentrate on the similarities without pronouncing the notable differences that existed as well. These differences included the ones discussed below. The Yahwistic and Monotheistic nature of prophecy in Israel finds no match in ANE who were hopelessly polytheistic. There is no attested evidence in ANE literature to suggest that there were standards to evaluate or judge prophesy. On the contrary, there were a number of laws that regulated prophetism in Israel (Alexander & Baker 2003). 

It was not a free for all kind of activity and not every prophet had to be believed by the people. Ecstasy (which was common in prophetic activities in both ANE and Israel) was not enough to prove the veracity of prophecy for the Israel (or Yahweh’s prophets); Torah was the ultimate the yardstick.

 This is affirmed by Motyer (2001:18) who concludes basing on Jeremiah 23v9-40, that a prophet had to be judged by “his personal life”; “the moral rigour of his ministry and message” and “the secret reality of his relationship with the Lord”. Thus existence of similarities and should not make us blind to the glaring differences between the two forms of prophecy.

To affirm the position that this paper has taken all along, it is noteworthy to consider this argument by Scott (1968:1)
Hebrew prophecy was and is not altogether unique, but it remains incomparable in its spiritual quality and permanent significance for religion. ‘The prophets’ par excellence are the prophets of Israel, and their words are the standard of prophecy…

Another area of significance and uniqueness of Israel’s prophecy again, is that unlike that of ANE, it touched other nations beyond Israel; “the world of the prophets had a wider horizons than the kingdom of David at its greatest ideal extent” (:33). Such is the uniqueness and the significance of Israel’s prophetism as compared to its ANE neighbours.

Further, Robert R. Wilson’s assessment in essay entitled Current Issues in the Study of Prophecy in Kaltner & Stulman (2004:45) is worth noting:

Although Israelite prophecy certainly shared much with similar phenomena in other cultures, both ancient and modern, the notion of a chain of interpretations of both fulfilled and unfilled prophecies seems to have been peculiar to ancient Israel and its successor communities.

This paper concurs with both assertions above that; while there are similarities with ANE prophetic phenomena, there is some degree of uniqueness and significance of Israel’s prophecy in comparison with the ANE sources from whom it is claimed to have borrowed.

In conclusion, while it is true that Israel was predated by the ANE communities, and that prophetic phenomena were not only limited to Israel, it is untrue (as contested in this paper) that Israel copied prophecy from the ANE communities. Prophecy in Israel, while it has similarities with that which obtained in ANE had its unique distinguishing marks that cannot be ignored. It was uniquely monotheistic and Yahwistic in nature.

Reference List

Alexander, D T & Baker, D W 2003. Dictionary of the Old Testament- Pentateuch. A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. England: Inter-Varsity Press.

Anderson, B W 1966. Understanding the Old Testament- 2nd Edition. London: Prince-Hall International.

Goldingay, J 2003. Old Testament Theology- Israel’s Gospel. Vol 1. Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press.

Kaltner, J & Stulman, L (eds) 2008. Inspired Speech- Prophecy in the Ancient Near East- Essays in Honour of Hebert B. Huffman. New York: T & T Clark.

Motyer, A 2001. The Story of the Old Testament. Michigan: Baker Book House Company.

Routledge, R 2008. Old Testament Theology- A Thematic Approach. Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press.

Scott, R B Y 1968. The Relevance of the Prophets- An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets and their Message. Revised edition. New York: Mcmillan Company.