The biblical prophet as social, political and religious agitator and his role in developing theology and religion
Monash University, 1997
This paper shall look at, and illustrate, the biblical prophet as a social, political and religious agitator and how he was important for the development of biblical religion and theology. Also, it will discuss the differences and similarities between prophecy in ancient Israel and other Near Eastern cultures. The summary shall define the prophet’s role in the society, and the purpose of his activities and involvement.
Bible, theology, Old Testament, prophets
”Therefore this is what I will to do you, Israel,
and because I will
do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel” 
This expression by the prophet Amos in ancient Israel, around 750 BCE, can be a good representative for many of the messages of doom that were directed to the people of Israel by the prophets at that time. But could these messages be accepted by the people and the authorities? Who was the prophet to doom whole countries in the name of God, and what was his position in the society?
When we talk about prophets, we usually mean the biblical prophets who were active in the united kingdom of Israel and when it was divided into Judah and Israel. Unfortunately, the Bible is the only primary source available, and therefore much of the information is unreliable and fragmentary. Still, much can be discovered, and the prophets turn up, not only as doomsayers, but also as influential members of a complex society where politics, religious practices and social events all are mixed together in a common goal towards independence and peace with God.
In this paper, I will look at, and illustrate the biblical prophet as a social, political and religious agitator and how he was important for the development of biblical religion and theology. Also, I will discuss the differences and similarities between prophecy in ancient Israel and other Near Eastern cultures. In my summary, I will define the prophet’s role in the society, and the purpose of his activities and involvement.
The word of the prophet in ancient Israel and Judah was striking and harsh. He spoke and acted as if the sky were to collapse because Israel was unfaithful to God. God had thrust a burden upon his soul, and the prophet’s main concern was the relationship between the people of Israel and God - the very life of the whole people. Even though the prophet was human, he employed notes one octave too high for the people’s ears. The prophet attacked the priests and the kings, and even proclaimed the enemy as God’s instrument in history. What made the prophet’s word powerful was that it did not present a God from the past, but a God who was part of their daily lives. Whenever Israel or Judah boasted in their richness, disregarded God’s instructions, or lost faith in Him, God came and intervened with His mighty hand to strike His own nation down.
The prophet was the channel from God to His people and was thus guided by God’s feelings and purposes. His declarations were made from the point of view of God and not from himself. This was also Philo of Alexandria’s vision of the prophet. He defined the prophet as God’s passive instrument and that he was under the control of divine inspiration. Philo saw this prophetic state as a result of some kind of ecstasy where the prophet spoke as God Himself and identified himself completely with God. The ecstasy theory is by no means shared by all scholars today, though. Some connect ecstasy with madness, and that would of course not be suitable to apply to the prophets. Others believe that ecstasy was the result of the spirit of God coming upon the prophet. This expression is today, for example, widely adopted and accepted by the Christian Church and other religions and cultures. It can be argued whether the prophet was in this state of mind when delivering his message, but clearly he experienced a special bond with God with the words of the Almighty coming over him. This is evident in the prophet’s writings. As an example, Isaiah once experienced God’s presence this way:
”For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me...”
It must be stated, though, that there are differences between the biblical prophet and prophets in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. The biblical prophet was not alone in claiming a special relationship to his God - this was the common description of a prophet. But the belief in possession by demons, telepathic communication, talking skull-bones, and other things present in these other cultures, are not parallels to biblical prophecy. The biblical ”true” prophet was not hired or used to protect the leaders and the country, as often was the case in other countries. It was God himself, who appointed the prophet to be in his service, and tell good as well as bad news to the nation. In Israel, the king was not considered divine, but someone who had been appointed by a divine God. Other kings in surrounding countries saw themselves as gods, or divine, and therefore the prophets or seers in these cultures naturally had a different relationship to the king than the biblical prophets had.
The prophetic age
The prophetic writings in the Bible can be separated into two categories; the early (former) prophets and the later (classical) prophets. The early prophets began with Moses’ brother Aaron who God denominated as his prophet, and ended in the eighth century BCE. The most important and interesting prophets though, are the later ones as their messages were written down, thus giving us more detailed information about their activities and prophecies. These later prophets were active during the period of divided kingdom in the eighth century BCE, through the fall of Israel and the exile to Babylon, to the return and restoration some 200 years later. This was an era of social, political and religious instability in Judah and Israel, which also resulted in the end of the northern kingdom, Israel, with the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. During these years, the prophets were very much involved in the fate of the people and the nation, and the writings by famous biblical prophets as Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel will be examined to show this.
THE PROPHET AS SOCIAL AGITATOR
The eighth century prophets were unlikely the first to call for social justice in Israel, but because this is a common topic in their writings, and because of the fulfillment of their predictions that Israel would be punished by enemy invasion, for example, they deserve our special attention. Justice is prominent among these prophets’ demands, and Amos is clear in his condemnations:
”This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name’...”
Similarly, Isaiah considers the ultimate evidence for the presence or absence of justice in society to be the way its leaders deal with the needy, especially widows and orphans. By oppressing these defenseless people, Jerusalem’s leaders seal the fate of their doomed city. Consequently, the primary threat comes from within, not from without; and that is why neither Egypt nor Babylon can save Judah from the Assyrians, according to Isaiah.
...”Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
Sacrifice without justice is worthless, according to Isaiah, and justice means, as has been shown, protection of the underprivileged members of society. The prophets also attack the idle rich; property-owners who ”join house to house”, men who live lives of drunkenness, and women who demand all the fine clothes and jewelry.
As seen, the prophets stress justice and righteousness in man. God seems to be very keen of that this is not neglected, perhaps because He shapes the history, and if life is the clay, righteousness the mold in which he wants it to be shaped.
THE PROPHET AS POLITICAL AGITATOR
Ones the tribes had settled down in Caanan, it was perhaps inevitable that they should have demanded a king: ”Now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations”, as it is written in 1 Sam. 8:5. The king became the one to uphold and embody God’s covenant with the people of Israel, and thus the prophet, who was God’s spokesperson, automatically had a close tie to the nation’s political affairs.
Amos accuses the leaders of Israel - the priests, the seers, the elders, the princes, and especially the king - for sinning against God, and therefore predicts the destruction of the country. The object of God’s wrath in this political arena is the ruling ”house” or dynasty - the dynasty founded by Jehu:
”The high places of Isaac will be destroyed, and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jereboam”
However, the reason for the prophets’ involvement in politics is always connected with the rulers or the peoples sins against God. The prophets are not directly interested in political affairs, but whether the acts connected to them are against God’s will. This is how politics, social events and religious practices are mixed together; God wants justice and righteousness. If the people of Israel fail to obey Him, God tells the prophet how he will punish them, and so, political affairs are combined with the prophetic message. For the prophets, true faith in God is the only way, as God is God of history and intervenes in our lives.
Therefore, the movements of the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Medo-Persians are not merely military, strategic and political actions - it is God himself acting through them. They are his agents carrying out his will. Nevertheless, for the rulers in Judah and Israel, the word of the prophet when he was speaking about victory for the enemy, must have been regarded as political opinions.
”Ephraim feeds on the wind; he pursues the east wind all day and multiplies lies and violence. He makes a treaty with Assyria and sends olive oil to Egypt. The Lord has a charge to bring against Judah...”
* * *
”In returning [to God] and in rest you shall be saved; In quietness and in trust shall be your strength”
Both Hosea and Isaiah are against alliance with any of the threatening nations. Isaiah could not accept politics or war as a solution. He had a vision of the day when ”nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). Israel’s security lies in the covenant with God, not in covenants with other nations.
So, in summary, the prophets’ political involvement in the nation’s affairs is instead God’s way of communicating with the leaders of the people of Israel. We learn from the prophetic books that before God called them, many of the prophets were simple men, often with an agricultural background. They were on a mission from God and claimed His influence in all their sayings. Therefore, we cannot really discuss whether the prophets were interested in politics. Their attack on the leaders, suggestions on strategic military moves and condemnations of national events and decisions taken is God’s attack on the people, not the prophets’.
THE PROPHET AS RELIGIOUS AGITATOR
The belief that God had chosen the Israelites to carry out His mission, has been both a cornerstone of Hebrew faith and a refuge in moments of distress. Yet, the prophets felt that to many of their contemporaries this cornerstone was an escape from their duty. They had to remind the people that choseness must not be mistaken as divine favourism or immunity from chastisement. On the contrary, this meant being more seriously exposed to divine judgment and chastisement. The prophets reminded them that God was not only involved in the history of Israel, but in all nations’ history:
”Are you not like the
Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?
says the Lord. Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?”
Still, the people of Israel was the chosen people, and the prophets promised that after punishment for the people’s sins, God would show mercy and create a new world:
”Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people: the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”
The prophets carried on the traditional Jewish theme that after the people had sinned, God would punish them, but thereafter show mercy and rebuild what he had destroyed. Maybe this made the prophets to gain reputation amongst the people. It would not have been too hard for the people of Israel to believe the prophecies about exile and destruction as the situation was threatening, with powerful nations surrounding them, able to attack and fulfill the devastating prophecies at any moment. But if this was to happen, they could rely on that God one day would destroy the enemies and restore the nation of Israel in all His glory and power.
The prophets did not try to lead a ”religious revival”. They were concerned about to uphold the moral an spiritual life of the whole community, They often talked about the people’s sins against God, and this is an example from the book of Jeremiah:
”Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord”
The prophets are, as shown, often harsh when reflecting God’s will to the people of Israel. But all these actions by God is because he loves His people, is involved in human history and is affected by human acts. Through suffering lies the way to restoration and to the implanting of His will in the hearts of the people.
DEVELOPING RELIGION AND THEOLOGY
It has been shown that the word of the prophet was directed to the people of Israel in the age when he was active. He was not very interested in the past or the future, but instead what the results would be from the people’s disobedience of God’s word. But his prophecies would have far more lasting consequences than he probably could have expected. The prophets played an important role in the development of religion and theology, or as Abraham Kuenen in his book phrases it: ”The power and significance of Israel’s prophets are not to be found in their origin, or in anything which is connected therewith, or recalls it to recollection, but in their spiritual life, and the influence which that life exercised upon the conception of ethical and religious truth.”
Kuenen proposes that all what Israel became and produced in the field of religion, it owes mediately to the prophets. They conquered for Israel its place of honour among the nations.I do not really agree on this. Certainly the prophets kept the faith in God ”going” during a couple of centuries when the people of Israel needed to remember their God. Without the prophets, it would be easier for pagan influences to weaken the people’s faith in God, but hardly exterminate Judaism. The prophets became a transition between the oral and written word of God, and their messages about the ”Day of the Lord”, today still keep Jews, as well as Christians, waiting and hoping for it to come.
The redactors of the books in the New Testament included passages from the prophets in their theology. One passage by the Second Isaiah is believed to reflect the ”Son of Man”, Messiah, which the Christians consider has been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
”Surely he has borne our
griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.”
This is an example of how the words of the prophet inspired the development of theological and religious beliefs. Another example is the importance of Jerusalem as the Holy City and the temple therein, as has been mentioned. This was manifested by the prophets to such a degree that it would affect the development of Judaism for generations after their predictions. Sawyer also reflects this in his article, saying that ”there is ample evidence in the prophetic literature that events in the lifetime of the prophets were influential in creating new imagery and beliefs about Jerusalem”
It has been shown that the prophets in Judea, Israel and the united kingdom before the split, were actively involved in the every day lives of the Jewish people. They acted as social, political and religious agitators, but behind their often harsh expressions lay the important message from God to His people to trust in Him and live according to his laws, and maybe the most important one: God loves his people and is involved in their lives. He is the One who can destroy, but also build up, and who can punish, but also show mercy. Therefore, the prophets’ main task was to make the people understand God’s purpose and make them listen to His words. They were guides, intending to lead the people on the right path, and appointed by God himself to do this. Their words continued to influence the Jewish people, and still do today, helping to develop religious and theological beliefs throughout generations. Maybe, Christianity would not have emerged if there had not been any prophets in the history of the Jewish people. They paved way for the Messianic hope, which later would result in Messianic movements in Israel, and one of them a small sect claiming that the Jew Jesus from Nazareth was the Messiah. Today, this is the belief among millions of people on Earth.
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Buber, M., The Prophetic Faith, (Harper & Row, New York, 1949).
Heschel, A.J., The Prophets, (Harper & Row, New York, 1962).
Kuenen, A., The Prophets and Prophecy in Israel, (Philo press, Amsterdam, 1969).
Sawyer, J.F.A., ”The Message of the Prophets”, Prophecy and the Prophets of the Old Testament, (Oxford University Press, 1987).
Tarazi, P.N., The Old Testament: An Introduction, vol. 2, (New York, 1994).
Heaton, E.W., The Old Testament Prophets,
(Penguin, Edinburgh, 1961).
When I refer to ”the people of Israel”, I mean the people of the whole nation of Israel, including both countries of the divided kingdom: Judah and Israel.
Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, (New York, 1962), pp.4-12
Paul N. Tarazi, The Old Testament: An Introduction, vol. 2, (New York, 1994), p.8
ibid., ch.19-20 q.v. p.26, pp.222-225 (Philo of Alexandria was the first thinker known to us who developed a comprehensive approach to the understanding of biblical prophecy.)
Isaiah 8:11, cf. Jeremiah 1:9-10, Ezekiel 3:24
Heschel, The Prophets, pp.447-460
John F.A. Sawyer, Prophecy and the Prophets of the Old Testament, (Oxford, 1987), p.40
Amos 2:6-7 q.v. 4:1-5
Tarazi, The Old Testament, pp.112-113
Isaiah 5:8, 5:11-12, 3:6-23 cf. Amos 4:1
Heschel, The Prophets, p.198
E.W. Heaton, The Old Testament Prophets, (Edinburgh, 1961), pp.130-131
Tarazi, The Old Testament, p.72
Tarazi, The Old Testament, p.9
Amos 12:1 cf. Hosea 11:5
Heschel, The Prophets, pp.32-33
Heaton, Old Testaments Prophets, pp.115-121
Heschel, The Prophets, p.187
Abraham Kuenen, The Prophets and Prophecy in Israel, (Amsterdam, 1969), p.573
Heaton, The Old Testament Prophets, p.87-89
Sawyer, Prophecy and the Prophets, pp.52-53